Friendship: How did the original until-death-do-us-part bond get so downgraded? - Hindustan Times
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Friendship Day: How did the original until-death-do-us-part bond get so downgraded?

ByAnesha George
Aug 04, 2023 06:44 PM IST

Having a pal isn’t what it used to be. Our circles are tighter, we're reluctant to reach out. Revisit what friendship has been, what it brings to the individual

If you haven’t reached out to a friend in a while, you might be at a kind of health risk. Being “socially disconnected” could be as bad as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and twice as bad as being obese, research indicates.

 (HT illustration: Malay Karmakar) PREMIUM
(HT illustration: Malay Karmakar)

The benefits of adequate social relationships are comparable to the benefits of quitting smoking, or avoiding obesity, when it comes to impact on life expectancy, declared a meta study of 148 studies published in PLOS Medicine in 2010.

Yet, one challenge friendship faces in an increasingly transactional world is that it does not hold out tangible dividends, in the way that paid work, or time spent with colleagues, does. In the hierarchy of relationships, it has slipped from a place of primacy to a slot that feels almost dispensable through most of the year.

“People stop valuing abiding friendships once a bigger project comes into the picture, like marriage or parenting,” says family counsellor Gouri Dange. It is the default friendships that remain: those that aren’t sought out; those made with other parents; those driven by convenience and proximity.

The deeper friendships — study after study has shown that these are generally formed in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood — atrophy, from a kind of disuse. Reanimating them poses challenges of its own.

Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, is currently working on a research project focused on why we are so resistant to the idea of reaching out to friends we haven’t spoken to in a while.

A birthday is the most likely event to prompt a message, her ongoing study has found. But people are unlikely to reach out if they are simply in the neighbourhood, or on a major holiday, or if they came across something that made them think of that person.

The fear of seeming needy acts as a deterrent. What if the other person wonders what we want? “The fear of rejection is strong,” Sandstrom says.

How it started

It wasn’t always this way. Friendship began as the original until-death-do-us-part bond.

Going back tens of thousands of years, in environments of danger and scarcity, a friend was one who watched your back; helped when you were ill or injured.

It was a bond founded on the principle of reciprocal altruism (a term coined in 1971, by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers). “You carry the water in the gourd skin; I’ll get the spears and flint.”

In some communities, this form of the bond endures.

Among the Bangwa people, a remote ethnic group in present-day south-west Cameroon (for context, this is a rich prehistoric culture; the community’s wooden Bangwa Queen carving is one of the most famous pieces of ancient African art), blood pacts between men were common until a few decades ago. These involved rites such as cuts on the palm or forearm, or a sip from the same cup, practices that were once so prevalent across cultures that they give us the term “blood brother”.

Friendship remains integral to the Bangwa social fabric. The chief’s closest friend, for instance, organises his funeral.

Meanwhile, boys in the indigenous Akwe-Xavante community in present-day Brazil retain an ancient term for the childhood friend: “i-amo” (partner, in Xavante). Little boys are encouraged to find their i-amo, and the bond is considered a lifelong one.

(As with most of recorded history, there is little comparative information available for girls and women, but art can sometimes fill in the blanks. See the story alongside for more on representations of friendship through millennia.)

How it’s going

Today, there are arguments made that reciprocal altruism is a cynical way to view friendship. But its fundamental premise — we will keep each other alive and well — gave this relationship its foundation.

Today, in most contexts, the services that the friend once provided — protection; access to a larger pool of resources; assistance in one’s livelihood; a listening ear — have been outsourced to professionals. A key reason we can go months without contacting a dear friend is because there is no material need to.

We see the bond strengthen immediately when urgent reciprocity is reinstated. Why are parents such good friends with other parents? Because there is the resurgence of that ancient assumption: If I really need you, you’ll be there.

It’s part of the reason soldiers feel bonded for life, after time on a frontline together. To a different degree, one sees this among those in high-risk professions, such as miners and construction workers.

Researchers at the department of social sciences of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus have been studying the changing motivations for friendship since the hunter-gatherer phase and, in a study published in the journal Personal Relationships in 2020, stated that the purpose of friendship today could be distilled into three prongs.

It is still a relationship of support, though now largely of the emotional kind; it is now driven by desirable qualities (such as humour, or kindness) that relate largely to social input; and the opportunistic benefits are defined by aspects such as having someone help with career advancements.

Buddies on your mind

The story of what we’re really missing out on, in a life with too little room for friends, becomes most tangible when one looks at the brain on friendship.

In a simple but evocative example, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2008 found that participants estimated a hill to be less steep when they were accompanied by a supportive friend, than when they looked at it alone.

In another study, published in 1990 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, students who were assigned complex math tasks recorded a higher heart rate when alone, than when they had a friend in the vicinity.

This ability to relieve harmful levels of stress and impact chances of heart disease are part of the reason science is correlating close friendships with greater life expectancy.

The idea of warmth is also a literal one, it turns out. Studies have shown that a tender, loving message from a close connection sparks the same parts of the brain that respond to feelings of physical warmth.

Researchers at the University of California asked participants to undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) scans while reading warm, positive messages from friends and family, and while holding a warm pack. The results of the scan showed that both the warm experiences — physical and social — caused similar neural activity. (Their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013.)

The test of time

Researchers refer to friendship as “intense social interaction”, and that high you feel after you talk to or meet a friend? They’re still unpacking the whole picture of what causes it, and how else it impacts the brain and body.

But what constitutes a close friendship or intense social bond, today? In place of the shared risks and shared resources of prehistoric times, is a sharing of one of the most precious commodities of our age: Time.

Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, estimates, in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, that it takes about 50 hours to transition from being an acquaintance to a casual friend, and at least 200 hours spent together, to become close friends.

“When people transition between stages of friendship they’ll double or triple the amount of time they spend with that other person in three weeks,” Hall said, in a statement released by the university.

The early meetings are often defined by self-doubt. “People tend to underestimate how much others like them at a first meeting,” says Sandstrom, who has spent years researching the “liking gap”. People often undermine their conversational skills and compare these unfavourably with those of the people they spoke to, she adds.

Simply knowing this can improve one’s ability to make new friends. “If we are aware of the liking gap, then it’s possible that we can turn off that negative voice in our heads,” she says.

It can also help to remember that an overwhelming number of people in your life are likely stressed and lonely, to varying degrees. These probably include the school friend you haven’t heard from; the former colleague you used to get drinks with.

“A steady piece of advice I give my clients is to meet more people who are different from them: meet the single friends who have nothing in common with you anymore, attend more hobby-driven activities and explore new interactions with strangers,” Dange says. In a fundamental function of friendship, “stepping out of our invisible circles helps us grow into a more well-adjusted, more compassionate and kinder version of ourselves.”

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