It’s a commonly touted idea that humans can only maintain around 5 close relationships at a time. But where does this idea come from and is there any truth to it? Let’s take a deeper look at the research behind this concept.
The Origin of the “Rule of 5”
The notion that we can only handle a small number of close relationships originated with British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s. Dunbar studied the group sizes of various primate species and found a correlation between brain size and average social group size. Using this data, he estimated the average human group size to be around 150 individuals (known as “Dunbar’s number”). Within this 150, he proposed that we can only actively maintain closer personal relationships with around 5 individuals at a time.
Dunbar arrived at this “rule of 5” by studying the group sizes of hunter-gatherer societies, reasoning that our brains have not evolved much beyond that of humans thousands of years ago. The groups ranged from 30 to 50 for overnight camps and 100 to 150 for villages. He theorized we can only hold a stable social network of around 150, with layers of emotional closeness forming within that larger group size.
The innermost layer is support clique of just 3-5 closest confidants. This represents those we consider intimate friends and rely on most emotionally. The next layer extends to 12-20 close friends. Moving outward, the next layer includes 35-50 friends, followed by 100-200 for acquaintances. At 150 is the widest circle of people we know but interact with only superficially.
What the Research Says
Since Dunbar first proposed his number over 20 years ago, there have been many studies aiming to test the validity of his theory. The research remains mixed, with some studies supporting the rule of 5 for our closest circle, while others suggest the number may be flexible based on individual differences and circumstances.
Studies Supporting the Rule of 5
Some studies lending support to Dunbar’s theory include:
- A study of Facebook users found they actively interacted with only about 5 people on a regular basis out of their total friend networks.
- Looking at instant messaging users, researchers found most had only 3-6 contacts they routinely connected with.
- An analysis of phone records determined most people had just 3-5 others they called regularly.
- In a study of older adults over 60, average network size was around 7, with an inner core of about 5 closer ties.
These studies point to a close circle of 3-6, in line with Dunbar’s postulated support clique size of 3-5 intimates. The numbers are small enough to be consistent with the constraints on human social cognition. We only have so much time and mental energy to invest in the most intimate relationships.
Studies Challenging the Strict Rule
However, the rule may not necessarily hold in all cases. Other studies have found variability in core network size depending on culture, gender, personality, and life circumstances. For example:
- One study found Americans tend to have smaller inner circle networks (around 2) compared to East Asians (closer to 5).
- Women tend to maintain more close ties than men.
- Extroverts tend to have more close friendships than introverts.
- Younger adults regularly interact with larger networks than older adults.
- Those experiencing life changes like divorce may rely on larger support circles.
So while we may average around 5 intimate relationships, this depends on individual differences in need for support and availability of network members. Our core confidants may number fewer when we are embedded in larger, tighter-knit communities too.
Why We Might be Limited to Around 5
If we do in fact top out at around 5 for close relationships, why is that the case? There are a few key reasons proposed by researchers:
Our brains can only handle so much information at once. To maintain intimacy requires cognitive effort like remembering details about others’ lives, inside jokes, and shared emotional experiences. Too many close ties may overwhelm our capacity to store and process that information.
There are only so many hours in the day to devote to relationship maintenance. Intimate relationships require regular contact and time investment to stay strong. This necessitates limiting our core network to preserve quality time with each.
We have finite emotional resources to give to others. Spreading ourselves too thin among too many intimates can strain our ability to be truly available for anyone. Prioritizing deeper connections with just a few allows more meaningful emotional presence.
The expectations of intimacy and support we associate with close ties may shape network patterns. We expect confidants to be available in times of strong need. Having too many relationships characterized by those expectations may not be socially feasible long-term.
Together, these constraints around cognition, time, emotions, and social norms are likely what places limits on core relationship circle size for most individuals.
Strategies for Nurturing Close Ties
Assuming the rule of 5 contains some truth, what are ways we can nurture our closest relationships within those confines? Consider the following strategies:
Make One-on-One Time a Priority
Carve out quality time for your nearest and dearest on a regular basis. One-on-one interactions are essential for strengthening bonds and avoiding relationships from becoming diluted.
Be Fully Present and Listen
When you are with core network members, be engaged and avoid distractions. Actively listening shows you value the relationship and care about what matters to them.
Share Your Authentic Self
Let your guard down and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Sharing thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears brings you closer together.
Provide Emotional Support
Offer comfort, understanding, advice, or whatever support your loved ones need. Show you can be counted on, especially during difficult times.
Have Fun Together
Enjoy activities and share lighthearted moments. Humor and playfulness strengthens bonds and forms fond memories.
Stay in Regular Contact
Make an effort to maintain contact in between visits. A quick text, call, or video chat helps stay connected when you can’t be together.
With some intentionality and consistent effort, you can nurture a small circle of intimates who provide meaning, support, and joy in your life.
Fostering Broader Friendships Too
While our capacity for close relationships may be limited, we can still foster a wider network of friendships too. Our brains can handle more acquaintances and casual friends that require less maintenance. Tips for nurturing broader friend networks include:
- Making regular plans to catch up one-on-one or in groups
- Joining clubs, classes, or social groups that align with your interests
- Leaving extra time for chatting when you run into acquaintances
- Remembering minor details about their lives and following up later
- Making introductions to link friends together into a wider network
Having a foundation of close confidants along with a wider social circle can help keep our need for connection fulfilled.
When Your Circle Size Changes
While 5 may be a typical core network size, there are circumstances where that number may shift up or down for periods of our lives. For example:
During Major Life Changes
Your circle may expand during major transitions like relationship changes, parenthood, bereavement, or health crises when more support is needed.
When Relationships Fade
As we enter different life stages, some relationships naturally fade while new ones step in. Our core five may change gradually over time.
Dealing with Conflict
Unresolved conflicts can temporarily or permanently shrink your circle. But new confidants can emerge to fill the gaps over time.
Capacity for Intimacy Changes
At times of depression, high stress, or emotional numbness, we may not have capacity for as many close ties.
So our intimate network size may go through phases of expansion and contraction throughout life. The key is listening to your own needs and limits while adjusting who you rely on over time.
Can You Have More Than 5 Close Relationships?
While the rule of 5 represents an average, there are certainly individuals who successfully maintain more intimate ties. This may be more feasible when:
- You have greater cognitive capacity for recalling relationship details
- You are highly extroverted and energetic
- You have ample free time to devote to others
- You have strong organizational skills to coordinate connections
- You thrive on many social interactions instead of feeling overwhelmed
However, for most people there are real constraints around how many close ties they can devote quality time and emotional availability to. Each of our intimate relationships takes effort to sustain long-term.
The rule proposing we can only maintain about five close relationships is an oversimplification. Our real capacity depends on individual differences and life circumstances. However, research does show most of us top out at around 5 for our most intimate circle of confidants. But we can still nurture a wider network of casual friends and acquaintances too. Those core relationships give us the deepest emotional satisfaction when we put in the time and effort to sustain them. So focusing our energy there, while also fostering broader friendships, can help meet our need to connect.