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Is Friendship Better than Romance?

LAST MONTH, I went on a very successful “friend date.” We had a few acquaintances in common and had talked briefly at parties. I had a hunch about her, that there was a future for us, and so I asked her out. We met at a mutually convenient bar, summarized our pasts in that frantic, practiced way that people do—skipping the boring parts, dramatizing events that end with punch lines. We were recklessly candid and very smiley. I walked home, ecstatic, and told my boyfriend all about it. 

It felt like flirting, but was it? I know many people in happily monogamous relationships who pursue same-sex friendships as a way of redirecting forbidden, amorous impulses. Friend-wooing, one of life’s great pleasures, is also one of its least talked about. Are the forces of attraction similar to those that propel romance? How important are first impressions or endorsements from other friends? Are the answers to these questions obvious—just yes; very; very?

These are the matters that I hoped would guide Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are by former Psychology Today reporter and editor Carlin Flora. But Friendfluence is less the study of friendship that it purports to be, than an unintentional study of what we have come to expect from pop-science. Its value—such as it is—lies in this, rather than the material it contains, which is so insipid that it borders on parody. “Friendfluence,” Flora writes in her introduction, “is the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends—past and present—play in determining the shape of our lives.” That such a force exists is inarguable; that it needs to be articulated in a sentence, let alone eight chapters, is up for debate. But Friendfluence is interesting as anthropology: another example of what Isaac Chotiner called the “laboratory-approved self-help” genre—scientifically inflected guides to improving everything from personal finance to decision-making.

Like traditional self-help, Friendfluence is written mostly in the first-person plural: “Sometimes the greatest compliment we bestow on a friend is comparing him or her to family.” And it is full of un-illuminating, anecdotal case studies: “For the past forty years, Richard Levinson has spoken on the phone with his friend and fellow trial lawyer John every single day.” (Who is Richard Levinson, you might ask? Trust me, it doesn’t matter.) But it also has the hallmark of “laboratory-approved self-help”: indirect promises in the guise of research summary. “Solid friendships can help you shed pounds, sleep better, stop smoking, and even survive a major illness,” Flora writes, and from the work of psychiatrists, evolutionary biologists, and anthropologists, she draws self-evident conclusions: companionship makes us happy, children who are valued amongst their peers do better in life, college students send more e-mails to their close friends than their acquaintances, friendships provide opportunities for storytelling. The banality of these conclusions provides a taste of the banality of this book. It is difficult, but apparently not impossible, to finish a 240-page nonfiction book and learn practically nothing.

Now and then, one catches a glimpse of what must have inspired Friendfluence. Flora’s motivation, after all, is perfectly sympathetic. We all have friendships, premonitions about friendships and regrets about friendships. The best friendships seem to activate our best—usually dormant—parts. They can end in betrayal or outrage or in that more tragic, more common, gradual-and-then-sudden way. We think about our friendships all the time. (How does one even go about making friends outside of institutional affiliations?) And recent books about related topics—and what is “surprising” about them— have done well, such as Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone or Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. 

But it might be that friendship is in fact the worst subject for a book of this nature. Not every facet of life can be animated by secret, magical-seeming principles or illuminated by a collection of eclectic scientific studies. Maybe friendship works the way—before science is invoked—that we assume it would: naturally and based on certain important similarities. Flora writes that, “familiarity breeds positivity” and that “affability kindles the potential for friendship” as if these weren’t patently true statements. “Evolutionary psychologists,” she remarks with faux-wonder, “theorize that friendship has roots in our early dependence on others for survival,” and a chapter devoted to social media contains a section titled, “It’s Complicated—Just like Real Life.” Of course, Flora has a stake in re-packaging the obvious. If counterintuitive answers prove wanting, then there goes the premise for the Big Idea Book. 

This tendency to repackage the obvious carries over to citation, with professional identifications giving false authority to anodyne comments. Flora quotes Daniel Hruschka, Ph.D., who defines friendship as, “a social relationship in which partners provide support according to their abilities in times of need, and in which this behavior is motivated in part by positive affect between partners” and later a British journalist who concludes that, “The most important thing I have learned from my female friends, is that men and women may be very different, but each has the ability to bring out the best in the other.” The dullness would be almost comical were it not so insulting. Could any reader really be that credulous? 

Friendship, it turns out, is perhaps precisely the subject needed to blow the whistle on our collective desire to reverse engineer abstract nouns. This book makes the claim that friendship is somehow supported by invisible scaffolding, but indirectly reveals that its architecture is actually obvious. A subtitle does not a theory make, and not everything can astonish. 

Alice Gregory is writer living in New York. Follow @alicegregory