Why You Can’t Have Friends Without Conflict

Loneliness seems to be on the rise. So much so that Britain appointed its first ever “Minister of Loneliness” to work to combat the rising problem of loneliness in the country. Research uncovered that nearly 9 million people in the Country “often or always feel lonely.”

Why is loneliness on the rise? What values have driven this?

My friend Trevin Wax recently helped me see the connection between loneliness and the cultural value of self, where happiness is believed to be found by “looking inside yourself.” In a culture where the chief value is self (self-discovery, self-reliance, self-fulfillment), conflict over who we are or who we want to be is viewed as something that must be avoided. The sociologists who wrote the book, “Habits of the Heart,” said this about our American culture.

“American cultural traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation…Self-reliance is a virtue that implies being alone.”

Sociologists who applaud self-reliance as a virtue admit that it simultaneously implies loneliness. Research validates this belief. A ten-year study led by John Cacioppo found a reciprocal relationship between focusing on yourself and loneliness.

We can live with the absence of conflict. Or we can live in relationships. We cannot have both friends and the absence of conflict. If we desire to be in community, we will have conflict.

In his latest book, Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers a simple yet profound statement: To be free of conflict you need to have no friends. Marriage offers us conflict. Co-workers offer us conflict. Close friends offer us conflict. While sometimes the conflict, particularly the unresolved conflict, is painful and damaging. Often the conflict is good and sanctifying. God does not want us to be alone because in relationships we grow. We grow as we are confronted, challenged, and questioned about our motivations.

We are living in a world where we see the God-given longing for community at odds with the cultural value of self. When self is on the throne, true community is abhorred. And the result is loneliness. The end result of me being on the throne of my life is never good.

While research shows there is a reciprocal relationship between loneliness and self-centeredness, the Scripture points to the reciprocal relationship between community and God-centeredness. “Encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception” (Hebrews 3:13). As we are in Christian community that provides encouragement, our hearts are turned towards the Lord – the only One who can satisfy us. Community results in our continued maturation.