We know by now that Valentine’s day, like the concept that romantic love is the highest form of affection, is a modern invention.
The language of romantic love is all around us, even after the 14th of February, and it overdetermines how we understand and clarify the myriad and complicated bonds we form in our lives. Despite what the self-proclaimed experts tell us, our relationships - whether we’re single or not, without or with families - are more complex than they’ve been. Words like “fidelity” and “forever” are laughably inadequate in describing what we’d like or need. In the midst of this merry mess, what role does friendship play in the time of love?
The discourse of coupledom and the number of “relationship experts” have both been on the rise lately, even though there are more singles among us. The discussion about friends, especially single friends, ranges in tone from ambivalence to blatant hostility, with experts warning you that it’s necessary to avoid singles if you’re looking to become part of a couple. Apparently, only healthy couples can introduce you to desirable singles. At the other extreme, Stephanie Coontz writes approvingly that married people ought to cultivate friendships outside their marriages, because that would make for healthier relationships. I’ve often agreed with and liked Coontz’s historicising of the institution of marriage, but I’ve never been able to shake the uneasy feeling that she’s ultimately only interested in making marriage more of a neoliberal enterprise, not less. And it seems that friends, for her, serve a strictly utilitarian purpose: “Honey, our marriage is crumbling! Let’s get some friends!”
As I indicated in my review of Bella De Paulo’s Singled Out, I was eight when I decided that I’d never be coupled in any way. Or have kids. Ever. It’s hard for most people to grasp the idea that I have been this sure, and for this long, about what they construe as a negative. We’re bombarded on all sides by proclamations of how incomplete we are outside romantic relationships. But there’s nothing inherently natural about coupledom (or even friendship, but that’s for another day); while lots of people thrive in romantic relationships and families, there are just as many who’re desperately unhappy and spend a lot of time wishing they were anywhere else except sitting across the dinner table with someone who bores them to tears.
Let’s call this what it is: The fear of being alone and of being stigmatised as a worthless human being. Singles, after all, are now even held responsible for global warming. A long time ago, I came to terms with the fact that there’s nothing I can - or want - to do to make people believe in my worth. I could discover the cure for AIDS tomorrow, and this is what my obituary will say: “Woman who discovered the cure for AIDS dies. Alone. Lonely. Useless.”
There isn’t much out there in terms of language and/or practices that defies this reliance on coupledom. The discourse on Polyamory, for instance, has never appealed to me because it seems so invested in relationships, and because I’ve never understood the need for labels like “primary” or “secondary.” I think my friend B. is right when he prefers the terminology of constellations, our inner and outer circles; the point about constellations is that people can move in and out of categories. But, mostly, I don’t get Polyamory because I’m just an old-fashioned slut who sometimes has sex with friends and frequently uses sex as an ice-breaker with strangers. I briefly considered calling some people flovers (friends and lovers), but decided that I don’t like echoing the usual cultural hierarchies to which we subject our friends. In everyday and media discourse, friends are referred to as “just friends,” as if friendship has no value or intensity. “Significant others” or “partners,” or “boyfriends/girlfriends” are the ones who get invited to dinner with you.
All of which is to say that the differing ways of understanding love versus "just" friendship leads to a lot of hyper-calibrating, mostly in the interest of advancing the idea that romantic love surpasses everything else, and as if feeling could be endlessly and easily modulated. Sometimes I imagine us in a futuristic world suffused with Gattaca-like sterility, where we’re cautioned to apply just enough emotion to all our relationships, no more and no less, as if our levels of intensity could be constantly monitored like Homeland Security’s threat-level indicators: “Attention: Your friend K. has just arrived from Alaska and is at Gate 8. You may now feel Red for him, but only for the weekend. Attention: W. has just left for Buenos Aires through gate 11. You must now turn your level of feeling for him to Blue-Green.” There could be a final, ominous statement after every announcement: “Please maintain your proper level of feeling and intensity at all times.” Failure to comply - a reddish-orange feeling of love for W. when he’s gone and I have no right to care about him that much when he’s not even around, or too much red for K. even after he’s returned to Alaska -- will result in a horrible punishment behind closed doors. And then, of course, there’s that delightful distinction drawn between being in love with someone as opposed to merely loving a person. So even the distinction between friendship and love isn’t enough. After all, hey, you might just love someone because he or she is just your friend. But you can’t, you absolutely mustn’t, be in love with him or her. That’s not for friends. That’s for your...whatever...Mustn’t get things confused here.
D. and I are at the Algerian crêpe place on Foster, and he’s talking me through my latest tribulation. I’m unhappy over a friend, with whom I’ve had a tangled and difficult relationship (a word one is not supposed to use to describe mere friendships), and a bewildering set of exchanges. I’ve been crying for days, and I can’t understand why. He looks at me and says gently, “You’re mourning.” And I realise he’s right: I’m mourning the loss of a friend, and of a friendship. I call D. the next day telling him that I’m much better and I’ve got it all figured out. I’m wrong, as it turns out, because the grief returns, night after night. But having talked it through with D., who framed my relationship in terms of loss and grieving, usually the language more easily available for discussing “true love,” has helped.
It’s a cold night outside, after a gathering with friends, and I’m waiting, with another person, for our ride back home. He asks me where I live, and I tell him. And he says, “Alone?” And I reply, “Well, I’ve lived on my own for nearly twenty years now.” “It must be lonely,” he responds, with what I know is a smug smile because he’d been going on about the need to be with someone and to not be alone and, yes, the distinction between loving and being in love. And that’s when I surprise myself.
I don’t shove him into the snow bank head first. I don’t even bother with a caustic and cutting remark: “What part of twenty years and on my own do you not get?” I could tell him that I’ve deliberately spent every New Year’s Eve on my own for the last fifteen years because it’s my favourite way to exercise my pleasure in solitude. I could go on... Instead, I simply turn my head away. I realise I have nothing to prove to someone who’s simply not part of my tribe. I realise that I’ve learnt, after several past missteps and in anticipation of perhaps several future ones, to look for and nurture relationships with friends I care about and who care about me: coupled and uncoupled, married and unmarried, floating in between continents and couplings, leaving and arriving, writing and not writing, forgiving or not forgiving, or forgiving without a word, returning wordlessly, messy interlocking circles that move and shift and friends who surprise me out of the blue with words of care that leave me stammering in surprise and pleasure. This guy is not among them.
After all, I may have briefly befriended him – but it’s not like I’m in a friendship with him.