Love is blind, goes the old saying, whereas friendship closes its eyes. The problem with closing our eyes, however, is that at some point we open them, and what happens when we take in the full and, perhaps, less than flattering picture of our dearest friends?
That’s the premise of Martin McDonagh’s bleak comedy, The Banshees of Inisherin, which has wowed critics and set audiences wondering. One day, during the Irish civil war on the beautiful, though grindingly uneventful island of Inisherin, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) goes to pick up his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) for their daily pint in the local pub.
But Colm doesn’t want to go with Pádraic. In a crude early-20th century version of “airing” or “ghosting”, Colm speaks to him only to say that he no longer wants to speak to him. What follows is a rather desolate if amusing study of male friendship, its habits, limits and lack of mutual understanding or emotional intimacy.
Although the film’s setting is a harshly rural outpost of Ireland in 1923, counsellor and psychotherapist Adrian Wilson-Smith says that he regularly encounters similar attitudes in his male clients in the UK in 2022.
Having a circle of good friends is known to increase life expectancy and improve mental health. Yet Wilson-Smith says that he sees a lot of men over 40 “who see no need for real friendships”.
Drawing on Aristotle’s classification of friendship, he divides non-sexual relationships into three distinct categories: functional, partying and enduring.
“There are a lot of men having functional relationships with other men – I know this guy because he can help me out with my business idea. Or partying – these are the guys that I go out with for a drink or a line of coke. But enduring friendships, of the kind seen in many female-to-female friendships, are not something that most men over 40 see any need to have.”
Friendship, it seems, is yet another field of life in which women appear to be outperforming men. According to Richard Reeves’s new book Of Boys and Men, men are struggling by comparison with women in almost all endeavours, except earning more money and running the world.
If all this seems like an anachronistically gendered view of human relations, there is a wealth of behavioural studies, almost all focused on heteronormative subjects, that show that women make and maintain friendships in markedly different ways to men. Women, for example, are more inclined to have best friends, and men are more likely to socialise in groups – though anyone who’s witnessed a full-blown hen party may want to challenge that particular finding.
What research unambiguously shows is that, as Wilson-Smith puts it, “most heterosexual men look to their partners to do their social organising for them”. Jed Novick, a 64-year-old lecturer, is a long way from the archetype of the repressed male. He dresses flamboyantly, for example, and is partial to fedora hats. While never comfortable with what he terms lad culture, he spent most of his 20s and 30s socialising with groups of male friends, often in bars.
That all changed when he got married at 36. Thereafter, he says, his wife, Gilly, began to arrange dinner parties and gatherings. He was largely content with her taking the social lead, although “a little bit resentful that if I ever suggested someone who wasn’t in that circle, it kind of never happened”.
After a while he realised that his old friends “were in a different zone to the rest of my life”, and in any case most of them had settled into similar partner-curated social scenes themselves, a development that was only cemented by children and the parental relationships formed in the schoolyard.
Novick savours the relationships in his active social life but says: “It’s 90 per cent generated by Gilly. If she didn’t do it, there would be tumbleweed going through my calendar.”
Wilson-Smith attributes male social passivity to a lack of emotional engagement and a preoccupation with other aspects of life, like work, money and sport.
In The Banshees of Inisherin, neither man is married, and social life is stripped down to the mundane happenings of one lone bar, wherein the fracturing of a friendship is played out in the most public fashion.
Nowadays there are far more discreet and subtle, though no less hurtful ways of bringing a friendship to a close. Journalist and impresario Mat Snow is still pained by the experience of losing a friend in an online spat about Brexit in 2016. It was a complex debate about whether the labour market favoured eastern Europeans with superior trade skills over poorly trained, low-paid British workers, or if such criticism of the EU was just a pretext for xenophobia.
According to Snow, his friend of almost 18 years could only see Brexit as a racist reaction, and announced a purge of anyone who thought otherwise. The friend unfriended Snow on Facebook, prompting him to write two apologetic emails. “I said ‘I’m terribly sorry if I’ve upset and offended you, I really didn’t mean it to get this far’,” Snow recalls. “He didn’t respond.”
A few years later there was an online event involving both men that spurred Snow to write to his former friend once more, but again there was no response. Finally, after another attempt at contact a while later, the ex-friend replied with a “terse little message” making it clear that he was not available for friendship.
Snow says he remains upset about the breach and would like a reconciliation, even if they don’t return to the easy friendship they had before. “I still miss him. I quite often dream that we’re friends again, and it’s an enormous relief and pleasure, which I think would be the feeling I would get if it were to happen in real life.”
Yet he concedes that the friendship was circumscribed, based on shared musical interests rather than open-hearted exchanges about their emotional lives.
“On a personal level,” he says, “I am somewhat guarded just as a matter of habit. I don’t like to think of myself as a needy person, though I’m probably a lot needier than I let on, even to myself.”
Friendship is as old as humanity, but its role in modern life has grown more prominent as traditional obligations to family or tribe have faded or disappeared. Unlike those relationships, friendship is freely chosen. It is an act of individual will which can affirm a person’s worth. People with a lot of friends, after all, are seen as socially successful. But friendships can be freely terminated, which can seem like a damning character judgment, an acutely personal rejection.
Tom (not his real name) is a chief financial officer, gay and single. On two occasions he’s had intimate friendships that have been suddenly withdrawn without warning. In both cases, after a long period of silence lasting many years, the former friends got back in contact, but they were unable to acknowledge what had taken place, or why, with any degree of candour.
In the first instance, two flatmates, who were his closest friends and also a couple, stopped talking to him, moved out and ceased all contact. “It felt like an assault,” he says. “It made me have a kind of mini nervous breakdown.”
Yet rather than lose faith in friendship, he continues to value the vital part that friends play in his life, even if he often takes on more of the burden of maintenance. “As a single person, I’ve always known that I’ve had to put a little extra work into friendships,” he says.
Culturally, our perception of friendship has changed in no small part due to a television sitcom which began in 1994 and managed to domesticate the friendship group into a kind of surrogate family. Friends ran for 10 years until the characters started to pair off, have families themselves, and the magical glue that held them and the comedy together came unstuck – a process that recurs repeatedly across real life.
Medical research shows that enduring friendships can enable us to cope better with setbacks and are a bulwark against mental ill-health. With that in mind, perhaps it’s worth noting that one of the stars of Friends – Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing – states in his new memoir that while fame brought drug addiction and abject misery, the thing that several times saved him from death was the friendships he made on the show.
He compared the support to that offered by penguins who surround an injured penguin and prop it up until it can walk on its own. “That’s kind of what the cast did for me,” Perry said. As the well-known old advertising jingle almost had it, when you pick up a friendship there’s so much more to enjoy.