Male friendship is a strange thing. It’s represented in most media as uncomplicated and easy — dudes like to hang out in man caves and talk about beer and chicks and football! — but the truth is more intricate and complicated. For many men, making friends —and even maintaining existing friendships — becomes extraordinarily difficult after the age of 35. And while it might sound like a contradiction, one reason for this is that some start out with too many friends, spreading themselves so thin with superficial or infrequent friendships that the strong, core friendships they really need suffer as a result.
For anyone familiar with the work of Robin Dunbar, this won’t come as a surprise. Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, became widely known as an expert on friendship in the early 1990s after theorizing that humans are only able to maintain a finite number of friendships: 150, to be precise, a number he reached by building on the work of primatologists who had found a correlation between brain size and the size of a primate’s social group.
This number has been widely tested since, and though it does have detractors, many agree that the number more or less holds up, both in present day and throughout human history.
Of course it’s not quite so straightforward. For one thing, the number also includes familial relationships. Plus, “150 is just the average,” Dunbar tells MEL. “People vary between about 100 and 250.”
There are also distinct layers within Dunbar’s number, and understanding these layers and their respective benefits is the key to figuring out whether you’re stretching yourself too thin. It’s best imagined as a series of concentric circles: The innermost circle is, naturally, the smallest; outside of their spouse, most people only have about five intimate friendships. This, Dunbar claims, is “the support network, the shoulders to cry on, the people who will always help you out come what may.” In the second circle are your 10 “best friends,” which is your regular social circle. After that, you would have around 35 “good friends” — people you hang out with on occasion — and then the final circle that contains 100 or so people who are “just friends.”
Those core five, says Dunbar, are the people who truly know you — the ones who you spend the most time with and who you can trust implicitly. Recent research backs this up, too: A new(ish) cell phone study found that pretty much everyone mostly calls only four or five people.
It’s when we try to split our time equally with friends outside this core group — even with those besties in the second circle — that things break down.
Interestingly, it’s extroverts — those super socially active people who are always seen out and about with different friends — who suffer the most from this. Extroverts “have demonstrably weaker friendships,” according to Dunbar. “Their relationships within their inner circle of friends are weaker because they’re taking time away from them to invest in the extra numbers,” explains Dunbar.
So in an ideal world, how much time should you be spending with the people in each group? According to Dunbar, to maintain those core friendships, you should endeavor to see your inner circle every week. The secondary circle — your 10 besties — can be maintained with monthly meet-ups. The next 35 can be seen every six months, and anyone in that outer circle of 100 can be kept on your friendship radar by seeing them just once a year. “These values are very robust,” says Dunbar. “We pick them up both in offline and online worlds.”
The next step is to compare these numbers to your own time spent with friends. If you’re seeing the 35 people in your third circle far more than every six months — but seeing your inner circle much less frequently than every week — that would suggest you’re neglecting your most important friendships in favor of maintaining friendships that don’t have nearly as much value.
The really bad news is that if you continue to let these inner-circle relationships deteriorate, you may find that those closest to you are slipping slowly into the second circle, leaving you with no truly solid friends in times of need. The really really bad news, cautions Dunbar, is that this can happen in just a couple of months: Even the tightest relationships are fluid and constantly changing based purely on contact, so being the guy who’s always too busy for his closest friends may leave you with no close friends at all.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook may be the biggest cause of this phenomenon. “Facebook creates an illusion by calling them all ‘friends,’” says Dunbar. Of course, this random group of former colleagues, elementary school pals and people we met once at parties aren’t friends in the true sense. Friendships, especially among guys, are defined by shared experiences — laughing together, doing physical activities, going to a game, etc. That’s where true male bonding occurs.
What Facebook has done instead is help to “keep friendships alive that would otherwise naturally fade,” says Dunbar, meaning your circles keep expanding and expanding, when they would more naturally remain consistent as new friends are made and old friends move away, for example, or change jobs.
If all of this sounds like it may be true of yourself, don’t panic: It’s not too late to fix it. It’s mostly a case of really examining the friendships you have and figuring out who means what to you. Stop commenting on the photos of high school friends you haven’t seen in decades; let some of the less meaningful friends fade naturally away. There doesn’t need to be a dramatic breakup with anyone, because it’s doubtful anyone in that outer circle is going to be devastated if you drop quietly out of their life.
Finally, you have to cultivate those friendships that really matter to you. Call them back, spend time with them and maybe you’ll find that suddenly, with less friends, you actually have more friends again.