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What Makes Friendship So Special — Especially Now?

The key relationship of the 21st century is not the marital relationship or the relationship between parents and children. It is friendship. That’s what I concluded after spending years researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.

William Deresiewicz made the case this way:

“Modernity believes in equality, and friendships, unlike traditional relationships, are egalitarian. Modernity believes in individualism. Friendships serve no public purpose and exist independent of all other bonds. Modernity believes in choice. Friendships, unlike blood ties, are elective; indeed, the rise of friendship coincided with the shift away from arranged marriage. Modernity believes in self-expression. Friends, because we choose them, give us back an image of ourselves. Modernity believes in freedom. Even modern marriage entails contractual obligations, but friendship involves no fixed commitments. The modern temper runs toward unrestricted fluidity and flexibility, the endless play of possibility, and so is perfectly suited to the informal, improvisational nature of friendship. We can be friends with whomever we want, however we want, for as long as we want.” (Emphasis is mine.)

In How We Live Now, I added this:

“We do not have quite as much free choice in friendship as Deresiewicz suggests. We cannot select friends the way we choose t-shirts – the people we want as friends have to want us back (even on Facebook). He is right, though, that friends become a part of our lives in ways that are different than for biological or adoptive family members, or the in-laws who get added to our networks not because we invited them directly but as familial plus-ones. Friends like each other; they want to hear from each other and see each other just because the mere presence of friends is so pleasurable. It is that fondness that is the beating heart of friendship.”

I’ve long been interested in friendship and what makes it special. Earlier, I reviewed Vivian Gornick’s book, Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir for PsychCentral. I was delighted by the many insights about friendship packed into that brief book – more than I could include in my review. So I wanted to highlight 7 of my favorite ones here, in a separate article.

#1 Do we have a right to friendship? Gornick quotes the 3rd century Roman writer Caius: “No man has a right to expect friendship from others who is not a friend to himself.”

#2 Gornick does not like the confessional version of friendship that is popular today – the one that says we become closer to each other by disclosing the worst things about ourselves. Instead, she prefers what she describes here: “For centuries, this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself.”

#3 Gornick’s two categories of friendship: “those in which people enliven one another and those in which people must be enlivened to be with one another. In the first category one clears the decks to be together; in the second one looks for an empty space in the schedule.”

#4 Why the friendships of her childhood are so important to her: “…this group contained the people who had given each of us our first erotic thrill, our first experience of friendship cherished and betrayed, our first taste of privilege mysteriously extended and just as mysteriously withdrawn.”

#5 About Leonard, an especially important friend in her adult life:

“It’s the way we feel about ourselves when we are talking that draws us so strongly to each other. …”

“The self-image each of us projects to the other is the one we carry around in our heads: the one that makes us feel coherent.”

“We walk on together, side by side; silent; mirror-image witnesses, each of us, to the other’s formative experience.”

#6 About the time she spent with Emma, a woman very different from her, when the friendship was going great: “The more we explored the immediate in service to the theoretical – a chance encounter on the bus, a book just begun or just finished, a dinner party gone bad – the larger the world seemed to grow.”

#7 Finally, here’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that Gornick likes: “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins…A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature.”

[Note: I’ve written many blog posts about friendship here and elsewhere. Probably my most popular was one I wrote for PsychCentral, “5 ways our friends make us better and stronger.”]

Friends photo available from Shutterstock

What Makes Friendship So Special — Especially Now?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2015). What Makes Friendship So Special — Especially Now?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Oct 2015
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