Why Don't We Commit To Friendships Like We Do Marriage?

Everything I Know About Love touts "a new version of marriage" – without the sex.
Birdy and Maggie experience friendship problems
BBC via PA Media
Birdy and Maggie experience friendship problems

This article contains minor spoilers for the BBC show, Everything I Know About Love.

When was the last time you saw that really good friend of yours? You know the one you’ve known for years, since school or university. You’re forever sending each other heart emojis on social media, and meaning to “catch up soon”.

This back and forth can last weeks and months, before you finally consult your diaries and lock something in. Then, it’s over all too quickly after dinner and a dessert, with both sides promising not to let it go so long next time.

And so the cycle persists. Most of us wish we could see our oldest friends more often, but work, relationships, caring responsibilities and personal admin get the better of us. Despite good intentions, we seldom meet up, meaning those intermittent catchups are mostly spent listing off the headlines of our lives.

This lacklustre approach means we miss out on the camaraderie, the random spontaneity and even the comfortable stillness that comes with being friends. Which is why the idea of making a concerted effort to maintain a friendship, as we do in romantic relationships, is all the more welcome.

You might have heard something along these lines in Everything I Know About Love, the new BBC drama adapted from Dolly Alderton’s best-selling memoir, when characters Maggie and Birdy plug a “marriage for friends”.

Okay, so they may be on on coke at the time, but the idea is to formally commit to a friendship and put time and effort into maintaining it. As the pair describe it, “a new version of marriage where two people commit to each other but they don’t have sex, they hang out loads. But there is a formal commitment.”

Given the impact of the pandemic, the way it has exacerbated loneliness and cut off so much of our social interaction, the two might be on to something.

Claire Cohen, author of BFF? The Truth about Female Friendships, certainly thinks there’s something in this idea, especially because – as she sees it – friendships and relationships have a lot in common.

“I don’t think we necessarily need formal commitments with our female friends, but I do think it would be good to have ways to show our dedication that are outside the cringeworthy ‘Galentine’s Day’,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“In our romantic relationships, we have milestones that help us chart progress and show our love and respect for one another. Why not with female friendship? Why aren’t we celebrating it when we’ve known someone for 10 or 20 years? To me, that’s worth marking just as much as any romantic relationship.”

Society doesn’t often place the same importance on platonic love as we do romantic pursuits, Cohen points out, but this ought to change.

“We should be using the language of love for our female friendships – like heartbreak or wooing – which we all do when we try to make new friends. By applying these to our female friendships, we can increase their power.”

She points to a great example of this in Everything I Know About Love, when the American asks Maggie about her break-up and she starts speaking about Birdy, not her ex. “That’s the sort of instinctive female friendship recognition we need to see,” notes Cohen.

Of course, it’s pretty normal for effort levels between friends to dwindle over time. According to a Finnish study from 2016, we’re at our social peak at 25, an age when the researchers say we are most “socially promiscuous”. In other words, going out a lot (like Maggie and her crew) and putting ourselves in situations where we can meet new people and increase our contact pool.

As we begin socialising less, this social promiscuity declines. However, something that Cohen calls the “friendship gap” also plays its part.

“We start to find some friends a bit flaky as our priorities change: that friend who once seemed so fun and spontaneous now starts to feel unreliable and exhausting. When friends (like Birdy) start to settle down, have children, move away, get promoted and suddenly have more money, it means you’re no longer on the same path, where once your lives seemed perfectly aligned.”

You might consciously decide to let go of some of these relationships, if they feel toxic, but other friendships are definitely worth hanging on to. You just need to keep communicating, says Cohen.

“If you communicate about your gaps, you can get close again,” she advises. “It also involves shelving your own ego at times, for instance if a friend can’t come to your birthday party but expects you to go to their baby’s first birthday. Or if they’ve got their dream job, but you’re struggling at work.”

“Life has a way of turning the tables on us constantly and your mid to late twenties can be a turbulent time for that. If you can be honest with one another about it all, and not let resentment build up, then those friendships can weather the storms and emerge all the stronger for it.”

And if you do decide to make a formal commitment together, have fun with how you choose to honour that – whether that’s the winning combo of cookies and makeovers as in Everything I Know About Love, or your own unique way such as sharing the last Sunday of every month. You’ll be all the happier for it.