Why We Don't Celebrate Friendship With the Same Fervor as Love

Friendship is free of the indignities, suffering and drama that characterize romantic love; it doesn't have an expiration date; we rarely suspect it to be a figment of our imagination. But love is what fuels our economy.

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An illustration showing a unicorn throwing a man of its back while a woman hangs on.
Friendship, in contrast to love, does not make us suffer. (Illustration)Credit: Shahaf Manapov
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

Valentine’s Day is a day as good as any other to take stock of the truth we have, collectively, been trying to avoid: The source of inspiration for so many intoxicating poems and novels, the oldest ideal of our civilization, the purpose of our lives – romantic love has, on the whole, dismally failed.

Anyone with eyes in his head can see that the road to romantic love is paved with an unfathomable amount of indignities: disappointing first dates; empty and demeaning one-night stands; broken promises, unenthusiastic commitments; princes turned into angry frogs; shared lives that end in lies and betrayal. Worse than these indignities are the shared lives that never end at all, and keep on staging their own tired exhaustion and powerless rage.

In the vast and varied landscape of love’s failures, divorce statistics come almost as a relief – as the sign that some will not accommodate themselves to their domestic misery, that some will not compromise their romantic fantasies and longing. (For those who are quick to over-interpret: I am not saying that love does not exist, only that the road that leads us to it is a long and arduous one.)

We have all been so busy rescuing princesses trapped in dungeons, dreaming about the princely status of frogs, feeling romantic in the kitschy light of candles, and coping with the bad dates, the anxiety of betrayal or boredom, that we have forgotten altogether to celebrate a more mysterious and no-less-sublime feeling: friendship.

Remember Jonathan and David: “ the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul ... Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1-3).

Recall Ruth and Naomi: “... whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Friendship is not about the possession of another, in soul and body. (Illustration)Credit: Shahaf Manapov

These lines express simply, straightforwardly and without agony, the powerful desire to cling to another person. Do not such words have the power of those of enraptured lovers?

I already hear the protests. Some will say that such friendship is only erotic love in disguise – that Jonathan and Ruth actually long for the body of their friend. Others will argue that love and friendship come from the same source: a general, undifferentiated affective energy that makes us cling to others in various ways. These objections either presume that sex is omnipresent, or that sex makes no difference. Both positions are part of the great conspiracy to deny friendship its uniqueness and power.

If in love and friendship we make the same promise – to cling to someone else forever – friendship is usually the one that fulfills it.

Love and friendship can indeed be confused with one another, yet they are fundamentally different. Moreover: If in love and friendship we make the same promise – to cling to someone else forever – friendship is usually the one that fulfills it. Why?

Love cannot be dissociated from sexual desire, and even emanates from it. The essence of friendship, however, is far more mysterious: It radiates from the center of the self rather than from the narrow impulse to possess another person sexually. The presence or absence of sex thus entails fundamental differences in the ways in which people will cling to each other.

In his famous “De Rerum Natura,” the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 B.C.E.) offered the most realistic – if unromantic – view of sexual desire and love. For Lucretius, sex is a sheer physical and mechanical act: insemination without much spiritual or romantic fuss. In a universe governed by chance, sexual desire is both arbitrary and fortuitous, and the sexual act is nothing more than the inflammation of two bodies rubbing against each other. The act of ejaculation is much like blood erupting from a wound, a mechanical reaction of the body. When desire persists, the wound gets infected, and this infection, Lucretius says, is what we call love.

Lucretius' poem.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For Lucrecius and countless thinkers after him, then, love is a mistake of perception: Its origin is not in our clear-sighted vision of another person but in the mechanical, involuntary, material work of the body and the illusions the body can induce.

Think about the beginning of love and friendship. Friendship does not start with a dramatic “original” event: One falls in love but one usually does not “fall” into friendship. Friendship rarely has electrifying beginnings; it is not experienced, as love often is, in a moment of revelation, epiphany. This is why a friend is usually in the background of our lives, rather than someone we are obsessed with.

Absence of drama

While we almost always recognize the feeling of falling in love, it can take us quite a long time to realize we have found a friend in someone. Friendship, then, has no dramatic, foundational beginning, nor does it entail clear social ritual or “rules of engagement” (as courtship does), nor the urgency of love. It goes along with the movements and flow of our life, and lacks the dramatic, theatrical trappings of love.

Precisely for this reason, friendship is not a disease of the imagination: We rarely suspect friendship of being a figment of our imagination. In contrast, from the beginning of philosophy (with the glaring exception of Plato), almost all philosophers have viewed love as an illusion, a mistake, even a hallucination. In accordance, Shakespeare, in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” poked cruel fun at love, by making Titania, the beautiful queen, fall madly in love with a donkey. The contemporary English philosopher Simon Blackburn put the point wryly: “[l]overs are not literally blind. They do see each other’s cellulite, warts, and squints but the strange thing is that they do not mind them and might even find them enchanting.”

In contrast to love, we rarely suspect friendship of being a figment of our imagination. (Illustrative)Credit: Danil Roudenko / Dreamstime

We can be wrong in choosing our friends, of course, but it is usually not because our mind and heart mistakenly turned a donkey into a lovable man, or because we view their warts and squints as enchanting.

Friendship, does not invent or hallucinate over its object, because it is not caused by the heat and inflammation of our desire. It derives from seeing and knowing the soul of another, as it is. Montaigne said famously about his beloved friend Laboetie that they had been friends “parce que c’etait lui; parce que c’etait moi” – “because it was him, because it was me.” The simplicity of this sentence – which seems to explain nothing – has puzzled me for a long time, but when contrasted to the origins of love, its meaning becomes more obvious: We often desire someone sexually who is far, unable to see or understand who we are. Love is therefore arbitrary, almost accidental. But friendship feels necessary, because it happens between two people who see and know each other, who share a deep understanding of the world, thus making the attraction of their souls feel inevitable.

What makes love an arbitrary emotion is that its source is in the unconscious (remember the many decent, wonderful human beings you could never fall in love with?). Some would even say that in love, we play and replay the unconscious and hidden wounds experienced by our souls. Precisely because sexual desire is rooted in our unconscious, love often chooses as its object someone who will make us suffer, feel uncared for or misunderstood.

Marcel Proust is perhaps the most well-known writer to have described the mechanics of love and sexual desire in this way, as arbitrary emotions that another has the capacity to elicit from our imagination, and unconscious longing for a lost object. The good love object is the one who will know to elicit our imagination.

Marcel Proust.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Proust’s novel “Swann’s Way,” one of the most distinguished and refined men in French society falls passionately in love with a quasi-prostitute, Odette, because only she knows how to awaken his anxieties, as well as his jealousy and longing. In Proust’s description, both love and jealousy have the same origin: namely, the capacity to imagine, to long for an absent object, to wait, full of anxiety, for someone who eludes and escapes us, whom we imagine belongs to another person.

After he has stopped loving Odette, the narrator muses: “To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type!” (translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, revised by Terence Kilmartin, 1982). There can be surely no greater or better way to disparage a feeling we spend so much energy cultivating.

Love is democratic – good and bad people can feel it (almost everyone has felt love in their lives). But real friendship is aristocratic: It is the feeling of those who can keep their promises (the ethos of the aristocrat is of keeping one’s word).

The intense state of rapture we feel in love is doomed to end six to 24 months after the initial encounter.

Friendship over justice

The loyalty of Ruth and Jonathan seems exaggerated to us modern people, but it captures the essence of friendship: A promise to cling to someone and the ability to fulfill that promise. This is probably the reason why Aristotle (and after him Montaigne) suggested that good lawmakers should pay more attention to friendship than to justice. Friendship cultivates character, and thus improves the spirit of citizens.

The talmudic injunction to “make yourself a friend” is precisely that: “make yourself a friend,” and not “make yourself a wife.” To take a wife is a social and religious imperative. Love and marriage belong to the biological realm of reproduction, to the economic need to increase wealth. Only friendship is located in the realm of freedom, and does not obey the logic of biological reproduction, or bow to the pressure to accumulate wealth, or of social norms. “Making oneself a friend” does not serve any social purpose and can happen only as a result of one’s deliberate, personal, individual will.

Love and marriage belong to the biological realm of reproduction, to the economic need to increase wealth. (Illustrative)Credit: Maria Dubova / Dreamstime

Because it is grounded in biology, love often seems to overpower our minds and hearts (to love is often to be obsessed with another). It has a sense of urgency, that of the need to possess another. It is that sense of urgency that makes one obsessed with another, to leave one’s country for another, to abandon wife and children. Love’s urgency thus entails two central forms of agony: the agony of uncertainty (Does he love me? If yes, does he love me as much as I love him? If so, will he keep loving me in this way?), and the agony of possession, wanting to own someone and thus reduce their freedom.

In Aristotle, zelos, jealousy, is associated with pathemata, disagreeable feelings: a suffering caused by the fact that one cannot possess something or someone. Zelos becomes zelotopia, a jealousy that is comical and the object of ridicule. The suffering caused by love is all the more comical when we recall the immense number of studies on the biology of bonding that show that the intense state of rapture we feel in love is always doomed to end anywhere between six and 24 months after the initial encounter.

The ecstasy of love will always go away; it fades, evaporates from our lives, sometimes turning into the sweetness of attachment and sometimes in the bitterness of burdensome promises we cannot fulfill.

Love is the invisible oil that endlessly fuels the engines of the consumer market

Friendship, in contrast, does not make us suffer. We have few artistic portraits of possessiveness and jealousy in friendship, because friendship is not about the possession of another, in soul and body. Friendship is a feeling experienced in freedom.

Why then do we not celebrate friendship with the same frantic energy with which our culture has celebrated love? The global consensus against friendship has to do with the fact that friendship does not have the histrionics of jealousy, the anxious waiting of desire, the burning disappointment of longing. Friendship does not make us suffer and thus is not the stuff of tragedies, comedies and dramas. If it is not the stuff of stories, it cannot feed the voracious economic engines of the culture industries.

Friendship does not make us suffer or look ridiculous, and thus cannot be “translated” into cinema, television, advertising, soap operas, talk shows, romance novels. Love, on the other hand, is a source of never-ending opportunities for consumption – not only of stories, experiences, advice, objects, but also endless activites of consumption: lavish weddings; dates in restaurants, movies, discotheques or operas; vacations in far-away or close touristic sites; gifts and surprises on any day of the year; the need to remain attractive and sexy by means of fashionable clothes, make-up, perfume and jewelry; the use of the multi-billion-dollar industries of pornography or Internet dating.

All of these components of sexual-romantic encounters are a central, essential axis of consumer culture. Take love and sex out of our culture, and the economy collapses, wiping out in a second the fashion-cosmetics industry, the leisure industry, the tourist industry, the cosmetic-surgery industry, the entertainment industry, the pornography and sex industry, the sex-marriage-intimacy advice-therapy industry – and last but not least, the multi-million-dollar Valentine’s Day industry, which has become an international consumer day. Love is the invisible oil that endlessly fuels the engines of the consumer market. On Valentine’s Day, and on all other days of the year, let us celebrate, without fancy restaurants or extravagant gifts, the sublime bond of friendship.

To my friends, they know who they are.