Are you part of the five friends club? Admitting you don’t have a huge social circle, as Victoria Beckham has done, is one of the last modern taboos, says Antonia Hoyle
It was the kind of evening that only crops up once every couple of years. My husband was away for work and my two children were with their grandparents. I had known for weeks that this rare window of freedom beckoned, bringing with it a fleeting opportunity to see female friends. And yet there were precious few I wanted to meet. Plus, I wanted to spend time alone. So I poured myself a glass of wine and luxuriated in my own company instead.
To admit you lack a large friendship group is to break one of our society’s biggest taboos. But that is exactly what Victoria Beckham has just done. On the day that the former Spice Girl received an OBE in recognition of her career in fashion, she also gave an interview to Elle magazine in which she admitted that she doesn’t “have a lot of friends”, explaining that the sum total of her tally is a meagre five or six. “I’m very close to my sister and a friend I went to school with, and then three or four others,” she said.
While Beckham, 43, insisted she is “never, ever lonely” – choosing to lie in the bath when she does have a night to herself – she is undoubtedly brave to speak about her small friendship group. In an age dominated by social media platforms founded on the premise of popularity, it has never seemed more important to create the illusion of a coterie of loyal pals. We chase affection in the form of “likes”, while our admirers serve as a narcissistic reflection of our own exalted status and the now ubiquitous Fomo (Fear of Missing Out) phenomenon compels us to interact with ever-more people online.
Celebrities further fuel the idea that female friendships are to be revered; romanticised, even. It’s hard to get away from the notion that having a sprawling social circle is yet another box to tick on the checklist of modern life – as important, if not more so, than marriage and motherhood.
But is this realistic, let alone necessary?
“I think the word ‘friend’ has been corrupted by misuse,” says relationship therapist Marisa Peer. “It is only since the rise of social media that people who have 5,000 online friends are deemed more popular. But to have five good [real-life] friends is completely normal and more than enough.”
For those of us with jobs and dependents, the pursuit of a big group of genuine friends is as elusive as achieving Victoria Beckham’s waist size. And it might not be scientifically possible.
In the ’90s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar claimed that the size of the human brain means there is a finite number of people we are able to maintain in our social sphere (150) and that, among those, we are only capable of forming five truly close friendships. His research was corroborated last May by an analysis of six billion phone calls, made by 35 million people across Europe, which found that most called just over four people frequently, on average. So much for the gaggle of friends we’re supposed to be surgically attached to.
Like Beckham, I have many acquaintances and, as she puts it, “am surrounded by people I genuinely like to be with”. But in terms of women I could call right now, who I make an active effort to see on any sort of regular basis? I can count them on one hand.
They comprise a group of five school and university friends – women with whom I bonded in my formative years, who accept my dreadful dancing in a way I’m not sure anyone I befriended now, in my late thirties, would. The sum parts of their personalities – from their aptitude for poking fun at me to their empathy – fulfil all my friendship needs.
Yet attempts to meet require gargantuan efforts that increasingly fall at the final hurdle and mean we only see each other every couple of years. For a start, they don’t live near me in London, but in far-flung locations such as the Netherlands and Scotland – par for the course in this age of globalisation.
In our twenties, long hours spent cultivating careers made sloping off from work early to see each other untenable. As we entered our thirties, there were pregnancies to navigate.
Catching up loses some appeal without the sauvignon and holds even less allure after months of newborn sleep deprivation – a fact I realised with startling clarity while expressing breast milk in a nightclub loo one evening.
My social group whittled away as my horizons necessarily narrowed – something that is typical of thirty- and forty-something women, says therapist Hilda Burke. “Whereas male friendships tend to be more solid, the women I work with are more likely to prune their friends and review what they’re getting out of the relationship,” she explains.
While I’m not aware of making any deliberate culls, now my daughter is six and my son four, vodka-filled “girls” holidays have long since been swapped for family-friendly trips, and boozy nights in bars relegated in favour of marriage-maintaining restaurant dinners. The most I seem capable of managing is a biannual lunch with a school friend, who is mercifully more militant than me at insisting we meet.
On the one hand, I feel a sense of failure. On the other, relief. Holding on to some semblance of a career, while being manhandled for rough and tumble by my children every other waking hour means when I’m not “on duty”, the last thing I feel like doing is being in close proximity to other people.
Nor am I necessarily any better at speaking on the phone. While I am still every bit as fond of my friends, with every month that passes the amount there is to catch up on becomes increasingly overwhelming – and so I send an emoji-filled text and sheepishly put off the call for yet another week, suspecting they may be doing the same.
Little wonder, in today’s time-starved society, we have shifted our allegiances to the lower-effort medium of social media. But I have met only a fraction of my 400 Facebook “friends” in person and am under no illusion I can count on them IRL (in real life).
Nor is anyone else, it seems – one survey found that although the average Briton has 287 Facebook friends, they would only choose to socialise with 10 per cent of those. “Most aren’t ‘real’ and should be classed as followers or acquaintances,” says Peer. “A friend is someone you have met in the flesh, who shares your vulnerabilities and would drop everything to help you.”
But putting authentic friendships on hold as we navigate family and work needn’t signal disaster, says Burke.
“I see clients disappointed that historic friendships haven’t endured because their interests have changed,” she says. “But common values and mutual experiences – even if not shared on a regular basis – can help a friendship endure and feel fresh without regular contact. If the foundations are solid, friendships can last for a lifetime.”
Certainly, that seems to be Victoria Beckham’s opinion. “I think a true friend understands that you can’t see them as much as you might want, because they’re busy as well,” she says.
So perhaps it is time to stop feeling guilty and remind ourselves that, while we might not be able to make our friendships a priority, the ones that matter will remain intact and be there to cheer you on, as you collect that OBE.