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Why It's OK Not to Have a Friend Group

Pop culture pushes groups, but that's not the only way to connect.

Key points

  • Preferring individual friendships over groups is a difference in style, not an atypicality.
  • Even when someone has individual friends, not being part of a friend group can lead to painful emotions.
  • Feeling down about not having a friend group is fueled by idealized images in the media and social comparison.
  • Valuing existing friendships, not comparing oneself to others, and taking breaks when needed can help.
Source: Dennis Magati/Pexels/Retrieved from Canva
Source: Dennis Magati/Pexels/Retrieved from Canva

When I broke the news to my 9-year-old daughter, Skylar, that we’re moving out of state, I braced myself for a deluge of complaints. Instead, I got a sigh of relief. “I’m glad we’re moving because I feel unwanted here,” she said. Skylar explained that she doesn’t have a group of friends at school.

Initially, this surprised me. Off the top of my head, I listed several of her best friends, one of whom she has known since preschool. But then I realized that several attend different schools or aren’t in the same recess period. While Skylar’s perception of being unwanted is extreme, it is based on the fact that her friends aren’t in the same place at the same time and, therefore, can’t band together on the playground.

I can relate to how Skylar feels. It’s easy to allow our thoughts and feelings to be governed by what we see right in front of us, such as when I get stuck on social media photos of friend groups I’m not a part of flouting their weekend adventures. The gnawing feeling of inadequacy seems unavoidable.

It’s not so much the lack of friendships I’m missing out on but rather the idea of not belonging to a grown-up clique. Clients of all ages have echoed the sentiment that something must be wrong with them if they are not part of a group. It doesn’t help that the media portray the friend group as an effortless source of joy and adventure, such as in shows like "The Big Bang Theory."

Here, though, I’m not going to focus on being left out by cliques (I discuss helping kids cope with social exclusion in a different post) but rather on how not seeing yourself as part of a group can also be painful. I will also discuss how to cope with this as an adult, as Skylar’s comment reminded me that not allowing my self-worth to be determined by group membership will help me guide her as well as enhance my clinical work.

On the one hand, I have at least five close friends, which is within the range that social scientists would say is typical. These cherished friends have shown kindness, generosity, and an empathic ear. My relationships with them, though, are scattered across different contexts, including childhood friends, friends I met in graduate school and work, and other moms.

Researchers have studied individual versus group friendships as a preference, not an atypicality. In one study, participants who preferred individual friend pairings were also more likely to endorse a trait referred to as “negative group identification.” This included not thinking a friendship group to be important and feeling held back in groups, items that seem to suggest feeling secure in your preference. However, other items included thinking you don’t fit in well with other members or feeling uneasy with them. While the study didn’t explore the emotional consequences of an individual friendship preference, these characteristics suggest it might come with a vulnerability to feeling like you don’t belong.

The siloed nature of my friendship network has also shed light on why I sometimes think I put more effort into maintaining friendships than people who are part of a group. After all, it makes sense that maintaining several individual friendships would require more effort than rolling with the whims of a group, which can generate its own inertia for spontaneous get-togethers.

I have also worked hard to energize Skylar’s social scene. After a year of talking up her monthly sewing class, two of her friends were finally able to join. To make the group happen, I pick up her friends, drive 20 minutes to the instructor’s home classroom, and drive them home afterward. Sometimes, I think about how much easier these Saturdays would be if I didn’t bother coordinating all of this, but then I remember that I enjoy chatting with the instructor. More importantly, the joy on Skylar’s face makes it worthwhile.

Celebrating the friendships we already have will bring us more contentment than comparing ourselves to society’s idealized image of a larger friendship group, one that inevitably has its own imperfections and might not even be the best fit for sensitive introverts like Skylar and me. Introversion is another characteristic associated with the preference for individual friendships, although I have worked with socially anxious clients who felt more comfortable with online friend groups.

The following pointers have enhanced my appreciation for my friendships, as well as allowed me to be a better role model for my daughter:

1. Make a List.

Make a list of your friends so that they stand out in your mind. Then, reflect on what they have done to show they care about you, such as times they have been good listeners or helped when you were in a pinch.

2. Stay Away From Social Comparisons.

Idealized images of friend groups on television and social media will inevitably lead to thinking you are not enough. Instead, focus on your personal progress with friendships.

3. Slow Down and Take Breaks.

Feeling exhausted by your social efforts can serve as a reminder that friendships are not a competition, but this could also be a red flag that you need to rest and take care of yourself. There is no harm in waiting another week to invite someone over for dinner. Also, not every initiation needs to be as involved as planning an event. Sending a text message or email that says, “I’ve been thinking of you,” helps sustain a friendship when time and energy are not on your side.

While I was writing this post, Skylar walked out of her bedroom and announced, “I have a lot of friends at school!” While this might seem fickle, the shift in her sentiment is not too different from the fluctuations we all have in how we perceive our friendships. The upshot is that we have more control over what a good social life means than any idealized image of a friend group might lead us to think.

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