“I’m going to have to quit Facebook,” my client said. “I don’t have time to keep up with all these people.”

Places like Facebook changed the nature of social relationships. Lots of people think that is a good thing. But consider my client’s life: She has her college network and LinkedIn for professional stuff, then there is her Facebook for friends and family, and of course the relationships she still maintains in email. Her professional association wants to give her a way to keep up with her colleagues. And now her company is exploring a “rich profile” so she can network at work.

College, professional associations, religious and club organizations, work, work networks, family and friends. Today we can keep up with everyone forever. When is a good thing too much?

My doctoral work was on “Women’s Friendship and the Psychological Sense of Community.” (For those of you who wonder where the basic CD methods came from—this is it!) I conducted field studies with women of all ages to learn about their experience and their behavior. Here are some interesting bits.

Relationships are about sharing life domains

The psychological sense of community—or transcending existential aloneness—is all about finding people to share in the different domains of your life. So, when women have young babies and are trying to figure out how to nurse, how to balance work and home, how to potty train—no matter the profession, women need women to talk to, to advise them and commiserate with. They get together to live life together, nursing, diapering, and walking their babies as they talk about the struggle of new motherhood.

Last week a member of my Temple who is a potter asked if she could come to my studio and bring her work. (I’m a clay artist in my spare time.) “I like your eye,” she said. “I’d like to bring a collection of my work for your critique.”

A couple of years ago my husband found out that she was a potter and told me. We had chatted a bit about connecting at that time. But she is a young woman with young kids and my kids are grown. I work in my studio on weekends and she works in hers during the week between kids. We said we’d get together but we didn’t.

Then she went to a clay workshop I attended and we worked side by side. She saw how I worked and how I critiqued others’ work. So she thought of me—someone at her Temple—when she needed an art communal experience.

It is probably inevitable that I will become friends with this young woman: she is a woman, she is an artist, she could give me an art community, she is Jewish, she is active in the Temple, my husband is the Temple president and I volunteer, she has kids and now that I’m a grandma I’m back to being interested in young kids, I mentor young women all the time. What is happening?

Art/woman/mentor/Jewish/grandma—all the central aspects of my life can be embodied in one relationship.

In friendship, we gravitate to people who share our life domains—but we gravitate more to people who share several overlapping life domains. More interestingly —once we have a friendship relationship in one part of life, the friends start to taking on and sharing other aspects of each other’s life.

We incorporate friends from one life domain into another

My husband and I have a few friends that we met when we first came to Boston. They belonged to our current Temple and were friends of our friends. We also both had small kids and a need for day care so we joined the Temple and together we started to share child care. Each adult took a day and we raised our first kids together.

But they also liked to garden—big time—so we started gardening. We tilled their one acre garden together for many years. When we both moved and didn’t have a big piece of land any more, we both still planted a garden and talked about gardening. Then we formed a Chavarah—a group of 6 couples who meet to share Jewish Shabbath every 3 weeks. And we have been doing that for over 15 years. And so it goes—what starts out as one connection between people becomes many.

In friendship, we incorporate each other into the multiple aspects of our life. Why? Because we feel more understood, and more connected if people are involved through talk and activities in more areas of our lives. We feel less alone in the world.

Through incorporation people naturally consolidate their relationships as they go along increasing their sense of connection. But this drive to consolidate has a side benefit. Life is so busy it is hard to meet our needs for connection and shared activity with a huge array of people. Building our lives around a few close friends is efficient. Incorporation helps us manage the number of people that we need to maintain in our lives.

So what happens when we have all these on-line social networking places? How can we incorporate people from one part of life into another part of life? Does something like Facebook help with that or does it hinder? Are the relationships we have on-line of the same depth? Are they really “part of my life”? If social networking is about maintaining loose social connections why are we putting so much energy into it?

And do social networking places get in the way of the natural pruning of relationships?

Relationships have a natural pruning process

Why is it that people end up with friends within their religious organizations, or associations, or clubs or art classes? These physical places where communities meet represent the things that matter to us in our lives. Place gives us an instant community of potential people to engage in valued activity and to talk with.

Place maintains relationship for us without us trying. We go to work; we work together and build relationships; we see each other at work. So we don’t have to work hard to maintain the relationship—the place maintains it. And then incorporation starts. As a CEO I float on top of my organization so I was surprised to find that my employees regularly go out together, and not just to eat lunches. They run together, knit together, shop together—in other words they met at work and incorporated each other into their lives. But then what?

The drives of their lives took them elsewhere. Travel isn’t very good for a young woman looking for a long-term relationships—so she leaves the job. My admin had to become the main bread winner and changed jobs—eventually moving to another state. Another person moved back to the country of his birth. Wherever we are we build relationships. But the core drivers of our own development and our most intimate relationships take us to new places. And when we leave—we leave relationships behind.

We shed relationships over time. This is not because we have fights and stop talking. Rather this is the natural process of shifting places and shifting priorities in life domains. As my friend said, we weave people into the life fabric of our lives forming the rich colors and texture of life. And then, we change life direction, and we weave them out again.

Place maintains connection. And leaving a place naturally prunes relationships. Place supports life domains and when we change life domains we weave people out so we can weave new people in. We do carry a few relationships with us—but we carry what we can manage and we let the others go. Some people are acquaintances. Some are close. Some are fun mainly in that time and place. In the end, we prune.

Is this sad? Is this a loss? Or is this how we can have intimate relationships of depth and richness throughout our lives with vibrancy and vitality, ever renewing ourselves through new relationships as our life focus changes?

Social network “places” and on-line “places” where people interact about a shared interest let us maintain relationships that might normally be pruned. Problem is participation in each place comes with expectations of participation and relationship maintenance. Why aren’t we responding to those good college friends?

And if on-line places do not allow for incorporation as easily, then we also don’t consolidate our relationships. We don’t take on aspects of each others’ life and the relationship doesn’t deepen.

If on-line places can never be left because they are not physical—we lose the natural pruning process that causes no pain. Today it is easy to see how my client can be overwhelmed because she has no way to let go and focus her relationship commitment. Who knows! Maybe some company will invent a CRM system to manage our personal relationships (PRM)—to tell us when to ping friends so they won’t feel neglected?

Technology has again created opportunity to enhance life—we can keep and find people we lost and want to weave back in, or catch up, or network for jobs. But have we lost the natural way we manage our social relationships? What will happen—will we be rude and just drop people on-line? Will we be forced to spend hours dealing with relationships that might be better pruned? Will we end up building committed 1-2 hour on-line relationship time into every day now competing with face-to-face relationships? Or can we redesign and help people to consolidate and prune their relationships in a more natural way so that they can continue to weave people in and out of the rich fabric of life?