Originally published in The Creative Cafe.
We live in a time where relationships — all types, not just romantic — are all too often seen as disposable.
If it takes more than the bare minimum effort to stay in touch, we melt out of each other’s lives. If it’s not convenient, we give up on ever spending time together. If letting go is easier than holding on, we let go. And it usually is.
Letting go has become so easy. We’re all drunk on options.
People become static. They become the noise we try to drown out. We’re swamped with little rows of profile pictures, reducing people to still images.
We let people shrink down to little more than the ways they can benefit us.
And we forget that they too sometimes wake up at 3am scared about where their lives are going, and sometimes don’t recognise themselves in the mirror, and have tiny things that bring them inexplicable joy, and have hopes and dreams and fears.
Looking beyond their surface is too much work. We forget that what we know them as is a thin veneer hiding the messy, confused truth.
We forget because there’s always someone else to swipe right to, pitch, harass on Linkedin, or chat with. It’s not like we’re living in a village of 50 people where pissing someone off causes serious problems — and if we do, there are a billion others online.
So why bother? Why bother to text and check if they got home okay? Why bother to remember their birthday or their favourite song? Why bother getting in touch just to see how they are? Why bother to take a picture of them laughing in the sunshine if it’s not Instagram worthy? Why bother to get on a train and see them when they move away?
You can burn bridges all day long
My experience of relationships as a 20-year-old living in a big, densely populated city is no doubt skewed to the extreme end. In London, you can burn bridges all day long and you’ll still have options.
There are so many people to date, befriend, network with, work with, have drinks with, or whatever that any single relationship is largely meaningless. It’s replaceable.
And every day I hear about another new app designed to help people in cities make friends because we’re all so bloody lonely.
But what the makers never seem to understand is that lack of choice is not the problem.
Swiping and matching with theoretically like-minded people is effortless. Meeting those people and getting to know them and coordinating plans to meet again is hard work.
Those apps are only worsening things. They promise us friendship at the push of a button. Friendship as a series of quick hits of validation.
When in reality, true, long-lasting, deep, rewarding friendship does involve challenges and emotional labour. It means dealing with the less sunny sides of people, letting our guard down, and accepting them as a full package.
The irony is that the people who make these apps evidently forget that is that their users are just like them: human beings who pour too much of themselves into their work, have fractured attention spans, too little time, and an unwillingness to commit when there might be a better option.
The Pokemon Mentality
Lately, I’ve received a few emails from teenagers, still in high school, asking how they can handle anxiety and make friends. A question I’m far from qualified to answer.
But it’s not that different to when people email me asking how they can find freelance clients. The answer is: you don’t need to find clients. You’ve been misled into thinking you need dozens and dozens of clients to be successful. Instead, you need to focus on finding a client, then go from there.
If you pitch with the mentality that you’re looking for a single, perfect one, you’re more likely to put genuine care into it and get enough clients in the end. People can tell when you’re shotgunning.
Likewise, I try to say: you don’t need to find friends. Whatever the high school movies told you, it’s not compulsory to have a huge gang of people surrounding you every minute of the day. You do not need people to simply gravitate towards you and orbit you. Focus on building a relationship with a friend, then take it from there.
Again, people can tell when you want to collect them. If you reframe the goal as finding a single, strong friendship you’ll build deep connections and chose people worthy of your energy. Otherwise, you kill it before it has a chance.
Friends aren’t Pokemon. The ‘gotta catch em all’ mentality is not cool.
Of course, we’re never entitled to anything from anyone (aside from the million exceptions to that statement.) We have to let people go. We have to put ourselves first. Some relationships are meant to be shallow and fleeting.
I get it. Trust me, I know all the perfectly valid statements that easily become excuses for shitty behaviour because I’ve used them myself. There’s a line somewhere though. Because we’re all hurting each other, then using that hurt as an excuse to hurt others.
Worse, we’ve turned non-attachment into a source of power — as if relationships should be about manipulation and ‘winning’ by caring less.
Alain de Botton writes in The Romantic Movement:
“The word power typically signifies a capacity for action. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us power lies in an ‘ability to do or effect something or anything, or to act upon a person or thing’…But in love, this issue appears to depend on a far more passive, negative definition; instead of looking at power as a capacity to do something, one may come to think of it as the capacity to do nothing.”
W.H Auden wrote, in my favourite poem ever, ‘If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.’
Perhaps we can update that to, ‘If equal affection cannot be, let’s just be decent human beings and try to make each other happy.’