Nowadays, Adams told me, “men and women have more in common than they used to, and there’s a stronger foundation for friendship,” and young, unmarried people in particular tend to have what she calls “gender-heterogeneous” networks of friends.
Young, unmarried Americans are a particular specialty of Alexandra Solomon, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University who teaches the university’s often analyzed Marriage 101 course. And indeed, in her conversations with college-age young adults over the past 10 years, she’s seen the “friend group”—a multimember, often mixed-gender friendship between three or more people—become a standard unit of social grouping. Now that fewer people in their early-to-mid-20s are married, “people exist in these little tribes,” she told me. “My college students use that phrase, friend group, which wasn’t a phrase that I ever used. It was not as much like a capital-F, capital-G thing like it is now.” Today, though, “the friend group really does transport you through college, and then well into your 20s. When people were marrying by 23, 24, or 25, the friend group just didn’t stay as central for as long as it does now.”
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Many friend groups are strictly platonic: “My niece and nephew are in college, and they live in mixed-sex housing—four of them will rent a house together, two guys and two gals, and no one’s sleeping with each other,” Solomon said with a laugh. Solomon, who’s 46, added that she couldn’t think of a single example, “in college or even post-college, where my friends lived in mixed-sex situations.” Still, she notes, being in the same friend group is how many young couples meet and fall in love—and when they break up, there’s added pressure to remain friends to maintain harmony within the larger group.
Solomon believes this same reasoning could also contribute to same-sex couples’ reputation for remaining friends. Because the LGBTQ population is comparatively small and LGBTQ communities are often close-knit as a result, “there’s always been this idea that you date within your friend group—and you just have to deal with the fact that that person is going to be at the same party as you next weekend, because you all belong to this relatively small community.” Though many surely still cut ties completely after a breakup, in Griffith’s study, LGBTQ participants indeed reported both more friendships with exes and more likelihood to remain friends for “security” reasons.
Keeping the friend group intact “might even be the prevailing concern” in modern young people’s breakups, says Kelli María Korducki, the author of Hard to Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up. When Korducki, 33, went through the breakup that inspired her book, she told me, one of the hardest parts of the whole ordeal was telling their shared friends. “Their faces just fell,” she remembers. In the end, she and her ex both kept hanging out with their friends, but separately. “It changed the dynamic,” she told me. “It just did.”