ast year, I was ghosted by a friend. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened, I just know that one day I went in search of their Instagram profile and found that I was blocked. The same was true on Facebook. Seemingly out of the blue, this person had elected to end our friendship.
I felt like I had been dumped, rejected, turned down. And I use these words because, really, we don’t have more specific language for this situation. Thanks to books, films and TV shows, we know how to describe the beats of a romantic or sexual relationship with impressive specificity — but what about all of the nuances that are unique to a platonic connection? Why do we prioritize discourse around the person we’re currently dating, or moving in with, or marrying, or divorcing, and not the people who are present in every other aspect of our lives?
I began to replay conversations with the ghost in my head, conducting a post-mortem on our friendship to pinpoint where things had gone wrong. It didn’t take me long to realize that we had been disconnected for a while, tethered more by our shared social circle and years spent in each other’s lives than by any true bond. And then something strange happened: I realized it was probably for the best. Accepting the end of a friendship as one viable outcome of many others felt novel to me; I’m far more used to considering it a sign of failure.
There is no shortage of media counselling us to be mindful in love, to acknowledge our partners’ needs, and to compromise when necessary. And there’s an equal and opposite lack of such material when it comes to friendship. Perhaps this is because sex and romance are things we grow into as adults, whereas friendship has been central since childhood. But this emphasis makes it too easy to neglect our platonic relationships, to think “I’ll text back later” and never do it. To forgo time with friends in the flush of early romance. But friendships — especially the long-term ones — are just as deserving of our curiosity and examination.
Writer Ella Risbridger addressed this imbalance in an excellent recent piece for The Guardian. “The word ‘friend’ has to cover all manner of sins,” she says. “It’s the same word for someone you’ve just met as for someone who has known you your whole life; it’s the same word for somebody you kind of like as for somebody without whom you feel like you might die. We just don’t have the vocab because, culturally speaking, we don’t really believe that friendship matters. ‘We’re just friends,’ we say, of someone we love dearly, but aren’t sleeping with. ‘Just friends, nothing more,’ as if friendship were a sort of place on the road to monogamous sex-on-tap. Because we’re obsessed with couples, with The One.”
As somebody who has never had a long-term romantic relationship, I tend to think of my close friendships as the real love affairs in my life. Each one has its own complex love story. But it was only when I was mentally dissecting my relationship with the person who ghosted me that I realized there is a whole set of philosophies I could be applying to my friendships.
For instance, unrequited love is as much a platonic phenomenon as it is a romantic one. According to a 2016 study, only about half of friendships are actually reciprocal. And the end of a friendship can prove to be as much an emotional upheaval as a breakup or divorce. “When a friend breaks up with us, or disappears without explanation, it can be devastating,” writes Carlin Flora in a piece on the good, the bad and the ugly sides of friendship. “Even though the churning and pruning of social networks is common over time, we still somehow expect friendships to be forever.”
This assumption can lead to a kind of under-examination of friendships: When we’ve known a pal for years, we might write frustration off as a feature rather than a bug. This is less likely in romance. When someone complains non-stop about their significant other, I might think, why are you still together? But if someone complains about their friends, I kind of shrug.
“‘Ambivalent’ relationships, in social science parlance, are characterised by interdependence and conflict,” says Flora. “You have many positive and negative feelings toward these people. You might think twice about picking up when they call. These relationships turn out to be common, too. Close to half of one’s important social network members are identified as ambivalent.”
I think that push and pull of positive and negative, conflict and conciliation, will be familiar to anyone who has sustained long friendships. And while sometimes the connection far outweighs the challenges, other times, it doesn’t. If the only thing holding you together is history, and otherwise the relationship isn’t serving you, I think it’s worth considering why you’re holding on. Some friendships simply have a limited lifespan.
Just as friends can break up, they can also fall in love. We’ve all had a “friend crush”; the beginning of a platonic relationship can often feel like courtship. We want to seem cool; we wonder if we’re texting too much or playing it too cool. These feelings don’t need to be sexual to be intense. And I have yet to grow out of them — at 31, I’ve recently developed two wonderful friendships which both began as infatuation.
For many of us, our friends are an extended family — and family can be hard work. But I think it’s worth remembering that we have as much control over the people we socialize with as the people we date, and thinking of each individual friendship as its own love story can help us evaluate our own needs and behaviors. That might entail discovering friendships that have passed their expiration date, but it can also mean renewing our appreciation and affection for the ones that haven’t.
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.