Have you ever had a close friend break up with you? A. C. Grayling writes that losing a friend can be as painful as losing a partner:
“if we lose … a friend we feel the loss deeply, as of someone loved. Indeed we talk of loving our friends … and their loss can accordingly be profound.”
I would suggest that the pain of losing a close friend can be worse than that of losing a partner. We know that romantic relationships fail; it happens to many of us multiple times over our lives. But it’s another story with close friendships. They are rarely ended – we rarely get ‘dumped’ by our close friends.
I see a paradox here. On the one hand, our friendships can be so valuable to us that the pain of losing them can surpass the pain of losing a partner. On the other hand, even though we invest so much in our friends, we commit so little to them. Let me explore the second part of that paradox to illustrate what I mean.
We can spend years of our lives and countless hours of our years with our friends: cultivating our relationships with them moment by moment, sharing and making memories together. We might confide our deepest secrets, fears and ambitions to our friends, and some of our achievements might only be made possible through their support. Yet despite this enormous investment and these deeply intimate attachments, it seems to me that when the equilibrium of a friendship is disturbed the bond is forsaken too easily.
Imagine for example that I’m living in Berlin, and suddenly I get offered my dream job in Melbourne. Imagine I have a partner of four years whose dream job is still in Berlin. This decision is going to require discussion, debate, compromise, ingenuity, maybe even pleading, arguing, concession and sacrifice. Now imagine I get offered my dream job in Melbourne, but my best friend of four years has a dream job in Berlin. Would I be sad about leaving my friend? Yes. Would I miss my friend greatly? Of course. But I would probably go to Melbourne, and I would probably do it without the fanfare involved for a partner. I’d probably be doing it with full encouragement and support from my friend.
If the pain of losing a friend can be so severe, why don’t we commit to our friendships the way we commit to our romantic relationships? I’ve heard people say that the bond between partners is stronger than the one between friends. But as I said, while romantic relationships commonly break down, we expect to carry the ties of close friendship with us for the rest of our lives.
To continue the ‘dream job’ example, maybe our close friends can always be our friends regardless of the distance between us. With romantic partners though, some kind of physical closeness, or an ultimate goal of physical closeness, is usually required. For me though, that just strengthens the paradox, because if our friendships can stand the test of distance while our romantic relationships often cannot, doesn’t that make the ties between friends stronger than the ties between lovers?
If it’s true that the friendship bond is one of the strongest out there, what happens when a close friendship does break down? What are the healing processes for breaking up with a friend? If a partner breaks up with us we might be comforted by friends, discover new hobbies, maybe go out and meet someone new. And if these are all activities we tend to do with our friends, what do we do if the person breaking up with us is our friend? We might go out and find a new romantic partner, but the idea of going to the local bar to pick up a new best-friend-forever seems utilitarian and fruitless. I might conceivably have a new romantic partner in a matter of weeks, but could I have a new close friend in the same amount of time?
It seems to me that the close friendship bond is one so special, so valuable, so sought-after by so many people around the world. Why, then, are we so careless with it?