Oprah admits she has just three pals - so why do we lose friends as we age?

·5 min read

Watch: Oprah Winfrey admits to not having a lot of friends

How many friends do you have? The answer may well depend on age - because while in our twenties, we may be at the heart of a rolling group of pub-friends, old school and university pals, workmates and gym buddies, by the time we get to midlife, many have dropped away - not due to a falling out, simply because priorities shift and lives get busier. 

This week, Oprah revealed that she has just three good friends. On the podcast Making Space with Hoda Kotb, she said that her three closest friends are broadcaster Gayle King, journalist and campaigner Maria Shriver and personal trainer Bob Greene.

Oprah and Gayle King
Oprah with her friend of more than four decades, Gayle King. (Getty Images)

"I first met Maria in the bathroom at WJZ-TV early in the morning. I was coming in to do the morning cut-ins and she was doing evening magazine and had been up all night,

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15:  (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Oprah Winfrey and Maria Shriver pose backstage at the hit musical
Oprah with Maria Schriver, her other closest friend. (AP)

Bob Greene, she has written in the past, was "the answer to my prayers. When I first met Bob at that last-ditch-effort spa in Colorado, I thought for sure he was judging and labelling me as I had already judged and labeled myself — fat and out of control. 

"Bob, it turned out, wasn't judging me at all. He really understood."

Her trainer is now one of her closest confidantes, but Oprah went on to explain, 

Oprah Winfrey arrives in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Saturday May 19, 2018.  Danny Lawson/Pool via REUTERS
Oprah flew to the UK to attend Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding. (Danny Lawson/Pool via REUTERS)

So is Oprah's tight circle normal - or has she edited a bit too brutally, due to the problems of making friends when you're very famous?

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Before social media, a major study showed that the average adult had three friends each. The research, by Time Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) described friends as "close confidantes" or people you can trust with anything. 

Post-Facebook and Twitter, that number of real-life trusted friends dropped to just two, suggesting that spreading ourselves thinly doesn't result in building better relationships. 

Smiling close group of diverse female best friends hugging each other outdoors in the park on a sunny day - friends showing love
Three's not a crowd, it's a starting point. (Getty Images)

According to a Gallup poll, the average American has an average of 5 close friends. A lonely 2% have none at all, 27% have over 10, and 14% have one or two. 

The anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar has also studied the number of 'meaningful relationships' a person can manage successfully, and concluded the average is five intimate bonds including partner, 15 'close' friends, - people you trust and see regularly, and 50 'friends' - the people you'd invite to a party, while the maximum for casual friends is 150, including colleagues and family friends. 

Another survey found that most would only trust four of their Facebook friends in a crisis. 

It seems we're not as sociable as movies and media would have us believe - so what's the truth about midlife friendship?

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Psychologist and life coach Julie Leonard believes Oprah's situation is entirely normal.

"Oprah has stated she has three friends in her circle - this might seem surprising but is actually normal," she explains. "As we get older we have less friends and the studies reflect this."

Reasons for this include changing social arrangements - "It's much easier to make friends in your 20s, plus

women tend to invest more in friendships and in having a 'best friend' at this stage," she says. 

But as happens even in the closest circles, "friends become couples and families, and people move and lose touch."

Kim Cattrall has 'always created drama' among Sex And The City cast
Even these four didn't last... (Getty Images)

Interestingly, two iconic TV series about friendship, Friends and Sex and the City, ended with key members of the group marrying and focussing on their new life with a partner. 

But while singles may have time to invest more in their friendships, she adds, as we age, we grow in confidence - and "We often end one-sided relationships and those that no longer serve us, plus we aren't so concerned about how popular we are on Facebook!"

Therapist Marilyn Devonish also thinks quantity matters less than quality. 

"What I have found about friendships, particularly as we get older, is that we don’t put as much stock in what I call the ‘one size fits all’ friend," she says.

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"There may be a friend you share your deep emotional woes with, another where you share the “oh my gosh, you are not going to believe this” events, and another with whom you let your hair down and have a fantastic laugh.

"Can all this be encompassed in one person? Yes, absolutely, is it always? No."

She uses a 'circular model' to describe friendships. 

Happy mature male friends spending leisure time in park
Male friendships need nurturing too as we age. (Getty Images)

"There’s the Inner Circle with whom you feel psychologically safe to share and express. This group is often potentially small. Tier 2 is good conversation but not always deep. 

"The Outer Circle are more acquaintances, and more quantity rather than quality."

"Friends in midlife tend to be chosen not for status or being in the ‘in’ group, "but because you have things in common, been there for each other, had similar life experiences," she explains. 

"I think there are fewer expectations in midlife friendships," she goes on. "We have our own, sometimes busy lives, so not calling or texting or Face-timing every 5 minutes isn’t a reflection of us, it’s a reflection of the reality of life."

Maintaining friendships requires effort, Devonish adds. "It includes caring, time, respect, kindness, empathy, fun, laughter, compassion, trust, humility, presence, and being there when the chips are down."

"In the recent interview with Oprah Winfrey and Maria Shriver, they both speak of being there for each other during difficult times," she adds. "To have good friends you’ve got to be one."

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