Love & Friendship

BCN cover image

This originally appeared in BCN issue 71

I’ve been thinking a lot about love and friendship lately. I think one of the taken-for-granted rules that many of us have is that lovers and friends are two very different categories of people, who we should expect different things of and treat very differently.

This distinction is reinforced all around us. We don’t have legal or religious ceremonies to celebrate and confirm our commitment to our friends. The happily-ever-after in most fairy tales and Hollywood movies does not involve the hero finding a close friend or two to hang out with. There are excess of self-help books and agony aunt columns advising us on how to run our romantic relationships, but precious few devoted to managing friendships. We are bombarded with bill-board posters and magazine articles and pop songs depicting the perfect love and the perfect couple, but there are a limited amount showing the perfect friendship, and most of these focus on children and teenagers (think of the old coca cola adverts), giving the message that friendship is something pre-love, perhaps just practice for the ‘real thing’ when we won’t need to invest so much in friendships any more.

‘Sex and the City’ was a programme which seemed to celebrate friendship; the moral of each episode was that men may come and go but the women’s friendship sees them through it all. However, at the end of the final series all the women were paired off and moved in with a lover. I believe a similar thing was true with ‘Friends’, despite being a programme all about friendship. It seems that something in us is not satisfied by endings where friendships are begun or cemented. We’re only happy when two lovers come together or commit to each other. That’s a true happy ending. In movies and programmes where close opposite sex friends don’t ever become lovers, there’s often suspicion that they will, or subtext is read as suggesting a romantic relationship although it wasn’t explicitly portrayed (this also sometimes applies to same sex friendships). Again, it seems that only children’s films are really comfortable celebrating close friendships. I’m thinking of all the Pixar movies which have developed further and further away from needing a romantic love element (it was there for Buzz and Woody, less so in ‘Monsters Inc’, and ‘Finding Nemo’ explicitly rejected any love interest between the opposite sex main characters). Thinking about this I couldn’t help but wonder: what might a world be like where we questioned this distinction between lovers and friends?

There are many elements of the lovers/friends distinction:
1. That there is a clear distinction, and this affects how we understand relationships
2. That it is attached to a hierarchy: love is more important than friendship
3. That this affects what we expect from lovers and how we behave towards them
4. That this affects how we treat and engage with our friends

Viv Burr and Trevor Butt pick the culturally accepted rules around love and friendship to focus on in chapter 3 of their book ‘Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology’ (an incredibly helpful book about how people see the world and how this affects the way we live our lives, although this is not very clear from the rather dry title). They say that the love/friendship categorisation is an example of a ‘bipolar constuct’: a way of seeing the world as divided into two different things, which shapes how we engage with people around us and the questions we ask about our relationships. Burr and Butt give the example of a man and a woman, both married, who meet at a writing class, hit it off very well and become close. Immediately rumours start to circulate about whether they’re having an affair, their spouses are uncomfortable and suspicious, and the man and woman themselves begin to feel awkward and unsure because their emotional attachment is such that the word ‘friend’ feels an inadequate description, even though neither of them particularly wants to have a sexual relationship.

Because generally in our culture the categories of friend and lover are mutually exclusive, Burr and Butt suggest that anything that doesn’t fall neatly into one or the other will be squeezed into the one that offers the best fit: ‘If it isn’t one of these, then it must be one of those’ (p23). The existence of these either/or categories exerts a huge pull on people’s behaviours, so these two people might ‘find themselves’ having an affair, feeling like they had little control over what happened, or their friendship might drift away from the intensity that it had since it is so threatening to the way we understand relationships. Burr and Butt also point out the way this either/or category is perpetuated in language. We don’t have many words for describing relationships that fall on the boundary between what we see as love and what we see as friendship, and it can be very hard to manage a relationship that the world we live in cannot describe or recognise, particularly in terms of getting acknowledgement of the relationship from people around us or support if things get difficult, rather than just a bunch of people saying ‘what did you expect trying to have such a weird relationship?’ Friend / lover is the culturally accepted way of defining relationships so it often seems the only possible way of seeing things. It is such a widely held distinction that it is very hard to escape from and our behaviour is often affected by it without us even realising it.

So I think that we tend to distinguish between love and friendship in a clear distinction which doesn’t allow for any fuzzy boundary: anything lying in between or beyond these categories. On top of this I think that we put more importance on one side of the distinction than the other. Lovers are far more important than friends. We should always put our lover first, they are number one in our lives. They are even seen as ‘the one’ we’ve been searching for and expected to be all things to us. The relative unimportance of friendships is made clear in the idea that if we’re not sexually interested in someone we might decide to be ‘just friends’ with them, implying that this would be so much less than a romantic relationship. I think this is something I’ve always found rather uncomfortable, mostly because of my close relationship with my sister. It never seemed OK to me to put a lover above her in importance in my life, and this made me question, eventually, why I would see lovers as more important generally than other relationships.

The way I try to see my relationships now is in terms of closeness. I imagine a series of concentric circles with me in the middle. The first ‘inner’ circle contains the people who I regard as closest to me: people I could call up at 2 in the morning if I was having a crisis, the people I would live with if the opportunity arose, the people who know my day-to-day and I theirs. A little further out are the other people whose lives are entwined with mine and who I will spend time with regularly (whether in physical or virtual contact) and who I will talk with about the stuff of our lives (tragedies and triumphs), and then there is my wider circle of friends, then acquaintances and so on. Obviously boundaries between circles are permeable and people’s positions shift over time. The important thing about this model, for me, is that it’s based entirely on the level of closeness and connection I have with a person, rather than whether or not we have, or have had, sex. There are people in close who are family, friends, colleagues and ex-lovers, and there are people who are not in that close who I’ve had sex with or played with, or would consider doing so with. To use another metaphor that works for me, I consider the friendship I have with all these people to be the cake and sex to be the icing: something that may be pleasant to have on some of the cakes, but that doesn’t really affect its nutritional value or taste terribly much (the cake is still good whether it is there or not) and something which I seldom want on its own (it can be sweet, but it’s usually more satisfying if there is at least a little cake).

Now I’m not saying that anybody else should have these models. They are just what works for me. But I do feel that it might be useful for everyone to reflect on the lover/friend distinction and whether we do apply it in our lives. Specifically I think it’s useful to think about what it means for how we treat the people around us and what we expect from these people. A couple of thought experiments that might be useful are to consider what it would mean if we were to treat our lovers more like friends and/or our friends more like lovers.

Treating lovers more like friends
I think that privileging lovers over friends can put a great deal of pressure on love relationships. In the past, and to a certain degree still, I have expected a whole lot more from lovers than I have from friends without much justification. This person hasn’t spent as much time with me as some of my oldest friends, I haven’t told them yet about all the major events of my life or been clear with them about my demons and the way I work, but somehow because we’ve had sex I expect them to telepathically know how I’m feeling and respond perfectly to every situation we find ourselves in. Also, I have found myself wanting lovers to share my opinions, dreams and attitudes in a way I would never expect a friend to. I can handle my friend N having completely opposite attitudes to me on some of the things I hold most dear (sexuality, gender), but a lover can disagree with me on something as simple as whether it’s OK to miss the movie trailers (absolutely not) or how often to wash towels (wash towels? Why? Aren’t we clean when we use them?) and it seems like a major issue. I know that some of this is to do with the sorts of frictions you get when you live with someone or are around them a lot of the time. But I still feel that I cut friends more slack, and don’t expect them to live their lives in the same way as me as much as I can with lovers. Perhaps this is all due to the cultural pressure for a lover to be all things for us. Despite having rejected a lot of the ideals of monogamy, maybe I still cling to this idea that my lover should provide all my needs and agree with me on everything.

I think it is also a lot easier for me to take lovers for granted than friends. Perhaps because of these expectations I may not be so grateful when a lover puts themselves out for me as I would a friend, I might not be so appreciative when they give up their evening to comfort me when I’m low, I might take my irritations and frustrations out on them by being snappy, unfriendly or quiet without explanation in a way I’d never do with a friend. This could be due to the fact I’m more secure that my lovers aren’t going to up and leave when I’m being crappy (although logically the opposite should be the case as I’ve had lovers leave me, but never friends). Shakespeare’s Sister say ‘we hurt the ones we love the most, it’s a subtle form of complement’, suggesting, I guess, that it implies that we’re deeply attached to them and trust them. But I would like to try to take a few moments, each time I’m being snappy or conflicting with a lover, to ask myself ‘how would I treat a friend in this situation?’ Just as we tend to be a lot harsher with ourselves, expecting a lot more than we do of others, I think we can be much tougher on lovers than we would be on anybody else. Whenever we’re being hard on a lover, or on ourselves, I think that could be a very helpful question to reflect on.

Finally, I think that treating lovers more like friends can decrease the pressures we have around ‘getting together’ and ‘breaking up’. N still jokes with me, a decade on, that I always described our break up as ‘changing the nature of our relationship’ rather than an ending. It does sound pompous, but I stand by it because N is still one of my closest friends. We still do most of the things we always did together, except for having sex and sharing a house, and we have a lot healthier relationship than we did when we were lovers. I find that I can feel extremely tense and pressured when there is a question of my starting to have sex with somebody or stopping having sex with somebody (and in sex I include other romantic touching like sexual kissing, hugging or hand-holding – as opposed to the ‘friendly’ varieties of these activities). Why do I feel so stressed? It’s because I’ve found that people’s expectations of me can change drastically when we start/stop this kind of physical intimacy and the accompanying ‘I love you’s’ that seem to mean something different to some people when said to a lover as opposed to a friend. I’ve seen many break-ups of lover relationships where the two people have stopped seeing each other, or speaking to each other, because somehow one person deciding they don’t want the icing any more (it isn’t working for them) has ruined the whole cake. I guess I feel very uncomfortable about this. I don’t want things to change so drastically if I start having sex with someone. I don’t want it to mean that I owe them something vastly different than I did when we were friends. Also, I don’t want to feel pressure to always be sexual with somebody because I have been once or twice. It’s good to know we can be, but I don’t want to feel that I should be every time we spend time together. And if I decide it isn’t working for me, or I only want the icing occasionally, I really don’t want that to mean that I get treated completely differently again, perhaps losing some of the privileges that I had when I was a lover, or being treated like I did something wrong by the person and their friends. I realise that a lot of this is pressure I put on myself rather than pressure that people put on me (or perhaps often a combination of the two). I find it hard to escape the lover/friend rules despite being aware of them and uncomfortable with them.

Treating friends more like lovers
What if we were to treat our friends more like our lovers? This is the other side of this thought experiment. I’ve spent less time thinking about it, probably because I do still put less emphasis on friends than lovers despite all my attempts not to fall into this trap. I’m not saying here that we should all go out and have sex with our friends. Although, if it does turn out to be something both people enjoy together without it putting a whole load of pressure and expectation on the relationship then I see nothing wrong with this at all. What I’m wondering about is whether it might be good to put a bit more romance into our friendships. With lovers I often celebrate my relationship by making a big thing of anniversaries and spoiling them on their birthdays. I show my appreciation for them with little gifts and cards. I leave them a note when I leave in the morning after an enjoyable night together. I make time for them, scheduling in regular dates and making sure we do something special on them. Often I alternate: one date where I specifically look after them, one where they look after me. All of these things could be incorporated into friendships. I could send N a homemade CD when I hear he’s been low. I could schedule in a regular date with my new colleague P and we could take it in turns to decide what to do that evening and pay for it. I could send a bunch of flowers to M to let her know I’m thinking about her even though we haven’t seen each other in a while. I do do some of these things already, but I think I could do it more. I guess we could even arrange a day with a friend to specifically focus on our friendship each year, perhaps going away for a weekend together doing something we both enjoy, perhaps acknowledging the day we met or cemented our friendship in some way. Perhaps friendships could also benefit from some of the ‘state of the relationship’ discussions we often have with lovers. It might be easier to let friendships drift or to avoid talking about a problem because we’re not generally expected to reflect on and work at our friend relationships.

I’m aware that this way of seeing things is very specific to me. I know I’m not always consistent with this because I’m still trying to write my own rules on this one and it is hard to behave in a way that is so radically different to the way most people do lover and friend relationships. I guess I’m just trying to find a way in which my relationships with my lovers can feel as stable and as flexible as those I have with my friends. There’s also something about commitment here. I know I can’t promise to feel romantically (whatever that means) or to enjoy being sexual with someone for ever and ever. These things change. But I think for the most part I can promise the cake. Unless someone alters out of all recognition, I think I can commit to being with them through their lives, growing and developing together. I think friendship is something I can commit to and have faith in. And I think I would feel less tense and worried about lover relationships, less freaked out about whether they should end or continue, whether they are a bad thing or a good thing, if I could get rid of some of that either/or thinking and see them as mostly about the friendship, which is an ongoing thing and which I can commit to working on to make it the most satisfying friendship for all involved (whether or not it’s dripping with icing, dusted with sugar or simply good plain cake).

In the next few issues I’ll be continuing these questions of relationships, considering some more of myths about love that we might want to challenge and the skills necessary for managing relationships. Feel free to email me with any suggestions, questions or thoughts you have on these topics.