Why do friendships take a back seat?
Lifestyle Writer Eirwen Abberley Watton discusses how society has constructed our lives around prioritising marriage
The Coronavirus Pandemic is a backdrop against which many people are reconsidering the things that matter most. A recent article from The Atlantic, titled “What if Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” questions western traditions of domestic organisation in light of lockdown. It has encouraged us all to hold more tightly to the connections we have, and to create new networks of support. Rhaina Cohen reports on a select few who refuse to let romantic partners take precedence, or choose not to have relationships at all.
It’s pretty much an accepted idea that when people enter into a relationship, their partner becomes the primary planet in their orbit. Sometimes, this causes arguments and a temporary rift in their friendships. Relationships are often fleeting, while our closest friends support us through heart breaks and the messiness of every day. So why do we continue to prioritise romantic partners?
For people seeking companionship, then, marriage could be a paradoxical choice. A 2015 study by Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel found that marriage actually weakens our social ties. With a spouse, we are less likely to reach out to family members and friends. The National Police Chiefs’ Council indicated a rise in domestic abuse incidents during the Pandemic. This is one tragic outcome of the isolation many can feel when entering a relationship.
Historically, marriage was necessary for many. Women, before they were accepted in the workplace, were economically dependent on their husbands. This created an ‘ideal’ family unit, with the male ‘breadwinner’ ensuring survival and the female ‘nurturer’ raising the children. It’s easy to see how this kind of social organisation benefits a capitalist society: it provides the perfect biological machine for reproducing and socialising the workforce.
Since then, a lot has changed. Marriage rates are almost at the lowest they have ever been in the UK. Most people cohabit before they marry, symptomatic of relationships now focusing on emotional fulfilment, compared to the historical matches of economic convenience or advantage. Rhaina Cohen suggests that this shift is one reason for friendships fading into the background – their role becomes redundant as they are replaced.
Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014. Now that it is possible, and more accepted, to be in a binding union with a spouse of the same sex, it might seem that we are moving away from heterosexual, monogamous relationships as the social norm. But those who decide to spend their life with a friend are still at the margins of society. Although Cohen finds multiple examples of friends living together outside of this heterosexual matrix (Judith Butler’s term for society normalising heterosexuality), they face many obstacles. As well as social prejudice, and the fact that “intimate friendships don’t come with shared social scripts that lay out what they should look like” (Cohen), there are legal disadvantages. All of the incentives offered to married couples and civil partners, such as reduced income tax, are inaccessible for friends who live together.
Although relationships seem to be diversifying in a positive way, our possibilities are still very limited, legally and socially. If you read this article as a discouragement of relationships, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. Relationships are a perfectly valid and frankly amazing way to spend your life, if they make you happy. But it’s worth thinking about why these relationships are the norm, and the implications for people who don’t wish to live this way.