There’s a strong chance it’s just me, or the lingering effects of a year of social distancing measures, but it seems that as I speed towards my thirties, my pool of friends is slowly shrinking. Sure I know more people than before – I meet new ones all the time after all – but it feels like I’ll soon be able to count the people I’m actually close to on one hand. With many of my friends getting married and having babies, it’s becoming harder and harder to coordinate time together. Even when adults in long term relationships do have time, they’re more of a ‘we’ than an ‘I’, and it’s nearly impossible to bond in the same way we did a decade ago. It all feels just a little depressing – not to mention isolating – and television hasn’t been helping. In fact, I’d argue that sitcoms in particular are to blame for many of the unrealistic expectations that I had about adult friendships in the first place.
We’ve long been exposed to unrealistic tropes in television and film. Romantic relationships in particular have received the Hollywood treatment so many times that we’re immune to it. Of course their chance meeting is unrealistic. Obviously they’ll end up together in the end despite all the curveballs the film’s plot throws at them. We’ve become experts at separating what we see in on-screen romantic relationships from our own less-polished lives. But some other on-screen relationships have received somewhat less attention, and it may have an even more damaging effect on our expectations of adult relationships.
Writing for Vox, Cate Young says that in life, “there are rarely any perfectly timed meet-cutes or mad dashes to the airport, and the chances of an ironic misunderstanding that lead you to the love of your life are slim to none. But less attention has been devoted to how television and movies shape our perception of friendships, too, in ways that don’t always reflect reality”.
Hit television sitcoms like Friends, New Girl, and The Big Bang Theory run for years, showing us what perfect adult friendships should look like. You all live conveniently close to one another – often in the same building – and you all have the same interests. You work together, frequent the same one cafe, bar or restaurant. You support each other in every endeavour, and somehow are always around when one of your crew needs you. In the end, you all end up dating or married to someone in your original friend group which conveniently allows you to continue to hang out with your clique without disrupting the dynamic too much. Somehow, every member of the group lacks any significant social attachment outside of the group. It all looks so effortless. So simple.
Yet, according to Young, “it’s a stark difference from the way we know friendships operate in our own lives — as meaningful but sometimes fleeting relationships that can eventually dissolve because we have no language, script, or social expectation for how to seriously integrate friendships into our adult lives”.
In reality, building and maintaining adult friendships are not just time consuming and challenging, research shows they’re actually in decline. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 22% of millennials claimed to have “no friends,” compared to 16% of Gen Xers and 9% of baby boomers. Our real life friendships, when we do have them, are put under the pressure of conflicting work schedules, distance, conflict, or just tested by how we change as we grow older. Our priorities switch, and we lose interest in going out for drinks – an activity that formerly glued our friend group together. We no longer have time to meet for coffee and a catch up between classes, because we no longer have classes. Or, come to think of it, money for that daily coffee now that we have to pay for rent in the city.
None of this is ever shown to us in these perfect, sitcom adult friendships. In fact, we miss out on seeing these challenges, and learning from them, because as soon as the televised clique is separated from the one localised hangout which serves as the glue for their friendship, the show ends. We don’t get to see the crew from Friends play out their lives after they leave Monica’s purple apartment. Young notes that “even workplace comedies such as The Office and Parks and Recreation end with their characters moving on from the jobs that brought them all together in the first place…the story ends as the characters move on not just with their lives but also with the very narrative premise that binds them”.
With more of us moving around for work or travel, and an increasing number of our relationships going digital, we lack examples which teach us how to navigate adult friendships outside of the localized sitcom model. We’ve been trained to believe it should be easy to connect, and maintain that connection, only to be greatly disappointed by reality.
It’s time we saw a shift in how on screen friendships are portrayed that reflect their real life challenges. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the aspirational nature of television, but it’s depressing to aspire for something that doesn’t, and can’t, actually exist. The Friends model is out of date, and like many television relationships have changed recently, the friendship dynamics we’re exposed to are in need of an overhaul too. We need television that is representational of all our real life struggles – this one included – so that we can learn to navigate them without feeling like we’re doing something wrong all the time.
Until then, this is your reminder to stop believing that adult friendships are supposed to be effortless, or even permanent. You can choose to work hard at them (send some friends a message right now and arrange a coffee date) or, I suppose, you could watch something less deceptive. Try a good horror perhaps. At least we know those are fiction.