On the Demise of the True Love of Friends in an Age of Lost Innocence

One of the casualties of the sexual revolution has been the love that is friendship.

The Greek language has several different words for love. The love between friends is phileo, and is different from eros (physical, sensual love), storge (family love), and agape (selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love of God or another). Modern English sadly lacks such distinctions. However, in the past we were pretty well able navigate the different types of love and not read inaccurate motivations into them.

But in this hypersexualized world our capacity to distinguish among them has largely been lost and “love” between two human beings is simply presumed to mean erotic attraction.

Consider the awkward moment that might well be generated if one man were to say of another “I love that guy!” Or if a man says to another as he punches him on the shoulder, “Love you, man!” Even two (blood) brothers are almost forbidden to say to each other “I love you.” These once-common expressions from men might today create an awkward moment at best, perhaps arousing suspicions of homosexuality or unwanted advances.

Women also suffer. Consider the following incident, related by Denise C. McAllister in a recent piece in The Federalist.

Bye, I love you!” I said as I hung up the phone. My 15-year-old daughter was in the car at the time and asked who I was talking to. “My friend, Leslie, from Texas.” “A woman?” she said. “That’s just weird, mom.” I laughed. “No it’s not. She’s my friend and I do love her very much. Why shouldn’t I tell her that?” My daughter just shook her head and said, “It’s kinda gay, don’t you think?”

“No, it’s not gay … I have friends who captivate me with their beauty and intelligence. I tell them so. I tell them I think they’re beautiful and amazing. It’s nothing sexual. It’s phileo.”

“What’s phileo?” she asked. “It’s friendship love,” I explained. “It’s passionate, but not like erotic love. It’s wonderful and stimulating. It’s probably the best kind of love when you really experience it, but so few of us do.” She shook her head again. “Mom, you’re weird.”

Ms. McAllister goes on to lament,

I guess I am kind of weird. I confess: I’m very passionate about my friends. But am I the abnormal one, or is there something wrong with our society? My daughter isn’t unusual, and her response was pretty typical. Many people have that reaction to women who are passionate about their friends—and even more so for men!

Instead of friendship being noble, nonromantic, and normal, it has become the exception … [Friendship love is] a kind of love we desperately need in our lives—passionate, nonsexual love.

Anthony Esolen, writing in his book Defending Marriage, expresses the same concern regarding the demise of the love of friendship, but focuses more on its impact on men. Esolen begins by recalling the love of friendship between David and Jonathan in the Bible:

Your love to me was finer than the love of women,” laments David in a public song, when he learns of the death of his friend Jonathan.

Observing that such language (quite common, normal, and non-homosexual in the past) today shocks people, Esolen then ponders,

How have we come to this pass? For corrupted language has driven out the natural. We no longer have words to describe these friendships, or even conceive of them …

Friendship and the signs upon which it most subsist are in a bad way … The sexual revolution has nearly killed male friendship … beyond drinking and watching sports. (pp. 65-66)

He goes on to describe the mechanism by which hypersexualizing and “celebrating” aberrant sexual behavior has led to a loss of innocence. Once-innocent words and behaviors are now charged with meanings that are far from innocent; suspicion is everywhere. Esolen writes,

The bad behavior condoned is [now] suspected everywhere … At the same time, the defiant promotion of homosexuality makes the natural and once powerful friendships among boys [and men] virtually impossible (p. 69).

Thus the libertine views meant to “free” a small minority of men to openly celebrate disordered sexual passions, restricts most other men and hinders their ability to even speak of the love of friendship let alone develop deep (non-sexual) male friendships. If they do develop such friendships, the result is often awkward and leads to many untoward suspicions. It is largely the same with women now as well.

Esolen proposes the following analogy:

Imagine a world where the taboo [of incest] has been broken, and is loudly and defiantly celebrated. [Now imagine] your wife’s unmarried brother [putting] his hand on your daughter shoulder … [or] a father hugging his teenaged daughter … That gesture, once innocent, now means something (p. 63).

In a hypersexualized world, nothing is innocent. Denise McAllister makes the same point in her article and also adds some other causes:

The problem with our modern culture is friendship has been corrupted. C.S Lewis says it began with the age of sentimentality and romanticism … with its return to nature and exaltation of sentiment, instinct, and the “dark gods in the blood.” … A culture riding the wave of passion abandoned phileo for eros, and the effects on society have been devastating in ways people don’t begin to understand …

Puritanism and Victorian sensibilities have also played a role in friendship’s decline. Puritanism put a damper on passions as if they are the seat of evil within the soul … This tight control on feelings seeped into our culture, worsened by Victorian aloofness … Posture, decorum, and propriety put space even in the most intimate associations …

The sexual revolution, [is] a reaction to America’s puritanical attitudes. Everything became about sex, and this sexualization of our culture has become more intense over time. Just look at advertising … Everything is about sex. We’re saturated with it.

The effect of these two warring attitudes—Puritanism and sexualization—has had a distorting effect on friendship. On the one hand, people don’t feel free to show emotions. On the other, when they do, those feelings are sexualized. The more friendship is misunderstood and ignored, the more people will identify as homosexual and bisexual.

The more we condition our perceptions in a sexual way and the more children are exposed to sex even before they develop meaningful friendships, the less likely they will be able to separate healthy nonsexual feelings from sexual ones. Sex will become the defining feature of all their feelings. Eros will have slain phileo (op. cit.).

Anthony Esolen agrees. While not excluding the issue among women his chapter focused more on men and he concludes:

On three Greek bonds of love all cultures depend: the love between man and woman in marriage; the love between a mother and her child; and the camaraderie among men, a bond that used to be strong enough to move mountains; the first two have suffered greatly; the third has almost ceased to exist (op. cit.).

The demise of friendship is serious; it has deprived many of us of one of the more essential ingredients for life. Friends are not the same as acquaintances. True friends know almost everything about each other. Friendship involves deep sharing, loyalty, honesty, and commitment.

The ancient philosophers often spoke of the love of friendship as being deeper and greater than romantic love. Romantic love (a love that our culture overemphasizes in relation to marriage) is rife with tension, elevated feelings, and quick resentments. It is complex to say the least. Friendship is often less tense, more honest, and less easily offended. Friends can often be powerfully truthful in ways that romantic lovers cannot. The ancient philosophers had some of this in mind when they spoke of the love of friendship in a very elevated way:

  1. Seneca said, “Friendship always benefits; love sometimes injures.”
  2. Euripides said, “Life has no blessing like a prudent friend.”
  3. Plautus said, “Nothing but heaven itself is better than a friend who is really a friend.”
  4. And speaking of the piercing truth of true friendship, Plutarch said, “I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.”

Scripture praises friendship in places too numerous to mention, but here are just a few:

  1. Oil and perfume make the heart glad, So a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend (Prov 27:9).
  2. A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity (Prov 17:17).
  3. A man of many acquaintances may be ruined, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).
  4. Let those who are acquaintances to you be many, but one in a thousand your confidant … Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them. Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship (Sir 6:6, 14-17).

Do not underestimate the need to reestablish in our culture a healthy notion of friendship and the love of friends. As Anthony Esolen points out, strong, healthy, loyal friendships are a pillar of culture. Yet the demise of friendship and friendship love (phileo) is well-advanced today.

Some may object, saying, “That’s not true; I have lots of friends.” Perhaps you are an exception. But be clear that an acquaintance is not the same as a friend. A friend knows almost everything about you. A friend is someone with whom you can be yourself. A friend is able to affect the very core of your life through consolation and rebuke alike.

The loss of friendship and of our ability to speak openly of loving our friends is yet another way that the sexual revolution has wreaked havoc on us. Waving the banner of freedom, the revolution has actually eclipsed our freedom. By sexualizing almost everything, the revolution has sullied the innocence necessary to pursue rich, deep, satisfying non-sexual relationships.

Love is not a word that should be equated with sex. There were once many relationships that people spoke freely of as involving deep love and appreciation that had nothing to do with sex. In fact, the thought of sex even entering the minds of such friends would have been shocking and rejected with confusion or even revulsion.

We are not more free after the sexual revolution; we are less free. Expressing tenderness between friends and speaking of love between friends were both once possible with little or no fear of misunderstanding. In today’s hypersexualized world, they are met with cynicism and suspicion.

Here’s to friendship and the love of friendship, properly understood! Oh, how we miss you!

7 Replies to “On the Demise of the True Love of Friends in an Age of Lost Innocence”

  1. Another beautiful lesson from one of my favorite writers. I remember hearing a lecture on the same theme. The priest/lector used the example of Jesus the Christ asking Peter his friend “Do you love me? It was on the third reply Peter used the word agape and not phileo. I thought how wonderful a lesson for Peter . Not just a love for Jesus but all.

  2. A child knows that when a mother or father says “I love you.” it has nothing to do with sex. At the core of psychological conditioning of the teenager to think that all love is sex is simple repetition. This reduction of all love to sex occurred via psychological conditioning. As a famous Nazi once stated, repeat the same lie over and over, and in time most people will simply assume that it’s the truth.

    The antidote to this is for the adults in the room to perform counter-conditioning. Catholic media, bishops, obviously masculine priests, fathers, etc, can repeat to their same-sex fellows “I love you.” Catholic women can do the same to daughters and female friends. Say it in the family, say it in the neighborhood, say it from the pulpits, etc… eventually, the kids will catch on. We can take back the high ground on this issue since it is an obvious truth that love means more than sex. We simply need to remind ourselves and our young people that this is case.

  3. Msgr., an excellent reflection that should resonate with all but the most indifferent of observers of today’s culture. I believe too that the “corrupted language” that Mr. Esolen mentions extends beyond descriptions of friendship to everyday speech. It seems more and more that the loss of innocence, driven by sexual or vulgar intentions and meanings, permeates the written and spoken word. I can’t remember if I saw the phrase “the coarsening of society” in one of your reflections, but I can see how the sexual revolution is a chief culprit in bringing it about.

  4. Msgr:
    An EXCELLENT post, great analysis. Another aspect I have noticed is the current trend to turn romantic love – the love between a husband and wife – into Friendship, where the romantic love is now expected to bear the weight of both types of love. We are encouraged to marry our best friend. As a single man I have also struggled as my male friends have gotten married. In my experience, marriage seems to be the death knell of adult male friendships. As I reflect, I think this was true of my father. I really don’t think he had friends.

  5. The basic problem is that there is no friendship outside of marriage. And then there is no marriage.

  6. Thank you for writing this, Msgr. Pope! You have said it so very, very well. Surely this is an area where Christians can model something very, very different from what we see in much of the surrounding culture — if only we will! May God quicken our hearts to do just that.

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