Are we losing love but finding friends?

Our friends are fast becoming our ‘new family’ replacing traditional relationships with partners, an expert on gender studies claims...

The claim is being made by Professor Sasha Roseneil, Director of Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, at the University of Leeds. Her research found that our female pals are becoming more and more important to us in our lives than ever before.

The emphasis on being a couple and finding a partner seems to be fading, with people reporting that their friendships are the relationships they nurture the most.

They are developing their friendships whether they’re a couple or not, and those who are living with their partners or spouses are still saying their mates come first.

According to Professor Roseneil’s report, one third of all households in Britain consist of people living alone, but, amid visions of Bridget Jones and evenings in with the cat and a bottle of red, it seems these loners are not lonely. No, they’re too busy keeping up social arrangements with their buddies to think about it.

Women have always had intimate and supportive friendships with each other, but at the same time still wanted a mate – a partner or husband to share the good times with and lean on in the bad. But Roseneil says we’re forgetting the fellas and finding our friends instead.

Talking to women who have made such a choice sheds some light on the situation. Tara, 32, has been single for three years. She says “I know I can rely on my friends, they’re here for ever. I’ve had a bad relationship that really spoilt my trust in men, but mostly, my friends have never let me down. I’d always put them first”.

Following marriage breakdowns and the painful endings of long-term relationships, people are afraid of being hurt again and are putting their efforts into developing their social networks instead, rather than searching for romance.

Roseneil claims that her interviewees preferred to offer their friendships the love, affection, care and support they normally preserved for their sexual partners. Putting their energies into their friendships meant they didn’t have to take a chance with the emotional risks present in a traditional romantic relationship.

Does this mean that we’re giving up on love? With the increase of divorce and relationship breakdowns (in 1961 there were 27,000 divorces in Britain, compared to the 160,000 of 2001), it certainly seems we need to think about how we’re going to receive the support and warmth we need as humans, when we might not be able to rely on getting it from a monogamous, long-term partner anymore.

Another factor to consider is women’s increased earning power. Breadwinners are no longer necessary with our increased potential to bring in a decent wage and keep ourselves fed. In search of our careers, we find ourselves moving away from the places we grew up.

The further women travel from their families and community networks to land the perfect job, the more they need to rely on the contacts they find themselves to fulfil the family role. Lisa, 30, moved cities to get her big break in accounting, and had to build her social circle from scratch, so places a lot of importance on these friendships.

She says: “I’m not that close to my family – my friends are like the family I didn’t really have. I’ve stood up boyfriends up to be with friends in crisis!”

Roseneil feels that the “conventional heterosexual couple and family” are not as commonplace as they used to be, and people are actively seeking different bonds where they used to seek a mate. She says friendship is a socially significant relationship that needs to be recognised as much as romantic relationships, because they’re becoming first choice for many.

Does this mean then, that those women who dump their pals whenever a new man comes along are becoming a thing of the past? Let’s hope so! But what does the future hold for our dreams of love? Not all women are choosing to ditch their guys and bring in the gals, which is a relief for the human race.

Nina, 32, says: “I like my friends but my partner is very supportive. He and the children come first.”

Friends are immensely important (after all, who else is going to tell you when your bum really does look big in that dress?), because with shifting social ties and fast paced lives receiving support from others is worth its weight in Jimmy Choos.

Certainly, an emphasis on friendship is positive for singletons who don’t want to be labelled as ‘spinsters’ searching for a mate (in true Bridget Jones fashion). But men will never be ditched completely, let’s face it, there are some things that just can’t be substituted!