Marisa* is Ruby Bennett’s best friend, but Ruby, 18, struggles to feel close to her. They have known each other for years, but Marisa, who didn't want us to use her last name, rarely opens up to Ruby when she has a problem. Often, they’ll go weeks without speaking. “We still know we are best friends, because it’s just something that won’t change with time,” says Ruby. “But it does cause a certain amount of unease as I never know when she wants to speak or hang out.”
Marisa is what Ruby describes as a “low-maintenance friend” — a term typically used to describe friendships which require minimal effort to upkeep. While everyone’s understanding of what counts as low-maintenance will differ to some extent, it’s generally thought of as a friend who we might send an occasional text to check in with, and go for lengths of time without seeing.
This kind of minimal-contact friendship is considered a positive thing when the relationship is able to thrive. There are countless articles and posts on social media eulogising the benefits of this type of friendship, with some encouraging people to “tag their low-maintenance bestie!”. “Let’s normalise low-maintenance friendships,” says TikTok user @jlueche in one video with over 31,000 likes. “It gives me the ick when people get pressed over MY TIME.”
While most of the comments on @jlueche praised this sentiment, not everyone shares this point of view. “Tbh ppl use the excuse of being low-maintenance friends to be awful friends,” one TikTok user commented on the video. Another commenter questioned where the line between “friend” and “associate” is in this kind of friendship. Ruby has also struggled with “low-maintenance” friendships. “As someone who likes to spend a lot of time with friends, it does sometimes get a bit lonely when you feel like you’re the only one putting in effort,” she says.
At times, Ruby doesn’t know where she stands with her friends — something she puts down to a “difference of personality and needs”. She says she worries about annoying her friends by “being the needy one”. “I feel the need to give my friends space, but I maybe give them too much space, and it ends up with us drifting,” she says. “It’s a bit of a constant battle wondering how much space is too much, and how much is the right amount for them to feel comfortable.”
Danielle Bayard Jackson, a female friendship expert, thinks that low-maintenance friendships are a “dangerous” thing to glamorise. “It’s important to define exactly what makes a friendship ‘low-maintenance’ or ‘low-effort’,” she says. “I can appreciate ‘low-effort’ in terms of I’m not trying to put on a mask, or I'm not performing in this friendship, or when there’s a certain ease”. However, as Bayard Jackson points out, the way low-maintenance friendships are typically discussed online relates more to the frequency in which we have to check in on our friends. This is problematic, Bayard argues, because it could lead to a situation where one friend is doing all the work to maintain the relationship. “We should be curious about the effort that the other person is putting in, and whether or not they feel satisfied,” she says.
As Bayard sees it, the normalisation of minimal contact with our friends is helping to fuel widespread isolation. “I don't think it’s a coincidence that we’re living through a loneliness epidemic and people are also bragging about having relationships where they don’t have to do anything,” she says. Given that friendship makes us healthier and live longer, it should be a priority in our lives. However, recent data suggests we have fewer close friendships than we once did. In the United States, for example, the share of people saying they have no close friends at all went up from 3% in 1990 to 12% in 2021.
“If you’re getting what you want out of the relationship, then there’s no problem with that,” says Bayard Jackson. “But if you are simultaneously talking about how you wish you had a deeper connection, or that you don’t feel seen in your friendships… I think it’s worth looking at your attitude towards low-maintenance friendships.”
The idea that we can sustain friendships while doing the least is something Bayard thinks we ought to question. “If I want more of an emotional payoff, and if I want my friends to know they matter to me, I have to show up,” she says. In fact, the belief that friendship should come easily can hinder our ability to make and keep friends. One recent study found that those who believed that friendship happens organically — or is based on luck — were more likely to experience loneliness, whereas those who believed that friendship takes effort were less likely to experience loneliness.
It’s fair to say that we all want nurturing friendships that go beyond the occasional text, call, or harried meeting. But low-maintenance friendships can sometimes feel like the only option in a society which devalues friendship, and prizes productivity above all else. People are busy, burned-out, and working on unpredictable schedules — particularly if they’re gig workers — which can make carving out time for friends difficult.
Sheila Liming, author of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, points out that meeting up with friends often requires sufficient planning, especially when people are juggling work, university or family commitments. This has, perhaps, made us more inclined to meet up with friends perceived as low maintenance, who can be slotted into our busy schedules for a coffee or cocktail. “It’s difficult to develop intense or deep relationships based on that kind of interaction,” says Liming. “It can be nourishing in the moment, but it’s hard to make that [friendship] go anywhere when all you have is an hour here or there.” This is particularly true of newer friends, Liming says, who we haven’t already established a secure foundation with.
There’s also the fact that many of us simply can’t afford to see our friends, due to shrinking public space and the commodification of our leisure time. In the UK, the cost of living crisis has made hanging out a luxury — so it’s unsurprising, then, that people are keeping their IRL socialising to a minimum. As Liming speculates, “I think [lack of money] pushes us in some ways to rely on these low-maintenance methods — such as using our phones to maintain our relationships — because there's a low cost of entry to doing that.”
But these online check ins aren’t necessarily a good substitute for meeting up in person — in fact, they can leave us feeling more lonely. “There’s a multiplicity of connections all over the place,” says Liming, “but many of those connections fail to reach very deeply.” Liming thinks that the key to reviving our friendships is “unstructured hangouts”, which involve spending idle time with our friends, with no agenda. This could help us to see spending time with friends as something that doesn’t need to be expensive, effortful or stealing time away from the calendar, but something that can fit into and enrich our lives organically.
We wouldn’t apply the term low-maintenance to a romantic relationship, so it’s worth asking why we see friendship through this lens. “With friendship we have this assumption that they’ll always be there, so they shouldn’t require maintenance,” says Bayard Jackson. “People need to be aware of the physical, emotional, and mental benefits of friendship. It’s hard to prioritise something that you don’t recognise the full value of.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities