I used to joke that I made friends by fucking them first. It wasn’t something I did intentionally; it just kind of happened. Still reeling from the end of an intense, emotionally consuming relationship, I did what any millennial would: I turned to Tinder. I wanted distraction, validation. I wanted to fill in all the time that had suddenly become available to me. I’d been living in Melbourne for three years, always as one half of a couple. I had friends, sure, but mostly the transient kind—colleagues to get blind drunk with after our fourteen-hour-too-busy-for-a-break shifts; law school friends who existed almost entirely on campus; friends-of-friends who I saw at parties every few weeks. Wrapped up in the drama and minutiae of my relationships, I hadn’t thought to develop the kinds of friendship that would be expansive enough to fill in all the blank space I was left with. I hadn’t realised I needed to.
I dated a lot after the breakup, meeting someone new almost every other week. We’d go on a few dates, maybe even a few months’ worth, before I would ask—almost always over text, out of cowardice—if we might be friends instead. I’ve made a lot of friends this way, the kind you send a meme to every now and then, meet for coffee every few weeks. I wasn’t ready for anything serious and I knew that; if I’m honest with myself, I wasn’t ready for anything not-serious either. But that in-between space was hard to navigate. What I wanted seemed elusive, almost impossible—companionship, care, affection, warmth. I was looking for it where people go to look for that kind of thing, but always coming away with something not quite right. What I wanted, without realising, was friendship. All my close friends were in Brisbane, a two-hour flight away, but their absence was something that didn’t quite register; distance made them both there and not there. I had friends, but I didn’t.
Aristotle divides friendship into three categories: friendships of utility, of pleasure, and of the good. The first two are fleeting, premised on the need for someone rather than anything intrinsic to that particular someone. Friendships of utility are those you make with work colleagues and classmates and which centre around a mutual benefit (even where that benefit is often just not being alone). Those of pleasure are grounded in the fact of enjoying yourself with another person: the relationships you have with people in your book club or soccer team, the mates you go drinking with. These kinds of friendship I had aplenty. But, as Aristotle warned, they were short-lived and passed into nothingness when their utility or pleasure ran out. When I quit hospo, I quit my hospo friends; our circadian rhythms drifted out of sync and without our managers to complain about, there wasn’t much else to say. Friends I had gone out with disappeared when they started dating someone seriously or got graduate jobs, their time suddenly monopolised. It took me a long time to realise that these friendships had expired. Social media makes it hard to notice these things; we were, after all, friends on Facebook, members of the same group chats. We watched each other’s Instagram stories and knew what was going on in one another’s lives. But we met up less and less, and interactions became pro forma—how are yous and what have you been up tos, with abridged and sanitised replies. The illusion of friendship remained: the likes and comments, an occasional tag. Outside of the screen, though, nothing.
When I finished uni and started working freelance, opportunities to meet new people grew rare and I threw myself into the few acquaintance-ships that remained outside of Facebook, striving to turn friends-of-friends, new housemates and fellow interns into friends proper. There was a certain lack of grace to our initial exchanges, a fumbling indecision that gave our attempts to organise a mutually convenient activity an air of embarrassed neediness—we were up for anything, hesitant to make a call ourselves, always pre-empting the other person’s change of mind.
The illusion of friendship remained: the likes and comments, an occasional tag. Outside of the screen, though, nothing.
Aristotle’s third type of friendship needs effort. It is a slow-blossoming thing, needy of time and care. It is based, he says, on ‘the good’ (or, according to other interpretations, ‘virtue’)—by which he means that it is a moral good, and one founded on an appreciation of the other person’s character, rather than any pragmatic or hedonistic payoff. It is the kind of friendship that needs an overcoming of selfishness, a turning towards the other. It needs vulnerability and ugliness and inconvenience and fragile hands to bear you through it. It is a hard kind of friendship to maintain, and one harder still to develop, perhaps now more than ever. We are so hyper-mobile; so precariously employed; so busy with technocapitalism’s many distractions, and so committed to maintaining our (essentially necessary) online lives, that it is almost impossible to find the time and space for something like friendship purely for friendship’s sake.
J and I matched two days before I left Australia to start a PhD in Glasgow, messaging back and forth rapid-fire until he suggested an IRL drink, saying he understood if I had other goodbye-related plans. I did, and so we never met in person, but we had gotten along so well, had so much in common, that we were reluctant to end the conversation. We started writing, sending one another essay-length emails, dense with personal history and unfiltered musings. We’ve written about love, about politics, about having children in the face of climate change, about the joy of taking yourself out on a date. He was, bizarrely, my first friend in Glasgow. A year in, we had our first phone call and laughed at how different we sounded to what we’d imagined. Two years in, we’ve had enough conversations that the novelty’s worn off, enough that I can recognise the particular inflection of J’s vowels and notice his accent shift after a few months in South America, even as I can no longer picture his face.
The 2018 Australian Loneliness Report found that one in four Australian adults was lonely, and that almost 55 per cent of Australians feel that they lack companionship at least some of the time. It found, too, that lonely people are 15 per cent more likely to be depressed and 13 per cent more likely to be anxious. These figures are especially stark in young people. Research by the British Mental Health Foundation found similar results: one in ten people in the UK often feel lonely, including 60 per cent of 18–34 year olds. The advice to combat loneliness is almost always to get to know your colleagues, or take up a hobby—a dance class, painting lessons, yoga. It is recommended that you join a sports team or start volunteering, or that you go to places where you’ll be surrounded by people, and presumably can meet some of them—movies, bars, art galleries, public lectures.
Such suggestions seem to have friendships of utility and pleasure in mind. But people can still feel lonely even if they go to after-work drinks on Friday or play violin in the local orchestra. There is no advice on how to develop more meaningful relationships with your co-workers and orchestra mates. Worse, the advice presumes a level of middle-class comfort that seems required in order to not feel alone. I don’t have money for pilates, or to buy cleats for soccer; nor can I afford to regularly shell out for movies, events or lectures. I rarely have time between uni and work to squeeze in training or a weekly classes, which often seem geared towards people with nine-to-fives and childcare, housekeeping and dinner somehow already organised. For young people, poorly paid and working hard in entry-level positions or retail and hospitality, the likelihood of making, let alone affording, a 6pm salsa class every week is low.
When I first moved to, Glasgow, I was achingly lonely. My housemates were nice enough but rarely home, and doing a PhD meant little opportunity to meet anyone in class. I spoke to my friends in Australia as often as I could, but the time difference left far too many daylight hours empty. I went to free or cheap events sometimes, pushing myself out the door in the hope that simply by virtue of being there, I would meet a like-minded someone. But I was always too anxious to start a conversation and would leave early, disheartened. After a few months, I downloaded Tinder again. It had developed into a habit, this mode of friendship making, and without organic opportunities to meet new people, or the money to create them, it felt the easiest option.
I downloaded Bumble BFF too, though I was distrustful of it. It had that faint aura of desperation that Tinder did in its early days, a lingering sense of shame and personal failure. As Tinder has grown into an increasingly common way for people to fall in love, it has become acceptable, normal, the shame washed away in all the success. But Bumble BFF, launched relatively recently in December 2016, hasn’t been around long enough to accumulate those kind of feel-good anecdotes. And without the high-visibility markers of getting a dog together or walking down the aisle, there’s precious little to advertise when a long-term friendship does eventuate. As such, I approached it with a sense of resentment, believing ahead of time that it wouldn’t work out.
Bumble BFF follows the same pattern and layout of the Bumble dating app—it’s actually built into it (as is BumbleBizz, the professional networking version): you swipe left or right depending on whether or not you’re interested in being someone’s friend, making the call based entirely on photos and a brief bio. Some people use the same profile for friendship and dating, and the experience of swiping is an incongruous one, dotted with shirtless gym selfies and poolside bikini shots. Even when the photos aren’t intended to grab sexual attention, they’re nonetheless appearance-conscious: the physical self-promotion required to sell yourself as a sexual partner is also, absurdly, required to sell yourself as a friend.
Whereas you know you can’t be everyone’s ‘type’ to date, there’s a sense that you should, at least, be able to be friends with just about anyone.
Unsurprisingly, the app was full of people new to Glasgow or out of long-term relationships, and many profiles layed out exactly what the friendship-hopeful was looking for: gym buddies, yoga partners, mates to go clubbing with, brunch pals. The bios were written with casual bravado, no one wanting to admit to the vulnerability of being lonely. The subtext of nearly every profile is: I have friends, just not here; just not to do this with.
I had a few matches and interesting conversations, but ended up meeting only the one person. It always felt awkward to try and take it to real life, over-intentional and unnatural, somehow. More commonly, people would ask for my Instagram; we’d like a few of each other’s photos and watch one another’s stories, sometimes comment on them. But once established as Instagram friends, it was even harder to transition to the real world. M was the only person who managed to bridge the gap. She was new to Glasgow too, and we arranged to get a coffee and cruise some local op shops together. It was kind of like going on a date; I chose what I wore carefully and even did my make-up; so did she. I was nervous, and vaguely embarrassed, even more so than on my first Tinder date. At the cafe I worried the waiter would realise we weren’t actually friends, that this was our first friend-date. He would think there was something wrong with me, to have to resort to this. But he didn’t suspect and the ‘date’ was a success. M and I met up a few more times and kept messaging until I went to Bosnia for three months over summer. We fell out of touch while I was gone and, for whatever reason, weren’t able to pick things up again when I got back.
It had hurt, in a strange and unplaceable way, like an indictment of the kind of person I am. Whereas you know you can’t be everyone’s ‘type’ to date, there’s a sense that you should, at least, be able to be friends with just about anyone. But with M it was hard to know the next steps, to know how to shift from needing someone to spend time with—utility, essentially—into true friendship. There were things going on in our lives; M and her partner were having difficulties, I was sinking into the sludge of depression. Yet we were always our best selves for one another, always vibrant and funny and easygoing, always trying to make sure things stayed light. I suppose we didn’t want to burden one another and so stopped short of ever letting one another in. Without vulnerability, or much in the way of shared experiences, there was nothing for our friendship to weather, no hardship to endure and strengthen from.
Probably, too, our need to seem like the kind of people you’d want to be friends with prevented us from doing anything that might suggest desperation: following up on a text or messaging again after a few weeks of silence. We could have kept trying, of course, kept drinking coffees and scrimping for the movies. But, as with dating apps, the availability of alternatives meant we didn’t have to; there were a thousand other people only a swipe away.
I quit Bumble BFF after about a month and turned back to Tinder. The stakes seemed lower; I wasn’t aiming for a relationship, so there was no loss when one didn’t eventuate. I was emboldened by my friendship with J, and by a blossoming one with R, whom I’d also met on Tinder a few weeks before leaving Australia. R and I had gone on one date and had kept in loose contact afterwards, sending occasional memes, which grew into longer message exchanges, and finally into hour-long, rambling conversations.
Tinder might seem a strange place to find friends, but the borders between romantic, sexual and platonic feelings are notoriously nebulous. Most often, this is conceptualised in reference to heterosexual couples and the ‘consolation prize’ of friendship when dating doesn’t work out, or the uncomfortable ‘friendzone’ that men (it’s almost exclusively men) have to inhabit when their female love interests don’t reciprocate their affections. Western media can’t get enough of storylines about cis heterosexuals stuck between romance and friendship—Ross and Rachel of Friends being the paradigmatic example. Because a sexual and romantic relationship is presented as the ideal outcome, anything that falls short of that reads like a loss. But the boundaries between friendship, sex and romance are blurred outside of the heteronormative model too, often to more positive effect. In queer relationships, for example, shifting from lovers to friends or to something inbetween is far more common, and asexual-identified people productively trouble the apparent links between romance and sex, not cleaving the two in James Bond-like fashion, but forging myriad alternative relations instead. Increasingly, even on Tinder, an app designed primarily for cis heterosexuals with sex and/or romance in mind, friendship in its own right is increasingly, wonderfully, possible.
Tinder might seem a strange place to find friends, but the borders between romantic, sexual and platonic feelings are notoriously nebulous.
A and I lived 40 miles and 10 quid away from one another when we matched, and neither of us had the time nor money to pursue anything serious. Still, we liked each other, wanted to know each other. We met just once, when I happened to be in town, and spent a few easy hours wandering through art galleries and bookshops and up the hill to Edinburgh Castle. In-app, there had been no hint of attraction (beyond the initial swipe), and no suggestion of physicality; real life was no different. It was comfortable, and fun, and we decided to start emailing, thinking (rightly, I suspect) that if we stuck to messaging, we’d get busy, or lazy, and fall out of touch. Our emails are infrequent, every two months or so, but lengthy, and full of all the detail you can only tell a stranger on the internet—all the things M and I couldn’t say. Early on, in a staggering act of trust and offering of self, A came out as trans. I was one of the first people she told, a disclosure made safer, perhaps made possible, by the disconnect between our day-to-day lives and those we lived in our inboxes.
Close friendship is precious because it’s so difficult to develop. It’s hard to put yourself out there to someone, to expose yourself. In a sense, this is why it was easy to grow close to J and to A; the risk of exposure, and of hurt, is limited when you exist primarily as text. I imagine this is why so many of my high school friends had MSN Messenger boyfriends and girlfriends—people that they’d never met but whose conversation they turned to every night, religiously. I imagine, too, that this is one reason people turn to Tinder, in search of the kind of connection friendship is supposed to offer. It is easier—quicker—to find intimacy via the literal exposure of yourself during sex than it is to work on it in the slow build.
Of course, Tinder is still Tinder, and it still comes with the ugliness that online semi-anonymity allows. It can be an uncomfortable, even dangerous space; one that is still demarcated primarily by heteronormative imperatives, the most innocuous of which can be taken advantage of by bad actors. But something new is happening, I think. While it’s true that most users are on Tinder looking either for a relationship or casual sex, over recent years I’ve noticed an ambiguous sort of reaching out taking place, an openness to what may come, a desire to inhabit a space outside of either hook-ups or commitment. Increasingly profiles state explicitly that they’re looking for friends, or for ‘connection’, someone to hang out with or share experiences with, that they don’t know what they want but are open to anything. Even the recent proliferation of polyamorous users, I think, hints at a desire for connection and friendship deeper than sexual intimacy in and of itself.
I was nervous when C and I went on our first date. She was (is) beautiful, tall and willowy, a few years older than me and comfortably polyamorous. I wasn’t (am not) poly, and felt uncool, even parochial, in the face of her relationship politics. We dated for a month or two. She was seeing a few other people at the time, including a primary partner, and we saw each other sporadically to go roller skating or make rice paper rolls, to build a cat tree. I went to Bosnia and then C to London, and when she came back, things were different. I had met someone, C had broken up with her someone. We didn’t want the same things as we had before, a mismatch of desires that could have ended things but instead shifted them. C stayed the night and we talked things over, curled against each other. In the morning we drank coffee in bed, went for a walk, made plans for what would become a sweet and gentle friendship.
The entanglement of friendship and physicality is unsurprising; both have always involved a degree of proximity and touch. As children it was easy; we braided hair, held hands, threw arms around one another with unselfconscious, innocent affection. But as adults, and especially in friendships made in adulthood, we are more careful of each other, more careful of ourselves. We have learned that to touch, and especially to touch a body too much like our own, is to show weakness, queerness. We have been socialised to see touch as only familial or only sexual and taught to see it in either case as proprietary. Many of us, devastatingly, have learned the way that touch can be turned against us. It is a dangerous thing, full of risk and misunderstanding, and adult friendships are frequently devoid of it, except in greeting or farewell.
I am tactile person, affectionate. In Australia, my friends and I had carved out a space for safe and trusting affection, that easy physicality of close friendship. We were warm with each other: hugs so deep you sink into them, shared beds without a hint of arousal, back rubs and fingers through one another’s hair, heads resting on shoulders. So far from its possibility, I craved this affection more than ever. Even after I had made friends in Glasgow, through uni and my housemates, that kind of closeness was impossible. But a simulacrum could be found on Tinder, and sometimes the intimacy of it lingered after the heat had worn off.
Aristotle wrote that friendship is ‘most necessary with a view to living…for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.’ Even with such explicit support from one of Western philosophy’s founding fathers, we don’t think much about friendship these days, hardly philosophise about it, rarely make art about it. Yet historically, it’s played a much larger role in our happiness than our spouses have: marriage, after all, was most often an economic decision, or not at decision at all. As marriage became increasingly an endeavour of love, and as Hallmark, Hollywood and the happy-wedding industry worked to prioritise the monogamous man-woman ideal, marriage itself came to be seen as necessary for a fulfilled life, obfuscating the need for other meaningful relationships.
As Hallmark, Hollywood and the happy-wedding industry worked to prioritise the monogamous man-woman ideal, the desire for marriage obfuscated the need for other meaningful relationships.
I like that the word we use to describe love in friendship is ‘platonic’. Not that Plato actually talked about that kind of love—‘Platonic love’ as described in The Symposium is rising through different kinds of love, from the Vulgar Eros of physical attraction and pleasure, to the Divine Eros of soul attraction, transcending into love of the Divine. The two Eroses were connected, part of the same pursuit of totality of being; but they were of a different order, the one compulsive and shallow, the other deeper, slower-moving, profound. Now, of course, what we mean by platonic love is compressed into ‘non-sexual love’, its movements and flows, its multiplicity, lost in the exchange. Platonic love in the modern conception has no sexual element, and is often considered to be somehow at risk if once it did, or should one arise.
What I like most about the word ‘platonic’, though, is folded into its other meaning: the idea that what makes up our physical world is not real or true, but merely an imitation of an ideal, non-physical essence. For every thing in our world, there is its corresponding ideal—platonic—form: its first and perfect version. I know that this is not what we mean when we say ‘platonic love’, nor do we mean a love that has moved through and beyond carnality and attraction. But there’s something to be said for the way that platonic gestures at the possibilities we ignore in our bending towards romance and sex: the possibility of rich friendships where romance didn’t work out; friendship as a worthy and necessary goal in and of itself.
L and I went on a date on my birthday last year, a few months after I moved to Glasgow. L was jocular, talkative, easily vulnerable. We went out a handful of times, then didn’t see each other for a while, a sort of mutual ghosting. Neither of us wanted to actually date, but having gotten along so well and known each other so briefly, it was hard to know where else to go. Eventually, I messaged and asked him for coffee, and amid anecdotes about dates gone hilariously awry, our shared inability to get over our exes, and frank conversations about sex and our various anxieties, we crossed firmly into friendship.
When I came back from Bosnia, L moved into the room next to mine. We are close, and our household is an intimate one. He and my other housemate often lie in bed with me, drinking hot chocolate and watching movies on someone’s laptop. We give hugs, often and warmly, and laugh at the thin walls between our rooms; we tease one another and are protective of one another. I often marvel at the generosity and care of our friendship, and its unlikelihood; the fact of our having dated compelled us into intimacy, but it could have just as easily ensured that we never spoke again. Similarly, I am awed by my friendships with C, with A, with R and with J, with the numerous others who have slid into my life by virtue of a dating app, who could have slid out just as easily, but stayed.