Relearning Friendship — A Great Millennial Dilemma

We were never setup to be great at friendships in the first place

At the end of last year, I publicly addressed something that I had been holding to myself for quite a while — that I was had felt abandoned by the people I called my friends.

I was in the midst of what would become a huge life transition that consumed my mind and emotional state for more than half the year. This turbulent time period turned me into a perpetual mixed bag of anger, sadness, confusion and fear with little to no guidance from the women I called my friends.

Thankfully, my brother became the most valuable asset in my life and served as a therapist, champion and number one motivator, showing up for me in ways he never had before.

But this did not stop me from feeling bitter about the women in my circle who had seemingly forgotten about me; the women who I counseled during traumatic break-ups, career crisis and family issues. I became even more disillusioned after realizing that, more often than not, in each of these friendships, I was the one most adamant about organizing meetups and check-ins — attempts that were often deprioritized by women who never initiated reaching out or checking-in on me in the first place.

I later learned that I was not the only person experiencing this phenomenon of lost, failed, unbalanced or disappearing friendships, which made me wonder — are Millennials just bad at relationships?

Until now, conversations about Millennial friendships have mostly centered on loneliness, with the finger of blame pointed towards social media. A Yougov survey, listed a number of reasons as to why making friends was so difficult for Millennials including shyness, being too busy, and feeling that friendships were too much work, but I’d argue that there are other unspoken factors driving some of this as well; things that past generations never had to account for.

After revealing my experiences last year, I was actually shocked at the amount of women who replied to my story with similar accounts of their own. The most surprising revelation was that women who had been the offenders of abandonment in my story shared with me that they too had felt abandoned by their friends.

There seems to be a tension around friendships that people don’t often speak about. One that results in experiencing sadness due to a loss of friendship, as well as guilt for not putting in the work to maintain those friendships.

Originally, in my mind, people were either one or the other- the friend putting in the work OR the friend who was always carelessly unavailable or hard to pin down. Because this was the pattern of friendships in my own life, I had never considered that people would label themselves as both the victim and protagonist in their own failed friendship stories.

So how can anyone begin to solve for such a complex dilemma that seems to be so subjective? More than that, if the people who are actively trying to keep their friendships alive are constantly brushed off, ghosted or dismissed by those who are too busy to care, how can we ever find resolution? And who, ultimately is to blame?

One theory as to why this might be happening at a great rate? Marriage.

For our parents, and their parents’ parents, marriage was more than just a key milestone- it was an ultimate life goal, and for women, this was even more so. For many, getting married and finding a husband was the key to financial stability and so it became a part of America’s formula of a “successful life”.

The way this manifests today is that, much like in the past, we endeavor to learn about the things men want. In fact, there are entire book sections on this very topic. How to be a good wife, how to keep a man, how to please your man, how to “Think like a Man and Act like a Lady”. The list goes on.

Our family and social circles also prime us for marriage. From parents & parental figures drilling into us the keys to dating, appearing likable, and sticking to our morals, to friends providing tips on how to handle bad dating behavior, how to bring up topics of discomfort, and how to interpret the things men say vs. what they actually mean.

Essentially, we dedicate entire chapters of our lives around finding our perfect romantic partner and modifying our behaviors and expectations to do so, just like our parents, and their parents did.

What past generations did not account for however, was the prospect of marriage becoming less desirable, or even less necessary overtime. Many factors play into this cultural shift of course, but between increased access to education and career opportunities for women, and mounting student loan debt coupled with unadjusted salaries for many, not only has marriage today become less appealing to some, in many cases it has felt wholly unattainable.

And while women are increasingly commanding boardrooms, and owning more of their own stories, for many of us, the part that was trained to be filled by a man by now, remains empty.

I’d go as far as to say that the idea of our partners being our best friends likely came from the fact that previous generations never had time to cultivate deep friendships outside of their marriages in the first place, which happened at much younger ages than unions today. While they could have experienced some of the same issues with their friendships, their steadfast fidelity to their partners likely meant that they didn’t need to spend as much time deliberating over those losses as we do today.

So when marriage is less attainable or ideal, who fills the void? Technically, it should be our friends- the friends who we were never trained to fully understand and whose friendships we were never taught to nourish, water or preserve overtime; the friendships that we seem to have less patience with as we each grow and evolve overtime.

In the year 2020 the only thing Millennials seem to be good at making friends with are plants and animals which makes me wonder- is the concept of having a lifetime best friend in danger of becoming a relic of our pasts?

We’ve each seen this topic explored in HBO’s Insecure this season as we are forced to witness what appears to be the heartbreaking dissolution of Molly and Issa’s long-term friendship- a downfall accelerated by failed communication, misunderstandings, and lack of transparency. In this case, both women have evolved into different versions of themselves, versions that the other is less familiar with which only serves to breed confusion & resentment.

Conversations on social media around this issue have proven that the topic of lost friendships is one of the most painful experiences many have been forced to endure:

While I’ve course-corrected my definition of “friendship” since my revelations last year, the fact remains that there is a clear need to unlearn the habits of our pasts in order to have happier, healthier friendships in the future. This includes the friendships that might even become romantic partners, because if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us aren’t doing THAT well either.

Relearning friendship means:

  • Leaning into friends and friendships with the same amount of rigor and gusto that we do when pursuing romantic partners.
  • Allowing mess-ups to happen (in moderation) and giving space for forgiveness and resolutions to occur, even if that resolution determines that the friendship will never be at the same level it was in the past.
  • Understanding the difference between “being” and “doing”- being a friend vs. making sure you’re actively “friending” by checking in, scheduling meet-ups and dinner dates at the same degree as the other.
  • Not expecting friendships to just manage themselves because it’s convenient for you not to have to do the work. Just as you’d address the way you want to be loved or tended to by a romantic partner, sometimes friendships also need updated guidelines and guardrails on how to best show up for the people we love.
  • Finding patience- both with yourself and the people you’re learning how to ‘friend’ better. It may take time, and a few adjustments along the way.

If we are going to continue living life on our own terms and changing the way things are done, why not do it with a great friend or set of friends who truly have our backs? If done correctly, the “maintenance” part of our friendships will begin to feel less like chores and more like acts of love- both for ourselves and for the people we want in our lives.

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy.

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