Having Too Many Friends Is Hazardous to Your Health

Attention, Taylor Swift: "role strain" is a thing.

A big group of female friends seems like the ultimate status symbol these days—my Instagram feed is filled with brunches for 10; brides are flanked by hoards of chiffon-clad, mermaid-blowout-sporting bridesmaids; and you can't order custom sweatshirts that say WITCH CLIQUE for three—they'll sell them to you only in bulk. But what does that say about people like me, who have just a few close friends? Are we supposed to feel less than? 

I like having a big group of acquaintances, and you'd hardly call me antisocial. My birthdays are well attended, and I can work a room. But when it comes to close friends, I max out at two or three—period. In fact, I am staunchly in favor of having a small group of close friends, and it's made my life immeasurably happier.

I wasn't always like this. In previous iterations of my social life, I had tons of close friends. We swapped secrets, faced life as a team, and kept in constant communication. My phone was always blowing up with one crisis or another, and I don't say this just to seem like a martyr: I definitely got a sense of purpose from being "the person you call." It made me feel needed—and, perhaps pathetically, valued.

But I also rarely slept or took care of myself. I spent almost no time alone. And, I should note, these relationships weren't always reciprocal. I felt drained all the time. Having six or seven close friends was like making a bunch of promises I couldn't keep, and I agonized over not being able to provide enough emotional energy to everyone. I clearly remember the night that two close friends went through awful breakups and I couldn't be in both places at once. I started leaving my phone in my partner's car so I could avoid everyone, and gradually my social life turned into watching Frasier by myself. He never asks too much of me, and he'll never let me down.

Gradually my social life turned into watching 'Frasier' by myself. He never asks too much of me, and he'll never let me down.

Was there something wrong with me? Did I lack some fundamental human impulse that made me want to cultivate a flock? Are most people simply better equipped to deal than I am?

Apparently, the stress I felt over my multiple intimacies is not unique. According to Dr. Brian Gillespie, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Sonoma State University, people who attempt to maintain more close relationships than their individual constitution supports can suffer what sociologists call "role strain." "Role strain," Gillespie explains, is "frustration over multiple social obligations (i.e., demands on your time and energy) [and] an inability to meet the expectations of your social role (e.g., as a friend)." 

"In other words," Gillespie says, "it's stressful when you're trying to be too many things for too many people." There are three attributes that constitute "close" friendship, Gillespie notes: emotional support (like talking you through a breakup), instrumental support (helping you move), and companionate support (watching Frasier with you). Close friends likely provide at least two or, ideally, three of these types of support.

Everyone is different when it comes to their social needs, but Gillespie says that having "a few close friends who provide emotional, instrumental, and companionate support [is] better for you than [having] an overload of acquaintances who provide none of those things." Gillespie has found that "people were much more satisfied when they reported they were happy with their friends overall—regardless of how many they had."

This opinion is hardly uncommon: Multiple therapists say that their clients frequently feel worn too thin by the number of relationships in their lives. And that can have a real impact on mental health. New York City–based psychotherapist Liz Morrison, LCSW, says that when a person "has too many relationships, symptoms of depression and anxiety can begin to develop." In her experience, there is a "healthier" option, and it's having a smaller group of close friends. Juggling the many personalities and needs that come with a large group can actually feel isolating. (Who among us has not been surrounded by people only to feel utterly alone? If you've never experienced this, you've clearly never been to a Costco.)

Being stressed out by the number of relationships in your life can also have physical repercussions, as psychotherapist Emily Roberts, MA, LPC, explains. "If you are trying to please everyone, you suffer," she says, and the stress of balancing so many relationships at the cost of your own self-care can cause sleeplessness, exhaustion, and even ulcers. And the effects of long-term stress shouldn't be ignored: digestive problems and heart disease, for example.

These feelings are echoed in a number of conversations I've had with women in my social circle—ranging in age from early twenties to early thirties. They all reported feeling overwhelmed by too many close friendships at one point or another, and most said that as they aged, they whittled down their friend groups to better fit their needs. Sometimes it happened organically, and other times it was more deliberate.

As my friend Cami* put it, she's "more intentional with [her] time and energy" at this point in her life, and she wants to dedicate her resources only to friendships that truly fulfill her. My friend Anne* likened close, intimate friendships to a full-time job, with all the emotional drain that comes with so much responsibility. Being able to zoom in on one or two people makes life easier, and it makes these friendships much stronger. 

There are, of course, people who can maintain a large number of close friendships, but I can't tell you how they do it. Close friendship involves getting brunch with someone and then also taking them to an urgent care for a UTI and sometimes emailing about podcasts with their parents and having a key to their apartment. These types of all-encompassing relationships sustain me, but can't scale. And I don't want them to—there's a romantic specificity to these relationships, a clubhouse of our very own. And because I'm not responsible to a big group, I'm better equipped to nurture the relationships I do have. I can spend three hours on the phone with my best friend a few nights a week (this really happens, and our partners think we need medical attention).

So I say: Wear your mini-squad as a badge of pride, and never stress over getting a brunch reservation for 10. Does anybody want to go in on a custom sweatshirt order? I'm going to have a few extra.

*Names have been changed in case any of these people ever run for president and have to pretend to be a friend to all of America.

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Julia Sonenshein is a California-born writer and editor living in New York City. She is currently working on a book about the sociology of female friendship.