Mike and his date were at the union Square subway stop, deciding whether to go home together for the first time, when his cell phone suddenly buzzed. The 28-year-old New Yorker cut the evening short and raced to his friend’s apartment. The big emergency? A game of Scattergories had begun. “You have to remember the people who are worth your time,” he explains. “As opposed to getting some, the Scattergories definitely won.”
If Mike sounds as though he’s prioritizing his friendships over his love life, he’s not alone. Our 24/7 social connectivity means we’re swimming in a constant stream of urgent texts from our closest friends, punctuated by Likes and comments from our more casual acquaintances on social media. From Sex and the City to New Girl, popular culture is always reminding us that it’s friendship, not love, that lasts forever. But as our friend circles get wider and deeper, our expectations of friendship are being ratcheted up to the point where they’re sabotaging our romantic relationships.
Modern friendships take up more time and energy than ever. Mike, who asked that his last name be omitted, says he has three to five friends to whom he sends up to 50 texts a day. “There is a need for instant responses, as opposed to just having plans with someone,” he says. And Professor Sherry Turkle, who wrote Alone Together and teaches at MIT, says her students will drop everything–and duck out of class–to answer a friend’s text. “My classes have a normal number of human-designed breaks,” she explains, “but people didn’t use to have to go sit in the stalls for five to seven minutes because of an incoming boyfriend crisis to feel like they were honoring a friendship.”
This means that love–and the pursuit of it–can get kicked to the curb. Katie Heaney, the 27-year-old author of Never Have I Ever, a memoir of her boyfriend-free life, says she has often refused dates in favor of hanging out with friends. “If I’ve got a group of people whom I know I love, I don’t want to risk time lost from them and given to someone else,” she says.
But even as our friendship obsession distracts us from the dating game, some millennials end up hoping their platonic relationships will turn into romantic ones. The deluge of will-they-won’t-they romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Friends in the 1980s and ’90s birthed a new narrative that makes falling for a friend the modern-day alternative to love at first sight. Even J.K. Rowling called the Ron-Hermione marriage “wish fulfillment.”
For Amanda Shortall, 28, the pressures of her fashion job meant she was often too exhausted to put up a facade for strangers she’d just met. “When you’re working a 14-hour day, how good of a version of yourself can you really be with a person you don’t know?” she says. But then she fell for her friend Phillip, because, she says, “I felt like he saw me for who I really was, like the person my friends know me as.” They’re getting married in May.
For people like Amanda and Phillip, the idea of falling in love with a friend feels more genuine than taking up with someone new. “We’re spending our time and energy on so many more people that it can get a little scattered,” says Jessica Massa, author of The Gaggle: How to Find Love in the Post-Dating World. “The idea that there could be someone who knows you through and through and loves all your quirks is becoming even more appealing because it’s lacking in the rest of our lives.”
That appeal isn’t lost on the matchmakers who sell friendship as a ticket for the love boat. Smartphone apps like Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel pair users through Facebook friends, while Grouper and the Dating Ring introduce singles by setting up group dates that mimic casual outings. These virtual yentas are onto something: a USA Today study found that 57% of 18-to-24-year-olds couldn’t tell whether they were on a date or just “hanging out.”
Of course, most friendships are platonic and destined to stay that way. That’s good, because as much as things have changed, we still need our close friends to help us vet potential partners and get over bad ones. Mike says he always texts his friends pictures of guys he meets on dating apps so they can weigh in, because “they’re like the referees coming in if you’re not sure about the play.” But his friends will probably have to ditch their own dates to spend five to seven minutes in the bathroom crafting the perfect response.
This appears in the February 24, 2014 issue of TIME.