We'd rather be with friends

Fewer and fewer of us celebrate with family as Dickens's Cratchits did, and the evidence suggests th

Just as global warming is making white Christmases less and less likely, so the traditional family celebration idealised by Charles Dickens is retreating from us at ever-increasing speed. The data about UK households tells the story: fewer than one in four now comprises a married couple with dependent children, while one in three contains someone living alone. Yet however little our domestic circumstances resemble those of the Cratchit family, we still seem to crave, for this one day, an intense familial togetherness that we recognise as unrealistic the rest of the time. The difference now is that the people who gather around the Christmas tree are unlikely to be father, mother and their biological children.

Research I have been carrying out with colleagues at the University of Leeds as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's group for the study of care, values and the future of welfare demonstrates that increasingly, it is friendship that really matters in people's lives. Whether they were in a heterosexual couple relationship or not, the people we interviewed were turning to friends for emotional support. Jools, a heterosexual woman of 28 from a former mining town, spoke for many people when she said: "I think a friendship is for life, but I don't think a partner is . . . I'd marry my friends. They'd last longer."

Our research has investigated how the most "individualised" in our society - people who do not live with a partner - construct their networks of intimacy, friendship, care and support. We wanted to find out who matters to people who are living outside conventional families, what they value about their personal relationships, how they care for those who matter to them, and how they care for themselves.

We carried out in-depth interviews with 53 people aged between 25 and 60 in three locations - a former mining town that is relatively conventional in terms of gender and family relations; a small town in which alternative, middle-class, "downshifted" lifestyles and sexual nonconformity are common; and a multi-ethnic inner-city area characterised by a range of gender and family practices, a higher-than-average proportion of women in the labour force and a large number of single-person and non-couple households. We talked to men and women with and without children, of a diversity of ages, ethnic origins, occupations and sexual orientations, and with varying relationship status and living arrangements. This gave us detailed insight into the texture of people's emotional lives.

Far from being isolated, solitary individuals who flit from one unfulfilling relationship to another, most of the people we interviewed were enmeshed in complex networks of intimacy and care, and had strong commitments and connections to others. In contrast to the mythology of Bridget Jones, very few showed any yearning to be part of a conventional couple or family. A great many, both of those with partners and of those without, were consciously placing less emphasis on the importance of the couple relationship. Instead, they were centring their lives on their friends. Of those with partners, almost all had chosen not to live together. Very few saw cohabitation as the inevitable and desirable next stage of their relationship.

Many of the interviewees had experienced the ending of a marriage or a long-term cohabiting relationship, and the pain and disruption this had caused had made them question the wisdom of putting all of their emotional eggs in one basket. Only one of the interviewees saw her partner as the most important person in her life, to the exclusion of others. She was a recent migrant to Britain whose family lived overseas. For everyone else, the people who mattered were either friends or a combination of friends, partner, children and family. This was not a temporary phase and people did not return to conventional couple relationships as soon as an opportunity arose. Reinterviewing people 18 months later, we found a remarkably consistent prioritisation of friendship.

We found that people were consciously seeking to create a way of life that would meet their need for connection with others while preserving their autonomy and independence. They placed a high value on the way in which friends offer care and support, love and affection without infringing personal boundaries, and without the deep emotional risks of sexual/love relationships. "Autonomous relationality" is the phrase that feminist philosophers have coined to describe this mode of being, which values both attachments to others and self-determination.

Friends were an important part of everyday life in good times and bad. Most of the people we spoke to put considerable effort into building and maintaining friendships in the place where they lived. A good number had moved house, or had persuaded friends to move house, with the aim of creating local friendship networks that could offer reciprocal childcare and help in times of illness, as well as pleasurable sociability. It was friends far more than biological kin who offered support to those who suffered from emotional distress or mental health problems, and who were there to pick up the pieces when love relationships ended.

When Karen's partner of 13 years left her and she descended into an emotional crisis, her friend Polly made the arrangements for her and her two daughters to move several hundred miles north so that they could join a circle of old friends living in the same neighbourhood and sharing childcare. Like Jools, both Karen and Polly were clear that their friendship with each other, and their relationships with their children, were more important to them than affairs they might have with men. Sometimes, because of the closeness of their friendship, neighbours assumed that they were lesbians but they were untroubled by this.

Adam, who at 49 was in a relationship with a woman who lived and worked in another part of the country, saw his personal network as the people who sustained his daily well-being. This network was composed of friends, his sister and her lesbian ex-lover, his two most significant ex-partners and his teenage daughters. It was his friends who cared for him during his lengthy recovery after a motorcycle accident. It was with them rather than his girlfriend that he was planning his future, including his retirement.

Many of the people we interviewed were opening up their homes to people who were not part of their conventionally defined family. It was not just the twentysomethings who spent much of their leisure time hanging out with friends at each other's homes or having people round to dinner, for parties and barbecues. Friends were invited to stay during periods of homelessness, when out of work or when they were depressed or lonely.

The people we studied are at the cutting edge of social change, and it is a change that is different from the one usually discussed and debated in modern Britain. We know that the Cratchit model, the Christmas-card family, is no longer predominant, no longer even all that common, and we have become accustomed to blaming divorce, unmarried parenthood, the stresses of modern life and the general atomisation of society. What we have failed to see is that this change can be a matter of active, positive choice, and often is. Nor have we grasped the degree to which, again as a matter of preference, people are substituting the ties of friendship for those of blood.

Our intimate lives are undergoing a transformation. People are driven increasingly by an ethic of individual self-fulfilment, while the greater independence of women, the decline of patriarchalism and the acceptance of homosexuality are all challenging the central position of the conventional heterosexual couple and family. Maybe it is time we started imagining a Christmas more in keeping with the lives we actually lead.

Professor Roseneil is director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Leeds and leader of the friends and non-conventional partnerships study project for the ESRC research group Care, Values and the Future of Welfare