I’m not sure just when I learned about proximity friendship. It’s been years. But even back then, the term and its meaning resonated with me. Perhaps because my early youth was so incredibly stable, with one house my childhood home from birth to 58 years of age—most of my friends from six-years-old until now are still friends. Yet I always had the wanderer’s bug, and my career has been one of constant motion. I moved around a lot in my career days, either transferring or doing business across the nation and sometimes around the world. I have friends in far and distant places.
I also believe that part of my wiring connects me to the past more intimately than for many people. I have a need to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances: a trait that I saw in my mother as well.
Per Wikipedia: “Within the realm of social psychology, the proximity principle accounts for the tendency for individuals to form interpersonal relations with those who are close by.” This applies to friendships as well as romantic relationships. Research by Theodore Newcomb established this principle. In the book, Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari cited research that showed years ago people tended to marry partners who lived within blocks of each other, whereas in the modern era, partners can be found continents apart.
There’s no question that we form relationships with people near us physically. Just think of your friends—you likely met them face to face first, and then the rest is history. College friends are an example of proximity friendships—many of my best friends I would never have met except for college. Work friends developed the same way.
But some of those friendships withered and died after leaving the environment where they first flourished. Sometimes we can’t even recall the name or face of those friends months or years later. Ah, the adage, “out of sight, out of mind” at work.
My first boyfriend was an exchange student from Sweden. I was in love for the first time. Back in the olden days letters were our social media. I was lucky that he was as vociferous a letter writer as I. For three years we wrote at least weekly to each other. We met when I was a sophomore in high school. I didn’t know how to let go, and really didn’t want to. He also served a great purpose—I didn’t have to get too entangled with anyone else throughout my high school career because, “I had a boyfriend.” My feelings for him had hardly shifted—here was “distance makes the heart grow fonder” at work. Things changed for him first. He was three years my senior. He was moving on, and eventually, when I was in college, still hanging on, he sent me pictures of his girlfriend. The breakup was done gently, as simply as two friends sharing important information with each other. I got the hint. I could harbor no ill will. After all, he was in Sweden, I was, by this time, in California.
The letter communication was key to maintaining the relationship, and this same model played out with a relationship formed while in college. This guy was a letter writer. Because of our letters, the relationship continued for over a year after going our separate ways after graduation. In addition to letters, we had long and expensive telephone calls. This was before cell phones where there is no such thing as “long distance.” We paid extra money for calls outside the local area code. Distance not only made the heart grow fonder, but drove our desire to an elevated level. One of our phone calls cost as much as a plane ticket, so the next thing I remember is driving to Des Moines to pick him up at the airport—why not? The price was the same…
I found out he had a girlfriend when I called him one night and a woman answered. I thought she was just a “roommate.” I was right in one sense. She was a “roommate” just more intimate than I had imagined.
The other college romance was with a civil engineer. I always have had an attraction for engineers. But one thing about engineers, their strength lies with numbers and critical thinking, not waxing poetic through the pen. This romance was definitely one where “out of sight, out of mind.” ruled.
Not that I didn’t try. I wrote letters, and heard back…crickets. It wasn’t that I needed to hear words of affirmation. That’s not my “love language.” I just needed to “hear” from him. Know that when he wrote he was thinking of me. My letters were mundane, not necessarily romantic. But for those brief minutes while I was writing, my focus was on the recipient. I wanted the same. To know that for a few minutes while the letter was being composed, I was the center of the universe. Clearly that wasn’t what he needed nor could he provide that kind of love. Yet he was still the one to say, “Sayonara,” first. I must just be a hanger-on.
Facebook and social media, and earlier, email and texting have been game changers. And I know I am not the only one to realize this. It’s been commonplace to hear of long-lost friends and lovers finding each other after years of silent separation. Sometimes these aren’t necessarily good reunions for all involved—people reconnecting, marriages breaking up to facilitate that “one true love,” the realization that there was good reason that the relationship had died in the first place. And then there’s the middle of the night Internet search on an old boyfriend’s name only to find criminal records and not-so-nice stuff about them. (Not me, but a friend…)
The internet has made stalking pretty easy, if a person is into that kind of thing. With a few keystrokes and a Friend Request, notifications on a person’s slightest movement can be followed. But that tends to happen after a friendship is established. Most friends are created by some proximal event. This has been hard during the Covid pandemic—since we haven’t really had the opportunity to get very close to anyone, let alone a stranger. But I have been physically face-to-face with a few Match.com mates at open air patios or socially distanced restaurants. I have also made a handful of Zoom friends where our only contact has been through Zoom. Most of these encounters have only been maintained because we have regular contact. Like the letters in the past, Facebook and regular Zoom meetings are the glue of today.
I used to think that the Proximity Principle meant that developing and maintaining a friendship meant needing to be physically together. But now I understand there’s a difference between making a friend, and maintaining a friend. While it is true we can make new friends via Zoom, it IS harder. I have a friend who met his wife while standing in line. Think how much harder that would be during Covid, when standing in line means standing six feet apart. I am currently cultivating a friendship through on-line GO games as a recurring Wednesday night activity. I am maintaining the friendship online, but our relationship was established over drinks on a sunny afternoon sitting across from each other. Similarly, my mother made friends from middle school that she maintained as lifelong friends through infrequent visits and annual Christmas cards. Some of those friendships spanned over 70 years. And yet when I left Colorado, my best friend there, who was also my next-door neighbor, told me point blank, “When you leave, we won’t be friends. When you are gone, you are gone.” I was surprised at her attitude. She was from Denmark. She never promised to write to me. I sent her a holiday card once or twice, but, as she predicted, our friendship died.
Clearly, there is huge value in being in the same room together, feeling the attraction of physical presence—or not. There’s the nuance of a look, body language, the spark of an aftershave or perfume. It’s sharing a joke without words. For those whose love language is touch, there’s no substitution for the feel of fingers intertwined. Being physically together facilitates the seeds of friendship or love. But it is the constant watering, fertilizing and sunshine that makes it grow.
I look forward to the time coming soon when I don’t feel apprehensive of getting too close to someone I don’t know. When I can put my hand on a stranger or friend’s arm in comfort. To feel a bear hug without fear.
Friendship is an investment no matter the form. Like a savings account, you have to put something of value in to get something of value out. And like that bank account, we tend to do our banking in our own community, not because we can’t bank long distance, but it is easier to open a new account standing at the teller window, handing over identification, signing the electronic signature pad that makes it all easier and faster at the beginning. The deposits and withdrawals we can do online.