The Case for Friendship [Update]

Carlin Flora on the importance of friendship

Posted Jan 28, 2013

I like to think that what I am doing in my blogging and book-writing about single life is myth-busting and consciousness-raising. I’m promoting an unapologetic take on single life. Odd that it is even necessary to do such things when about half of all American adults are not married, but singlism persists.

To make a compelling case for single life, it is important to knock the cultural conversations off the matrimaniacal groove that they have been stuck on for far too long, and inspire new discussions of what makes life meaningful and joyous other than finding a spouse. Any discussions that underscore the significance of the important pursuits in life other than romantic ones (for example, significant and engaging work, aesthetic experiences, social justice goals) and the important people in our lives other than romantic partners, are likely to contribute to a society that is more respectful of single people and less obsessed with marrying them off.

Perhaps at the top of the list of important but undervalued people are our friends. There are many books about friends that dispense advice or comfort, and there are some academic offerings, but there are not too many that make the case for the significance of friendship for a broad audience and base it on scholarly research. Now we have one such book in Carlin Flora’s Friendfluence: The surprising ways friends make us who we are.

A strong case for friendship, I think, has to show that friends are more than just romantic partners without the sex. The relationship can’t be portrayed as just a consolation prize for people who do not have a partner (unless, of course, that’s what the data suggest). I know a lot of the research on friendship, so I was aware, before reading Friendfluence, of the data showing that friends are in some ways more powerful influences in our lives that spouses. Carlin mentions some of those studies, such as the ones showing that:

  • “spouses do not relieve loneliness as much as friends do” (p. 128)
  • “time with friends is even more enjoyable than moments with spouses or children” (p. 127)
  • Breast cancer patients “who were socially isolated had a full 66 percent increased risk of dying compared to women with a supportive circle. Amazingly, having a spouse did not reduce the patients’ chances of dying.” (p. 139)
  • For Swedish men: “Having a romantic attachment didn’t decrease their risk of a heart attack, but friendship did.” (p. 139)

It is important to bring these telling studies into the cultural conversation, and I am grateful to Carlin Flora for doing so. In an earlier version of this post, I said that I wanted to know more:

“My reaction to reading synopses such as these is, ‘Tell me more.’ Why is this happening? What is it about friendship that makes it a unique relationship? Why are friends better than romantic partners at relieving loneliness, making us happy in the moment, and facilitating our health and longevity?”

Then I said that I hoped to find a “clear and rigorous statement about what makes friendship powerful and special” and that I did not see that in Friendfluence.

Next, I did what I often do in this blog: Provide a close reading of specific excerpts from the perspective of someone who values single life and, in this case, friendship. I raised some questions as to whether the excerpts stood up for friendship as vociferously as I would have liked, and whether they were supported by research. What makes Carlin’s book stand out from the other books on friendship that are written for general audiences is that it is research-based. The book includes 24 pages of notes, with countless references to research studies. A new scholar broaching the topic of friendship would find a gold mine of resources in those pages.

Some of my close reading was critical. I have deleted all of those sections.

Carlin also wondered whether I should have let my readers know that I do know her, at least in the online sense. She is the person who recruited me to write this blog for Psychology Today, and for that I will always be grateful. She believes that on the basis of my previous interactions with her, and my knowledge of her her previous writings for Psychology Today, I should have known that she does not believe romance to be “the end all and be all.” That’s true. Readers of her book and other writings about it (such as an interview that appeared elsewhere online), however, do not have that background, and so I was critiquing from the perspective of the reader who is taking the book at face value.

There is another issue that Carlin mentioned in her email to me. I asked if she wanted me to raise it here and she left that judgment to me. So here goes.

I wanted to write a book about friendship. I worked for probably a year or so on the project. I bought enough books on friendship to fill many shelves, collected boxes full of journal articles, and wrote hundreds of pages of notes. I even had a draft of a book proposal when I discovered that Carlin had just gotten a contract for her book. That was the end of my friendship book, and I was terribly disappointed. (It also didn’t help that a few years previously, I had the same experience with a book on deception. I spent years on the project, and even wrote a proposal, but it was too late – I had already been scooped.)

Given that history, Carlin wonders whether I could possibly have liked her book. Wouldn’t I just be thinking all along, as I read it, “I would have done this better”? That’s a legitimate criticism. There were times when I did have that very thought. There were also times, though, when I thought that I could not possibly have done as well as Carlin did. For example, I thought she wrote a terrific chapter on the implications of technology for friendship.

I thank Carlin for sending me her reactions to my blog posts. She did not ask me to revise what I wrote. I decided to do so.

[My discussion of the book continues here.]