If I walked into my neighbor's kitchen and helped myself to a snack in her fridge, she'd think I'd lost my mind.
I've never been inside any of my neighbors' kitchens, nor have they been inside ours. It's a far cry from how I grew up, where our small ranch house was constantly filled with neighborhood kids and cousins.
No one thought twice about rummaging through our fridge. Researchers Will Miller and Glenn Sparks believe the decline in "refrigerator rights" relationships in America is directly connected to our increasing anxiety, incivility and stress.
In their book, "Refrigerator Rights: Our Crucial Need for Close Connection," they make a convincing case that too many of us have neglected our need for intimate relationships outside of our nuclear families.
They've created a visual shorthand for these relationships: How many people can come to your home and open your refrigerator without permission? In how many people's homes are you comfortable enough to do the same?
For too many Americans, the number is probably limited to those in our extended family -- many of whom may not live anywhere near us.
Are we losing our closest friendships? The authors cite a Stanford University study that reports one out of every four people questioned said they had "nobody at all" in whom they could confide. Twenty-five years ago, only one in eight said that.
We see dozens of people every day, at work, at school, on the sidelines of our children's soccer games. But how many of these relationships go beyond acquaintances?
Sparks and Miller offer three main reasons for our social isolation:
-- We move frequently and too often away from our families and roots. Statistics show that Americans relocate every five years.
-- We are increasingly distracted by electronic media. The average American watches more than 32 hours of television each week. And the internet takes a bigger and bigger chunk out of our personal time. While it allows us to be super-connected to the larger world, our individual sphere is neglected.
"Our immersion in electronic media comes at a price -- and that price is almost always the decreasing amount of time we spend with other people," Sparks writes on his blog.
-- Finally, we create a hectic busyness in our lives. With our constant go, go, go lifestyle, we are too tired in our downtime to spend it with other people.
The authors recommend that we re-examine why relationships tend to fall on the lowest rung of our priorities.
Tonight I have the choice of meeting some dear family friends for dinner. My list of excuses to beg off is long: My little one has a virus. The weather is rotten. I'm too tired to get dressed up. Their home is too far away. It would be so easy to just stay at home in my pajamas and catch up with them on Facebook.
But refrigerator rights relationships are only cultivated by spending time and sharing experiences -- face-to-face, in real time -- with those we care about.
Tonight I'm choosing face time over screen time.
This column originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 28, 2008.