The Limits of Friendship

Communication has come a long way, hasn't it?

  • I remember my grandmother's party line, and having to wait for someone else to finish their phone conversation before you could make your call.  
  • I remember when my boyfriend and I ran up a bill of over $200 one month calling each other long distance (this was when $200 paid my car payment AND gas for the month).  
  • I remember lots of snail mail letters, which were nice to receive then and are practically miraculous today.

I realize I'm giving away my age.

The 21st century is an amazing era of communication.  Now we can call anywhere, anytime, for a fairly reasonable monthly fee.  We can email or text or post pictures and comments on social media and get nearly instant responses.  Communication is easier, faster, and cheaper than ever.  

But what if we're actually becoming more disconnected by connecting with hundreds, even thousands of others?

Genuine relationships always make you happier.

I remember the days before the World Wide Web.  For a while when we were first married, my husband and I lived without a telephone (we didn't have the installation fee).  In our free time, we hung out with real people.  We would physically get together with friends and have dinner, play board games, sing in a choir, and go on hikes and other adventures in the mountains west of Denver.

How many people are you truly connected to?  I'm not talking about friends and followers on social media.  I'm talking about emotional connections.

If you do a little research about friendships and emotional connections, you'll discover that while human beings might have between 100 and 200 casual friends or acquaintances, they'll have about fifteen friends they turn to for sympathy or help, and only about five people (usually close family members and spouses) they will trust with anything and everything.

You might have 283 Facebook friends, but they're really acquaintances, many of whom you wouldn't recognize on the street.  You might have over 1000 Twitter followers, but they're almost all emotionally disconnected strangers.

Turns out that trust requires touch.

In the same way a baby bonds with the mother who feeds and cares for him, even a pat on the shoulder creates warmth and connection between two people.  Shared experiences also deepen connection.  This isn't the same as sharing or liking the same cat video.  It requires proximity:  watching the same movie in the same room, for example, laughing and crying together.  

Think about it.  This is how you made your best friends in high school and college, by going to classes, studying, dancing, eating, playing sports, even complaining about teachers together.

Humans aren't born with full social awareness.  As we grow up and spend time with people, we have to learn how to interact, how to compromise, how to negotiate, how to understand someone else's point of view.  It takes years to acquire those skills, and if we (and our kids) do most social interacting online, we may just pull the plug when we disagree with someone.  This will definitely make finding true intimacy much harder.

Additionally, too much time spent on social media might steal time away from family and friends that you used to connect with more intimately.  If you're too busy liking and commenting and otherwise interacting with an online network, you have less time and energy to enhance emotional bonds with those closest to you.

You might actually be stunting true friendship.

Minimalism can help.

As always, less is more.  If you want to feel closer to your friends, spend less time on social media.  Less time sharing and liking means more time for real intimacy and connection.

Rather than trying to increase the number of your online friends, do what you did in school:  spend time communicating face to face.

  • Connect with your family at the dinner table, go for a bike ride, play in the snow, or watch a movie together.  
  • Go on a date with your spouse, and turn off text and email alerts (your babysitter can still call if there's an actual emergency).  
  • Meet a friend for coffee or yoga.  Spend time with friends in a choir or at church, go to a concert together, or volunteer together at the local animal shelter or food pantry.
  • If you have a friend who lives far from you, make time for personal communication via Skype, phone calls, email, or snail mail.  Don't just like their stuff on Facebook if you want to maintain your connection.

Make a promise to yourself to focus on physical and emotional connections instead of numbers on a computer program.  Genuine relationships will always make you happier.

Updated January 2023


  1. I so agree with you, Karen. There is a saying in New Zealand where I'm from: eye to eye. I like that, it's so much deeper. On the other side, social media has connected me to long lost friends & extended family, so I am really grateful for that.

  2. I like that, "eye to eye!"

    I too re-connected with a few old friends via social media, but over the years our relationships have returned to "we were once close friends but now we're just friendly acquaintances who used to be a lot closer." I find social media is great for having a general idea of what's happening to people you know, but it's not personal at all. What is shared is a very open news feed, not at all the level of intimacy you'd want from a truly close friend. So yes, I'm in touch, but I'm not really closer, if you see what I mean.


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