The value of friends


In the past several decades, Americans have increasingly relied on their romantic partners to fulfill their intimate needs.  We’ve turned to our partners for economic survival needs, emotional support and connection, and for facilitating our personal growth.  We expect all of this to come from one person.

This intense reliance on just one other person can be problematic.  Most likely, our romantic partner can meet some of our expectations, but not all.  In addition, more and more Americans don’t live with a partner or a spouse for large portions of their lives.  People marry later and many divorce or separate.  In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, 42 percent of American adults are unpartnered.  This can pose a dilemma.  Society has encouraged us to depend on our romantic partners to meet our intimate needs, but many of us are without a partner, meaning we often have no one to turn to.  Indeed, there is a worrying increase in loneliness amongst adults in this country, enough that the Surgeon General has called it a public-health crisis.  And the coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse.  Over the past year, levels of depression and anxiety have risen dramatically.  Social isolation is a big causative factor.    Friendships can serve as an antidote to this growing crisis.

However, friendships, relationships that can ease our loneliness, have often received short shrift.  There is little research into the critical role our platonic friends may play in our lives.  We often don’t prioritize them.  We’re busy.  We only have so much time to invest.  We may have jobs, families, children to care for or aging parents who need us.  In this fray, friends can come last.  But in actuality, friendships may be essential to our well-being.  As John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory proposed, we are wired to connect.  It is these connections, whether romantic or platonic, that often carry us through difficulties, support us in hard times, and provide a springboard to help us grow and evolve.  Friends can be the oxygen to sustain us in life.

It is ironic that though friendships are so important, we sometimes struggle to initiate and maintain these relationships.  In their book Big friendship:  How we keep each other close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman discuss Professor Emily Langan’s ideas on how friendships are sustained across our lifespan.  Langan, who studies friendship, highlights the importance of rituals, assurances, and openness. 

Rituals.  Just like families often depend on rituals to bring people together, friends too can use rituals in this way.  “Friendsgivings”, marking anniversaries of friendships, or going on annual “reunion” getaways are all ways to strengthen our friendships.  Rituals don’t need to be big events.  They can be weekly phone calls or special emojis you reserve just for each other.  The ritual serves to show the other person just how important they are to you.

Assurances.  Whether verbal or nonverbal, assurances are important to a friendship.  They are ways to let the other know that you will be there in the future, that this relationship is meaningful to you, and that you’re in it for the long haul.  Planning girls’ weekends that will happen way in the future or refusing payment for a dinner, saying it all comes out in the wash, let another know that you plan on this friendship lasting a long time.

Openness.  Lastly, having open communication, a hallmark of a secure attachment relationship, is crucial to maintaining friendships.  Being able to be honest with how you feel is a gift to another person.  Holding back or worrying about judgment can cause a friendship to fray at the seams.  In their book Big Friendship, Sow and Friedman discuss how they sought “friendship” therapy to address their difficulties with communication.  Not often thought of, friendship therapy can be just as valuable to friends as couples therapy is to couples.   

Friendships are different to romantic relationships because there is no formal commitment to one another.  If the going gets tough, often, friendships fizzle or fade out.  However, by recognizing the value of friendships in our lives and by giving priority to a select few individuals with whom we connect, we can enrich our lives in immeasurable ways.