Why Friendship is the Key Relationship of the 21st Century

Equality, choice, and fluidity describe friendship and modern life

Posted Dec 02, 2012

At the emotional heart of singlism – the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single – is the devaluing of all of our peer relationships that are not sexual. Matrimania – the over-the-top hyping of marriage, weddings, and coupling – is the cultural expression of the myth of marital superiority. By conventional ways of thinking, the marital relationship (or some less-official equivalent) is the only relationship that really counts.

Until we can make the case for the value of all of the other important relationships in our lives – perhaps friendship, most of all – single people will always find themselves put on the defensive about the depth, meaningfulness, and integrity of their interpersonal lives.

In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz reminds us that in ancient times, friendship “was seen as superior to marriage.” Today, we link friendship with youth – when we step into the terrain of adulthood, we expect to leave friendship behind. But “for the ancients, [friendship] was rare, precious, and hard-won…[It] was a high calling, demanding extraordinary qualities of character, rooted in virtue…”

Across the ages, friendship lost its place of nobility. (You can read Deresiewicz’s overview of that devolvement here.) Now, however, a confluence of factors has created the grounds for a renewed significance of that relationship that once was so esteemed.

Deresiewicz captures his key arguments for why friendship is so well suited to 21st century life in one long paragraph. I have transformed his prose into bullet points and added emphasis, but all of the words are exactly as he wrote them:

  • Modernity believes in equality, and friendships, unlike traditional relationships, are egalitarian.
  • Modernity believes in individualism. Friendships serve no public purpose and exist independent of all other bonds.
  • Modernity believes in choice. Friendships, unlike blood ties, are elective; indeed, the rise of friendship coincided with the shift away from arranged marriage.
  • Modernity believes in self-expression. Friends, because we choose them, give us back an image of ourselves.
  • Modernity believes in freedom. Even modern marriage entails contractual obligations, but friendship involves no fixed commitments.
  • The modern temper runs toward unrestricted fluidity and flexibility, the endless play of possibility, and so is perfectly suited to the informal, improvisational nature of friendship. We can be friends with whomever we want, however we want, for as long as we want.

Changing demographics, he notes, are also significant. Although I don’t much like the language of families “falling apart,” I do like the point he is making:

“Between the rise of divorce and the growth of single parenthood, adults in contemporary households often no longer have spouses, let alone a traditional extended family, to turn to for support…Friends may be ‘the family we choose,’ as the modern proverb has it, but for many of us there is no choice but to make our friends our family, since our other families—the ones we come from or the ones we try to start—have fallen apart. When all the marriages are over, friends are the people we come back to. And even those who grow up in a stable family and end up creating another one pass more and more time between the two.”

And yet, Deresiewicz notes, despite all the ways in which friendship really is the true relationship of our time, we still are not giving it its due:

“We save our fiercest energies for sex…we’ve taught ourselves to shun expressions of intense affection between friends…the typical bromance plot instructs the callow bonds of youth to give way to mature heterosexual relationships. At best, intense friendships are something we are expected to grow out of.”

Deresiewicz’s essay was intended as a critique of the Facebook-type approach to contemporary friendship; the title is “Faux Friendship.” I don’t think I’m entirely persuaded by his critique – I think that what he might regard as genuine friendship can thrive alongside what he calls the faux friendship of the Facebook era.  In any case, I find it the faux-friendship thesis the least intriguing part of his otherwise masterful analysis. For the record, here is the gist of his critique:

“In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.”

“Exchanging stories is like making love: probing, questing, questioning, caressing. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill – and it teaches them all, too.”

“Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition.”

[Notes: In Friendsight: What Friends Know that Others Don’t, I’ve collected some of my journal articles on that topic. Paperback is here and ebook is here. I have also written other blog posts on friendship; you can find links to them by going to the Friendship section of this post. Finally, check out my latest elsewhere if you are interested, such as, Career success: Is it really true that…?]