THE SINKING OF THE FRIENDSHIP
ROBERT J. LEWIS
shall know the truth,
And the truth shall make you odd.
the past century that has seen divorce rates skyrocket from seven
to forty five percent in most western countries, the once sacred
institution of marriage has suffered a series of body blows from
which it is still reeling and may never recover. In light of the
discouraging numbers, and the suffering and cost divorce entails,
more and more couples are asking themselves, “why bother,”
and opt for the less complicated common law arrangement. Even
among Catholics, who are considered adulterers and refused communion
if they remarry, the divorce rate is still 28% (US stats).
has gone very unnoticed in the mostly sensible criticism aimed
at the self-discredited institution of marriage is that when compared
to friendship, it enjoys a success rate that should make even
its harshest critics stratospherically giddy.
among us, when we objectively look back in time, has not left
in our wake a history of one busted friendship after another?
Despite our stated intentions and best efforts, the black book
that logs our breakdowns forces the conclusion that friendships
don’t last, and to such a degree that according to a recent
British study many people have given up trying; ten percent of
people now admit to having no close friends. So if over a lifetime
almost every friendship, as if subject to the laws of entropy,
is destined to break down, marriage, which enjoys a fifty five
percent success rate, is by far and away the more successful institution.
the well known physical and psychological health benefits that
friendship confers, why does it rarely succeed? What does its
discomfiting failure rate tell about what kind of species we are
as it concerns bonding, or, taking a page out of Somerset Maugham:
more so than marriage, friendship brings into play two aspects
of human nature that are in perpetual conflict. On the one hand,
inscribed in our genotype is the instinct that compels us to bond
around a common purpose which results in the formation of tribes
and communities, while on the other hand, self-interest dictates
that the individual is always “looking out for number one.”
until recently in human history, men in groups were much more
likely to survive than even the most gifted and self-sufficient
person, the group instinct, out of necessity, took precedent over
with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, the individual
discovers he can comfortably survive without having to sacrifice
his freedom for the sake of the group. At this decisive moment
in human history, in the absence of the necessity that underscored
group cohesion, self-interest begins to flex its muscles, and
the adhesive that was once a vital component in bonding and friendship
begins to harden and crack. In the work place, especially in the
corporate environment where hundreds of people are cooperating
around a common goal, successful work relationships continue to
flourish, but these relationships, almost without exception, fail
at the friendship level.
dictionary defines self-interest as: “Selfish or excessive
regard for one's personal advantage or interest.” Most friendships
cannot survive the cumulative blows inflicted by self-interest.
And while we all enjoy friendship and ascribe to it the highest
value and want it to endure, our conduct belies our best intentions.
generally happens over time, even in the best of friendships,
is that we often unconsciously end up exploring and then testing
the limits of what we can procure or get away with. At the beginning,
during the critical bonding period, we are very considerate and
solicitous of the other, showing ourselves in the best light.
But over time, we begin to take our new friend for granted. We
exercise less reserve in our critical remarks, we abuse certain
privileges in respect to property, money matters and personal
space, and at some point we cross a limit of no return: the final
insult has been delivered, another promise broken, another meal
or favour not reciprocated, and one of the parties, in response
to real or perceived affront, terminates the friendship.
beck and call of self-interest over which we apparently have little
or no control, we end up steering the once highly valued vessel
of friendship through treacherous seas where it eventually takes
in more water than it can hold and sinks beneath our best wisdom
like a stone. It seems that in the end human nature and not reason
or common sense is calling the shots, and we are helpless to modify
the outcome because the necessity that was once integral to friendship
is no longer a factor in the age
of individualism. Only in exceptional circumstances
-- war and/or team sports -- is friendship on safe ground.
be argued that marriage and intimate relationships are significantly
more successful than friendship because of the additional bonding
impetus provided by conjugal life and children. Prior to women’s
lib, which precluded participation in the work force, women were
much more financially dependent on their husbands and thus more
likely to endure an unhappy relationship. And in point of fact,
as women have become less dependent on their spouses, the divorce
rate has proportionately risen. But even in marriage, despite
the added sexual incentive and shared burden of raising children,
self-interest often ends up undermining intimate relationships.
three most stress producing events in life are death of a loved
one, divorce and changing of address (moving): to that list, we
can add the dissolution of friendship. Since the behaviour sanctioned
by self-interest is observably responsible for the declining success
rates of both marriage and friendship, what can be done to stall
or even reverse this trend?
as we leave unexamined the philosophical and practical benefits
of friendship, self-interest will always have its way over our
best intentions -- and the numbers back that up. If there is a
stop gap to be applied, it will have to come from within, as an
act of will, of willing ourselves to assume responsibility for
the meaning and value we assign to friendship -- not unlike the
import some of us assign to our physical well being and the strenuous
physical exercise we willingly undertake for its sake. In other
words there can be no letting up in developing and strengthening
the mental muscle that is required to not only disclose the value
(pragmatic and metaphysical) of friendship, but to ensure that
these hard-won values are not vitiated by self-interest.
rare is a life-long friendship, it is never fortuitous. Both parties
must share equally in its development and appreciation while cultivating
the necessary vigilance and attention to detail every successful
of due (and sustained) diligence, enduring friendship is as likely
as a Havana Moon over the Hudson.
Unbridgeable differences of opinion and religious beliefs
are also a major factors.
Agree self interest, but also greater existing cultural gaps
than before. Heterogeneous societies generate more instanteneous
"friends" if only out of curiosity, but inevitably
the very same "differences" which engendered the
attractions in turn prove to be cause of the falling apart..In
homogeneous societies less immediate appeal for contact but
similarities make for truer and longer lasting bonds, most
of the time.
The decline in friendship (and I think there is one) may well
be in part due to the fact that so many 'friendships' are
not real, but electronic. These are sanctioned by pure self-interest,
and have little to do with the real value of friendship, which
takes effort and caring, not merely the depression of a button
on a stupid little phone.
The mind that believes in quantifying relationships, or even
attributing importance to pollsters and others who do, is
not only not going to have any close friends, he probably
won't even have any enemies. "Vigilance?" "Attention?"
Clearly, the Patriot Act isn't the only scary excuse for demanding
security in all things.
I enjoyed your well written thought-provoking reflection on
friendship. I do not agree with you, but your thesis is a
valid one. If one could only content oneself with just enjoying
a person's company due to their personality and ability to
make one feel at peace or burst into laughter, and the other
one taking this all in also gives back, then generally friendship
I have found sharing things in common binds people. As I have
a great love of people and am ever-mindful that skin is not
that thick, we must always put the other person first.
Dumping on others seems to be what many think friendship is
about - spilling the beans and over-analyzing. Can't we go
back to innocence and the joy of just rubbing shoulders with
a person who is appealing to be in the presence of?
also by Robert J. Lewis:
The Great Escape
on a Hot Tin Roof
A Line in the Wilderness
Rooms & Infidels
Idea Will Travel
Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
The Eclectic Switch
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger
and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of
Love & Hate
Divine Right and
the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene