Marriage and romance just don’t have the place in our lives that they once did. A Pew Research Report estimates that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about 1 in 4 of them will have been single all their lives. The move away from romantic preoccupation starts young. Another study, that started in 1976 and lasted for 40 years, showed that the percentage of high schoolers (ninth through twelfth grades) who had ever been on a date was lowest for the most recent years.
Even when people do marry, a substantial chunk of them will divorce, and others will become widowed. A spouse can’t be the most important person in your life if you don’t have one.
The place of immediate family members is diminishing, too. Family size has been decreasing for about a century. That means many people grow up with very few siblings, or none at all. Others have siblings, but they are distant from them, either emotionally or geographically or both.
Who is going to be the most important person or persons in your life if you don’t have a spouse or siblings? One of the most likely candidates is a close friend. It is not just by default that friends are rising in significance in our lives. Friendship has special qualities that make it especially suitable to prevailing 21st century values. They include choice, equality, informality, flexibility, and fluidity.
My impression is that there has been an uptick in interest in the topic of friendship. In the popular press, in social media, and in academic publications, people are talking about friends. What I want to see, though, is more than the usual spate of stories about how to make friends or the psychological dynamics between friends. I want friendship to take its rightful place as the most important relationship in many people’s lives. No one who values their closest friends over everyone else should ever have to apologize for that.
Happily, I’m starting to see some writings that meet that very lofty criterion. Here are three examples.
A wonderful new book by Kayleen Schaefer may well be my favorite example. (I have reviewed it for Psych Central and that review will be published in the coming months.) In Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship, Schaefer declares:
“We won’t accept that we’re mean girls or that our friends should be also-rans compared to our romantic partners or children or anyone else tied to us with an official title. It isn’t true. Our friendships – the ones we’re living every day – can stand on their own. They are supportive, enthralling, entirely wonderful, and, often, all we need.”
The second example is from the ever-popular Modern Love column in the New York Times, where Victor Lodato wrote about his love story. It was about the deep friendship he developed, in his early 40s, with a woman who was in her 80s. The two had dinner every weekend, hiked in the mountains, drank gin and tonics in her garden, and talked and talked – “no question was off limits.” They also spent quiet time together and gave each other feedback on their artistic work. She was a painter, and he, of course, was a writer.
In the essay, aptly titled, “When your greatest romance is a friendship,” Lodato said:
“Some of the greatest romances of my life have been friendships. And these friendships have been, in many ways, more mysterious than erotic love: more subtle, less selfish, more attuned to kindness.”
The third example, a recent New York Times article on the power of friendship was such a hit, it stayed on the list of the most popular articles for days. It ended with a quote from author Dan Buettner:
“…you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation. You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”
I found it especially heartening to hear that from Buettner, because five years ago, he was telling AARP that people who want to improve their happiness should find their soulmate. That was unfortunate. Even then, there were already at least 18 long-term studies showing that people who get married do not get happier, except maybe for a brief period at the very beginning of the marriage (and even then, only people who get married and stay married enjoy that honeymoon effect).
If you value your friends, don’t hesitate to tell them. Tell everyone else, too.
[For more writings on friendship, many of them from this “Single at Heart” blog, click here.]