Our throwaway culture isn’t just making us callous about tossing away that old iPhone the second a new one comes out, even though the old iPhone was working just fine. It’s also making us indifferent to old friendships. New research out of the University of Kansas finds that when we relocate, we’re as likely to discard social relationships as we are replaceable objects.
“We found a correlation between the way you look at objects and perceive your relationships,” says lead author Omri Gillath. “If you move around a lot, you develop attitudes of disposability toward objects, furniture, books, devices—basically whatever merchandise you have at home, your car even.”
In four studies, the study found that people who move a lot develop a disposable attitude to close relationships, what the authors call “relational disposability.” The studies comprised surveys asking subjects about their willingness to dispose of objects, and also their relationship partners. The work builds on previous studies from the 1930s, which looked at the ease of disposing social ties in the U.S. and Germany.
“If you’re willing to move for school or a job, you have a higher chance of being successful,” says Gillath. “But we’re saying it also makes things superficial and disposable. It might be fine to have disposable diapers but not disposable friendships.”
This attitude doesn’t just manifest when we move, either. It extends to our everyday relationships. “Even in romantic relationships, when I ask my students what would they do when things get difficult, most of them say they would move on rather than try to work things out, or God forbid, turn to a counselor,” says Gillath.
The more we move, the worse things get. One of the studies showed that “a history of RM [residential mobility] increases the willingness to dispose of objects and, through that, dispose of social ties.”
This trivial destruction of relationships is more worrying when you consider other research that shows our real-life social networks are as important to our health as diet and exercise. Gillath offers no quick-fix answers, so we may be faced with a stark choice between (literally) healthy friendships or leaving everything behind.