Friendships are confusing. I’ve often found myself feeling that something is missing in my friendships — a sentiment that seems to be shared, yet rarely addressed. One that’s echoed in the paradoxical 21st century correlation between our ever growing hyper-connectivity and reports declaring a loneliness epidemic. One that’s felt in parties full of friends that you can’t wait to leave.

Like many of us, I have learnt that this is partly down to the culturally accepted life cycle of friendships. I never felt lacking when I was younger: I had deep bonds with childhood friends, who I did the wild adventures of youth with, but also spent infinite hours in pyjamas with, drinking tea and learning how to build loving relationships. But as plans with friends became plans reserved for partners, and time became stretched by work and adulting, I slowly processed the idea that their importance will silently decline as you age.  

But I’ve also had a nagging sense that something more unspeakable affects the quality of our friendships. Something resigning friendships to the trivial and fun, and shaming a desire for deeper bonds.  

It wasn’t until I read The End of Love by Eva Illouz that I felt able to articulate what this is, and why it is so hard to talk about feeling disappointed by friends. Through an extensive analysis of social relations under consumer capitalism, she makes a simple central point: freedom, the value that trumps all for western society, requires the dissolving of expectations in human relationships.  

In an age of abundance, the defining feature of 21st century liberal social relations is the practice of non-commitment. Personal autonomy is the main cultural story that guides our lives. We’re driven by the search for personal success and pleasure. To realise this, we must be free to choose our own relations at will, and therefore also leave them at will. We make responsible choices to avoid things that might impinge on our personal growth, including that relationship stopping you from moving, or that friend whose chaotic period has gone on a bit too long. 

So we have relaxed our mutual expectations on each other — almost to the point of having none at all. 

The value of freedom has transcended left and right politics, and is accepted as an untouchable pillar of morality. Self empowerment has been the prerogative of many left wing progressives as much as neoliberal free-marketers. It’s found in the language of capitalist growth and competition, but also in the language of pop-psychology that tells us to set boundaries and cut people out of our life who don’t ‘serve’ us or bring us pleasure.  

But Illouz reopens this debate that has been closed since liberal philosophy claimed hegemony over morality, asking us ‘does freedom jeopardize the possibility of forming meaningful and binding bonds?’ 

I think about the hollowed expectations we have of our friends. Flaking is normal. We tend to leave maximum space to opt out of plans whenever and minimum pressure to commit, generally resigning ourselves to polite understanding if people cancel even when it hurts, knowing that we often do the same. Asking for support is also done cautiously to avoid overstepping, burdening or offloading, even in our greatest moments of need.  

And then there are the ways in which many friendships silently end. When I was 22, after an ongoing period of difficulty where we both hurt each other, one of my closest friends sent me a facebook message telling me she never wanted to speak again. Despite my ongoing attempts in the coming years to reconcile, she stuck to this conviction, and I have only seen her in passing at parties since then. A long term friendship was suddenly gone with minimal discussion, and the invisible rulebook of friendship said that this was fine.  

Friendships which diverge from the comfortable space of convenience, ease, and fun can quickly become threats to our personal growth. Consumers at our core, we are well practiced in disposing of things that don’t benefit us anymore and less well practiced at fixing broken things. Systems make their way into our bodies and minds, and the system we live in is one built on endless desire and access to the new. In such a society we owe our friends nothing. We might choose to owe them, but we don’t have to.  

We sense this fragility. We know on some level that if friends can exit at any moment without consequence, we must persuade them to stay. Friendship mimics a market in which you must compete to survive, and we are all painfully aware of the limits of what our commodified selves can offer. In this knowledge, socialising often becomes fraught as we feel this pressure to bring something positive to the room that wins us a good review after. Those who lack status built by resource, health, and charisma struggle more, their exclusion a reality made invisible by the language of choice. 

The psychologist Sanah Ashan tells us that falling apart is a birthright. For us to feel connected, our relationships must embrace discomfort. Friendships shouldn’t be intolerant of prolonged messiness. We must instead embrace the misery and the insanity; coming together in these times not running away. Intimate bonds are difficult.

We live in an age where traditional sites of belonging have been diminished — religion, community, even family and romantic relationships are more uncertain than they have ever been. Public care structures have been decimated to the point of dysfunction. More and more of us find that we have to make our own communities of care and belonging, found in the friends we make ourselves. 

Yet conversation about building these communities is often superficial when we don’t know how to be close to each other. We long for community, but often turn to therapists in our times of need. 

Re-envisioning how we build strong and enduring bonds requires us to open a conversation that asks bigger questions than how we balance time between work, relationships, and friends. It requires us to question the promises of fulfillment from personal freedom alone. Wendy Brown reminds us that achieving, and even envisioning personal freedom is far from straightforward: 

‘historically, semiotically, and culturally protean, as well as politically elusive, freedom has shown itself to be easily appropriated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends.’ 

The left has been good at unpicking how the appeals to freedom have created unjust markets and vast inequalities, but we haven’t openly discussed the effects of this in the world of emotions and relationships. The practice of non-commitment in our relationship building mimics the rise of the gig economy, precarious work, and the breakdown of worker solidarity. Free market economics sacrificed security and equality in the name of unfettered growth. We must ask whether the same might be happening in our social relations. 

We all yearn for connection, yet our disdain for responsibility in the name of freedom keeps us apart. But we owe our friends something different to the transactional relationships of the capitalist workplace; we owe them love and time regardless of the value they offer us.


What we owe our friends‘ by Zoe Timimi is the winning essay in our Young Writers’ Competition (18-30 age category). Find out more about the competition here.       

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