Are we hurting our friends and ourselves by clinging to childish ideas of friendship?

Stories of inseparable friends who stood together through thick and thin have been with us since childhood. But are they true to our experiences?

Tilottama Barua
Published : 11 March 2023, 02:04 PM
Updated : 11 March 2023, 02:04 PM

As children we are shown all sorts of illusions about how the world works. To me, the most harmful myths are about romantic relationships. We’re spoon-fed fantasies about how they’re supposed to look and feel, what they mean, and how they’re supposed to fulfil us in every single way. Movies, books, music – all of them advocate an idealised form of love.

They don’t often show the communication, the compromise, the ruptures and repairs. They rarely show how partners can grow bored with one another or be attracted to others. They don’t track the ebbs and flow of a relationship as two people grow and change. More non-traditional dynamics like queer relationships or polyamory are seldom, if ever, discussed.  

Lately, I’ve started to wonder - do we need to shatter similar childish notions of friendship?

In some ways, friendships are harder to pin down than romantic relationships.

It’s not always obvious when a friendship ends. Compared to romantic relationships, the rules seem even looser. There are no explicit guidelines. It’s hard to think of exact moments when people become friends. Sometimes, it’s just as hard to know if a friendship has ended. So, how do we know if we’re friends with someone?

Movies and books and TV shows all talk about how friendships last forever. That you don’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. How they can be your found family and stick by you through thick and thin.

Even the common saying ‘blood is thicker than water’ is believed to derive from another saying with the opposite meaning - ‘Blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb’ - which suggests that some bonds of friendship can be stronger than family ties.

As I’ve grown older and experienced different stages of life, I’ve seen friends come and go. In some ways, friendships do feel like romances. You meet someone, you can spend years getting to know them, and you try to figure out whether you fit as companions, though platonic ones.

But even that phrase, which we use to separate friends from lovers, shows how exalted the concept of friendship is. The term platonic love derives from the Greek philosopher Plato. In his text Symposium, a group of Ancient Greek thinkers come together to discuss the concept of love. One speaker draws a distinction between an earthy love, one that is based in sexual desire, and a divine love, one which transcends the physical and becomes spiritual. It is this ‘spiritual love’ that has come to be called platonic. No wonder that the lie of childhood best friends staying just as close throughout their whole lives is still repeated to this day.

Ultimately, I think friendship, like any relationship, is about human beings interacting with each other to figure out how we feel and react. As we spend time together, we try to figure out what works for us and what doesn’t. And this can change. It takes time to find people with whom we can enjoy a genuine, long-lasting relationship. And as we grow older and take on different responsibilities, the number of people in this group grows small.

So, how do we decide who will be part of our tribe? Mine has three basic criteria.

First, we need to understand how we respond to their presence. Do we feel anxious, excited, affectionate, safe, joyful? In some ways, our physical reaction can be just as telling as our annoying, overanalysing brain.

Two, how authentic can you be with them? Do you have to filter yourself? Do you feel like you have to walk on eggshells? Or are you comfortable enough them who you truly are at your very core?

And third, if you ask them for feedback, will they be honest while being loving and respectful? To me this is one of the most essential aspects of friendship.

I need people around me who will call me out when I do something wrong, but I also need them to do it in a caring way that understands that we all make mistakes and there is room to grow. I want to better myself, but it can be hard to take direct criticism. It is possible to get so caught up in our own perceptions that you can’t get a clear view of the objective situation. When I hurt someone, I want to know and understand my mistake and adjust my behaviour accordingly.

These may not seem like the building blocks of the friendships spoken of in our myths, epics, and legends. But they are, for me, the basis for a strong, lasting connection where we find joy in each other’s company. It may not seem like a lot to ask, but it isn’t easy either.

Adjusting our understanding of friendships will free us from the unrealistic expectations that were set in our childhoods. If we do so, we won’t put undue pressure on our friends or ourselves to meet these lofty goals. Instead, we will be able to see people for who they are and, hopefully, appreciate them more fully.   

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.