A Thought Experiment on Friendship: How We Talk About Love

This is Part 2 in a series on friendship (part 1, part 3, part 4). This serves to articulate the nuances of expressing love within friendships, familial relationships, and romantic relationships.

About four years ago, Carrie English wrote an article for the Boston Globe where she lamented that she had no words to describe her grief when she watched her best friend and college roommate get married. She writes,

In the vows they wrote, the bride and groom gushed about how lucky they were to have found someone who loved them unconditionally – someone who made anyplace home – someone who was their best friend. And I stood there under the flower-covered gazebo thinking: “Why not me?”…I was thinking: “She loves me unconditionally. The house we shared always felt like home. And I thought we were best friends.”…Being platonically dumped wouldn’t be so bad if people would acknowledge you have the right to be platonically heartbroken. But it’s just not part of our vocabulary. However much our society might pay lip service to friendship, the fact remains that the only love it considers important – important enough to merit a huge public celebration – is romantic love.

Despite acknowledging not having any words to convey her grief, English touches on a phenomena here that many have indeed experienced. We tell ourselves that we’re so happy for our friends when they find someone to love them yet at the same time, our heart aches knowing that our relationship with them is being reduced to the occasional phone call or Facebook comment (or, most of the time, reduced to no friendship at all).

Yet, why is it that English is unable to describe this experience of loss? Why is it that most would view English as a bitter bridesmaid, a selfish woman who simply isn’t happy for her friend’s marriage? Further to English’s point, why does it seem as though this marriage is indeed the highest form of love that two people can experience and friendship (and other forms of love) gets skirted off to the side? English further states, “Surely I can’t be the only person who feels like weddings are a bit of a rejection – two people announcing in public that they love each other more than they love you.”

Yet, as I’ve said before, if we should love our spouse and our friend in the very same amount yet in a different way and if friendships are seen as just as important (if not more important) than the marital relationship, why is it that so much goes into acknowledging the intense love between a romantic couple including a public ceremony, a binding covenant, and all the sermons in the world, yet very, very little goes into acknowledging friendships to the point that a couple publicly can say “they love each other more than they love you” and few bat their eyes? After all, when looking for someone to love, we never think of friendships, only romantic partners. Yet before we can even speak about expressing philic love, we must critique the ways that erotic love has usurped philic love.

A Word On Love

An illustration. Let’s say that your friend has a microwave and an oven at her house. When she moved in that first day, both were installed and ready to go. She began using the microwave, and she loved it! She put her frozen pizza bagels in there, set the timer for 4 minutes, and then as soon as they were ready, she enjoyed cheesy, pepperoni goodness. One evening, she invited you over for dinner (pizza bagels again!). Again, she put the pizza bagels in the microwave, set the time, and then you both enjoyed them when they popped out.

After dinner, you smile and say, “These bagels were delicious! Have you ever tried cooking them in your oven? They come out crispy and delicious, but they take a bit longer.” [For the purpose of this illustration, you’re a rude house guest who criticizes the host’s cooking method after your first meal together.]

She looks puzzled. “What do you mean ‘my oven’? I only have one way of cooking and that’s microwaving? The oven is just for show.

You laugh. “No, your oven can cook food too! It’s a different process, but it cooks the food.

Cooks the food…so it’s a giant microwave?

No, it’s an oven. You set the temperature and it uses heat to slowly cook your food.

So you set a timer? Like, the microwave?

Not quite. While you might set a timer, you would first set the temperature, then open the oven door, put the food in, and then wait for it to slowly cook.

But that’s a microwave. That’s what a microwave is for.

You slam your head down on the counter wondering why you are friends with this woman before realizing that you’re only friends with her because she makes great pizza bagels.

This limited and elementary illustration is meant to illumine our social reality. Your friend couldn’t conceive of a different means of cooking food because she had learned that there was only one true means of cooking (i.e. her microwave). When you, who had a different knowledge, came to her with new information, she had difficulty understanding this new piece of information outside of her schema. She would have to readjust her culinary world view in order to enjoy the use of an oven to cook food.

These social schemas function in our lives in many ways. There is a range of social attire, language, etc. that we accept as valid. Even systems like formal education and the American dream are socially constructed schemas. They affect when, why, and how we talk about things that ultimately matter.

In many ways, our society’s marital idolatry where we have exalted marriage as the highest good (again, see Justice Kennedy’s statement on marriage) and the Church’s largely wholesale acceptance of such heresy, has led to an inability to acknowledge in any meaningful way any relationship that is not erotic.

Let me explain.

Culturally, when speaking of a close, non-sexual friendship between two men, it’s called a bromance. When two men go out as friends who are non-sexually intimate, it’s referred to as a man-date. Even the act of acknowledging love between two men becomes problematic. “I love you” must be followed up with a vocative expression, “man,” “bro,” or “dude.” To simply say, “I love you” to a man who is not a romantic partner is viewed as inherently sexualized. The recent movie, I Love You, Man, addresses all three of these points.

We must use romantic language to describe something that is inherently non-romantic because it’s the only means of understanding and conveying a deep intimacy (i.e. “So it’s like a giant microwave?”). Another prime example of our shift in friendships (especially male ones) can be seen in this post by Art of Manliness. The author shows a series of photographs of men who are physically affectionate with one another – a relationship to which we would ascribe sexual, erotic overtones today regardless of the sexual orientation or sexual identity of the men in the picture.

Getting out of gendered examples and into theological ones, although the Bible is more content to use lordship, covenantal or familial language to describe God’s relationship with His people in redemption, in the contemporary church, there are times when we are more satisfied using romantic language to describe God. For an exaggerated example, in 2003, South Park, an adult cartoon on Comedy Central, aired an episode where they parodied the Christian music industry. After getting rich with their Christian rock band by finding love songs and replacing the words “darling” or “babe” with “Jesus”, the main character remarks “Is there really a difference between loving Jesus vs being in love with Jesus?” While the episode was definitely meant to be an extreme that riled up Christian viewers, it did touch on an interesting part of Christian subculture where our songs of worship to God sound more like songs to Jesus, our boyfriend.

Preston Sprinkle remarks on this phenomena within Christian culture, “Saying you “fall in love with God” is taking a 19th century concept and reading it back into the Bible. And it’s subtly dangerous, since it reads a conditional understanding of love back into the biblical concept of unconditional love.”

Since moving last year to study at a school where all of the students are self-professed Christians (and professional ones at that), the cultural ethos can at times be inhospitable to singles within it. Take one part existential crisis of having only a few years left before full-time ministry and mix in an unBiblical understanding of marriage that’s been given Christian overtones, and you have a community where one hears on almost a daily basis “I need to find someone so I don’t end up alone for the rest of my life,” “I could never be celibate, [except for the fact that if I’m not married, I’m supposed to be celibate],” “I don’t know why so-and-so isn’t dating anyone right now,” and/or “I need to set this person up/That person needs a girl/boyfriend” — all subtly implying that if one isn’t in a romantic relationship, he or she is incomplete, lonely, and his or her life is vewwy, vewwy sad. If someone expresses frustration at their status as a single person, we’re quick to encourage them that “they’ll find someone soon.”

And this environment isn’t relegated to seminary. It’s prevalent in our churches as well. Think not only how this toxic environment affects singles within the church wanting to marry but also homosexual celibates within our church.  Julie Rodgers, a celibate lesbian woman, quipped once, “It’s not been fun to have a lot of people who seem very happy, like the husband and wife who are over here holding hands and [in a condescending tone] look at you and say ‘Oooo I’m so sorry. It must be so hard for you.'” These are people whom the Evangelical church has morally identified as called to celibacy and not people that (necessarily) chose it. Thus, there really isn’t any skirting them under the rug. What do you do with these people? If our language prevents us from ever acknowledging any expression of love outside of eros as just as good and valuable, is it any wonder why gay men and women view celibacy as a death sentence? 1

Moreover, if it wasn’t enough that erotic language has usurped most of our friendship language, even when there are explicitly philic words that are hard to change, we still use them to call attention to the depth of our marital relationships. For example, a big idea lately has been pushing the belief that your spouse needs to be your best friend. A role once reserved for someone(s) other than your spouse has been combined into this one relationship. This is part of a grander move by our culture to put more and more emphasis on the romantic relationship to satisfy all intimacy needs. It’s essentially putting all one’s love eggs in the same basket. Where Steve2 could at one time have had storgic love with his mother and father, philic love with his best friend, John, and erotic love with his wife, his wife must not only be his wife but also his best friend and his only family. His wife must provide all of his intimacy needs, and there can be no other relationship outside of his spouse that can satisfy any of his needs that his spouse cannot. Should Steve say that his wife isn’t his best friend (which is simply a categorical acknowledgement) or that his wife isn’t the most important relationship in his life (which is simply a theological statement), many would view Steve as not loving his wife well and not valuing her (which is a bit of a jump).

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here, I believe that most people are calling their spouses their best friends to use language to describe the deep intimacy that they have with their spouse (i.e. My wife/husband isn’t simply that person with whom I have sex or with whom I raise my children, but rather the person whom I actually love.). This is a good thing! Melinda Selmys, a Catholic blogger, argued a while back that there was a recent shift in the way we viewed marriages. What was once simply a political alliance then combined with concubinage (don’t get thrown off by this word. It was simply a non-political sexual relationship characterized by romance) and turned into something similar to what we see today where people marry for love. This is good because the ideal for human sexual expression is a permanent union that combines erotic elements with procreative elements.

What becomes unideal is when we use language that subtly implies that there is no greater love than the love experienced with one’s romantic partner.  Instead of working on developing healthy same-sex friendships outside of my marriage covenant, I put more pressure on my opposite-sex spouse to be my all in all. Under this framework, my friendships change then in importance from people I legitimately love and care about (or as I have previously argued, those whom I love the same amount as my wife but in a different way) to those-people-I-occasionally-say-hello-to-in-the-super-market-before-never-speaking-to-them-again-for-six-months.

This is what I mean when I argue that our society pushes for the doctrine of Existential Romantic Dyadism. Instead of reading Genesis 1 and 2 in light of Matthew 22:30, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven,” or Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7 on celibacy, our theology sounds a lot more like Plato’s philosophy, in The Symposium, “According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.” Instead of seeing celibacy in singleness as complete in itself, instead of forming communities where we actually love one another as one body where singles interact with married couples, and instead of criticizing sex as the summum bonum of society, we’re content to exalt romantic dyads as the highest form of discipleship, leave our singles ministries to shrivel up by pouring tons of effort into marriage workshops (which almost all that I’ve read describe how to be in a good non-sexual relationship in general), and continue to perpetuate this idea where if a person isn’t married after 30, he or she is broken, incomplete, and alone.

Think about it. What sort of anti-Gospel environment have we created, especially in the church, where our fellow brother or sister fears that he or she will be alone for the rest of his or her life if he or she doesn’t have a romantic partner?

In closing, there are bound to be people who believe that I am being too critical of marriage or, to use a term I used previously, that I am a bitter anti-cupid. I go back to the illustration of the microwave and oven. You’re not interested in telling your friend to stop using her microwave. The microwave is working for her just fine. The microwave serves a purpose in her culinary life. You’re not asking her to solely use the oven and never the microwave. You’re informing her that she has inadvertently reduced her cooking method to using one apparatus, the microwave, and that she would be better off and have a more vibrant culinary life if she used her oven in tandem with her microwave. Analogously, my main goal is to make marriage better (and subsequently all of our lives better!) by putting it in its proper place (which I’ll explain more later).

There’s still more to this blog series. What does it look like for Steve to love John in the same amount that he loves Caroline? And what about other problems that arise in real life circumstances? How does Steve handle those conflicts between John and Caroline? And one of the last things I hope to answer, why bother with friendships? If my spouse really is truly, legitimately, absolutely my best friend, why do I need other relationships?

Stay tuned!

1 In fact, a good rule of thumb for me in attempting to decide what our culture has sinfully idolized within marriage and what is Biblical is to ask myself if it’s true for the vocationally celibate person. Thus, “God has someone for you,” “You’ll find someone,”  or something gendered like “A man needs a wife to get him to take care of himself, think about other people, be a productive member of society, etc.” all fail for the vocationally celibate person.
2 This comes from my story in the first blog post of this series: Steve and Caroline as a married couple.

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3 responses to “A Thought Experiment on Friendship: How We Talk About Love

  1. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: The Particulars of Love | A Crown for Ashes·

  2. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Why Friendship? | A Crown for Ashes·

  3. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Who Do You Love More? | A Crown for Ashes·

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