What does friendship mean to us? An explanation of our most important relationships

What does friendship mean to us? It is undeniably our most significant human relationship – a type of love with a deep role to play in constructing individual identity and how we see ourselves. This is inherent in religious and social groups and has a fundamental impact on our happiness, health, mortality and how we perceive life.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar diffuses expectations of friendship and exposes its current reality through his book and research project ‘The Circles of Friendship’. Dunbar argues that a person can cognitively maintain 150 friendships, of which just 5 are considered ‘close friends’. He proposes a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through studies of non-human primates, concluding that the size of the neocortex is linked to the size of a cohesive social group. This is the part of the brain associated with cognition and language, so this ratio limits how much complexity a social system can handle. He sought to apply this rule to humans through our different levels of platonic connections, finding that the rule of 150 appeared in many modern groupings such as factories, campsites, military organisations and even Christmas card lists. To exceed 150, is to exceed the ability of the individual to socialise and maintain friendly relations.

As Dunbar argues these layers come about because ‘the time we have for social interaction is not infinite’, the people we devote more time too must be those we feel the most significant or largest sense of social warmth towards. This warmth is intense emotion, arising from shared experiences which bring to us waves of nostalgia and prove an endurance of memory and current fondness. It is also an assurance of support and relative constancy in a tumultuous world. This feeling is also a biological response to loving human contact. This entails the activation of your endorphin system, sending your brain into a state of fizzy euphoria. When you are unable to touch and talk to family or friends, this system is activated less often, leaving you without the mild sense of analgesia they provide. As a result, friendships quickly deteriorate when they are not maintained.

This picture of social interaction as an investment in the hope of sustained friendship can be usefully applied to religious tradition and identity formation. Durham Professor Douglas Davies describes identity as a ‘negotiated sense of self, developed over time through the emotions and moods that characterise feelings people have of themselves in relation to core values of their group’ (Davies, 2011). In this vein, we can see friendship as a reciprocal relationship affording meaning to our sense of identity. Friendship is dictated by the principle of homophily (contact between similar people occurring at a higher rate than dissimilar people), meaning we surround and associate ourselves with certain individuals, groups and networks according to our shifting conception of self. This is an issue of value alignment, as the people in our friendship networks provide support and reassurance based on shared values.  

Expressions of this love are found in many religious traditions, as religion is ultimately a group creation and interpersonal connection. Christian theology affirms the significance of friendship as a kind of sacred love, informing ‘koinonia’ – communion and fellowship of devotees. This can be linked to the notion of ‘communitas’, the feeling of status that arises from being amongst a group. Turner argues that this feeling belongs to a state of liminality, when the individual is between major stages on life so is highly dependent on a group network (Turner, 1969). As groups are themselves highly dependent on these ideas of togetherness, commitment and affection, love motifs characterise religious texts and rituals. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy scriptures of Hinduism, there takes place a theophany which involves the revelation of Krishna, a deity taking many forms, to Arjuna a devotee. Arjuna experiences monstrous fear with a ‘trembling heart’ at the deity’s symbolic devouring mouth, asking for the mercy and grace of his sublime ruler ‘as friend with friend’. This demonstrates that bonds with other humans are replicated in our views of the divine and supernatural, furthering the crucial significance of friendship to human life, love and belief.

Yet if friendship constructs our identity and is crucial to group structures, what happens when friendship ends – whether due to lack of contact or a ‘melodramatic betrayal’? Are these group identities denied, reformed or realigned? Weber’s concept of ‘elective affinities’ describes how human partners can break their bonds and realign with other available partners, just like chemicals in a test tube. This points to the human capacity for emotional sensitivity, suggesting that mutual attraction between people can change in a natural and inevitable pattern. But what happens when friendship breaks down irreparably? The pain we experience after falling out with a friend and ending a friendship with them is our brain acknowledging this relationship has been ruptured on the account of that person. In Davies’ book ‘Emotion, Identity and Religion’, he argues that when a friend ‘betrays’ you, this dynamic pervades life’s meaningfulness and reduces hope and optimism. He imagines that two friends have co-responsibility for their friendship, for its survival and flourishing, so when one breaks this agreement the other feels a sense of stinging unfairness. Furthermore, we can feel ashamed or guilty if this leads us to act outside our values or beliefs, fuelled by emotions of anger and hatred of a friend we once loved.

This begs the question, what do people ‘get’ out of their friendship activity, be it a group network, partnership of two or religious community? If a cost-benefit analysis of friendship is overshadowed by the negative eventuality of the breakdown of friendship, why do we still invest in it? Perhaps it is because we are hopeless optimists, prizing human connection above all, whatever emotion it entails. This is best demonstrated by religious activity, as it shows that we imagine the highest, most brilliant supernatural deities and beings as capable of human love and emotional bonds. We see ourselves in the divine.

Image from Vlad Sargu via Unsplash.

One thought on this article.

  1. Joseph Meadows says:

    The issues around rebuilding these networks and groups humans relay on is interesting, something as simple as moving out of your village to go to the city completely transforms your world and how do you rebuild that network? Perhaps that’s why “found families” are common archetypes of groups in media and tv shows nowadays.

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