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We All Agree That Romantic Relationships Take Work. Why Not Friendship?

We All Agree That Romantic Relationships Take Work. Why Not Friendship?

  • Culture
  • Life
The fading of close friendships is one of the most universal but least talked about experiences of young adulthood. Everyone knows ‘adulting’ means learning how to cook and choose insurance plans and wake up at 7:30 AM every day without wanting to die. But we are never told that it also means losing friends.

To be clear, I’m not upset about the seasonality of friendships per se. Friendships exist across a spectrum, and it’s only natural that some should be temporary. Some spring up purely because circumstances threw you together—a shared CCA, NS, a work project. Once that reason ceases to exist, your friendship dissolves with it, and this isn’t necessarily bad or painful.

Our closest friends, however, are usually people we met in secondary school or our late teens, when shared life experiences, ample free time, and the whirlwind of identity formation facilitate closeness. As children, the concept of ‘friendship’ means little beyond recess time and play dates, but the people we meet as young adults enter our lives during a highly transformative period. 

This process of finding yourselves, together, makes for more complex and meaningful friendships. The irony is that often, the people who help make you who you are aren’t by your side by the time you figure this out.

A colleague, for example, told me about a recent-run in he had with an old friend from secondary school.

“We were very close, but drifted apart when we entered JC. He’s now an accountant,” he said. “We ended up doing the ‘Hey man, how you doing, good to hear, yeah I’m good’ exchange. It was really awkward.”

(That’s another thing: the voice you use for speaking with said closee friend. It’s always slightly too bright, self-consciousness shimmering between you like a heat haze. As if the gulf that now runs between you both can be filled with overeagerness.)

The decline of friendship in adulthood transcends gender, and it aches all the more because solid friendships become much harder to form the older you get. Truly getting to know someone takes time and shared experience, both of which the dizzying pace of adult life has little room for. As such, the friends you enter your early 20s with are frequently the last close ones you will have.

Image credit: Kobe Michael on Pexels.
The first, and most obvious, cause of this is that our priorities evolve with us. Most of us forge our closest friendships at a time when we have no real responsibilities, and nothing better to do than spend time with each other.

Adulthood, however, means adding work to the pile. Marriage, famously, is a drop-off point at which many people lose touch with their friends.

Children. Looking after parents or in-laws. Slowly, a hierarchy forms in which friends slip further and further down, until you find yourself trading ‘let’s catch up’ texts with no end, or realising you need to book each other weeks in advance just to meet up for two hours.

This is compounded by digital communication and social media. They’re definitely not incompatible with building rapport; Zuckerberg’s goal of ‘creating connections’ does, to some extent, play out. Forwarding posts and tagging friends in memes (‘omg this is us’) can be oxygen facials for friendships, providing a quick blast of affection with minimal effort.

All the same, social media often provides the illusion of closeness. Liking someone’s Instagram post might make you feel you know what’s going on in their lives, but passively responding to something meant (curated) for the world to see hardly confirms you’re in their inner circle. 

Never mind what the ‘close friends’ Instastory option suggests; as Julie Beck wrote in The Atlantic, storytelling is no substitute for shared lives. Knowing what someone is up to is not the same as knowing them. 

As we get older, friendships are often displaced by other relationships and obligations. Rice file photo/Image credit: Zachary Tang.
In the last few months, I have thought a lot about my own fading friendships, especially with one of my best friends. The more I brooded, the more I realised that what bothered me was less that our bond had changed, than where this left us. 

It was not a question of fault; merely time, geography, and life doing their work. As we grew into different people, we had also grown apart. But what did this mean? 

I don’t think I can now call us close, certainly not best friends, but I still cared—still care—for her with an intensity and tenderness that doesn’t extend to most of my other friendships.

Moreover, the way things had played out was deeply unsatisfactory. (I initially typed ‘ended’, but realised there had been no actual end.) Unlike a romantic relationship, there had been no screaming breakup or ‘conscious uncoupling’, no line in the sand between what we had been and what we now are.

We were in a kind of no-man’s land. I had learned to live without her, but the thought of formally excising her from my life was unimaginable. I no longer had a claim to best friendship, but didn’t want to walk away either. 

It sounded, I realised, like a platonic version of a situationship: that relationship which manages to be something more without actually being a thing, defined more by what is not than what it is.

The terrifying thing about situationships, platonic or otherwise, is that they’re incredibly difficult to get closure from. If you can’t define something, you don’t know what’s expected of you. And if you can’t identify these boundaries, you can’t leave them. The relationship devolves into a set of Penrose stairs: something to be traversed in circles without ever moving on.

Image credit: Aleksander Pasaric on Pexels.
But even if I didn’t know what the way forward was, I got better at looking back. Paradoxically, recognising my friend-situationship for what it was helped me see that even if there was no fault involved, I could pinpoint where we had gone wrong.

A situationship is a relationship that doesn’t want to acknowledge it is one. The difference is intentionality: the latter has committed to its own existence. 

We commonly privilege romantic love over platonic love, and romantic relationships are often valued over friendships. To this end, we don’t usually think of close friendships as relationships in their own right, but they are. You don’t have to be sexually involved, sharing a home, or merge your finances to be intimate with someone. 

After all, we seek, and obtain, broadly similar things from our friends and lovers: trust, respect, support, loyalty, companionship, the ability to bring out the best in each other. Friendship and romance are not the same, but they have much more in common than we give them credit for.

In this vein, friendships survive for the same reasons as romantic love: communication, commitment, and effort.

We enjoy the company of our closest friends because they make having a good time seem effortless. You just click; your friend-chemistry does all the work without you having to try. If you have to try with someone, it seems forced; unnatural. To quote Leslie Jamison, the writer and essayist, “The concession of effort chafes against the notion … that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love.”

But much as natural chemistry births friendships, it does not sustain them. The intensity and malleability of our friendships tricks us into thinking they will endure forever, lying dormant till we’re ready to pick them up, when the exact opposite is true. Trying to be someone’s friend does not mean things aren’t working; it means you are trying to make things work.

I might not have been in love with my best friend, but I loved her all the same. I told her as much, many times, until I gradually stopped saying it. I don’t know if she’ll see this story; I don’t know what I will say to her if she does. But it was love, and it’s an ache I still remember.

We’d hate to lose you, too. Drop us a note at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Sophie Chew Staff Writer