You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

In strictly material terms, Americans are better off than ever. The average adult has a higher income, more wealth, a bigger house or apartment and a better car than those who came before them. Yet, as Alex Armlovich, a journalist and policy analyst has observed, in the ways that count most, something has gone terribly wrong. In a tweet, he points to “the collapse in adult friendship, social clubs, community & faith groups, & family formation” and the “spike in overdoses & suicides.”

Armlovich is not alone in describing a society in the midst of a Durkheimian nightmare of alienation, anomie and atomization. Isn’t isolation and social instability the theme of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and what Angus Deaton and Anne Case describe in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism?

On a more restrained, less pretentious level, that’s the theme of a current Broadway hit. In Summer 1976, Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht play two women who recall the ups and downs of a short-lived, odd-couple friendship, several decades earlier.  

Reviled by some critics as “diffuse,” “inert,” “paper-thin,” “meandering” and “eventless,” I found the play a clever, “gently affecting,” if modest, riff on the adage “Friends are like windows through which you see out into the world and back into yourself.”

The play’s two characters are superficially opposites brought together, as so many friendships are, by their daughters’ friendship. One woman is a hippie-ish space cadet and self-described free spirit who lives like a 1950s housewife. She thinks of herself as unconventional “because her house was messy.” The other is an arrogant, self-serious, snobbish perfectionist and uptight control freak.

Constructed around a series of monologues, the play reveals that neither woman is quite what she seems. Over the course of the play’s 90 minutes, the characters bicker, clam up, support one another and find a degree of “happiness in being unhappy together.” As their friendship ebbs and flows, grows and fades, embarrassing secrets, dissatisfactions and disappointments gradually surface.

Yet in the end, neither woman is ultimately able to truly trust the other or be wholly honest or openly acknowledge their need for the other’s affection. The friendship doesn’t end with a bang. Rather, it simply peters out, due to the women’s failure to share their inner thoughts and emotions, “exacerbated by physical distance and a lack of care and attention.”

So it goes.

It’s revealing that at no point do the two women, seated at the same table, look into each other’s eyes.

American society, we are told, in the midst of a “friendship recession.” The office friendship has, it is said, died. “Our friendships,” Fortune magazine declares, “really are worse now—and it’s getting harder to make new ones.” Euronews recently announced, “If you have no close friends at all, you’re not alone.”

In contemporary society, friendship is the culture’s highest ideal of intimacy and connection. Parents aspire to befriend their children, spouses aspire to be best friends and even siblings are supposed to be friends. Yet, at some level, we recognize that what adult friendship used to be—two or more people eating lunch or having coffee together every day for much of their lives or taking part in card games or a bowling league several times a week or attending regular meetings of a club or fraternal organization—is little more than a distant, foggy cultural memory.

This isn’t mere fantasy or nostalgia. My own father still had four close high school friends when they were 94. The next year, all were dead.

Aristotle thought friendship the most important thing in the world. “No one would choose to live without friends,” he wrote, “even if he had all other good things.” Montaigne regarded friendship as the “perfection” of social relations, since it was a product of free choice and entertained “no dealings or business except with itself.”

St. Augustine was left devastated by a friend’s death. “Grief … torment … misery. All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him … I wondered that he should die and I remain alive, for I was his second self.”

Today, as more and more of adults’ interactions with friends take place virtually, through email, tweets or online postings, fears have mounted that friendship has grown shallower and less demanding than in the past. Some claim that the very concept of friendship has been degraded, as the word “friend” has been transformed into a verb or gerund and reduced to social networking. As one wit put it, adults watch Friends on television but have few friends in real life.

Nags contrast today’s e-friendships with the ideal of friendship advanced by Aristotle or Cicero or Augustine or Montaigne. Aristotle described friendship as “one soul inhabiting two bodies.” Cicero, writing in 44 B.C.E., defined a true friendship as “a complete identity of feeling about all things in heaven and Earth … With the single exception of wisdom, I am inclined to regard it as the greatest of all gifts the gods have bestowed on mankind.”

Compared to these high standards—the friend as “one soul inhabiting two bodies” and friendship as a moral bond—it is easy to conclude that today’s friendships are weaker. Contemporary friendships, it’s said, have been reduced to participation in shared activities or to a nonjudgmental, friction-free therapeutic relationship that seeks to validate a friend’s feelings and decisions.

In a highly mobile, time-stressed society, where adults are working longer and socializing less and television viewing and computer use have increased, friendship appears to be a casualty. One recent study found that the average American had only two close friends in whom they would confide on important matters, down from an average of three in 1985.

Fears about the erosion of friendship are almost certainly exaggerated. Cross-gender friendships are far more common than at any time in history. With marriage no longer structuring a majority of adult life, friendships inevitably fill the void.

In fact, fears of social isolation have a long, hyperbolic history. David Reisman’s 1950 sociological analysis, The Lonely Crowd, and Philip Slater’s blistering 1970 cultural critique, The Pursuit of Loneliness, were successors to earlier works by pioneering social scientists such as Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies, who claimed that the process of modernization frayed social ties and militated against lifelong friendships.

To be sure, the pressures on friendship are strong, arising especially from the demands of work and the competing claims of children and intimate partners. Fewer adults have lifelong neighborhood chums, fewer are actively involved in civic organizations, such as PTAs and voluntary associations, or participate in bowling leagues or socialize in neighborhood bars.

Yet it is a mistake to assume that most adults are lonelier or more atomized, individualized or socially isolated than those in the recent past. Standards of intimacy within friendship have risen, and the average person’s core social network is actually broader than in the past. No longer is geographic propinquity the primary means by which friendships are established and maintained.

We have casual friends, close friends and best friends forever. We’ve got business associates, high school and college buddies, alter egos, fun friends, and fossil friends from a person’s past. We also have confidants, comforters, chums, companions and compadres.

Nevertheless, worries about social isolation are not misplaced. Loneliness and social disconnection may well kill more people than auto accidents or cancer. As Ecclesiastes 6: 16 put it, “A faithful friend is the medicine of life.”

In contemporary society, friendship is a life-course phenomenon, with adolescence and early adulthood friendship’s golden age. It’s during the 20s that the most lasting adult relationships form. Those friends are self-consciously chosen in a way that earlier friends are not. They’re the result of adult decisions about one’s identity, rather than geographical proximity.

Contemporary friendships tend to be gender asymmetrical. The generalization that women’s friendships are face-to-face and men’s side by side contains a kernel of truth. For many adult men, trusting and intimate relationships are often confined to their wives or to “work wives,” whom they feel they can be more vulnerable with and confide in.

Friendship in the past had a political dimension that has since disappeared. Cross-class and interracial friendships symbolized democracy’s promise.

In the late 18th century, revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic upheld fraternity as a force for political transformation and politics’ ultimate objective. Canonical works of 19th-century American literature sentimentalized interracial friendships, such as those between Hawkeye and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, and Huck and Jim, although it is noteworthy that these relationships invariably took place outside the confines of civilization.

Nineteenth-century workers viewed unions and even political parties as resting on bonds of fraternity and socialized in lodges, fraternal orders and college fraternities in which members called themselves brothers. At the same time, middle-class and upper-class reformers founded friendly societies and staged friendly visits to bridge divisions of social class.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the word “friendship” was used broadly, to refer to intimates, patrons and clients, neighbors and associates. But as early as the 17th century, friendship came to be contrasted more and more with market relations. Indeed, David Hume and Adam Smith asserted that one of commercial society’s benefits was that it was now possible to have relationships wholly free of self-interest and mercenary calculation.

Romantic poets viewed friendship as an essential antidote or counterweight to the anonymity and rootlessness of urban life. At the same time, an effusive physical and emotional intimacy began to characterize same-sex friendship—emotional energies that would later be redirected toward spousal or parent-child relations. Eighteenth-century American men addressed friends as “dearly beloved” and partook in a culture of jolly fellowship, involving drinking, gambling and whoring, of hugs, bloody fistfights and rough-and-tumble matches.

As young men, leading political figures such as Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln shared beds with close male friends. Meanwhile, many women maintained intense intimate relations with other women throughout their lives.

Friendship circles played a crucial social role for abolitionists, pioneering feminists and early-20th-century Modernists. The friendship group offered a tangible alternative to conventional society, an idea that resurfaced in the guise of the 1960s communes and in television’s idealized images of group friendships in television shows like Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Friends and The Big Bang Theory.

It was not until the 18th century that women’s friendships garnered public notice. For centuries, Western literature associated true friendship exclusively with men. With few exceptions, like Ruth and Naomi, the paradigm of an ideal friendship consisted of males: Damon and Pythias, Achilles and Patroclus, and Hamlet and Horatio. War, in particular, supposedly produced bonds of loyalty and understanding outside women’s experience. Indeed, Aristotle, Cicero and Montaigne believed that true friendship was only possible among men.

The American literary canon was populated with tales of male bonding, and the idealization of male friendship remained a hallmark of popular culture well into the 20th century, evident in the pairings of Laurel and Hardy, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In recent years, in stark contrast, female friendship has become the gold standard of a meaningful friendship. Friendships among women are upheld as far deeper, more intense and longer lasting than men’s. Now, it is male friendships that are derided as shallow and superficial, supposedly based on little more than camaraderie, companionship and shared interests and activities. Women’s friendships rest, instead, on intimate self-disclosure, emotional expressiveness, sharing and mutual support, reflecting the triumph of a therapeutic conception of friendship.

Compared to the Romantic friendships of the 19th century, 20th-century friendships were, in general, more repressed, especially among men. This reflected a deepening preoccupation with the family and fears of the homoerotic overtones of same-sex friendships. Also, compared to adults in the Romantic era, 20th-century women and men had a limited repertoire of words and gestures to express affection for same-sex friends.

In 20th-century America, friendship became increasingly privatized and marginalized. No longer were friendships expected to serve certain instrumental functions, meet certain obligations or provide services. Friendships were unacknowledged in obituaries or by the legal system as a relationship worthy of public recognition; indeed, friendship came to be viewed as a source of danger in the form of favoritism and cronyism.

Meanwhile, many of the institutions that supported male friendship, such as fraternal orders and lodges, withered away. The gravest threats to friendship came from the new economy and the dual-earner family. The time Americans spend socializing with others off the job declined by almost 25 percent after 1965. Free hours were increasingly spent with spouses and children.

Today, work and an intense, inward-turning family life are close friendship’s worst enemy. Over the course of the 20th century, romantic partnerships become the primary or exclusive relationship expected to provide intimacy, affection and emotional support.

A key question today is whether electronic communication can replace face-to-face encounters and whether so-called families of choice, rooted in ties of friendship, can in fact serve as adequate substitutes for the forms of support that so many once expected to find in family life. The answer, I fear, is a qualified no.

Friendship, especially the therapeutic conception that is widely extolled as the very essence of friendship, rests on conversation—on banter, gossip and intimate self-disclosure—which is extremely difficult to recapture online. The sharing of secrets, fears and fantasies, the disclosure of vulnerabilities and disappointments, requires face-to-face time that many adults seem to lack.

The online world may help keep friendships alive, but much online communication is shallow, casual and transient. Online communication has expanded social circles, but friendships are not measured by numbers but by their depth and intensity. As Aristotle noted, “He has no friend who has many friends.”

Equally worrisome is the fact that many feel forced to hire ersatz friends. Even close friendships often prove unable to bear the weight of life’s most profound problems, leading many to turn to clinical psychologists, therapists and counselors as substitute confidants.

The sad fact is that contemporary society makes friendships more necessary, yet less sustainable and less able to serve as a reliable source of support.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma