Forgetting people

Over time, - you more quickly forget those people who are different. - you build up faster new relationships with those who are different. - you quickly forget about your old work colleagues after you changed your job. you forget about those who are far away - geographically and emotionally.

Forgetting people
Photo by Artem Maltsev / Unsplash

In a couple of months, we are moving again. This means saying goodbye. It means losing connections if we don't become intentional about keeping these relationships alive. Major life events such as job changes, relocation, becoming a parent, or a global pandemic, have a dramatic impact on who you interact with. Some connections withstand the tumults and remain alive. But which ones are more fragile and need extra care and nurturing?

Key points

Over time,

  • you more quickly forget those people who are different.
  • you build up faster new relationships with those who are different.
  • you quickly forget about your old work colleagues after you changed your job.
  • you forget about those who are far away - geographically and emotionally.
  • you stay connected to those who give you emotional support and day-to-day help with anything you can think of.

The claim

Much of the theory about building and sustaining relationships is based on transactional theories. This means that the frameworks assume that a relationship serves a function, and something (“a transaction”) happens between the person initiating the interaction (“the sender”) and the person at who the interaction is targeted (“the receiver”). Consequently, the language can be less human-speak and more finance-speak.

In general, three reasons explain human interaction:

Social norms dictate your interaction patterns

You have to talk with your partner, children, parents, siblings, etc. There are social norms about how much you need to speak with your neighbor, the postman/woman, and the person at the cash counter. Different countries, different norms: There are plenty of jokes about how much Finnish people talk. Also, within a country, interaction norms in urban and rural areas are different.

Institutions dictate who your contacts are

You need to interact with certain people because you both are part of the same institution (e.g., company, school, church, sports club, online community). This means you both are part of the same system and therefore have to interact.

How often you interact depends on your position in this system and the social norms. The system you are part of provides opportunities for interaction through joint activities and shared spaces: meetings, workflows, events, interactions on the same discussion thread.

The system you are part of also influences how firmly embedded your contacts are. If your colleague is also a friend of your friend, chances are you'll interact more with her. Meet your friend for a drink, and your colleague might also be there (For simplicity, I'm assuming you have a good relationship with your colleague). Network embeddedness for this colleague is high. As a consequence, you'll meet her in a variety of settings within and outside of work.

You pick your friends based on your personal desires

Finally, there are your friends. People you chose to interact with. You might have first met in an institutional setting, but your interaction goes beyond what is required from you. For example, I became good friends with a student. We met in an institutional context but kept interacting with each other outside the original, institutionalized setting. It turned out we had many things in common: foreigners, kids, world views, coffee taste.

Our personal desires influence which relationships will last and which will fade away. First, it can be hard to interact with those that are different. This isn't easy to admit. You need to spend extra time understanding the person's preferences, feelings, and experiences. In short, you look at the world with different glasses, and switching frames asks more mental effort. You need to be willing to put in the extra energy.

Taken all this, a number of your relationships will change if something in your life changes. This change should not necessarily be seen as wrong. Once you know what could happen to your network, you can prepare for it.

The proof

Beginning with something positive: From a bird's eye view, your circle of connections (your network) does not change. You will have roughly the same amount of friends. Also, the number of contacts who are like you and different from you will remain the same. For example, if I'd have three male friends in the Netherlands, I would have more or less three male friends in Ireland. The same reasoning applies to other characteristics (ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc.). What changes are the names and faces, but the diversity of your network remains stable.

Now to the less positive fact: There is higher churn among your friends and connections that are dissimilar. People quicker abandon (or forget) those people who are different from them. But this empty spot is also filled quicker. This turnover is compared to those connections that are similar to you. Relationships with identical people are more stable. But once a person, who is alike, leaves your network, it takes longer for a new person to take that place.

Beyond that, research is inconclusive why relationships with those who are different fade away quicker. Lack of shared activities, personal preference for similarity, or lack of network embeddedness does not explain why connections with dissimilar people disappear at a faster rate.

While research can't yet explain why certain relationships fade away quicker, it can advise on how to forge lasting relationships: Bond over multiple facets of life: Parenting, work, health, outdoor swimming, indoor cycling, groceries, painting the house. In short: help each other out with day-to-day activities and provide emotional support.

What does that mean for you?

First, accept that not all your relationships can last forever. You have limited bandwidth. But with all things in life, being more conscious about what is going on will help you. Now you know that your relationships with those who are dissimilar are in greater danger of fading away. You can counteract this human tendency.

Second, if your interaction with a person is one-sided, see if you can extend it. Do you really only have one thing in common, one thing you like to do together? If yes, so be it. But if not, this is an ideal way to create a stronger connection.

Third, one way to foster lasting relationships is to have more chances to meet. This means more joint activities and being active in more shared spaces. These spaces can be physical, such as going to the same sports club and library or online. Be part of several overlapping communities. Not two (online) communities are alike. They are built for similar but different purposes.

Fourth, for those who work in cultures that build trusting relationships around tasks and expertise (e.g., US, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, UK), make sure you feel integrated into your local community. These outside-work connections will remain intact if you change your job.

Connections you form at work are the most unstable relationships you have. This means you need local non-work-related relationships to withstand the shocks that come with a job change. Alternatively, spend more time getting to know your colleagues.

If you work remotely, this offline community is crucial for your mental health. An alternative, or an addition, is to be active in an online community. This gives you a place where you can form connections that will last. They will withstand changes in job, location, and other life events.


Marin, A., & Hampton, K. N. (2019). Network Instability in Times of Stability. Sociological Forum, 34(2), 313–336.

Mollenhorst, G., Volker, B., & Flap, H. (2014). Changes in personal relationships: How social contexts affect the emergence and discontinuation of relationships. Social Networks, 37, 65–80.

Tulin, M., Mollenhorst, G., & Volker, B. (2021). Whom do we lose? The case of dissimilarity in personal networks. Social Networks, 65, 51–62.

Saramaki, J., Leicht, E. A., Lopez, E., Roberts, S. G. B., Reed-Tsochas, F., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2014). Persistence of social signatures in human communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(3), 942–947.

Subscribe to System Thinking

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.