Who Knows?

An article on the NPR website, written by Manuela López Restrepo, delivers less than I expected. Titled, How many friends do Americans have? A survey crunched the numbers, I expected the article to offer a serious—if probably incomplete—exploration of friendship. Instead, the author wrote a piece that is rather flippant and that throws around important (in my opinion) terms without defining them. I cannot legitimately law all the blame the author, though; the source of her information is similarly lacking. Among my complaints: while the article (and the research report upon which it is based) says a slim majority of adults surveyed report they have between one and four close friends and less than 40% report having five or more, “close friends” is not defined. Yet respondents seemed readily willing to answer questions into which an understanding of the term was embedded. Eight percent of respondents, by the way, reported having no close friends. I might have been included in that small slice of people simply because I do not know what is meant by close friends. How close must a friend be to be close? And does the degree of closeness differ, in situations in which a male’s close friends are female, from more traditionally recognized male-to-male close friendships? And vice versa, of course.

For as long as I can remember, the concept of friendship has intrigued me; friendship is not a precisely defined point on a measure of relationships. Like so many other aspects of matters involving the human condition, it is a complex matter that exists on a very wide spectrum. The number and degree of influence of the variables impacting friendship is enormous; probably incalculable. The depth and type of friendship relationship between an unmarried woman and a married man is shaped by social expectations and by each person’s assumptions. If one or both parties to a friendship is gay or otherwise “out-of-norm,” a whole basket of other assumptions, concerns, potential jealousies, etc., etc. comes into play. I suppose one of the reasons the concept of friendship intrigues me is that I have always had far more female friends/acquaintances than male. The traditional views of friendship often seem irrelevant in such cases. Topics that might readily be discussed between two male friends might be considered “mine fields” that must be avoided between a male and a female friend. The complexity of the matter grows even more interesting though, for example, when the friendship is between a heterosexual male and a gay female (or vice versa, of course); the “mine fields” might be irrelevant, perhaps making the bond between the parties stronger than one between a male and a female—especially if one or both parties to that latter kind of friendship are married.

Topics that two male friends never discuss might be the subject of regular conversation between a male and female friendship pair or a pair of female friends. Yet topics discussed between two male friends might constitute mine fields between a male and female friendship pair. That raises the question: how close can friends be if they cannot/will not discuss such “difficult” matters? Even matters of simple curiosity could be too “personal” to be included in a conversation between close friends. And the dynamics of friendships, can be shaped, unfortunately, by the extent to which friends’ married/attached partners are suspicious, jealous, or otherwise unwilling to readily grant a partner the freedom to be his or her own person. Of course, I may be imagining all of the possible twists and turns in relationships between friends and partners; I fortunately have not had to deal with them. But, still, I continue to try to understand the complexities that might apply to me, especially with regard to relationships with female friends. I suspect the degree of sharing between female friends is significantly greater than between male and female friendship pairs; society has drilled into us that there are certain things that are simply not to be discussed with friends of the opposite sex. For example, if a marital relationship is under stress, I imagine close women friends might discuss the matter; but that matter might be off limits between a close woman/man friendship pair. I could go on. But I won’t. I’ve dwelled on this far too long.

As society becomes less puritanical (assuming, of course, the current puritanical resurgence does not maintain its death grip) about matters involving relationships between males and females, questions about the intricacies of those relationships will become more common and more complex. But will friends, either male or female, be comfortable discussing those issues? Who knows? I do not.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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