Friends Are More Important Than We Realized

Is this the age of friendship? Things may be headed that way.

Posted Nov 06, 2020

In the Atlantic, Rhaina Cohen asked a question that I hope will become prophetic: “What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life?

The friends Cohen described in her story included those who “live in houses they purchased together, raise each other’s children, use joint credit cards, and hold medical and legal powers of attorney for each other. These friendships have many of the trappings of romantic relationships, minus the sex.” She argued that “these friendships can be models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care.”

Evidence for the significance of the friends in our lives has been growing—and those friends do not need to be as enmeshed as the ones Cohen profiled. In fact, because of our changing demographics and our evolving needs, friends almost have to play a more important role in our lives than they have before.

The good news is that friends are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve—in our cultural conversations, in popular culture, and in scholarly writings.

Our Changing Demographics

In the U.S. and around the world, fewer people are marrying, and more are staying single. The rise in cohabitation does not explain away that trend. Even people who do eventually marry are taking longer to do so, resulting in longer stretches of their adult life without a spouse at the center of it.

In an even more striking finding, a survey conducted just before the pandemic showed that half of all solo single people in the U.S. were not interested in a romantic relationship or even a date.

Children are not as central to our lives as they once were, either. In the U.S., the birth rate has been declining for decades. The people who do have kids are having fewer of them. Families are getting smaller.

A spouse or a grown child can’t be at the center of your life when you don’t have either. But we can all value our friends if we want to, regardless of our marital, relationship, or parental status.

Our Changing Needs

Crisis in the availability of caregivers

As Ai-Jen Poo pointed out in The Age of Dignity, the number of older people who need sustained help with the tasks of everyday life is growing rapidly, but the availability of people who can care for them is lagging far behind. Traditionally, family members have been expected to step up and provide that care (and people who are single do so disproportionately).

Now, however, in part because of the changing demographics, many older people have no living spouse, no grown children, and no other relatives. Those who do have such people in their lives sometimes find that they are unable or unwilling to help. But they may have friends. Any friends willing to step in should be accorded all the special benefits, protections, and accommodations typically accorded to a spouse.

Pandemic

Many people, particularly some of the single people who are living alone, have missed seeing their friends during the pandemic. Policymakers who designed new rules to control the spread of the virus did not always acknowledge that until challenged to do better.

For example, when Australia was under quarantine in April, people who wanted to see their friends were told that it wasn’t a good idea and given a list of apps instead. Asked about romantic partners, though, the Chief Health Officer offered this response: “We have no desire to penalise individuals who are staying with or meeting their partners if they don’t usually reside together. We’ll be making an exemption.” The good news is that single people lobbied for changes and succeeded. They forced an acknowledgment of the significance of friends.

Our Changing Values

The relationship hierarchy, the relationship escalator, and amatonormativity

It is not just their declining numbers that are knocking spouses and romantic partners off their pedestals. Values are changing, too. The relationship hierarchy that put those partners ahead of everyone else is getting challenged. More people are asking why a romantic partner or even a spouse should automatically come first. And more people who do get involved in romantic relationships are resisting the expectation that they should ride the relationship escalator up and up to increasingly higher levels of commitment and exclusivity.

In a rare breakthrough of scholarly jargon into public awareness and even acclaim, “amatonormativity” is having its day. As described by the philosopher Elizabeth Brake in her book, Minimizing Marriage, amatonormativity is:

“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

Professor Brake did not define amatonormativity to praise it, but to challenge it. Valuing friendship is a big part of that challenge.

Some suggestive evidence for the growing valuing of friendship around the world

In a study of the rise of individualism in 78 nations over the course of a half-century, Henri Santos and his colleagues measured individualistic values, including the valuing of friends more than the valuing of family. The researchers combined that measure with two others (valuing political self-expression and teaching kids to be independent), so the results cannot provide definitive evidence for the growing tendency to value friends relatively more than family.

The findings are just suggestive, but what they suggest is that for 74 percent of the nations with relevant data, people are valuing friends more and more over time, relative to how much they value family.

Owning Who We Really Are and How We Actually Live

People who do not follow the celebrated path of traditional marriage and childrearing are speaking out and finding their tribes—and discovering that their tribes are not so small after all. They include, for example, people who are not monogamous, asexuals, aromantics, people who prioritize their chosen family, adults who don’t have kids, and people who are single at heart. Many of these people are uninterested in putting a conventional romantic partner at the center of their life, and they unapologetically cherish their friendships.

Similarly, the sentimentalized nuclear family household has been on the decline for quite some time. It is being supplanted by all sorts of creative living arrangements, some of which put friends not just in our hearts but in our homes.

Popular Culture, Cultural Conversations, and Scholarship

Friends in popular culture and our cultural conversations

I don’t know of any formal analyses of the rise of friendship in popular culture, our cultural conversations, or in scholarly writings, but friendship does seem to be getting more of the attention it deserves in those venues. Some examples:

  • A New York Times article celebrated contemporary movies that “follow the arc of deep friendships just as rom-coms do."
  • Streaming series such as “The Kominsky Method” and network TV shows such as “A Million Little Things” have friendships at their core
  • Since February 2019, the Atlantic has been publishing Julie Beck’s “Friendship Files,” featuring in-depth interviews with pairs or groups of remarkable friends
  • A Modern Love column lauded a friendship as a person’s greatest romance
  • Scholars are including friends in their research and discovering their special significance in all of our lives and particularly in the lives of single people
  • Political organizers are recognizing the power of friends in their efforts to increase civic engagement

Book world: where friends have a place of prominence

Recent books from authors who truly value friends, and not just as sorry substitutes for romantic partners, include memoirs, essay collections, nonfiction from social scientists, and more. A brief sampling:

The Age of Friendship

I think that the growing significance of friendship in our lives may well be one of the most important cultural changes of our time. Family will never be supplanted, I don’t think, and spouses and romantic partners will never be totally displaced. Nor should they. But things are changing. We are opening our arms more widely and embracing more of the people who matter to us. I don’t see how that is anything but a heartening development.

This post was adapted, with permission, from a longer article at Unmarried Equality. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here.