Friends, everyone's got a limit

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 02/03/2014
Justin Bieber
MARIO ANZUONI/ Reuters

FRIENDS: Bieber doesn't need many. He says four is enough.

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Two brunches, one dinner party and the 35th birthday barbecue when you lied and said you couldn't make it  because your cat was vomiting.

Already tired, because on Wednesday there was book club, and on Thursday you were beating the crap out of choux pastry (you offered to make dessert for that dinner party) until midnight.

On Monday, please let it be Monday soon, you will have a night in. Alone.

Except for your phone, your tablet, and your social media accounts. Sometime past your optimal bedtime, the lugubrious gaze of a heavily eye-linered Juliana Margulies will catch you between tweets. Margulies plays Alicia in television's The Good Wife. She is a lawyer whose husband slept with her friend.

He also went to jail for fraud, and now he's out and making life miserable for his wife's new lover. Alicia is in a bar, drinking whisky. Sad and self-examinatory, she exhales:

"I used to have friends."

And your first thought? Lucky, lonely cow.

Arguably, it started with television. Taxi and Cheers to start. Seinfeld was the gold standard for the generation that adopted friends as the new family and then the actual Friends - the ones with impossibly large apartment-to-salary ratios and good hair - refined and defined the premise.

Suddenly every coffee shop had a couch and every 20-something needed a minimum of five chums to share its comfy depths. It was an ad-man's dream; friendship as a marketable, saleable commodity. Before we knew it, it wasn't a weekend without a Girls Night Out. Bromances flourished. The Road Trip became The Weekend in Sydney (and then, post GFC, The Road Trip again), and everywhere gaggles of men and women held hands, high-fived and hugged because they were Besties and BFFs - and wasn't it, like, so cool they could tell each other "I love you" without ever having to sleep together?

It was friendship as performance art, fuelled by the mates who appointed themselves event managers (''Let's drink pink Chardon at the beach and pretend we're still 16!''), and stretched to breaking point by the advent of email, texting and Facebook. We were so, so tired. The backlash was inevitable. Lose friends and get your life back?

Pop star Justin Bieber (49.5 million twitter followers) is an unlikely poster child. Back in March, he was quoted around the world: "I only have like four people that I keep in contact with. I don't need a bunch of friends to make me happy."

His news came on the back of footballer David Beckham's revelation that, over the years, a group of 20 close friends had dwindled to just three. Closer to home, actress (Step Dave), self-help author (Love You) and celebrity friend (Bieber's ex Selena Gomez) Kimberley Crossman says she has a theory of having 10 people "who I give my tome to on a weekly basis, who I share things with and who I make a priority when I have free time... they are the 10 of my closest friends, and six of them are family members."

How do we lose thee? Let this unscientific poll of colleagues count the ways. There's the woman who slept with someone she knew her friend liked. There's the woman who, after a prolonged overseas trip with a friend, simply found her too annoying to maintain the relationship.

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"We've all changed," she added, soothingly, and then changed her actual name.

Friendships wax and wane - one colleague noted her 20s were particularly volatile: "That's when you're making brutal life decisions."

Another observed friends might need to go if they make no effort whatsoever with your partner, which can make life unnecessarily obstacle-laden.

Says Crossman: "If you're ever feeling like you're not happy 90 per cent of the time [with your friendship], or if a friend is not supportive of you, is not adding value to your life, and if you're not your best when you're around them - perhaps you've outgrown the friendship."

How many friends does one person need? Aristotle had some thoughts on this ("He who hath many friends hath none") but in recent times, the go-to expert on this question has been British anthropologist and author Professor Robin Dunbar.

He posits that, because of the size of our brains, 150 is the maximum number of people with whom we can hold a personal relationship.

According to Dunbar, that number hasn't changed much over the years - from Neolithic farming villages to ancient Roman army units - and holds true even in the social media environment.

If 150 seems a lot of people to keep in the let's-do-lunch-loop, don't panic.

"This circle is not a homogenous social group," Dunbar clarified to BBC News.

"It consists of four layers, the Circles of Acquaintainceship, which scale relative to each other by a factor of three - an inner core of five intimates, and then successive layers at 15, 50 and 150."

One study released earlier this year, and based on the phone records of a group of English students transitioning from high school to university, supports the theory.

The research, conducted by Finnish academics, looked at 24 young people over an 18-month period and found that between 40-50 per cent of each student's phone traffic was devoted to just three people at any given time - the people would occassionally change, but the number of people the student was in closest contact with didn't.

Amanda Gordon, Sydney-based clinical psychologist, told an Australian newspaper that most people struggle to maintain more than three really close relationships - regardless of how  many Facebook ''friends,''  for example, they boast.

"When I have a crisis, am I going to put it on Facebook?" she asked.

"No, I'm going to call my three most intimate friends."

At the time of writing, New Zealand's most popular Twitter entity could count 543,272 followers. Paolo "Kimpoy" Feliciano is a self-described single, Catholic, Filipino dancer, recording artist and performer who shares thoughts like this: "Every day may not be good, but there's something good in every day." (To put Feliciano's ranking in perspective, Prime Minister John Key had the eighth most followed account and Air New Zealand's Grabaseat the 10th.)

At number 18, with 33,482 followers was radio and television personality Guy Williams who, at the time of writing, was asking questions like this: "Do you have to feed cats every day, or can can you just feed them one day a lot?"

In real life, confirms Williams, "You only need about three friends. But you have a few extra ones that you can cull at any time, in case they get boring."

Later, he emails: "In real life, I have five good friends."

Friends, he says, are like electric toothbrushes with highly acidic batteries: they should never be dumped, though they can be organically recycled. But what's the best way to do it? "Move to another city or die. Preferably die, because if you move, they can still find you on Facebook." Williams, 26, says he's guilty of putting career before friends.

"I cut friends, but not in a good way - I don't make time for them, because I'm working."

Social media helps.

"Twitter is almost like a substitute for friends. Everyone in my demographic sits around and watches terrible TV together, and even if we're not in the same room, it's a shared experience because of Twitter.

''You just substitute that in-the-lounge banter for online banter. It's kind of sad, but at the same time, very convenient. Old people think it's weird, but I really enjoy it."

Robyn McGill, New Zealand Association of Counsellors president, says we all need a lot of face-to-face time.

"Online, I can't read the expression on someone's face, or hear the tone in their voice. It does serve a purpose, but let's not invest it with emotion or other things."

People, she says, are social animals who need friends.

"That's the way we survived way back in the Stone Age, by sticking together against the sabre-toothed tiger. We looked out for each other and lived in small villages and shared the workload. [These days], it's not about whether we live or die, or eat, but it's those same basic instincts.

"One of the things about being a social animal is the need to belong to a group, to be accepted and approved of. And we like to have people who do that for us, who make us feel good about ourselves and share our values. ''If you don't have those, it's a very lonely place. It's hard to tell yourself that you're okay and you fit in and you're good enough, if you don't have friends."

Joseph Epstein, in his book Friendship: An Exposé, wrote: "I sometimes felt I was the perfect customer for a much-needed but never-produced Hallmark card that would read, 'We've been friends for a very long

time now,' followed on the inside by, 'What do you say we stop?'"

McGill says there's no right or wrong way to 'stop' a friendship.

"But there has to be a way that sits with your values, so you feel good about the process. As long as you feel good about yourself and the way you handled something.

''Often people do it in quite impetuous or quite passive ways. They just withdraw, or ask somebody else to do it for them - or they use aggression that leads to confrontation."

Take a deep breath and treat your break-up like a problem-solving exercise, she advises. Think words like 'honesty' and 'respect'. She doesn't think lengthy great explanations are needed.

"I don't believe in that idea that you need to be called to account about it, but you could be quite assertive and say, 'This is the problem, this is how I feel, and this is what I've decided to do.'"

She says it's easy to let a friendship drift (the most common way to lose a friend is also the simplest - don't reply to or initiate texts, emails or phone calls), but unless you're comfortable with that approach, it's better to speak up.

Guy Williams agrees.

"Friends never dump you - though a suspiciously high number of them seem to bemoving overseas. They just reduce communication, until you're not sure if you should hug or handshake when you awkwardly run into each other at the Froyo."

- Sunday Magazine

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