May 1, 2023

The Friendship Edit: Creating Meaningful Connections in a Digital Age

Our relationships are central to our thriving; ideas about how to “clean up” and improve the quality of relationships.  

“Unmitigated technology use is currently impacting our relational capacities by replacing time with actual humans and inhibiting the development of social skills. Such use spreads us too thin—beyond our relational capacity—among our many digital “friends,” develops a false sense of emotional intimacy without the accountability of actual relationships, and promotes unchecked individualism that is compromising the development of civic virtues and responsibilities.” 

Dr. Pam King

“Science from all fields is telling us very clearly that we are not only social animals, but animals who need a special kind of close connection with others, and we deny this at our own peril…Having close ties with others is vital to every aspect of our health – mental, emotional, and physical.”

Dr. Sue Johnson

I’ve written a lot about relationships over the years, including the book, The Reciprocating Self, first published in 2005 and which is widely used in college classrooms. My late mentor and friend, Peter Benson used to always say, “Relationships are the oxygen of human development.” Perhaps, because relationships are absolutely essential for thriving, they often are a source of consternation and struggle. Relationships matter.

And yet, many of us are profoundly lonely. During the pandemic social isolation contributed to a mental health crisis from which many have not recovered. While the fears around socializing have dissipated, we continue to be disconnected, even though we are more “connected” than ever through our social channels, texting, zoom calls, and email. We have developed some bad relational habits. The world is at our fingertips, and yet last year in 2022 over 50% of young people reported feeling deeply lonely. Loneliness and despair are national health issues, raising the question – if we know how important relationships are to human thriving, bringing wholeness and true joy, what changes can we make to move from conflict to calm – from loneliness to connection?

Framing these questions, humans thrive with others and for others, in reciprocity. Just as trees need the biodiversity of the forest, so we humans need each other. According to Dr. Terry Hargrave, for individuals to thrive, they need relationships to support the twin pillars of identity – feeling known and loved – and security – feeling safe and accountable. Although our faith in God underpins these pillars, thriving requires attending to the very embodied need to be connected to other humans. In order to support our relational health, I believe it’s time to “clean up” our relationships.

Cleaning up relationships means editing the superficial and nurturing meaningful connections. People feel lonely when the quality of their relationships doesn’t match their expectations or needs.  How many of us spend hours on social media fostering connections with people we barely know? Quoting Dr. Deborah Heiser in an article in Psychology Today, she says that “a meaningful connection is a two-way street. Both parties are getting something from the relationship…A meaningful connection is the person you call or meet with if you are feeling anxious or upset. This is also the person you call when you have fantastic news that you cannot wait to share.”  A meaningful connection is a person with whom, “you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart” (Anam Cara, p. 13). In such relationships we are seen and known for who we are – in all our particularities. Meaningful connections provide emotional support and help us internalize an identity that we are loved and lovable. It is one thing to know in your head that God loves you; it is another to experience that love in your heart and live it out in your life. True human connection allows that to happen.

Meaningful connections also involve accountability. Who will tell you the truth when you are making questionable decisions?  Who will call you when you miss work or a class? John O’Donohue writes about a “noble” friendship which is “creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness” (Anam Cara, p. 25). These friends see you when you cannot see yourself. Noble friendships intertwine lives enough that if one doesn’t hold up obligations, the other is affected. The Spirit works through these relationships, and we grow through a holy, reciprocal dance.

You would think that we would want to have as many of these kinds of friendships as possible, but the fact is that humans simply are not built to maintain large numbers of deeply intimate relationships. In terms of human biology, research shows that human capacities for intimacy are vital but limited. The emotional energy, time, and effort that meaningful relationships require inform the research around human relational capacity. As we discuss in our book, Thriving with Stone Age Minds, human relational capacity can be thought of in terms of concentric circles. “The typical numbers of people in these rings are, beginning with the center and moving outward, five (intimate connections), fifteen (closest friends and family), fifty (friends and co-workers), and 150 (social network connections).” “The bulls-eye of a typical person’s social network is about five best friends or family members with whom that person has very high levels of emotional intimacy and trust” (Stone Age Minds, p. 66). So think of the inner bullseye as those noble friends – your nearest and dearest – with the next circle of 15 as your closest friends and relations. If our natural capacities allow us to handle 150 people, think about what that means to your social networks.

Our biology limits what we can manage relationally in our modern age. Human minds and bodies have evolved very little relative to our environments, and consequently, we increasingly live in social environments radically different from what our social brains are equipped to handle. Furthermore, as humans we require physical presence to activate our senses and fully engage us relationally. There is a profoundly physical nature to our social interactions – the primacy of touch, nuances of body language, pheromones, etc. These all are necessary to build deep bonds of trust and positive regard. Physical interactions are impossible to mimic virtually. No doubt, digital social networking has its place, but it is no substitute for in-person social networking (Stone Age Minds, p. 66). 

I like to think of cleaning up social relationships like “Marie Kondo-ing” your social life – getting tidy socially, by choosing and spending time with people who ultimately “spark joy.” Those in our inner circle provide the foundation for our broader circles. Editing relationships means attending to relationships that matter – that are intimate – whether you are more the nurturer or vice versa, but finding the necessary support for life’s inevitable challenges as well as choosing the kind of people you want to celebrate with when the big joyful stuff comes your way. I want to be careful here – I’m not saying, “Just be in relationships that make you feel happy.” Absolutely not! The most important relationships in my life have been those where we’ve lived deeply together, sharing both joys and sorrows. As John O’Donahue said, these are my “noble” relationships, and are the people who have encouraged me and challenged me to grow.

Consider the present season in your life. The questions below provide a guide for exploration. We need both love and accountability with our nearest and dearest. Good relationships don’t alleviate life’s inevitable twists and turns, but provide companionship along the journey. We will always face challenges, so consider the people in your inner circle at this time? These intimates may change over time, but for now who are they? How can you intentionally commit to your people and nourish these relationships? There is a good chance you’ll want more than daily texting with your intimate friends and family. Where your attention goes, so goes your life. Choose people who inspire you, have aligned values, and who see and deeply know you. There is a mutuality here. Nurture reciprocal love and accountability with your people. In reciprocity you help each other thrive.

  1. Boyd, R. (2018). A different kind of animal:How culture transformed our species. Princeton University Press.
  2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2014). World urbanization prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (Report No. ST/ESA/SER.A/352). United Nations. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf


Ask yourself the following questions to build intimacy and accountability.  We believe committing ideas to paper is helpful. 

  • Intimacy
  1. Name five people who really know you.
  2. Do you feel joyful in their presence?
  3. Who in your family of origin really knows you?
  4. Is there anyone in your family of origin who brings you a sense of joy? 
  5. Who are you vulnerable with?
  6. Who notices when you don’t show up?
  7. In this season of life, with whom are you actually able to be physically present? With friend groups? With work? With broader social groups? 
  • Accountability
  1. Who holds you accountable when you make mistakes or don’t show up?
  2. Are you able to be physically present with your intimate friends? How might you build intimacy and accountability if you are not? 
  3. When you are with people, are you paying attention to them, or are you distracted?  Are they paying attention to you?  
  4. Is there a way you can create better communication with your intimate relationships? 
  5. Who are you actually spending time (this could be virtual time) with? 
  6. Who are you giving to?  Who are you nurturing?  
  7. How do you communicate with your intimate circles?  In person, phone, texting?  Is this working for you? 

Pamela Ebstyne King Executive Director, Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science


Continue Exploring


A Practice: Examine the Presence, Absence, and Quality of Your Relationships


A Practice: How to Build Bonds With Others


Attachment Styles: Why Does Love Sometimes Feel so Difficult? (Part 1)

    You Got It!