Is friendship the new marriage? Experts give their bestie advice

With more people focusing on companionship instead of romance, The National explores the modern rules of being a platonic partner

Less judgment and more stability are some pros of a healthy friendship, say psychologists. Getty Images
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Thelma and Louise, Timon and Pumbaa, Holmes and Watson – pop culture has no end of BFFs platonically taking on life together. And, according to experts, life is beginning to imitate art.

Marriage rates have fallen dramatically in recent years, with multiple reports noting that nearly 90 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with falling marriage rates. For instance, fewer than 50 per cent of Britons are now tying the knot, according to the Office of National Statistics.

At the same time, more of us are prioritising our pals, with experts stressing that friendships – perhaps more so than relationships – are essential for good mental health.

In literature, fiction by the likes of Elizabeth Day put friendship firmly at the forefront, with relatable protagonists nudging the Mr Darceys and Rochesters of novels past into sad insignificance. In his 2021 non-fiction book Friends, British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar claims the benefits of a circle of close friends far outweigh those of any single relationship and that maintaining one is the best thing you can do for your health.

But what does friendship mean to us in daily life?

The science of friendship

Often ignored by academia, friendship is now firmly in the spotlight among scientists. Researchers at the University of Utah found people with good friends recover faster from illnesses and surgery, while a study by the University of Cambridge identified social connection as the most important factor to ward off recurrent depressive disorder, cutting the risk by 18 per cent.

According to Devika Mankani, a holistic psychologist at The Hundred Wellness Centre in Dubai, modern friendships have evolved with the times, as more people stay single by choice.

Friendships are perceived as less conditional, offering stability amid the complexities of modern romantic relationships
Devika Mankani, holistic psychologist, The Hundred Wellness Centre

“Friendships offer a unique blend of unconditional support, mutual interests and shared experiences that differ from romantic relationships,” says Mankani. “They often lack the pressures and expectations that can accompany romantic relationships, allowing for more straightforward communication and acceptance.

“The platonic nature of friendships can foster a different kind of emotional intimacy and provide a diverse perspective that enriches our lives.”

Mankani, who is also the co-founder of, believes many of us are experiencing disillusionment with traditional romance and prioritising friendships out of a desire for autonomy. “Friendships are perceived as more enduring and less conditional, offering stability amid the complexities of modern romantic relationships,” she says.

“Additionally, as societal norms shift, there's a greater acceptance and valorisation of diverse forms of relationships, with friendships being recognised as equally significant.”

The rules of modern friendship

There are endless self-help books dedicated to marriage and relationships, while couple therapy has long been established as a tool for eking out resolutions. In comparison, the rules surrounding friendship are less clear, though many of us have strong beliefs about what constitutes being a good friend.

A 2022 study published in Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences journal cited selfishness as the main reason for friendships ending, followed by lack of frequent interaction and romantic involvement.

Etiquette has also changed over the years, with formal friendships of the past replaced with more intimate bonds, and different expectations as a result. “Traditional etiquette emphasises formality, but the modern approach values authenticity, flexibility and individuality,” says Samira Hammadi, founder of the Modern Etiquette Consultancy in the UAE.

Acknowledge messages promptly, even if a more extended reply is necessary
Samira Hammadi, founder, Modern Etiquette Consultancy

“Friendships now allow for more personal expression and adaptability, creating dynamics that cater to unique needs and personalities. This shift highlights the importance of being genuine within your friendships and respecting the individuality of others.”

In today’s busy world, being responsive and finding time to meet up can be difficult, but are necessary for making our friends feel valued, according to Hammadi.

“Acknowledge messages promptly, even if a more extended reply is necessary. This demonstrates that you value your friend and their communication,” she says.

“It’s also important to make an effort with face-to-face connections when possible and take the initiative to make plans. Don’t wait for the other person to reach out. Check in and show you're invested in the connection.”

It’s not you, it’s me

Whereas ending a marriage or romantic relationship leaves little room for doubt, scrapping a friendship can pose a dilemma, with bad behaviour more readily excused. Hammadi urges not to set expectations too high and to be prepared to give and take, through warns against ignoring red flags.

“If you consistently feel drained, taken advantage of or disrespected, pay attention to those feelings,” she says. “Good friendships shouldn't consistently leave you feeling this way.

“Ending friendships can be challenging, and there's no single right approach. Prioritise kindness and respect and tailor the level of directness to the closeness of the friendship.

“A brief, considerate message signalling the change is often suitable. Avoid ghosting completely unless you feel that the friendship is emotionally harmful; a simple farewell offers closure and demonstrates respect.

“Recognise the emotional impact, process your feelings and practise self-compassion.”

Updated: April 03, 2024, 10:15 AM