Friendship

Friendship

In our society we treat romantic and friend relationships differently. Romantic relationships go through predictable stages, often culminating in marriage: they progress to the point where a legal contract is in order. But friendship does not follow this course: it develops but it doesn’t culminate in a legal contract, or any kind of contract. It remains informal, unregulated. People may have lifelong friends but this is never sanctified by anything like marriage, legal or otherwise. There is no friendship ceremony, exchange of vows, pledge of constancy. Accordingly, there is nothing like divorce, with accompanying protocols. It is possible to terminate a friendship without any legal repercussions or even social stigma. True, people may feel let down, hurt, and betrayed; but there is no legal recourse, no penalty. Nor is there any ritual whereby the friendship is ratified and made public. Everything is left loose and casual. There isn’t even anything corresponding to a “dating” phase, recognized as such; it just meanders along. Would that seem desirable in romantic relationships? Suppose a society treated romance like friendship—wouldn’t that be highly unsatisfactory for all concerned? It carries no commitment, no security. And people like to know where they stand in their interpersonal relations. The institution of marriage, legalized or not, is there for a reason. But friendship is left to its own devices, as if it can take care of itself. The OED defines “friend” thus: “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations”. A bond is defined as “a force or feeling that unites people”. Yes, friendship is a uniting of people in mutual affection—as is marriage—but we don’t treat it correspondingly. It is taken more lightly, as a matter of law and custom. The bonds of friendship can be broken with relative impunity, whether the break is warranted or not. Since this happens with some frequency, people can suffer in consequence, sometimes badly.

What if we changed our practices regarding friendship—would life improve? Suppose we had friendship contracts like marriage contracts: formal ceremonies, document signing, the works. You could be “friended” to X, Y, and Z. This would be the culmination of a kind of trial period and carry serious commitments; it is supposed to be binding. You can’t just a break up a friendship so sanctified without adequate grounds. You have to appear before a judge and specify your reasons for abrogating the friendship contract. We can predict that such separations would be rare, because people would not enter into friendship contracts without serious consideration. This would add structure to human relations: it would produce a degree of stability and assurance, prohibiting the dropping of friends on a whim or because of selfish considerations. It would provide a solidity to friendship that shores it up against human weakness. Moral integrity cannot be relied upon in romantic relations, so we have marriage; similarly for friendship—it needs the backing of custom and law. False friends would be weeded out by such a set-up, or at least minimized. Surely that would be an improvement on the existing arrangements (or lack thereof). People would be happier, less subject to unscrupulous treatment. The system would be entirely voluntary: someone who felt themselves incapable of real friendship need not participate, instead of hiding behind the pretense that they are true friends. Everything would be out in the open. It would take a lot of the uncertainty out of the friendship relation. There would have to be public declarations and promises not just unspoken understandings. You could “propose” friendship to someone and they could accept or decline your proposal. The more one thinks about it the better it sounds; this could substantially improve human relations. It might enhance interpersonal harmony, encourage fellow feeling, prevent conflicts. Not “All you need is love” but “Let’s enter into a friendship agreement”. It would be nice to feel bonded in this way to selected others; not just to one’s spouse but to one’s closest friends. It would introduce a social category that corresponds to a felt human need. You could say, “This is my wife, Claudia, and my friend, Horace”. Ideally, we should have a new term for this category (none exists at present), but pending that we might resort to the description “legal friend” or some such. As things stand, we say things like “dear friend” or “old buddy” or “good mate”, but something semantically like “wife” or “husband” would be desirable. Probably a cap should be put on the number of these permissible in law—say, five. You don’t want to be accused of spreading your friendship too thin. Monogamy is not required, but not unlimited polygamy; we don’t think much of people with twenty “best friends”. It all seems quite doable and potentially beneficial.[1]

We already have something like this set-up with other human relations outside of the romantic. The employer-employee relationship and the teacher-student relationship follow this pattern: obligations and formalization are part of the deal. In both cases there is mutual reliance (if not affection), so that breaches and breaks are frowned upon or worse. There is a kind of contract at work, even if quite loose. If I undertake to teach you something and you agree, it is expected that I follow through, and you too. Teaching, like marriage and friendship, is an investment of time and effort; it needs some sort of institutional backing to keep it on track. Same for employment: hence, employment contracts. These things can’t be left to individual whim or opportunistic opting-out. We recognize this for teaching and employment, so why not for friendship? Indeed, they often both involve friendship. What is not acceptable is violating the trust implicit in friendship without adequate grounds. Here an element of formality is required, given (alas) human nature. The fact is that people need friends—life without them is difficult and dismal—so the social bonds need to be supported by institutional scaffolding. It is really high time in human history that friendship be given its due. It needs all the help it can get.[2]

[1] It would be possible to begin locally: you could ask your friends what they think of the idea and institute a system among yourselves. Verbal declarations would be an obvious starting point (“I hereby promise to act as a friend henceforward”). That way people can’t suddenly turn on you out of the blue.

[2] As a side issue, it might be healthy to view marriage as a special case of a more general type of social bond, along with friendship (also teaching and employing). All of these involve commitments, promises, and obligations. Marriage is not unique in this respect.

Share
10 replies
  1. Henry Cohen
    Henry Cohen says:

    “You can’t just a break up a friendship so sanctified without adequate grounds. You have to appear before a judge and specify your reasons for abrogating the friendship contract.”

    But this is not true of marriages in the United States, where, according to Wikipedia, all states allow no-fault divorces. Before no-fault divorces were allowed, fault could be faked. Until 1966, New York allowed divorces only on grounds of adultery. When adultery had not occurred, a husband would check into a hotel room with a woman not his wife with whom he had no intention of committing adultery, and the wife, going along with it, would hire a detective to photograph them, thereby procuring “evidence” of adultery.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Yes, I know all that, but no-fault divorce requires that both parties are agreeable, does it not? If not, there have to be adequate grounds such as adultery, non-consummation, cruelty, or not living with one’s spouse.

      Reply
      • Henry Cohen
        Henry Cohen says:

        That’s a good question. The law varies from state to state, and, though I am a retired lawyer, I never practiced family law. But, if the parties are not agreeable, one can move out over the objections of the other, and, in some states, according to Wikipedia, “only one party has to file for irreconcilable differences, and any excuse will do.” That seems to amount to unilateral no-fault divorce. Perhaps one of your readers has practiced family law, and I will hereafter defer to him or her.

        Reply
  2. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    Contracts can be verbal too, so a friendship is really a type of contract anyway. What we’re really talking about here is redress for contract breach. Of course there is often redress anyway, in the form of harsh words, guilt, but my own view is that the whole point of friendship is that it is freely given and taken away. We are close to other humans in certain points of time and then it’s over – one way or another, but it’s all still there in the block universe, like the story on a willow pattern plate. I think back on all of the wonderful conversations.

    I think an over-reliance on friends in my youth for my own happiness made me realise that I had to be more resilient and that it should never feel transactional to either party. So I think contracts sound like a very bad idea and a very modern one at that. Plus imagine having lots of these friend contracts – that could get really messy – nice work for lawyers.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Not sure why you say it’s modern–contracts have been around for ever. The friend contract, like the marriage contract, could be purely private and personal, so that lawyers can be kept out of it.

      Reply
  3. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    I mean modern in the sense that the law has been creeping into everything these days in various countries around the world. There are some in my country of Scotland that think gender critical views should be criminal for instance and that it should be a crime to misgender someone (who claims to be the opposite gender to their biological one). Our recent hate crime bill may allow prosecution of someone who has expressed controversial views within their own home (gender critical views are protected in this case, but others may not be). Now I’m not saying what is right or wrong here and some views may be repugnant, just that the law is beginning to expand into our personal lives in ways we might perhaps not have imagined.

    Anything that requires enforcement and/or redress will require adjudication and lawyers surely? The marriage contract certainly requires lawyers – could some form of recompense be required on the termination of a friendship? Would people who had entered into such a contract see it as purely symbolic?

    Don’t get me wrong – it’s a wonderful conjecture/proposal – I just don’t like it, perhaps for unconscious reasons that relate to my friendships – I don’t know. Life is full of bureaucracy, do we really want to expand that into friendship? Nice to have something that just happens and ends naturally – the pain is strangely life affirming.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I quite agree about legal creep taking over our lives. I was thinking of quasi-formal agreements enunciated in the form of a promise with people in attendance. It is frowned upon to break promises and the loss of reputation is a definite cost. I actually like this model for marriage: a ceremony with promises but not legally ratified.

      Reply
  4. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Contracts are better understood relative to some form of commitment. Terms typically include disclosures, cancellation conditions etc, as well as specifications of some things parties will not do. One may have several contracts with the same person. We can imagine a culture where contracts are regularly made between people (bi- or multi-lateral) without lawyers, and written in simple language (and easy to produce and store for record, say via AI and blockchain). These could relate to short term ventures/adventures, or longer term ones. It’s an interesting idea to explore being explicit on things we normally don’t talk about. Is this the type of relationship where we agree to not intentionally harm or betray each other (up to some level of harm), or to lie to at all, or only lie about things that are not significant in some sense. Though such levels may be hard to define, maybe a usable framework can be made. So, we could then talk about the ‘level’ of relationship people have (not to imply levels are linear) with regard to a particular relationship dimension. And someone declining to make a contract, or the cancellation terms they want to specify, signals something itself. An interesting setting for a TV series.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Right: human relationships come in many forms and in varying degrees, and we might want to codify and articulate these. Friendship as we have it often brings betrayal, and we can explore ways of guarding against this, as we do in the case of marriage.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.