Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Several years ago, I tripped down an internet rabbit hole and found my way to an article by Laurie Penny, a writer for the British political magazine New Statesman, entitled “For many in my fearful, frustrated generation, ‘having it all’ means opting out of monogamy.” Penny’s argument is that polyamorous relationships, which she defines as “any arrangement in which you are allowed to date and snuggle and sleep with whomever you want, as long as everyone involved is happy” are a countercultural refuge for Millennials who recognize that the “traditional” western ideal of monogamy and marriage is unrealistic.
The purpose of polyamorous relationships, she argues, is not to have more sex, but to have more real, honest, and open relationships. She writes: “[Most] of my polyamorous life involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up…the best parts of [my polyamorous] experiences have overwhelmingly been clothed ones.” The picture she paints is of relationships that don’t have unrealistic and even unreasonable expectations of people: in a polyamorous relationship you recognize that you have many needs as a human person, and you don’t expect one romantic partner to fulfill all of them.
The article left me feeling sad. My despair was not caused by sexual prudery or culturally conservative sensibility. It wasn’t even rooted in a belief that human sexuality and the covenant of Holy Matrimony are gifts from God with profound theological and eschatological implications, though that, of course, is true. What made me sad about the thesis of the article is that it seems to assume a world devoid of human friendship. Penny’s argument seems to imply that intimacy, love, and communication are only possible within sexual relationships, as though there were no other way for embodied human creatures to encounter one another.
The warm, snuggly, open communication-based polyamory that Penny describes—making tea, doing dishes and “the texts with your girlfriend’s boyfriend about what to get her for her birthday” sounds an awful lot like the friendships I’ve enjoyed with men and women throughout my adult life, just without the sleeping together part. I have one husband, but I am blessed by many close and joyful friendships.
But it seems that this is far from a normative experience. Over the past 20 years, fewer and fewer people are developing close friendships. A 2006 study by researchers at Duke University found that the number of Americans who say they have no close friends outside their families rose from 57% in 1984 to nearly 80% in 2004. A quarter of American adults say they have no one—not even family—to talk to about matters of importance. Civic institutions like churches, recreational team sports, and service clubs are also shrinking. The West, it seems, was into “social distancing” long before COVID-19 made it mandatory.
We live in a culture that has forgotten how to make, nourish, and grow friendships. If Laurie Penny is right, we are faced with a generation of lonely, friendless Millennials (and, by all accounts, Gen Z-ers) who are longing for love, intimacy, and companionship At the same time, they are haunted by a cultural memory that sex and intimacy are somehow related. And so, when they can’t make friends, they seek out more and more sexual partners. The irony, of course, is that each new relationship lessens, cheapens, and distracts from the very intimacy they crave; the more they eat, the hungrier they become.
This is our chance to speak hope to a hurting world. The Church should be concerned about, and vocally opposed to, the changing mores that have slowly and steadily desacramentalized sex. But the polyamory craze reveals another opportunity. Maybe, with this population, we don’t have to just talk about sex. Maybe our lonely, empty culture needs a friend. Maybe Christians can take the lead in recovering friendship and in offering it to people desperate for connection.
Friendship in the New Testament is a rich, weighty, and spiritual matter. By far the most common word for “friend” in the New Testament is philos, which is related to philia, the Greek word for love rooted in affection, fondness, and mutual care. Then there is also hetairos, a companion and or comrade, and gnostos meaning “one who is known to me.” Finally, there is the incredibly tender agapetos, the friend who is loved with a selfless outpouring of love, like that of Christ who loved (agapo) his own who were in the world to the very end.
These Greek words have a weight and energy that the English “friend” leaves out. Friendship in the Bible is not the thin gruel that passes for friendship on social media. It is not based on shared opinions and interests. Friendship is love. Hopeful, faithful, companionable, felicitous, encouraging, forgiving, and trustworthy love. The love between friends is an earthly analogue to God’s love for us. It is part and parcel with the love that Christ pours out for us on the Cross. It is a glimmer of the love that awaits each of us when, in the last days, we are caught up into the eternal and uncreated love of the Holy Trinity.
What if “having it all” isn’t what it’s all about? What if humans were made for something more? Sex isn’t about finding the person who can “meet your needs.” In marriage the needs of the individual are sacrificed for something greater: family, fidelity, trust, and unity. Friendship also calls us to go beyond what we need. Both relationships ask us to stop thinking about what we can get from other people, and calls us to ask what we can give to them. And in this sacrificial union, God gives us back more than we could ask or imagine.
The needs of our present culture serve as a call to action for every Christian. We don’t have to invite every stranger we meet to church (though that would be great). We can start by just inviting them to coffee, book club, or lunch. To make a new friend is not trivial, it is a sacred act that reminds a hurting world that there is another way. No time spent with friends is wasted time. To look at your friends and love them in all their fallenness, to know that they love you in all your fallenness is, for a moment, to look into the face of God.