A Thought Experiment on Friendship: The Particulars of Love

This is Part 3 in a series on friendship (part 1, part 2, part 4). This serves to discuss the particulars in managing multiple relationships.

Let’s return to Steve and Caroline from my first post. Steve and Caroline are a married couple living in a house with their four children. Steve is best friends with John (they knew each other in undergrad), and John is a single man who lives in an apartment complex near Steve and Caroline. I posed the question in my first post, “Who does Steve love more, his wife or his best friend?” and argued that Steve loves them both the same amount yet in different ways. In my second post, I discussed the ways that we have put so much emphasis on romantic relationships (erotic relationships) that we struggle to even have language to describe friendships — a role that is being usurped into our one romantic relationship. In this post, I hope to address some of the particulars of managing multiple relationships including why there seems to be conflict between friendships and romantic relationships (that are not inherently theological or philosophical conflicts) and then start to show why putting so much emphasis on romantic relationships can lead and has led to problems.

What Even Is A Relationship?

First I have to clear up a categorical misconception. Some have objected to my first post’s categorization method of love arguing that while yes, there are four categories of love (Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape) they aren’t equal. Analogous to Wesley’s Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience) all four categories of love simply aren’t the same. Therefore, it is possible for Steve to love his wife more than he loves John because she lives with him, he has strong romantic feelings for her, and he has covenanted to be with her, not John.

All this begs the question for me then, what is love based on?

Can love be based on duration? We cannot speak about love being based on duration because there are far too many examples of the instantaneous nature of love. Any mother or father who has held a child in their hands knows, at first sight, that they love that child. There are those who have been in our lives for years (perhaps a work colleague) with whom we have little to no relationship, but then those with who we spend 14 days on a mission trip that we love deeply and know intimately. Additionally, if love were based on duration, our parents, siblings, and best friends from kindergarten would automatically get our highest love; therefore, no romantic relationship could ever aspire to be as deep.

Can love be based on feelings? Love cannot be based on feelings. While love can use the heart to reveal itself and passion in and of itself can be good, love is perhaps most deeply expressed when we do not always feeling like loving (Matthew 5:46-48). Plus, if love were based on emotion, Steve would have to say that he falls in and out of love with his wife every time he feels differently. Sometimes the emotions that a new couple feels for each other and calls love is in fact not love but obsession, over-dependence, lust, etc.

Can love be based on proximity? Love cannot be based on proximity. While proximity does beget relationships, it cannot be the sole factor in deciding whom one loves or doesn’t love. Ask an Army wife or an empty-nester if they have stopped loving their deployed husband or children who have moved out, and they’d be quick to tell you otherwise. In the parable of the prodigal son, did not the father run to embrace his son after his long time apart? Also, to make this factor the primary reason for loving someone is in some ways to be very internally focused. For example, to begin dating, Steve had to venture outside of his family and pursue a relationship with his spouse. He had to go out of his way to carve out time with her. Yet, now he would use it as an excuse to not connect with new relationships?

Can love be based on covenant? Another objection is that, unlike friendship, Steve’s love for his wife is based on a covenantal relationship. He’s vowed in front of God and human that he will love Caroline and care for her which he hasn’t done for John. I actually find this the weakest of objections because simply looking back through Scripture, we see that covenants were made all the time for non-sexual, non-marital reasons. It was simply an outward expression of an inward vow. Up until recently, we also have numerous examples of vowed brotherhood within the Christian faith. All throughout the New Testament the push is to consider fellow believers as brothers and sisters which meant a much larger obligation to them than simply being kind. Perhaps instead of saying “our marriages are covenants and that is why they’re important”, we should ask “why don’t I make covenants with my friends?”

All of this is to say that there’s probably not one formula for how relationships form. We can’t say that relationships should be dictated solely by these three things: duration, emotion, or proximity.

Finite Factors

Yet there are still finite factors to consider when speaking of the expression of love.

Let’s look again at this part of my story from the first blog post:

Let’s say that Steve’s best friend from college, John, is single and lives in an apartment complex a few blocks away.  Sometimes he takes care of the children while Steve and Caroline go out, but he also invites Steve out with a few of their other male friends each week to hang out while Caroline stays at home with the children.

Caroline is frustrated with John who takes her husband away each week. She dislikes that Steve is taken away each week to be with his friends. She wonders about how Steve views his relationship with her. She poses the question.

Who does Steve love more? His best friend or his wife?

The question “Who does Steve love more?” does not come up until a finite resource is being used: Steve’s time. Should Steve verbally assent to his philic love for John, feel deeply in his heart that he loves John, or count John among his closest friends, no conflict would arise. Caroline wouldn’t ask who Steve loved more and life would have continued as normal. It was only when Steve chose to use a finite resource, his time (and presence and money for that matter), that an issue arose.

Yet, here’s the rub. If Steve wouldn’t have used his time, his money, or his presence to demonstrate his love for John, he wouldn’t be loving him. As we see throughout the entire New Testament and in the words of Bob Goff, love does. Thus, unless John uses his finite resources when he has the capacity to do so, he doesn’t express love. Now this isn’t to say that Steve is only loving someone when he’s expressing something. Otherwise, it’d be impossible for Steve to love anyone permanently (or even love himself). The point is that Steve would so embody the virtue of love that he couldn’t help but express it when he had the ability to do so.

As an additional example, if Steve had the desire and capacity to feed his daughter and was ready to do so, yet she wasn’t hungry. He’d still be embodying the role of a good parent whether he actually fed her or not. If Steve had no desire nor capacity to feed his daughter and was not ready to do so yet she wasn’t hungry, even though the outcome is the same, Steve would not be embodying the role of a good parent. If Steve sat around thinking “Wow I think it’d be nice to be a good parent,” yet all the while was never ready to feed his daughter, we would never consider him a good parent.

Analogously, Steve could sit in his room thinking “wow, I sure love John. It’d be nice to be a good friend to him” yet all the while is never willing nor ready to do anything to express that love to John, we can rightfully say that Steve doesn’t really love John.

Most of us have had that friend who used to spend time with us, but after entering into a romantic relationship, spends the majority of his or her free time with that person forsaking his or her friendships. Of course we might hear how busy he or she is, but the fact of the matter is that any free time is spent pouring into this one relationship. Unfortunately, we, in many ways, cease to be loved by that friend whether that friend desires to remain friends with us or not (i.e. Steve desiring to be a good parent yet never being ready to care for his child).

Structured vs Unstructured Time

Another thing to consider is structured versus unstructured time. Prior to Steve’s romantic relationship, he most likely enjoyed unstructured time with his friends. Because he roomed with them during college, he could enjoy their company at random times. He could enjoy spontaneous socializing and nights out. He could enjoy having someone to cry and grieve with. In dating Caroline, he had to structure a lot of time with her scheduling out dates and hangouts. He didn’t enjoy the same privileges that he enjoyed with his friends. Then, after marrying Caroline, his time with her switched from structured to unstructured time. Because he lived with her and later had children with her, he could enjoy those privileges of unstructured time with her. His friends lost that unstructured time when he moved out.

Unfortunately, without intentionality from either party, Steve and his friends could go long stretches of time without ever hanging out. Steve’s motivation for dating Caroline and structuring time with her was because he was pursuing her as a romantic partner (for positive or negative reasons). This, of course, was helped by our culture’s existential romantic dyadism (ERD). However, there is no cultural push for Steve to carve out intentional time with his friends especially if the cultural push is for him to go deeper in his relationship with Caroline spurning his friendships. His friends, also familiar with ERD, might correctly or incorrectly assume that because Steve has entered into a romantic relationship, he won’t be interested in socializing with them. Thus, they don’t ask. If Steve is interested in keeping his friends, he must be intentional about structured time.


Now, because of the different roles that Caroline and John play in Steve’s life, each is going to use Steve’s different finite resources and perhaps disproportionately. Because Caroline is Steve’s wife, they will collaborate to share time together for the sake of their marriage and their children. Simply because of the role Caroline plays in Steve’s life, she will use a lot of his time. Because John doesn’t live with Steve and isn’t actively involved in the care of his children (although in my next post I will make a case that he for sure could/should be), he will naturally get less of Steve’s time.

Then, it becomes up to Steve to discern how he will use his time to demonstrate his love to his wife and friend.

If Steve has been with his wife all week, sharing about their lives, taking care of the children, cooking dinner, etc., it’s perfectly acceptable for Steve at the end of the week to spend his night off with John. He has spent a significant portion of his time with Caroline, and, in order to love John and continue to foster a good relationship with him, should spend some quality time with him. Because Steve spends a lot of unstructured time with Caroline, he will need to structure time with his friends which means being more intentional.

Also, he should recognize that as John’s friend, he plays an important role in John’s life to provide intimacy for him. For John, who lives alone, Steve (and John’s other friends) serves as a means of intimacy. The role Steve plays in John’s life is important and not just for companionship (I’ll address this more in my next post as well).

On the flip side, if Steve had not been with his wife all week (e.g. she had been working late each night at the office) and if this was a continued pattern, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for him to go out with John at the end of the week. As the mother of his children and the woman living with him, he might want to make sure that she is okay before he tends to John’s needs.

It would behoove Steve to adequately examine his pattern of loving expression to make sure that he’s loving those in his life in the best way that he can.
This does not mean creating a legalistic flow chart or tally of time spent with one partner or the other. It does mean assuming an outwardly oriented posture asking oneself “How can I best serve those important relationships in my life today?”

The Corruption of Over-Dependence

It is my belief that a community where everyone’s needs are met and single people and married people live together in harmony is not only possible but commanded in Scripture. Obviously, the main deterrent to something like this is sin. I conjecture that one of the larger sins that prevents us from having healthy romantic relationships and friendships is over-dependence rooted in narcissism, envy and selfishness.

Let’s return to Steve, Caroline and John. In an ideal situation, all of them are outwardly focused. Caroline loves Steve as her husband. Caroline also has her own friends whom she loves. While Steve knows these women, he’s not necessarily friends with them, and that’s okay because he has his own friends including John. In this scenario, Caroline and Steve live together yet on certain nights of the week Caroline and Steve leave each other to attend to their friendships. They don’t have to be together all the time. If Caroline is invited out, she doesn’t have to feel bad about leaving her husband and vice versa. They don’t need to do everything in tandem because they recognize that the other is his or her own individual person. The same goes for John. Steve pours into John, and because Steve is not John’s only friend, he gets poured into by other friends too. This frees up John to pour into Steve and his other friendships. Everyone’s taken care of.

Yet because we live in a totally depraved world, sin is present. This system only really works when everyone is outwardly focused.  Therefore, when one turns inward, it messes up the group dynamic. For example, Caroline begins to doubt her relationship with Steve1. She grows envious of Steve’s relationship with John and begins to require more from Steve. This first affects her own friends as Caroline pulls away from them and focuses on her relationship with Steve (a reflection of her relationship with herself brought about by insecurity). Because Caroline pulls away from her friends, they pull away from Caroline. Next, Steve begins to feel guilty that he’s hanging out with John and not Caroline, his wife who really needs him right now. Instead of maintaining an outward focus, he enables Caroline’s over-dependency by pulling away from John which causes John to pull away (or become more needy at the loss of his friend). Because of the loss of non-sexual same-sex friendships, Caroline and John need to fill that void by placing more pressure on the other to provide those roles for them. As they turn away from family and friends and turn inward, their marriage takes on a nature it was never meant to take. In most cases, the relationship can’t handle the pressure, and it ends.

Unfortunately, most couples would fail to realize that they’re turning inward because, as I’ve said a few times before, our culture’s doctrine of existential romantic dyadism (ERD) celebrates this inward turn and forces couples into it. We often see a couple sitting alone together staring intently into one another’s eyes talking about how they love each other more than anyone else, and we think positively about such a relationship. Look at how in love they are! Look at how great their love is! All the while, perhaps their love is not so great. Perhaps their virtue is really a vice.

In Conclusion

Although we might say that all loves can be at the same intensity yet simply expressed differently, we can also assert that that expression is going to look different. As I argued in my first post, Steve can’t love his children like he loves his wife, but he can love them both the same. There are finite resources in this world, and we are all simply human. We can’t do it all. But there are things that we can do and ways we can be open to loving that we are called and commanded to do. We as Christians reject the secular narrative that tells us that romantic love is the only valid form of love, that friendships are tertiary at best, and that we can only have one meaningful relationship.

All of this is a brief, above ground overview. There are going to be special circumstances and discernment must be used. I am simply asking the reader to open his or her mind to the possibility that one can have multiple deep relationships, to question the grander cultural narrative about what deep love looks like, and to embody the Christian virtue of love for one’s neighbor in his or her friendships.

Perhaps, it is by embodying outwardly focused, self-sacrificial love that we would be able to function better in community, to be the people that God has called us to be, and to make sure that all are filled.


1 Again, for the record, this is not an attempt to perpetuate some nagging, insecure wife trope. The genders could just as easily be switched here.


3 responses to “A Thought Experiment on Friendship: The Particulars of Love

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

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

  3. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: How We Talk About Love | A Crown for Ashes·

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