It’s Okay: to Be Bad at Keeping in Touch
There’s a limit to how many relationships we can keep going at any given time.
In It’s Okay, we defend our most embarrassing, unpopular opinions.
“I should call my grandmothers. I’ll do it Wednesday, I swear. I should call my oldest friend, we’ve really only emailed here and there in the past year. We should have a good catch up. Oh god, has she already had the baby? Shit! Let me make a calendar reminder so I don’t forget. I should call my dad; I’ve only talked to my mom the last few times I’ve called home. I’ll do that this week. I have time Wednesday. Shit — when will I call the grandmothers, then? Oh, damn it, I meant to call C. last night to check in — when we texted a couple of weeks ago, they were having trouble…”
Some variation of this internal monologue runs through my head almost constantly, the only alteration found in the names of the individuals I’m failing by not keeping regularly abreast of their lives. The guilt though — that stays the same regardless.
I’m bad at keeping in touch, clearly. But — that’s okay?
It doesn’t feel okay. It feels shitty. Every time I forget to call someone it feels like a choice, like I’ve prioritized something else that is more important to me than the people I care about — work, TV, zombie scrolling on my phone, chores, exercise. Sometimes, when I do remember, it’s a matter of energy — I’ll call them when I’ll be more upbeat, I think. But when enough weeks go by, and my good intentions never manifest into reaching out, it starts to feel like a series of excuses.
Excuses they may be — but such excuses may also be inescapable. We simply can’t be in touch as closely as we desire with everyone we might desire to be closely in touch with. According to an anthropologist and psychologist from the University of Oxford, Robin Dunbar, there’s a limit to how much effort we can put into maintaining relationships.
Working from an anthropological theory that suggests a link between brain size and size of an individuals’ social network, Dunbar conducted brain scans of humans and came up with a predicted number of possible social connections. He then conducted experiments, historical reviews, and surveys, all of which seemed to validate it. The result — Dunbar’s number — concludes that the average individual can only maintain a social group of 150. It’s an average, so more outgoing, social people might have as many 200, while others might have closer to 100, reported Maria Konnikova for The New Yorker in 2014.
Further analysis led Dunbar to develop the “rule of three,” which defines increasingly inner or outer circles. From this social group of 150, the average person will have roughly 50-some close friends with whom they socialize with any kind of regularity, and about 15 intimates in whom they confide. On average, only five people form our closest support network: our ride-or-dies, our emergency contacts, our trusted advisors — who often double as our family members.
Meanwhile, casual acquaintances can extend up to around 500, and people whose names and faces we can match tops out around three times more than that, at 1,500 (or fewer, if you’re anything like me).
The thing is, “the amount of social capital you have is pretty fixed,” Dunbar told Konnikova. “It involves time investment. If you garner connections with more people, you end up distributing your fixed amount of social capital more thinly so the average capital per person is lower.”
Which means the fact that I can only stay on top of the intimate details of only a handful of people’s lives is totally okay.
So why can’t I shake the guilt?
First, women are more prone to feeling guilt than men; and for women, guilty feelings are a predictor of helping behavior and empathy. Researchers offer a lot of theories as to why that is, but most boil down to variations on the following theme: girls are conditioned far more than boys to be more caring, more aware of how their behavior affects others’ well-being, to prioritize maintaining relationships. If we think of ‘keeping in touch’ with friends and family members as knowing with regularity the events and emotions of their lives, it’s easy to see how that translates into a tacit and peculiarly gendered pressure.
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That pressure can translate into a type of reward, for women, when they’re successful at keeping in touch — like the woman who told Harper’s Bazaar, in a 2019 exploration of emotional labor, that she enables her divorced brothers’ emotional dependency in part “to feel important.” I, too, in part, feel a sense of success and importance in another’s life when I know enough about their up-to-date experiences to provide emotional support. But the pressure can also translate into a type of character judgment when women fail. Being bad at keeping in touch with friends and family is something that feels like an intrinsic, personal flaw — a prime area for self-improvement. Nearly every year, my New Year’s Resolution(s) include being better — not doing better, note, but being better — at keeping in touch with the people I love, many of whom live far away. And nearly every year, I feel like a failure in this realm as a result.
Compounding this is the fact that our definition of what it means to be good at keeping in touch has changed with the advent of social media and smartphones. The ability to constantly communicate in real-time with virtually anyone from any point in life adds a pressure that previous generations did not know. Thirty years ago, one expensive, long-distance call every couple of months to check in was the gold standard for friends and family who lived far away. There was no question of being in touch with them more regularly; it wasn’t possible or affordable. We were okay not knowing the details and emotions of daily life because it was virtually impossible to do so.
This constant connection increases the pressure to keep in touch intimately and regularly for anyone, but particularly women, given social conditioning. Ironically, it also dilutes our efforts. Not only can’t we be intimately in touch with everyone we want to be intimately in touch with, the more people we try to maintain close connections with, the more we fail them. As Konnikova reported, traditionally, we’ve devoted 60% of our social energy to our core group of people — the circles of 50, 15 and five — and 40% of our social energy to the friends and acquaintances beyond that. But as social media is enabling/demanding we stay up-to-date with more and more people, and our reserve of social capital stays static, we’re shortchanging our intimates as we spread our social energy ever more thinly; the division is now more like 40-60, reported Konnikova.
What’s reassuring, however, is that the people who make up these groups often change. At certain points we’ll be closer to some people than others, and vice versa at others; friends become intimates, intimates become friends; acquaintances become friends and friends become acquaintances. We can’t be all things at all times to all people who matter to us, but we can be some things sometimes to some people. For the rest, we can hold close good memories of support and well wishes, and hope for a future that brings us back in touch more closely, a freshening of friendship once again. Comfortingly, this leaves us with the knowledge that someone, very far away, is thinking of us — and us of them. And that’s okay.
But seriously, call your dad.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.