It seems odd how much focus those who write about relationships put on romantic relationships but not friendships. Most people only have one major romantic partner at a time, whereas they frequently have many friendships. Even people who are polyamorous or highly promiscuous still usually have far more friends than romantic or sexual partners. Plus, casual sexual relationships are called “friends with benefits.”
For most people friendships are the gateway to the other important connections and experiences of their lives. Many people even discover their romantic partner(s) through their social network, in addition to where they work, what hobbies they pick up, what media they see… If so much of our lives come through are friendships, why isn’t there as much deliberate thoughtful writing about how to have good friendships as there is about romantic relationships?
The most popular book on friendships, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, is really just repackaged sales advice about how to make yourself more likable. This approach to friendship is light-years behind where the literature on romantic relationships is. Most of the deep connections I’ve had in my life have usually involved hard conversations at some point in which each of us shared parts of ourselves that the other might not accept. Carnegie’s advice skips over all that and is primarily focused on the question: how do I become more likable?
A book on friendship that is solely focused on becoming more likable is like a book on marriage that is solely focused on how to become more attractive. Yes, becoming attractive helps, but that alone will not lead to a successful marriage. A good book on marriage would cover things like communication, commitment, your internal beliefs… Likability advice alone is a pick-up artist mindset applied to friendships, where the whole focus is on how you get the other person, not how you build a deep connection with them.
When I looked at the existing literature on friendships, most of it shares this flaw so deeply that they don’t even use the word friendship – they call it networking and frame it in the context of “building your social circle.” Much of the writing on friendship is context-specific, like developing friends at work (“team-building”), at church (“fellowship”), or in small social groups (“community”). They use different words, but these are all really the same question – how do you make more friends? There are a lot of books that claim to be able to teach you to make yourself more likable – books on increasing your persuasion, charisma, speaking ability, body language, etc. – but very few that focus on the question of friendship directly.
When I say friendship, I mean close relationships that are not romantic but still committed. Someone who you go to work with, but would never see again if you quit that job is not a friend, just a co-worker. One definition of a friend I heard was “anyone who would be willing come over and help you move.” It might sound like a silly definition, but there is some wisdom to it. While many people might see the people who share their politics or belong to the same social tribe as them as friends, how many of those people would be willing to go out of their way to help you lift boxes into a moving van?
Deep friendships usually involve moments where you or the other person are not likable. Many people think that conflict is bad for relationships. In reality, only unresolved conflict is bad for relationships. If you’ve ever had a fight with someone and been able to resolve the disagreement, your connection to that person actually gets stronger, not weaker. One of the pieces of marriage advice I’ve received is that it’s important to have a process for forgiveness in any relationship because in 20+ years of connection, you will each wrong the other at some point. The same is true of friendships.
The lack of writing or focus on friendships seems like an important cultural blind-spot, because friendships may actually matter more than romantic connections. Yes, you might spend more time with your romantic partner, but the fact you have less time for friendships doesn’t make them less important. If anything, it means you need to be more deliberate about your friendships, since you have less time for them. Whereas relationships can grow over the course of years, friendships have to deepen quicker.
Most Americans do not have more than three close friends. Loneliness is an epidemic. Perhaps the fact the only cultural advice we have around friendships comes from transactional relationships in the context of specific groups is part of this. People used to make friends through church, work, and family. Now, most people don’t go to church, more and more are working from home, and many people do not have big families or live close to their relatives. The places where these connections could happen naturally are disappearing. One could go out of their way to join meet-up groups, but there is still very little written on how to turn those connections for casual social relationships to real deep friends.
This is also a political liability. In my book, The Intactivist Guidebook, I wrote that the strength of a movement is the strength of its relationships. Strong friendships allowed you to work in larger groups to solve political problems. If you want to resist the tyranny but only know 2-3 close friends, your protest will only be 2-3 people. American politics has been reduced to people yelling at each other on the internet in part because many of the people invested in it do not have many friends and those involved don’t know how to resolve conflicting beliefs in their relationships.
At the same time, more and more people want an intentional community, which is just a fancy word for living with your friends under a shared agreement or set of values. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve heard say they’d love to move somewhere with a group of people they know and just live on one big piece of land, but they don’t know enough committed people to make it work. There is a missing piece of knowledge between the desire and actually making it work. Imagine where romantic relationships would be if there was no writing about them, or shared memes and conventions like “marriage,” “dating,” or “monogamy.” This is where people are with friendships. We all want this thing called “tribe” or “friendship” but no one has a clear path to them and most are just making it up as we go.
For more of my writing, subscribe to my email list here.