Why don’t we prioritize friendships?

Friendships never seem to be celebrated the same way that other relationships are. But why is that? Vivian Dang explores what it is that causes some friendships to fade away, and others to last a lifetime.

My sister once told me that our mother had given up hope that she’d ever marry. She added wryly, that I’m the “Jane” to her “Lizzy Bennet”, because at 28, I still have a chance at love — according to my mother.

When relationships are constantly revered, it makes me wonder: when was the last time we saw friendships celebrated like an anniversary or relationship?

“Did you see so-and-so celebrate their 10-year friendiversary on Instagram? I’m so happy for them. They make cute friends!” 

It doesn’t exactly carry the same excitement and importance as other announcements pertaining to couples or families.

Which begs the question, what purpose do friendships serve? Why do certain friendships last while some gradually fade away?

Relationships first, friendships last

“In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all these come first,” Julie Beck, the senior editor of The Atlantic writes.

Which is probably why, three years ago, my mother decided to sit me down for a “serious” conversation. 

Not one to mince words, she told me plainly, “You need to find a partner. When you’re dying on your deathbed — trust me — your friends won’t be there for you.”

I calmly assured her that regardless of how busy my friends are, they would surely spare a few minutes to visit their dying friend.

She scoffed. “Please, they’ll be too busy with their family to come and see you.” 

It’s hard to ignore cultural pressures of relationships when people, like my mother, demand me to prioritize it. 

The societal pressures surrounding dating are just as hard to avoid. When you reach a certain age, it’s unacceptable to be single because why would you actively choose to be? 

The key takeaway, as defined by my mother or much of society, is that romantic relationships are No.1 priorities, while friendships are merely a benchwarmer to this.

Photo Credit: Emma Bauso

The myth of single shame

When I catch up with acquaintances, I’m greeted with well-intentioned but unsolicited advice and opinions about what I need to do to increase my chances of meeting men. 

You can be accomplished in all facets of your life, but society loves to remind me that my life is somehow incomplete because I’m single.

The implied sense of shame that I should be feeling undermines all of my accomplishments outside dating — a single, self-sufficient woman who has incredible friends, a successful career, and a pretty darn good writing repertoire

Shani Silver, a writer for Refinery 29 debunks the notion of single shame in her article, Why it’s not shameful to be single after 30. “Single shame isn’t real. It’s just something society invented. The only shame I feel around being single comes from my interactions with others, not from my interactions with myself.” 

“But it’s really hard to convince other people that there’s no shame in being single when the thought has never occurred to them before — because it never had to.”

When relationships are so heavily regarded, it becomes clear why we don’t make friendships the centre of our lives: society and culture simply don’t bother to prioritize it in the first place. 

Understanding friendships  

As life goes on, we shift our focus to our partners and our family and friendships become less of a priority. It’s normal to go months without seeing a friend, but you wouldn’t do that with a significant other. 

Because friendships are voluntary, they lack a formal structure or commitment, making them more susceptible to transience. Not all friendships last. Like romantic relationships, they often serve us for a moment in time rather than a lifetime. 

Less than a third of my high school friendships continued after graduation. Despite promises to continue hanging out, these invitations became fewer as conflicting schedules and lack of effort became commonplace. 

I accepted these declining friendships as a healthy part of adulting. We were growing up and our values simply didn’t align with each other anymore. 

William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, notes, “Friendship is a relationship with no strings attached except the ones you choose to tie, one that’s just about being there, as best as you can.”

As I got older, I started to evaluate my friendships based on how meaningful they were. I had “fun” friendships, where we’d party together and have a good time, but our interactions didn’t extend beyond Friday nights. 

I craved deeper, more intimate friendships that could stand the test of time.

This desire can be viewed through the lens of Shasta Nelson and Rachel Wilkerson Miller’s unique tools for evaluating friendships.

Nelson describes a concept called the “friendship triangle,” where the base is positivity and the two sides are consistency and vulnerability. 

A diagram of the Frientimacy Triangle from Nelson's book, "Frientimacy"
The Frientimacy Triangle diagram by Shasta Nelson

Similarly, Miller developed a diagnostic tool called “TME”. In other words, looking at your friendship through Time, Money, and Energy — your most valuable resources. 

Navigating a friendship break-up

Both concepts made me reflect on a recent friendship break-up that I went through. 

Our 15-year friendship was an extraordinary, brag-worthy epic that became the pride of many conversations. But over the last two years, our lives had diverged in many different ways — she lived an hour away from me, her studies demanded a huge chunk of her time, and she was also navigating her first serious relationship. 

I continued to reach out to her, but it quickly began to feel one-sided. 

For her, busyness was the primary reason why I didn’t hear from her or why hangouts were regularly postponed.

Soon, the busyness response became a simple excuse. We’re all busy; it’s how we choose to prioritize our time that matters.

After battling feelings of resentment, I initiated an honest conversation to explain how I felt about the situation. Following a heartfelt apology and reassurances that she valued our friendship, she promised she’d try harder to reach out to me.

Two months later, nothing changed. Then, the pandemic happened and the isolation compounded the distance I already felt in our friendship.

When provincial restrictions loosened in May, I reached out to see if she would feel comfortable meeting up. Mid-June was her response: school projects were piling up and she needed to buckle down and focus.

Shortly after, I saw weekly Instagram stories of her spending time with her boyfriend and participating in virtual social activities.

I confronted her about what I saw on social media. I was frank about how incredibly devalued it made me feel.

“When you tell me that you’re too busy to see me until mid-June, but you’re clearly making time for other people in your life — it’s like a slap in the face”, I told her. 

I didn’t need daily texts or weekly hangouts, I told her. I just needed to know that I mattered in our friendship; that she was equally invested.

These two conversations forced me to take an honest look at our friendship and how quickly it changed. Despite both our efforts to try and mend the friendship, it was clear that we didn’t value the same things anymore.

Two months later, I ended our friendship.

Moving toward “Big Friendships”

Recently, the book Big Friendship: How we keep each other close came highly recommended to me. 

Penned by two real-life friends, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman coined the term “Big Friendship” to differentiate from the word “friends”, a rather nebulous term. 

For Sow and Friedman, they define Big Friendship as “a bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phases, geography, and emotional shifts… it is reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways. A Big Friendship is active. Hearty. And almost always, a Big Friendship is mature. Its advanced age commands respect and predicts its ability to last far into the future.”

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

When I reflect on my friendships this past year, I’m honoured to have friendships where we actively choose each other every day, regardless of how chaotic our lives are. 

Friendship may be voluntary by nature, but it’s also fragile. If you want deep, meaningful friendships, you need to intentionally nurture it through investment, consistency and prioritization.

Getting clear on the meaning of friendship 

A scene from Someone Great (2019). Photo credit: Variety

I’ve realized more and more that some friendships arise out of circumstance, convenience, or history. 

These reasons aren’t enough for me.

When life gets in the way, what strengthens a friendship is the conscious choice to invest in the friendship and the ability to evolve with it. 

I don’t want a “sometimes” friendship that pops up at someone’s convenience, only to disappear once it’s no longer convenient. 

Friends are the family you choose. They’re the constant in your life, throughout all of life’s idiosyncrasies. 

But you have to approach them with intention, and keep choosing them over and over again.

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