Friendships are rooted in a sense of mutual liking, equality, respect and reciprocity, but unlike romantic relationships there's often little clarity when they end.
Laura Eramian, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, and Peter Mallory, a professor from St. Francis Xavier University, are currently conducting a joint research project to try and understand the effects on people’s lives when friendships fall apart and why there's often little clarity when they do so.
Dr. Eramian explains that most of the social science literature on friendships tends to characterize friendship in “overwhelmingly positive terms,” focusing on its “virtuous qualities,” like “its voluntariness [and] it’s supposed to be based in equality, reciprocity, mutual liking, respect... but what’s interesting to us is how it’s actually those very same qualities that can cause trouble with people’s friendships.”
Friendships differ significantly from romantic relationships in a variety of ways. Aside from the obvious reasons, friendships often lack a predictable path of change and friends typically communicate less, if at all, about the state of the relationship, explains Dr. Eramian.
The hierarchy of intimacy
She explains that “the hierarchy of intimacy” in our culture places friendships lower than romantic relationships. In romantic relationships, there are lots of cultural sets of expectations about communication, and partners are expected to have “maintenance talks” where they discuss the state of their relationship. As a result, romantic partners often understand why a relationship ends when it does.
Dr. Eramian’s findings indicate that “there is really no sort of clear cultural expectations around what friends owe to each other, especially when someone wants to end a friendship. There aren’t any cultural scripts or rituals around ending a friendship in the way that there might be cultural scripts or rituals around ending a romantic relationship.”
There are lots of contradictions in the ways that our culture handles friendships, she says. We believe we should be able to say anything to a good friend, but, “the one thing that you’re not supposed to talk about is the state of the friendship — it’s supposed to be one of the easier, less serious relationships that provide you a refuge from the difficulties of other relationships.”
Essentially, people don’t feel as justified asking their friends to account for themselves, like they would with a long-term romantic partner.
The importance of friendships
Dr. Eramian first started thinking about friendships and their role in our culture from her long-term research on personhood in post-genocide Rwanda. She explains that “our very categories of kinship versus friendships don’t actually map that well cross-culturally.”
In our current society, the place of friendship is evolving. Dr. Eramian explains that a lot of modern social scientists are challenging the “hierarchy of intimacy” that places friendships below romantic relationships, as people are looking to friendships to “shape their personal communities and decentre marriage and traditional family life.”
Dr. Eramian explains that this changing role of friendship in our culture informs and inspires her work with Dr. Mallory, as their findings show that friendship is extremely important in people's lives.
"We cannot fully understand friendship if we don’t pay attention to its difficulties as well and especially how difficulties are shaped by the larger social and cultural world in which we live out our friendships ... that context for us is important to understand friendship in a broad sense and not just as a positive force of affirmation in people's lives.”
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