How the cult of wellness makes our friendships suffer

Special to The Globe and Mail

Yoga class (Thinkstock)

The Jungle is a new column that uses connections through social media to explore the fault lines in adult relationships.

When a thrust of motivation (or enough magical thinking) convinces someone that protein shakes and kettle balls are more important than their toxins of choice, health and fitness also become more important than their still-drinking, still-smoking friends.

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Conversions to wellness, often made in sudden, all-or-nothing style, always affect friendships. More optional, replaceable and conditional than other relationships, even the closest friends are vulnerable to tiny shifts in sociocultural cues and habits. Banal-seeming choices and changes can upset the fine, fleeting balance of friendship even more than the thunderclaps of marriage and children, because that stuff is less often understood as a judgment, a severing of something. It’s not really anyone’s fault, even; changing, or staying the same, are unavoidable betrayals.

It used to be that vegans and gluten-frees were responsible for these social divides; more recently, the hardcore exercisers (like, the ones who fly to New York for SoulCycle) are responsible. Sunday morning barre class instead of brunch? How dare you. Jess wrote in an e-mail that because “Mysore style” Ashtanga yoga is practiced at dawn, she started waking up at 5 o’clock, too. “It took me a few months to acknowledge that I had to be finished dinner by 8 in order to be remotely ready to sleep at 10 … The people I socialize with started to resent any mention of my schedule. I think they interpreted it as a judgment against them, but I couldn’t believe I was doing it either.”

James, a friend who described himself in a tweet as “a lazy, fat drunk,” said he had a hard time relating to his couple-friends’ sudden adherence to CrossFit and the Paleo Diet. “They went in pretty deep,” he says, and “it was impossible to talk about anything else with them.” Health-related splits aren’t inevitable, of course: “Survived her new no-drinking lifestyle,” tweeted @KateWellham, about a friend who quit drinking. She also wrote that on a recent vacation “not spending half the day recovering from booze actually meant more fun.”

That’s best-case. But if you’re the one changing, there can be a smug-ish aspect to the dynamic if one person wants (needs!) to meet for juice instead of coffee, because a purposeful move toward what is newer and righter is necessarily away from who and what came before. Sybil, who lives in Toronto and “will never take up Pilates,” e-mailed me to say that she didn’t lose any friends after she quit smoking (“at the end of the day, the only reason anyone smokes is James Dean”) but that “soon afterward, I underwent a paradigm shift: I cut my hair and got a new job. Having dispensed with one childhood illusion, the rest began to fall like dominoes.”

I’ve been on both sides of this, but it always feels worse for the person who is losing their friend to some glowier purpose than just hanging out, ad arbitrium. My friend Rina told me that, initially, the Emma Stone-ness of the woman in YouTube instructional videos she watched was so captivating that “BOOM. I loved Pilates.” She started avoiding “the more toxic things – late nights, drunken stupors – so that I could have clear-headed mornings to focus on my core.” Rina hasn’t exactly lost friends to exercise, but she sees less of us – which is what it is. And that, of course, is where the core (ha, ha) of friendship remains: Surely, we want our friends to be happy, to be healthy.

A habit takes something like 90 days to form, but that doesn’t mean it’s forever: James’s Paleo Diet friends broke up, and after a year of pre-lunch exhaustion and a week of vacation, Jess quit her Ashtanga practice. “I was welcomed back with free drinks,” she says.