Gain a Romantic Partner, Lose 2 Friends?

New study suggests that singles have more people to turn to than couples do

Posted Sep 29, 2010

Is it true that when people get involved in a serious romantic relationship, they neglect some of the people who used to be important to them? I've long thought that pushing once-significant people out of your inner circle is one of the consequences of the "intensive coupling" that some romantic partners practice. If you think that your partner is your everything, and you want to spend big swaths of your free time with that person, you may well demote some other people to the periphery of your life.

So I was intrigued when the BBC published a story that started with the sentence, "Falling in love comes at the cost of losing two close friends, a study says." Other journalists and pundits were also curious and weighed in.

The stories were based on research described at a conference in Great Britain. I'm wary of summaries of claims; I always want to read the original research reports. But something about the descriptions of the study sounded familiar, and I soon realized that I had been sent the paper to review for the journal where it was submitted for publication. I read it closely, wrote my review and sent it to the author, Robin Dunbar. I asked him if I could share what I learned with this audience. He was very gracious and agreed immediately. (If his name sounds familiar, maybe that's because you have heard of "Dunbar's number." The number is 150, and it refers to the maximum "number of people with whom we can maintain a meaningful relationship.")

Dunbar's participants were 540 people who completed an online questionnaire. They ranged in age from 18 to 69. Two-thirds of them were in a romantic relationship and the others (the singles) were not. All participants were asked to list "all the people that they felt they could approach for help in times of ‘severe emotional or financial crisis.'"

Already, there are two big things about this study that I wish were different. First, the 540 people do not constitute any kind of representative national sample. Second, the single people and the people in romantic relationships were different people. The more compelling research strategy would follow the same people as they become involved in a serious romantic relationship and then continue to follow them as they stay in the relationship or transition out of it.

So, how many people did the singles name as part of their core network (people they could turn to in a crisis)?


What about the coupled participants? If you count their partner, then they named 5 people as part of their inner circle - about 1 fewer than the singles named. What Dunbar wants to know, though, is how the size of your inner circle changes when you become romantically involved. So the romantic partner is presumably replacing someone who was in your network previously. Not counting the romantic partner, then, coupled people have 4 people in their core social networks, compared to almost 6 for single people. Hence the BBC's claim that "falling in love comes at the cost of losing two close friends."

Actually, Dunbar differentiated friends from family, and so if you want to be more specific, coupled people had one fewer friend and one fewer family member in their inner circle than singles did.

I also wonder about the word ‘losing.' Were those once-close network members ‘lost' or were they ditched? We can't know from the data collected in this study.

Dunbar believes that coupled people have fewer people in their inner circle because they no longer have the time to maintain as many emotionally close ties. Again, I come back to my question about intensive coupling. In times when people did not look to their partners to be their soul mates, did coupling come at the expense of other close ties?

(One other interesting aside from the study: 32 people admitted to having more than one romantic relationship partner. That "extra" partner, though, didn't cost them. They had no fewer people in their inner circle than did the couples with just one partner.)

I'd also like to know the romantic relationship status of the people who got expelled from the inner circle. Were they especially likely to be single (uncoupled)? I don't know of any research that addresses that question. There is, though, another published study based on a national sample that compares friendship networks for people in many different situations: single and not dating; dating; living together (whether married or not) without children; living together with young children; living together with older children; empty nesters; divorced; and remarried. My discussion of that study is here on my All Things Single blog. See if you can predict the results before you read it.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Essig (whom you may remember from the post, Two scholars ask if marriage is bad for us) described the results of Dunbar's study, then ended on this note:

"So next time your heart starts to beat a little faster around someone, take a look at your network of your five closest friends. Are you really willing to sacrifice two of them for your true love? And if so, will it have been worth it if your romance is a dead end?"

[Two notes: (1) For a discussion of other potential risks to intensive coupling, take a look at The fragile spouse and the resilient single person. (2) Thanks to Sheila for the heads-up about this research. I thought someone else had told me about it, too, but I've searched and re-searched both email accounts and can't seem to find that person. If you are the one, please let me know and I will add your name.]