Millennial Friendships Are Dying Violent Deaths — Here's Why.

It is extremely common for twenty-somethings to lose friends over the third decade of their life—friends from high school, college, and graduate school. And there are many phases to the unfolding of those friendship at which the friendship could either stall, fade into insignificance, or explode. Not everybody experiences the loss of friends the same way. Many don’t experience the explosive end of old friendships.

But there is an increasing trend, especially among millennials entering their 30s, of young people cutting so-called toxic people out of their lives. That can be a tool used for great good, or for great sanctimonious harm. Either way, I want to understand the archetypal saga that frames how and why millennial friendships are beginning to end more frequently, and more violently.

The way I see it—and the way I piece together the sociological data—are that the common millennial coming of age tale takes place in eight acts. And this eight-act tale—which could just as easily be a comedy or drama as a tragedy—is a version of the hero’s journey which is not as simple as venturing out from home, facing a dragon, and returning home. Increasingly, millennials are self-consciously shaping their lives by tailoring their friendships, cutting out toxic people, going to therapy, and geographically relocating at a rate which both isolates them relationally and hyper-saturates them socially and psychologically.


The consequences of explosive intimacy can be much more devastating for geographically displaced individuals—especially those in college away from home.

The product is that instead of having 10 tribes of people with common traditions, stories, and values that fight against one another, you have every man for himself, building his own traditions, shaping his own values, and re-inventing the wheel in a way that creates more heat than light. And when you have a million quickly evolving individuals, instead of 10 slow-moving groups, the possibility for meaning, connection, and combustion grows exponentially. The consequences of explosive intimacy take place for each individual outside a framework of social support, and can therefore make these experiences all the more devastating, and recovery all the more difficult.

Here is, in my estimation, how twenty-somethings lose friends—in eight acts.

Act 1. Bonding Season

Act 1 occurs at school, camp, or a retreat. It is a sacred bonding moment in which a group experiences something meaningful, and sanctifies itself from the world and organizes itself around a series of jokes, late-night talks, vulnerable disclosures, or religious confessions. On the basis of these experiences, young adults in their late adolescence and early adulthood will, often without even thinking, constitute micro-governmental populations that migrate back from the mountaintop experience into the desert of quotidian life.

Kirsty Gover, senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School, calls in her Oxford University Press monograph “tribal constitutionalism.”[1] The initial phases of in-group formation are very informal, but also very strict. In 21st century America, we don’t think much about tribal belonging, but in its place have come to exist two principles which serve the same purpose—one very abstract and formal, which we will call United States Citizenship, and the other very intimate and informal, which we will call “best friends” or “friend groups” or “cliques.” The rules of belonging in the clique can sometimes be formalized, in everything from the Boy Scouts to something more informal like The Little Rascals—but the rules of belonging to an in-group are very often more what John Borrows, law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, calls “practice-derived … indigenous citizenship.”[2]

These practices are mostly informal, but usually codify some artifact or relic from the birthplace of the group as a central group practice. It could be church attendance, bible study, a joke, a secret, a game, a common goal. And around this common, central, sacred practice will include rituals of belonging which the group will perform together for the sake of demonstrating belonging.

Sociologists distinguish between two ways that people form groups—mechanical and organic. Émile Durkheim popularized this distinction between the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Literally translated these words mean “community” and “society,” but Max Weber appropriated them as tools to highlight the formal association of citizenship (Gesselschaft) in opposition to the subjective, affective, emotional bond that occurs relationally between individuals (Gemeinschaft).[3]

Act 2. Geographical Relocation.

Many twenty-somethings are confused about the cause of their loneliness and friendlessness in their third decade, but have never counted the cost of geographical relocation. It is not bad to leave the nest, but it is costly. Twenty-something student culture, in which most university students are displaced from their families and social support groups and re-forge sacred bonds and rituals among immature university contexts, are cultivating a culture of arrested development, and even regressive maturation, because of a transition from a traditional community (their familial upbringing) to a nomadic life (university, internship, job, camp, etc.).

Sociologist Shanthi Robertson at Western Sydney University calls this regression of students from traditional modalities of psychological development in their adolescence to tribal, nomadic modalities in their twenties “translocal subjectivities,” which is a way of locating the psychological cost of chronic geographical relocation.[4] A recent geographical study from the University of Southampton speaks about geographical mobility as giving birth to an existential vertigo due to the rapid reconfiguration of the constellation of relationships that constitute one’s sense of self, belonging, and meaning.[5]

Act 3. Re-Doubling of Loyalty

When this geographical relocation occurs among the members of a social group, most commonly due to the graduation of its members from the venue which gave rise to its existence, this graduation increases the energetic tax required to maintain the social capital of the group.

Often, departure from the phase of occupying the same space is eased be the delusion that such geographical departure will have only a minor effect on the intimacy of the relationships.

One way that this delusion is maintained is that group members will exaggerate their gestures of belonging in order to over-compensate for, or overcome, the strain that geographical distance places on the group’s relational potency. Common rituals are reified, and the central, sacred practices of the group often increase in frequency. The group will take on properties typical of a migrant religious community, primarily an annual mecca to a particular place, or for a particular fellowship.

Common trips to the coffee shop are replaced with “road trips,” retreats, expensive visits, long letters, even longer phone calls, and expressions of devotion and intimacy which before would have been awkward, but for the sake of the group’s survival while geographically dispersed have become necessary to its survival.

Act 4. Progressive Differentiation of Values and Life-Visions

The infamous psychologist Carl Jung writes, at length:

“We are all familiar with the sources of the problems that arise in the period of youth. For most people it is the demands of life which harshly put an end to the dream of childhood. If the individual is sufficiently well prepared, the transition to a profession or career can take place smoothly. But if he clings to illusions that are contrary to reality, then problems will surely arise. No one can take the step into life without making certain assumptions, and occasionally these assumptions are false -- that is, they do not fit the conditions into which one is thrown. Often it is a question of exaggerated expectations, underestimation of difficulties, unjustified optimism, or a negative attitude. One could compile quite a list of the false assumptions that give rise to the first conscious problems. … But it is not always the contradiction between subjective assumptions and external facts that gives rise to problems; it may just as often be inner, psychic difficulties. They may exist even when things run smoothly in the outside world. Very often it is the disturbance of psychic equilibrium caused by the sexual instinct; equally often it is the feeling of inferiority which springs from an unbearable sensitivity. These inner conflicts may exist even when adaptation to the outer world has been achieved without apparent effort. It even seems as if young people who have had a hard struggle for existence are spared inner problems, while those who for some reason or other have no difficulty with adaptation run into problems of sex or conflicts arising from a sense of superiority.”[6] 

What Jung is talking about—this internal psychic conflict that blows the ship of personal identity in very different directions for each person depending on their access to financial capital, their psychological constitution, their attachment style, and even their religious convictions. While previously each group member would have been able to track each other members of the group in real time based on daily contact, the geographical dispersion makes every point of contact between each group member more and more violent as they each fail to bear daily witness to the events which shape and direct each other person’s life. Group Member A and Group Member B will express their opinions to one another about the direction of Group Member C—how traitorous, irrational, or psychopathic it is for Member C to value, choose, profess, or change the way they have—and the sense of metaphysical and divine solidarity within the group will be strained by confusion and require an impossible amount of empathy, loyalty, and charity from every single group member for every single other group member.

One meta-analysis conducted by researchers from the University of Central Florida and Hofstra University found that group cohesion is stronger when that cohesion is consistently tested and applied to a particular performance-oriented task. In the absence of such a task—or in the absence of a sense of meaningfulness about that task—cohesion atrophies.[7] In the absence of those tasks, there is an increased psychological strain on each member to maintain group cohesion, and yet the relational muscles which bear such strain become weaker and weaker.

This strain will increase gradually, bringing the group’s identity slowly to informal and unspoken disillusion through the entropy of time, or an explosive and devastating end to the group which damages and morally injures every member of the group.   

We should also note one factor which is almost never investigated, which is the role of jealousy as relationships age. If one person advances in physical prowess, body physique aesthetic, financial status, social status, marital status, or familial status at a rate faster than the rest, this can be a big factor in breeding resentment on one person’s side. One thing that commonly bonds groups is that they are peers. If one member begins to ascend the hierarchy so quickly and with such ease that his group’s co-members are no longer his peers, this will inevitably be a source of relational strain, and will yield catastrophe in its season unless the group has values which can mitigate and process competitive disparity.

Act 5. Explosive End to Relationship

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin published a study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, in which they studied how children used ritual as a formal way of mitigating membership in their in-group, and that children who were unable to “play the game” of an in-group’s idiosyncratic practices of sanctity were stripped of their membership.[8]

Renowned social philosopher René Girard explains this in his infamous work Violence and the Sacred.

Exile of a single individual—scapegoating—becomes another sacred rite that the community practices that not only ostracizes the scapegoat, but refortifies the relational bonds that constitute the existing community. This is where the very existence of the community, friendship, clique, or tribe, is viewed, in terms of its origins, as an act of sanctification—of setting itself apart from the world. 

“The birth of the community is first and foremost an act of separation. That is why metaphors of severance permeate generation. … Modern thinkers view the sacred solely as a mediating force, because they try to interpret primitive reality in terms of a religion that has been purged of its maleficent qualities. But … any mingling of the community and the sacred, whether due to the intervention of the gods, mythic heroes, or the dead, produces exclusively maleficent results. Every supernatural visitation is prompted by the spirit of revenge. Benefits accrue only after the divinity has departed.”[9]

This is why the rationale for expatriating a single member regularly makes appeal to sacred language. The expression of outrage that disrupts the bonds of intimacy is usually saturated in religious language such as “violation,” “sanctity,” “sacredness,” and right vs. wrong. And this is most common in friendships which lack, or have become functionally disattached from, the Christian bonds of belief.

A close friend of mine recently took a male bonding trip with his buddies. While they were on the trip, there was bonding, re-doubling of loyalty, repeating old inside jokes, running through the gambit of bonding rituals that bonded them, kicking the tires of their friend-group’s sanctity; testing its concreteness, its existence.

And then there came a moment on the last night of the trip that three of the guys violently confronted one of the guys. They teased him, called him names, starting listing all of the things they didn’t like about him, and reading him the riot act about ways that he had wronged them. This guy was my buddy, and as he was recounting on the situation to me, I could see him welling up with tears. This was a big man—a strong man. You could see the injury in his soul. But there were deeper Girardian realities at work. So, I told him to look at the situation.


if one person refuses to speak in person or over the phone, they are already insisting on a version of the conversation which favors the destruction of the relationship.

The four of them had gone to Christian college together and stayed friends. Over the years, he was the only one who practiced monogamy, remained celibate, and remained an orthodox Christian. Of the other three men, two had lost their families because they cheated on their wife, two had left Christianity entirely, and one was a practicing homosexual who had left Christianity. In this situation, because the sanctity of the tribe was not governed by deeper Christian principles that have been time-tested to mediate moral grievance, to dispense grace, and to encourage temperance and forgiveness, their friend-group mimicked more primitive, pagan methods of dealing with moral impurity in the camp—scapegoating without grace, the mob-ruled moral sanctimony that can only be consistently cultivated in one’s public self outside the context of Christian belief and community.

In this sense, the explosive end to the group was actually a way of avoiding the group’s disillusion. This is increasingly common among twenty-something friendships. Groups will implode and scapegoat a single individual under the guise of the sanctity of the group. That exile becomes the new sacred origin of the Group 2.0, which is now either smaller, or replaced the exiled member with a new or more fitting member whose values cohere with the group, and whose price of entry is a belief that the scapegoating was appropriate. The new relational fervor of the group is synthesized and set into motion by the moral outrage against the exiled member, and that member is sent into the wilderness to bear the destruction that the group would have faced if he had stayed.

One commonly overlooked factor that can drastically increase the likelihood of an explosive, violent end to a friendship is the technologization of communication. Relational conflict is expedited and reconciliation is impeded by the technological, textual medium of arbitration. There is a psychological law behind this. The absence of bodily presence in communication allows each side to reduce their interlocutor to an opponent, to reduce their opponent to a meme, and therefore to reduce their friend to an enemy. Conflict resolution that takes place over email, text, or messenger is more likely to fail the more serious the conflict agenda. In other words, attempts to resolve serious grievances through a textual or technological medium are statistically guaranteed to fail, and resolution attempts which insist on face-to-face resolution (optimal), or even a phone conversation (less optimal), face the best chance at success. So, if one person refuses to speak in person or over the phone, they are already insisting on a version of the conversation which favors the destruction of the relationship.

Act 6. Loneliness, Grief, Guilt, Self-Condemnation, Self-Righteousness, Anger

Losing friends is always painful. But it is hardly more painful than when you lose good friends because you are so maligned, mistreated, and vilified that you are compelled out of self-care to expatriate yourself from people you love, while they are under the impression that you are doubly guilty of their original grievance and leaving the relationship.


Friends will gaslight you by taking advantage of this Jungian distinction between conscious and unconscious ill—they will claim to see something that you can’t.

It will be helpful here to revisit Carl Jung: “People whose own temperaments offer problems are often neurotic, but it would be a serious misunderstanding to confuse the existence of problems with neurosis. There is a marked difference between the two in that the neurotic is ill because he is unconscious of his problems, while the person with a difficult temperament suffers from his conscious problems without being ill.”[10]

Friends will gaslight you by taking advantage of this Jungian distinction between conscious and unconscious ill—they will claim to see something that you can’t. Like children who point and laugh at another child for some fabricated notion, the mocked child has no epistemological access to his own deficiency, and must either self-exile from the group or submit to the dominance play of the challenging child. The assertion of moral perception and superiority by in-group members will use the concept of neurosis as a tool to create a sacred hierarchy within the group, in which their ethical authority is unquestionable on the basis of some constructed expertise—in our day increasingly, this sacred knowledge is an expertise in sniffing out psychopathology, which is both an absurd and heinous abuse of the concept by any person in their twenties. Yet the perception of psychopathology in an in-group rival is a common tactic used to establish dominance. “You’re crazy.” “You’re evil.” Often, the two are conflated—“You’re so evil, you can’t see how crazy you are,” and vice versa.

This allows us to raise an informal point about the overuse of psychological authority by twentysomethings in the 21st century. There is no more common means of excommunicating a group member than by psychologizing their reasons for exile: “You know what your problem is? Let me tell you what your problem is.” Everyone is Sigmund Freud today. Everyone is a therapist. A long email, text, or rant about exactly what your problem is is the most common form of documentation people receive for social eviction.

It’s important to note three points.

(1) Most people are not qualified to make these psychological assessments—friends least of all. They are biased by their friendship with you, and therefore disqualified. This is called a “dual relationship” in the counseling world, and it is an undesirable therapeutic situation that damages the therapist’s credibility in most cases.

(2) They are also likely unqualified to make this assessment because they are not a licensed psychologist. Even if they are licensed counselor, this is not the same as being a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Being a licensed counselor in the world of psychology is like being a minor-league baseball player in the realm of professional sports. It doesn’t require a doctorate. Many practicing therapists have an overinflated sense of confidence about their diagnostic ability—especially young, twenty-something therapists. They are like children putting on their mother’s makeup. It’s cute, but anyone who knows what they’re doing will know that most psychological analysis offered by twentysomethings are not “case wise”—meaning, they do not bear the marks of experience or humility that inevitably come from a long history of success, failure, and doctoral-level study in the discipline and in clinical practice.


Anyone who uses psychological analysis against you is abusing the concept of mental health—it says more about their intellectual and moral lack than anything “hot take” in your issues that they could hang over your head.

(3) It’s morally wrong to weaponize psychological issues against another person. A mature, moral person will not make a moral stance based on their psychological “hot take” on your mental health. And if you find yourself being analyzed and looking down the barrel of someone else’s take on your psychological issues as they gun you down, remember—that’s an abusive use of psychological analysis, and it says far more about their state of immaturity and moral bankruptcy than anything they could possibly have to say about you.

Act 7. Ownership of Self, New Values

Also, psychological dysfunctions and character immaturities which may have complemented one another in a group’s early twenties may become toxically incompatible in their more mature and sophisticated manifestations. Co-dependence might work well for two displaced boys in their late teens, but will later serve as the unbreakable bedrock of contentious rivalry in their late twenties. British sociologist Ray Pahl, an elected fellow of the British Academy, found in his meta-analysis of studies on friendship that women are more interested in friendships that offer emotional loyalty, whereas men tend to bond over practical commonalities.[11]

Lenn Jamieson, professor of sociology at Edinburgh university, explains: “The ideal of the ‘pure relationship’ does not allow for messy and asymmetrical periods of needing practical help or feeling dependent or needy which are routine occurrences in parent-child relationships, partnerships and some friendships. The circumstances of many people’s lives render ‘pure’ friendships both difficult and insufficient.”[12] 

As you recalibrate your own identity as the salience of your former in-group beings to fade, you will find a greater sense of autonomy, and consequently a greater tolerance for flexibility and expectation of reciprocated autonomy in future relationships. In other words, after your co-dependent relationships collapse under the weight of their own pagan toxicity, you have the opportunity to become a more self-reliant and flexible person, who is attracted to more self-reliant and flexible people.  

You will find that, in the wake of exile, or in the wake of an exploded best friendship, you have the opportunity to feel comfortable in your values in a way that, before, you hadn’t. When close friends who were judgmental of your core values remove themselves from your life, or force you to remove them from your life, then you can stop apologizing for your vision for life and the values that undergird that vision, and proudly identify with it.

I had a small-scale version of this recently. I have spent the past 5 years studying trauma, and that world is almost 99% politically left-leaning. At the same time, the main theologian who was overseeing my doctorate was a classical, fundamentalist, evangelical Christian. Only after graduating with my Ph.D. did I feel like I could publicly articulate my own view and write the sort of scholarship that was true to the way I saw the world without fearing the wrath of leftist Christians on the one hand, or fundamentalist closed-mindedness on the other. 

Act 8. New Community with New Values

After you have confidently identified yourself with values that are true to who you really are—and what you really belief—then you can associate with a community that shares those values. Ideally, you will have more than anti-values. If you leave a religious group, and your only value left is atheism, that will quickly turn into bitterness and anger. 

A successful twenty-something will emerge out of these old friend groups with a positive principle on which to build their lives. Family. Church. Community. Children. Virtue. Education. Skill. Craftmanship. Community service. As Jordan Peterson says, “Identify the highest conceivable good and orient yourself toward it.”

Conclusion

It’s important to recognize that this 8-act play could easily for many people be a 3-act play. People can get stuck in groups, stagnated in toxic ways of thinking, or trapped by the bitterness and loneliness of exile. The 8-act version of this story is the most difficult to manifest. It requires the most bravery to bring into being, because it requires the most ownership, responsibility, and creativity to bring out.


Twenty-somethings who fail to find more than pagan friendships will find themselves at dive bar, 70 pounds overweight, by the time they’re 35.

The most successful twenty-somethings, with the most satisfying friendships, are the ones who have moved beyond the paganism of ritualistic friend groups and fortified a meaningful, Christian principle on which they have built themselves and toward which they have oriented their relationships and their families.

Twenty-somethings who fail to do this will run into a brick wall at age 35 and 40. They will find themselves uninspired, stagnated, depressed, and unmotivated—because the sacrament of nostalgia will have run its course and drained them of all meaning. That’s why most college-born friend groups who retain their social fervor end up at dive bars, 70 pounds overweight by their mid-thirties. It’s not good. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.

That doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself form everyone with a sanctimonious sense of your own religious self-importance. But it does mean two things. First, if you are finding yourself losing more friends than you thought in your late twenties, don’t immediately judge yourself. You may very be on the right path. Use it as a metric, as a way of asking yourself: “Where am I headed? And do I like where I’m going?” Second, don’t let yourself be satisfied with the paganism of tribal constitutionalism. Seek to build something deeper. Seek friendships that orient themselves toward something higher than the friend group. The joy of fellowship is so much sweeter when you’re common travelers on a road—when you each share common elements of your mission; or even better, have the same mission; seeking the same virtues; building the same character; implementing the same habits; fighting the same vices and temptations; seeking strength from the same sources.  

Don’t let lost friendships that needed to be lost devastate you. And let every lost friendship be a lesson, not of something negative to avoid, but of something positive to seek, and to implement in every friendship thereafter. 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Kirsty Grover, Tribal Constitutionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] John Borrows, “Foreword,” Tribal Constitutionalism, viii.

[3] Max weber, Economy and Society, 2 vols., ed. Guenther Roth and Claush Wittich (Los Angeles: University of California Press).

[4] Shanthi Robertson, “Friendship Networks and Encounters in Student-Migrants’ Negotiations of Translocal Subjectivity,” Urban Studies 55, no. 3 (2018): 538-553.

[5] David Conradson and Dierdre McKay, “Translocal Subjectivities: Mobility, Connection, Emotion,” Mobilities 2, no. 2 (2007): 167-174.

[6] Carl J. Jung, Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche, 2nd ed., ed. and trans. by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969; orig., 1960), 392.

[7] E. Salas, R. Grossman, A. M. Hughes, and C. W. Coultas, “Measuring Team Cohesion: Observations from the Science,” Human Factors 57, no. 3 (2015): 365-374.

[8] Carl J. Jung, Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche, 2nd ed., ed. and trans. by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969; orig., 1960), 392.

[9] René Girard, Vilence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977; orig., 1972 as La Violence et le sacré), 267-268.

[10] Carl J. Jung, Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche, 2nd ed., ed. and trans. by Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969; orig., 1960), 392.

[11] And yet, Pahl comments that “the rapidly shifting teenage culture scene makes many ethnographic accounts outdated almost as soon as they are published.” Ray Pahl (Malden, MA: Polity, 2000), 110.

[12] Lynn Jamieson, Intimacy: Personal Relationships in Modern Societies (Malden, MA: Polity, 1988), 105.

 
 

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