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On Friendship

Amatonormativity and the Case for Marriage Reform

Minimizing MarriageHeteronormativity is the belief that sexual and marital relations are only appropriate between a man and a woman. It’s a belief that has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years. Only now is it being challenged. However, there is a more fundamental belief about marriage and sexuality that continues to be taken for granted. In Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Elizabeth Brake calls this amatonormativity. It’s the belief that a normal relationship is exclusive, amorous, long-term, and involves the partners prioritising each other above everything else; that obtaining such a relationship is a universally shared goal; and that such a relationship should be preferred to other relationship types.

Evidence for amatonormativity is everywhere. It’s in the concerned parental questions about when you’re going to find someone nice and settle down. It’s in the raised eyebrows that greet you when you dine alone, put friendship above romance, bring a friend to a formal event or attend alone, or show no interest in finding romance. Such behaviour is considered odd. That’s amatonormativity.

Adults whose lives don’t follow the amatonormative norm face discrimination. They are subject to negative stereotyping, including accusations of being immature, selfish, irresponsible, a “man-child” or a “crazy cat lady”. Their friendships are denied the social recognition given to those in amorous relationships. They are denied access to the privileges afforded to the married, for example the ability to extend spousal immigration or hospital visiting rights to a close friend instead.

However, amatonormativity is so entrenched that most people consider this justified preferential treatment rather than wrongful discrimination. It is widely believed that amatonormative relationships are superior because they require commitment and promote mutual care. Brake disagrees. Such relationships may require the partners to make a commitment to each other, but they do not guarantee that they will have a commitment, as the divorce rate attests. Moreover, commitment is not desirable in itself. It may facilitate the achievement of complex, long-term goals, but such goals may have no more inherent value than short-term goals that do not require commitment. Likewise, abuse and unidirectional caring can be found as often in amatonormative relationships as in other ones.

Amatonormativity also has negative effects on the lives of those who subscribe to it. “Amatonormativity sustains the belief that marital and amorous relationships should be valued over friendships, and this undermines the attempt to pursue enduring friendships,” Brake writes. “Pressures to enter amorous love relationships likely result in individuals viewing friendships as less valuable than they might otherwise, and in some cases choosing less fulfilling relationships, given their idiosyncratic needs and preferences, than they otherwise might.” Amatonormativity is also responsible for our unrealistic belief that one person should be able to satisfy all our emotional, erotic, intellectual and companionship needs, an expectation that frequently causes unhappiness.

Marriage is not necessary to benefit from amatonormative privilege, but it is usually sufficient for it. Indeed, argues Brake, our current conception of marriage is a major cause of amatonormativity. By holding up one kind of relationship as special, and explicitly privileging it, our culture encourages people to pursue it.

Because marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the goods commonly attributed to it, is not inherently more valuable than other kinds of relationship, and actively produces harm, Brake argues that it is a matter of justice to reform it.


Mark Vernon on Friendship, Love and Sex

The Meaning of Friendship

“A friendship which includes a sexual element is the best sort of relationship that many people hope to have,” says Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship. “The downside is that sex can clearly imperil friendships by its possessiveness or its inappropriateness.”

Sex presents a number of problems to friendship. First, relationships based on physical attraction can form quickly, with little need for personal disclosure. In this respect, they are similar to relationships based on utility or a shared interest. As a result, the relationship may fall apart if the couple later realise there is no real basis for any friendship between them.

Conversely, friends who sense a sexual undercurrent developing between them may hesitate to pursue those feelings lest they put the friendship at risk.

However, even just the possibility of such feelings developing can cause problems:

“Imagine a man and woman becoming friends at work - good friends - and deciding to go out for dinner together as an apparently natural extension of the friendship. Then, as they're sat across the table from each other - starched linen, candles and a rose between them - they start to feel awkward. Unwittingly, they have been drawn into uncharted waters as dinner for two is the sort of thing that lovers do, not friends. The evening is one of embarrassment, and the friendship flounders. What's happened is that cultural assumptions about the activities associated with a sexual relationship have imperilled a friendship quite as effectively as any actual erotic attraction itself…

The complication that comes from such an unresolved sexual frisson is the suspense. Indeed, suspense is as much a cause of erotic frisson as any actual sexual attraction might be: people do not even need to fancy each other, just be conscious that they might. In Evelyn Waugh's phrase, even 'a thin bat's squeak of sexuality' can frighten people off or distract them from becoming friends.”

However, sex doesn’t just imperil the friendship between lovers, it can jeopardise their other friendships too:

“In today's world, there is a myth of romantic love based upon the idea that two lovers become one flesh, a totalisation of life in the other, supremely enacted in sexual ecstasy which is symbolic of that union. The myth or ideal tends to exclude others, not because lovers do not want friends, but because it tells them that their friends are incidental - pleasant but non-essential adornments to the lover's life together. Although few people in real life believe the myth in its entirety, it is difficult to ignore it entirely too...

Think of the estrangement that can come about between friends after one of them marries another... Or recall just how hard it can be to sustain a friendship when your friend started a new sexual relationship..."

Vernon suggests this may be because the partiality of friendship may be seen as a threat to the supposed primacy of the sexual relationship.

“Is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife - 'forsaking all others', as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.”

To my mind, this is one of the great tragedies of modern marriage. The idea that one person can satisfy all of our sexual, emotional and intellectual needs is infantile. Our notions of exclusivity, indoctrinated in us by our culture, all too often cut us off from a richer, albeit more complex, tapestry of relationships that have the capacity to profoundly improve our lives.

At the root of the problem is our tendency to value sexual relationships above mere friendships. We often talk about how a friendship can blossom into “something more”.  Yet by doing so, we have created an incentive to misunderstand our feelings:

“In a culture where sexual consummation is seen as the highest expression of love that two people can hope for, a fascination for someone is easy to mistake for falling in love, even when it is simultaneously obvious that a sexual relationship would be inappropriate, unsustainable and possibly ruinous of the friendship.”

Aristotle valued things differently:

“[Aristotle] assigns close friendship top place in the hierarchy of human relationships, regarding it as a key ingredient in any flourishing life. There's a place for 'friendly lovers' too, if lower down: they can hope for some contentment. They belong in his second category of friendship, the kind that form because of some mutual shared pleasure, in this case that being sex...”

Vernon seems to agree:

“Perhaps friendship should assert itself more strongly in our romance obsessed world... For contra the myth, there is a love that does not desire to possess. It is called friendship. It loves the other, and wants them both to be free.”


Mark Vernon on the Three Kinds of Friendship

The Meaning of FriendshipWhat is friendship? Why are we friends with some people but not others? Why do some friendships last while others wither away? These are some of the questions considered by Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship.

According to Aristotle, there are three reasons people may be friends: because they are useful to each other, because they enjoy some shared interest, or because they value each other for who they are.

Most work friendships fall into the first group. Consider how we typically feel when a colleague leaves:

“Why is it that you can have known a colleague for years, enjoyed their company day after day, worked with them, even helped them when personal matters spilt into the workplace, and yet, when they left, it was, overnight, almost as if you had never known them? You might miss them for a day, perhaps a week, and hope their new job is going well. But, in truth, most of the people with whom we were once friendly at work disappear from our lives with little more than a toast in the canteen, or best wishes on a card. It is very odd, when you consider all the time you spend with these people, and the genuine exchange of good feeling. And yet, it is entirely understandable when you realise that the relationship was, at heart, one of utility, based mostly on what was done together. Take that shared activity away, which is what happens when people leave work, and the friendship withers like a cut flower. It is not that they were not liked or had nothing in common with you. It is that the thing held in common - the work - is gone; without doing that together the relationship ceases to have reason or purpose.”

The second group is similar to the first, except that the shared interest is pleasurable rather than utilitarian. It may be a common love of board games or birdwatching, shopping or sex. Like the first group, however, the friendship only thrives for as long as the shared pleasure continues to exist.

Vernon argues that it is friendships of the third kind – those who enjoy being together because of who they are in themselves – that are the most durable. However, while this may be a necessary component of the best friendships, it may not be sufficient:

“In [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche's book, longevity is not the determining measure of friendship. A short-lived friendship may nonetheless be the most important of your life. It's not that there is anything wrong with long-lived friends per se; it is rather that time can suck the authenticity out of friendship... Such friends do not really share that much, beyond their association, and so wind away the hours talking about this and that, conspiring in indecision and perhaps in all honesty becoming nuisances to one another...

[Nietzsche] also suspects that such relationships are untrustworthy because when the dynamism disappears from a friendship, but the individuals concerned cannot quite bring it to an end, they constantly strive to re-establish their intimacy with each other - by dwelling on the 'old times' or college days; the past, not the future. This is a sign that habit has become a substitute for any real affection or closeness.

Nietzsche is not saying that a shared past is not important to close friends. Rather, he's arguing it's not enough. His observation about the future orientation of the best friendships is an arresting one.”

To Nietzsche the true joy to be found in friendship is not the collapse of boundaries between the individuals, nor a sense of like-mindedness. Rather, like the Missing Piece and the Big O, it’s the realisation that they are moving in the same direction.

Most of our friendships don't reach such heights. Yet for Nietzsche there was value in more superficial friendships too:

"Just as in order to walk beside an abyss or cross a deep stream by a plank one needs a railing, not so as to hold on to it - for it would at once collapse if one did that - but to give the eye a feeling of security, so as a youth one has need of people who without knowing it perform for us the service of a railing. It is true that, if we were really in great danger, they would not help us if we sought to rely on them, but they give us the quieting sensation that there is protection close at hand."


Krista Tippett on Understanding Others

BecomingWiseKrista Tippett’s podcast On Being seeks to illuminate what it means to be human, through conversations with scientists, artists, theologians, activists and teachers. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett summarises what she’s learned from these conversations, and offers her views on how to foster understanding in our communities.

The key, says Tippett, is asking good questions.

“It’s not true what they taught us in school; there is such a thing as a bad question. In American life, we trade mostly in answers—competing answers—and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight... My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits…

Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.”

Tippett starts each episode of On Being by asking her guest to describe the spiritual background of their childhood. It’s typical of her approach, inviting people to answer her questions through the story of their lives. Tippett explains why:

“In Collegeville, discussion about a large, meaty, theological subject began by framing it as a question, and then asking everyone around the table to begin to answer that question through the story of their lives: Who is God? What is prayer? How to approach the problem of evil? What is the content of Christian hope? I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.”

“The human soul [is like] a wild animal in the backwoods of the psyche, sure to run away if cross-examined,” says Tippett. More open, indirect lines of questioning are a better way to reach understanding.

Our discomfort with others’ suffering, or a desire to find common ground or a fix, can be an obstacle to understanding. Tippett tells of the mayor of Louisville’s initiative to embed compassion in the social fabric of the city. According to one African American pastor, “the greatest breakthrough was having a politician who was willing to sit with people’s pain—just that. Not, in the first instance, to present a policy or a fix—but to acknowledge that damage has been done and dwell with it, let it be in the room, accompanied, grieved—lamented”.

These obstacles aren’t only present when seeking to improve understanding between groups. They operate at a personal level too. Tippett recounts the experience of Quaker author and teacher Parker Palmer while battling depression:

“I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go, you know, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person… You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.””

But one person was different, willing to simply be present, without offering advice:

“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, he from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. It became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space—a sacred space of relationship—where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”


Planet My Baby Died

TinyBeautifulThingsWhen my marriage broke up, I was fortunate to be able to lean on several people for support. Some were old friends, who I'd known since my school days. One was just an acquaintance, yet became - unexpectedly, humblingly - one of my greatest allies. But what shocked me was how many other supposed friends, and even family members, offered little or no support at all. 

Some offered a few sympathetic words the first time they saw me, but then I never heard from them again. Some avoided me. Many pretended as if nothing had happened. A year later, while I was still struggling to deal with my pain, even some of the more supportive ones were suggesting it was time I moved on. 

"Oh these little rejections, how they add up quickly," as Alanis Morissette once sang. I never understood the way these people behaved until I read some advice given by Cheryl Strayed to a woman who had miscarried eighteen months previously and was still struggling to deal with her grief. In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Strayed writes:

"Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over anything. Or at least not anything that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.

They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died."


Cheryl Strayed on Forgiveness

TinyBeautifulThings"Forgiveness," wrote David Whyte, "is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life." It's also one of the hardest skills to acquire, as Cheryl Strayed acknowledges in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a collection of the unconventional, moving, no-nonsense advice columns she wrote for the online literary magazine The Rumpus.

The most important thing is not to try to rush it. "Being friends with someone who once broke your heart is fine and dandy," she writes in response to one letter-writer, "but it’s almost always a good idea to take a breather between this and that."

Instead, she proposes a more modest initial goal:

"You asked for help with forgiveness, but I don’t think that’s what you need to reach for just yet. You know how alcoholics who go to AA are always using that phrase “one day at a time”? They say that because to say “I will never drink again” is just too damn much. It’s big and hard and bound to fail. This is how forgiveness feels for you at this moment, no doubt. It’s the reason you can’t do it. I suggest you forget about forgiveness for now and strive for acceptance instead...

Your life has been profoundly shaken by these recent revelations. It’s not your task to immediately forgive those who shook you. Your spoken desire to forgive the woman who betrayed you is in opposition to what you feel. Forgiveness forces an impossible internal face-off between you and a woman you hate.

Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true."

Others have eloquently expressed the futility of holding on to past wrongs ("Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies," said Nelson Mandela), but Strayed expertly defines what is and is not required for forgiveness itself:

"Forgiveness means you’ve found a way forward that acknowledges harm done and hurt caused without letting either your anger or your pain rule your life or define your relationship with the one who did you wrong."

Forgiveness, then, is a gift to ourselves, not to the one who wounded us. It doesn't require that we forget or condone what was done to us. It only requires us to decide that we will no longer allow that hurt to shape our future.


On Giving

The next time you need to buy a present for someone, and have absolutely no idea what to get them, consider this advice from David Whyte, offered in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"Giving that is… automatic, chore-based, walking round the mall-based, exhausts us, debilitates us, and in the end is quite often subtly insulting to the one whom we eventually give the random item.

Better to spend a long time sitting in our armchairs in silent contemplation of those we want to gift, looking for the imaginative doorway that says I know you and see you and this is how I give thanks for you, which may bring us to the perfect objet but also may bring us instead to write the short heartfelt message that acknowledges their place in our lives."

We are generally unaccustomed to telling others what we appreciate about them, however, and it can be hard to know what to say. For inspiration, look no further than the first book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Titled “Debts and Lessons”, it lists those whom the Roman Emperor felt contributed to his life, and why he was grateful for each of them. It’s an uplifting read.

If we can overcome our own discomfort at being so emotionally expressive, such a written message can be what Whyte considers the perfect gift:

"The full genius of gift giving is found when we give what a person does not fully feel they deserve, but that does not overstretch the point, it is the appropriate but surprising next step in their lives. It disarms and moves and empowers all at once while gratifying the one who gives beyond most everyday satisfactions."


David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."