Relying on Friendship in a World Made for Couples

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Presenting Single Ladies, five days of essays about the ups and downs of being a woman, uncoupled.

I’ve been accused of romanticizing friendship, and it’s true, I do. I tell my friends I love you on a regular basis, I celebrate Galentine’s Day every year, and I have a Golden Girls votive candle that I like to light at night when I’m counting my blessings. I’m not ashamed to admit that my friends are my world. They are responsible for most of my everyday joy, fun, and will to live. But that doesn’t mean I think friendship is easy.

Solid, lasting, intimate friendship is not effortless for anyone. But it’s particularly difficult for single people. In addition to all the usual challenges friendships face (envy, crazy-busy-ness, Hillary vs. Bernie), unpartnered people have to reckon with the reality that for us the stakes are higher. When friendships are your primary relationships, friendship isn’t just important: It’s existential.

My friend Lucy vividly conveys the stakes when she describes her practice of getting together with friends a couple times a week as a “feral prevention plan.” For people in pairs, a certain amount of socialization is automatic, but single people have to schedule frequent friend time in order to prevent what Lucy calls “the slide from solitude into loneliness,” and what I tend to experience as the slide from keeping it together to falling apart. Lucy starts to feel deprived after three days without friend time; I can only make it through one or two before I start to get antsy.

It’s difficult to organize your life around friendship in a world that’s built for couples, and it’s doubly difficult when your time with friends is seen as a fun extracurricular instead of a basic human need. As my friend Mara says: “People describe me as a social butterfly, but it’s mostly because if I don’t make plans with friends, I am literally all by myself staring at the wall in my apartment (or more likely at the TV).” TV can definitely take the edge off, which is how I ended up memorizing most of the dialogue from 30 Rock, but nothing can adequately replace the presence of people you love.

Single women deal with their intense dependence on friendship in different ways. Some of us rely on a best friendship that’s as complicated as a love affair, or a few close friendships that are as familiar as a family. I’ve tried both, with mixed results: My passionate friendships have proven to be as combustible and doomed as any other kind of passion, and the blissful chosen-family lifestyle I loved in my 20s, which I remember as a soft-focus montage of weekly gin nights and impromptu picnics in the park, has become impossible to sustain in my 30s. These days my oldest friends and I live farther apart and spend more of our time on work and caregiving. We fit each other in between deadlines and other demands, and often make do with Facebook and phone tag. Any serious fun requires child care and/or coordinated vacation time and is scheduled two to six months in advance.

Because individual friendships are subject to distance and decay, friendship in my 30s has meant learning to roll deep. Sadie, a single friend of mine who has adopted four daughters, told me, “I could call 15 to 20 people in the middle of the night for anything, and they could call me” — and as someone who is contemplating single parenthood myself, I know that is the level of support system I’m gonna need. But it takes a mountain of effort to build and maintain 20 strong friendships, and to open yourself up to 20 friends’ worth of middle-of-the-night calls. I should know: In the past few months I’ve taken several late-night calls, and I’ve made some, too.

At times I’ve felt overwhelmed by the demands of balancing many close friendships. Once I failed to respond to a faraway friend’s email about her sick partner when I was consumed by caring for a single friend with cancer, and afterward I felt too guilty about it to pick up the thread. Another time I had to defend myself to a partnered friend who told me that caring for people with life-threatening illnesses was beyond the appropriate bounds of friendship because “that’s what lovers are supposed to do for each other.” (He failed to explain what those of us without lovers were supposed to do.) At its best, having many close friendships can feel like having an army of guardian angels ready to mobilize within minutes. At its worst, it can feel like the world’s most invisible form of emotional labor.

Because single women often put friendship at the center of our lives, it can be hard for us to be friends with people who see friendship as peripheral, as many partnered people do. A close friend once told me that her priorities were her kid, her partner, her work, her friends, in that order, like suits in a deck of cards. In her life, a kid thing would always trump a partner thing; a work thing would always trump a friend thing. This was the best way she knew of trying to impose some order on life’s complexity, but to me it seemed like a terribly reductive way to think about human relationships — plus, it was no fun to know that I would always be the lowest priority in her life. Our friendship didn’t last.

Even when both people make the relationship a priority, friendship across the lines of marital status takes work. One of my closest friends, Jean, married the love of her life the exact same month that I was dumped by the love of mine, and over the past decade our paths have continued to diverge. She’s steadily ticked off all the socially sanctioned boxes of “adulthood” — getting married, having kids, getting a “real job,” buying a house. She even wrote a book. Meanwhile, I’ve done none of these things. At times our differences have stretched us both to our limit, but our friendship has lasted because of our refusal to project the stereotypes of smug married motherhood or carefree/pathetic single childlessness onto each other. We’re both allowed to complain about our lives; we’re both allowed to revel in them. Fourteen years in, our friendship is as stable and precious as anything in my life, but we’re both aware of the ways it could become fraught. When Jean gave me Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend this Christmas, she said earnestly, “I want you to know that I’m giving this book to you because I think you’ll love it and I really want to talk to you about it! Not because the friendship in the book reminds me of us!” There’s often a thin layer of anxiety on top of the bedrock of our love.

I think it’s this layering of love and anxiety that motivates me to celebrate my friendships with such fervor: because I know they are fragile as well as durable; because I know they can survive love and loss and remain Thelma-and-Louise strong right up to the edge of death, but they can also be shattered by work stress or political disagreements or a single text that should never have been sent. At a reading recently, the novelist Hanya Yanagihara said, “Friendship is the most underrated relationship in our lives … It remains the one relation not bound by law, blood, or money — but an unspoken agreement of love.” She makes friendship sound awfully romantic, and it is, but the fact remains that it’s hard and scary to go through life knowing that your most important relationships are chronically underrated and legally nonexistent. Which is why I light my Golden Girls candle every night and invite my friends over for Galentine’s cake, and why I try not to leave my love unspoken. In a world where friendship is often difficult or invisible, I am trying to bake and write and speak and pray my friendships into the future.