Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Love and Freindship"

(The spelling error in today's post title is intentional; it is the name of a short story by Jane Austen, epistolary in form, written when she was about fifteen years old. Despite her youth, she'd already acquired her disdain for conventional romantic sensibilities by the time she wrote "Love and Freindship," and she was already developing the sharp wit for which her work is so well-known.)

In the wake of Valentine's Day, I've been thinking about the way that we privilege certain types of relationships—particularly romantic ones, though to some extent, biological family as well—over other ones, no matter how close we may be to people who are neither part of our direct family tree, nor our romantic partners. And we'd better only have one of those at a time, or we're dirty, rotten cheaters, because apparently healthy polyamorous relationships don't exist. And that means that despite all evidence to the contrary, two of my dearest friends are just figments of my imagination—which would probably come as a bit of a shock to them, and to everyone else who knows them. ;)

Oh, and by the way, what's with all this de-valuing friendship by saying that you're "just friends" with someone when someone else asks (or assumes) that you're involved with them?  At its best, friendship is a wonderful kind of relationship that should not be dismissed like this.  Friends or not, just because you're not bonking someone else (regardless of whether you actually ever do want to have sex with them), it doesn't mean that you don't love them in one way or another.  But no matter how close we are to our friends, no matter how mutually supportive or downright affectionate these relationships are, they're often thought of as less-than.  It's like a relationship doesn't really matter unless you're sleeping together or you have a lot of recent ancestors in common.

And the pressure to really only love one person who will somehow magically be able to perfectly meet all our needs, and whose needs we're expected to be able to perfectly meet, is also frighteningly strong, and getting stronger all the time.  It's as if while Western society in general is slowly becoming more accustomed to the idea of LGBTQI (etc.) people's relationships being as valid as straight people's—though I must stress that I do not in any way mean to imply that relationship equality exists, as I know damn well that it doesn't—there's some kind of push to re-establish monogamous heterosexual relationships between two cisgendered individuals as the standard to which everyone, despite individual preferences and realities, should aspire.  And the pedestal that these relationships are put on is so limiting that, frankly, it's a wonder that any of them lasts, when even a casual friendship with a member of the opposite sex can easily be construed as "cheating" and when, once you're in that marriage with only one cisgendered opposite-sex partner, it's assumed that this partner is the only person with whom you should ever even think of having any sort of relationship that goes deeper than having occasional superficial chats about the weather.  And Heaven forbid that a married person should have a decent conversation with a single person of whatever sex the married person happens to be attracted to, because single people are dangerous, and spousal jealousy seems an inevitable consequence of such interaction.

OK, that may be overstating it a bit...but, all things considered, I'm probably not overstating it by much.

It's very human to crave connections with other people, and a wedding ring, even one that symbolizes a heterosexual marriage that's intended to be completely monogamous, doesn't automatically destroy one's capacity to be attracted (emotionally, sexually, romantically, etc.) to people other than one's own spouse.  Furthermore, even within the context of a monogamous relationship, friendships, even with people who happen to have the same type of genitalia as your partner, do not have to threaten your relationship as a couple.  And denying this, or refusing to admit that for those who are so inclined, polyamory really can work as a relationship model, isn't just harmful in the sense that it stigmatizes this kind of relationship.  It has the potential to hurt almost everybody because suddenly opposite-sex friendships, or same-sex friendships if the couple in question is same-sex, are suddenly considered to have a power to harm the couple's relationship just because at least one half of that couple has the capacity to be sexually attracted to that friend.  And I'm sure that border guard from a few months ago would agree—after all, when I encountered him again early last month, he asked (again, with a sneer) whether I intended to spend the night with my friend.

It's such a terrible, restrictive way of looking at human relationships.  I rejected it a long time ago.  (Just as well, I suppose, for reasons that I'm not quite able to adequately articulate here at the moment, though I've had a relevant post in the works for quite some time now; I just haven't quite managed to get the wording quite right.)  Even so, I find that I tend to avoid getting particularly friendly with most married men.  After all, I'm 29, and though I'm not what most people would consider to be attractive enough to be "dangerous," I'm unmarried and likely to stay that way.  Yet, I have friends of varying sexes, sexual orientations, and marital statuses.  And yes, I love my friends, especially the ones I consider to be my closest friends, very much.  It bothers me very deeply that they're not supposed to mean as much to me as my biological family or the spouse I'm fairly certain is not in my future (not least because, despite a few notable exceptions, I do have trouble letting people truly get close to me).  And yes, it also bothers me that I'm supposed to be somewhat insignificant to my friends who are married.

Most people, it seems, need more than just one strong relationship with other human beings.  So why do we deny it?  And why do we de-value our friendships?

"Just friends," indeed.


  1. Thank you. I needed to read this. It's been something I've been turning over in my head. I'm also 29 and I'm not just single but have never had a serious relationship.

    On the one hand, I do very much want to be married some day. But for whatever reason, things don't seem to work out for me and I've struggled with it. First because of wanting but what makes that even harder is this persistent idea that without it, I'm not relevant or worthwhile. That I'm completely alone and not loved.

    Which is silly because it isn't true; I have friends and community and I hate this idea that it's all nothing. It put people in awful positions and only feeds this weird undercurrent of hopelessness.

    1. I'm glad that reading this post was as helpful to you as writing it was for me. You're right, the idea that friends aren't significant parts of our lives isn't helpful. They absolutely are, and it does us all a disservice to ignore that.

      That said, I do hope that your love life improves, as I know how very painful it can be to have one that isn't going well.