“Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”—Virginia Woolf
I don’t think I am unusual among quirkyalones when I say that friendship has always come more naturally to me than romantic love. I may not have always had romantic relationships, but I have always had friends—best friends, intense friends, casual friends, fast friends—and felt passionately devoted to many of them. When people ask me about my relationship history, I can tell them about all my botched romances and crazy affairs. Good stories all, and probably better as narrative than as actual experience, but if I am really to tell someone the story of my life, it’s always been a story of friendships. From third grade on, my friends are the people with whom I have probed the questions of the universe: Do you believe in God? Why are we here? What should I do with my life? How do you feel about oral sex? Where did you get those pants and what size are they?
As an adult, friendship is no less important to me than it was in elementary school. Last night I slept over at my friend Sara’s apartment. We shared her bed and talked until past 1 a.m. We don’t kiss. We don’t have sex. It’s not the nature of our relationship. But we share “deep thoughts” with each other and fight ironically about who gets to share which deep thoughts first. We laugh hysterically. We know each others’ neuroses as if they were our own. We don’t call each other life partners, though we are probably closer to life partners than anyone else in our lives. But we have other life partners, too. That is part of the beauty of friendship: It’s intimate, but it’s not exclusive.
Friendship is truly the missing link for quirkyalones. So many of us started out in adulthood looking for “the one.” What we find along the way is something more diffuse, perhaps more rich: the “two,” the “three” or “the four.” Why have one soul mate when you can have many? I can always tell when I may be talking to another quirkyalone when conversational references involve friends as frequently as they do romantic partners. Rather than just “my boyfriend last summer” or “the girl I was dating” they say, “My friends and I often talk about” or “My friend and I took a road trip.”
The obvious reason for our focus on friendship is that we have spent significant time out of a relationship, so we look for and cultivate significant emotional bonds with platonic friends. Mitch Goldman, a very friend-centric quirkyalone, explains, “Close friends can provide a lot of what a romantic relationship provides. There’s always someone to hang out with, and, on an emotional level, a person you can confide in. Friendships also have characteristics that romantic relationships often don’t. A lot of my friends can be very crude. They are comfortable with any flaws I may have. In relationships I have been in, there has always been a little holding back—you want to put forth your best side.” Lindsey Moreland explains, “In being single so long, your friends take on that primary support position. I see a lot of people going into their own world when they couple up. I can see the temptation of that—this person is your lover, your friend, you support system, but I don’t think it works that way.”
Because there is no one road map for the relationship, friendships are allowed the breathing room to develop organically over time. Close friendships can have a level of effortlessness, naturalness, and grace that all but the very best romantic relationships lack. The best times are when we lounge around a friend’s bed like walruses, talking about whatever happens to come to mind. We don’t have to think about what we are saying; whatever comes out of our mouths is generally okay—no fears, no censorship, you can be utterly yourself.
We value our friendships not just because they are a relationship-substitute, but because they have virtues that relationships do not. Women’s magazines give readers tips on how to be “superclose” with a guy. That supercloseness is often already there in many friendships. Friends understand each other; if they had to work at understanding each other, they wouldn’t be friends.
GROWING UP: ARE THE DAYS OF SLUMBER PARTIES OVER?
As children, it’s normal to value your friends so much. We pledge our commitment through friendship bracelets and by becoming blood sisters and brothers. As adults, we learn that a romantic and sexual relationship is supposed to provide primary companionship, and though friendships are important, they become the side dish. Everyone needs to have friends, but our culture doesn’t position them as the central ingredient of a happy life. There are no love songs on the radio devoted to friendship. There are no public ceremonies devoted to friends. No one wonders where a friendship is going. No one asks if friends are “getting serious.”
And yet, in the 21st century it is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of platonic friendship. Now that most people spend long periods outside of the marital bond, marriages happen later, and divorce is more common, these nonsexual bonds are more vital for all of us. Situation comedies in the 1980s took once took the family as its natural backdrop (The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Who’s The Boss?). Now, if the most popular shows are not called Friends, they are about friends: Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Ally McBeal. Sex and the City.
In 2002, Ethan Watters published an essay in the New York Times Magazine giving a name and a definition to these relationships, and will release a book on the same topic in 2003. Where other social commentators saw a commitment-phobic generation in the 13 million “never-marrieds” between ages 25 and 39, Watters saw a new type of community: the urban tribe, groups of friends that mark the passage of time with celebrations, travel together, move one another’s furniture, and cheer each other on at sporting events and open-mike nights. With the support of the urban tribe, he writes, “Single life in the city is no longer a phase that need be concluded quickly. With little fanfare, we’ve added a developmental stage to adulthood that comes before marriage— the tribe years.”
Of course, success in the realm of friendship can get in the way of dating. Being so satisfied with your friends can make it awfully hard to sit through an awkward date. Anne McLaughlin, 42, a writer and activist, from Idaho, explains, “Perhaps my friendships keep me so satisfied, I don’t need to seek very hard for companionship.”
Friendship does not provide everything. It doesn’t provide sex, or an ultimate emotional merging. The nature of friendship is to embrace intimacy while remaining separate. We may expect a lot out of our friends, but we don’t expect each other to solve all our problems, or to make us emotionally complete, but maybe that is a good thing. In her anti-marriage screed, Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings and the Marriage Mystique, Jaclyn Geller makes the point that the qualities of friendship would be good ones to consider for romantic love. “Those who wonder what model would replace wedlock if the institution of marriage fell away fail to recognize that the model already exists. The paradigm is platonic friendship, unfettered by social institutions . . . untainted by the legacy of gender inequity. The forces that guide successful friendships are privacy, uniqueness, the acceptance of other relationships, individuality, autonomy, and open-endedness. If these qualities could guide amorous relationships. . . such depressurized unions would probably be much happier.”
FEAR OF FRIENDSHIP ABANDONMENT
But is basing your life around your friendships the best way to live beyond your twenties and thirties? Friends are still going to get coupled up and married, and people have children. Friendships, like amorous relationships, take time to maintain, and in the middle years, inevitably, people need to pour energy and time into their homes, their spouses and children. Whether we are quirkyalone or not, we all experience tremendous anxiety and fear of abandonment when our siblings and friends pair up. The social and economic system is set up for couples. Quirkyalones can feel increasingly close to loneliness (not blessed solitude) when all their friends are going the route of Noah’s Ark. If you’re the last quirkyalone standing—or rather, the last non-QT quirkyalone standing—no matter how brave and proud and solid, there are still those moments just before dawn or at a friend’s wedding when you think “Wait, have I been fooling myself?”
The movie Walking and Talking is a cult favorite because it addresses this anxiety head on. The film opens with two young best friends, lying on a bed, looking at The Joy of Sex. They regard the pictures with awe and disgust. “Look, he’s grabbing her boobs!” “Gross!” The next scene jumps twenty years ahead, with the same two women (Amelia [Catherine Keener] and Laura [Anne Heche]) in their early thirties. Laura recently moved out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend. The night that she gets engaged, she goes to sleep with a new anxiety, “Oh my God, how am I going to tell Amelia?”
When Amelia does find out, she tries to act happy, but the truth comes out when she sees her therapist: “My best friend’s getting married, that’s probably what’s making me sick.” With lines like these, the movie is probably the most astonishingly real depiction of an intense female friendship in cinema or in print.
A mainstream film reviewer might call the reasons for all these fears jealousy. But that’s not really the emotional essence at the heart of the film. More than jealousy, what propels Walking and Talking is a fear of abandonment. In their most dramatic fight scene, Amelia lays it on the line. “When something happens in my life, good or bad, I tell you. I need you. Now when something happens in your life, you tell Frank.” Laura tries to explain that yes, she does have Frank, but she still needs her, that marriage will change her life but it does not exempt her from loneliness.
If you have never gone through such an intense transition with a friend, the scene could seem melodramatic. But for me—and probably most (female) quirkyalones—it is riveting. They are speaking lines that so many of us have thought but have never said when our friends embark on romantic relationships, because we are supposed to play it cool. We’re not supposed to have the same degree of need and passion in our friendships as we do in relationships. We smother the feeling because it’s not socially acceptable. But friendship is not casual for quirkyalones. It can be casual. But it can also be incredibly important, raw, and real.
Without the language or the social permission or the rituals to treat our friendships as important as they really are, we joke about them. One of my friends, Ali, lives with a Kate. They joke about setting up a household with kids a la Kate and Allie, the 1980s television show about two single mothers who live together with their kids in Sara and I joke about buying a house together in our hometown. Ultimately, I think a lot of us are afraid to blink first, to admit that we might really like to shack up together; it wouldn’t necessarily preclude romance with other people or be a second-best alternative.
And then, when I thought I would never meet any friends who take their friendship as seriously as a romantic relationship, I met Amy. Amy Rathbone is an artist whom I asked to create four illustrations for this book (including the peas in this chapter, on page TK). While we were meeting to discuss her drawings (one of which was intended to illustrate the importance of friendship for quirkyalones), Amy mentioned that she and her best friend and roommate Jody are planning to throw a tenth-anniversary party to celebrate their friendship. In a stroke of genius, they will register for gifts at the 99-cent store. “It’s a joke party,” she explains, “but realistically it’s a way for us to acknowledge the love that we have for each other.”
Jody and Amy met in Prague ten years ago when Jody was visiting a boyfriend and Amy was living there working on an art installation. Over time they exchanged many letters (“almost like love letters,” Amy says). Jody moved to San Francisco, and Amy decided to go to school here as well. Amy says, “I remember coming to visit the school before moving here. She had planned this whole day, meeting her friends and taking me to the beach. It felt kind of like dating, but we’re not lesbians. We moved in together and have lived together for six and a half years. She is like my sister now. My friendship with her is incredibly encouraging. I remember growing up there was a lot of talk about jealousy between friends; it’s not that way between us. We haven’t made a vocal commitment that we will be together for the rest of our lives, but it really does feel like a marriage on some level.”
Amy continues, “In terms of quirkyalone, we talk a lot about this idea of moving out and moving in with a male partner. We both have boyfriends, and it’s something we struggle with. In a way we want to live with our male partners, but not having each other in our lives would be hard. The ideal would be a situation where we live with each other and our male partners.”
“Through a boyfriend’s perspective, you could look at our friendship as an in-law situation—when you get one of us, you get both. But it hasn’t been a source of tension. Even our boyfriends get it. My boyfriend is thinking about buying a house; without me even prompting him, he assumed that both Jody and I would live there. Our life together really feels like a huge extended family with people entering the picture and having the family grow. We have a lot of huge dinners at our house with anywhere between six to ten people,. It does feel like a type of family around the table, but the roles are different from the nuclear family. There’s not a typical mother, father, male, wife, husband. They’re much more elusive roles and people are willing to take on their own personality with it.”
Out in normaltogether world, many people say that as you get older, friendship inevitably becomes a less practiced art; with the crush of marriage, parenthood, career, and myriad responsibilities, friendship gets pushed to the end of the list. They lament the loss of those friendships. Maybe that is true for many people; but for quirkyalones, it’s hard to imagine a life without these more permanent, platonic ties. For quirkyalones in their forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies, friendship can become even more important. When we are sick and need help, a partner is not the only person who helps. Friendship can become even more important for single parents who lean on other friends for support.
No matter what our age, one permanent feature of a quirkyalone life is the desire for significant others in our lives. An ideal quirkyalone world is where a friend can come home to Thanksgiving dinner and no relative bats an eye; there’s always a couch for a friend to sleep over when talks go late into the night.. As we get older, the mainstream view is to shut down, to block these open passages to a variety of people, to make one partner and just a few people the center of our lives. It becomes weird in middle life (to a lesser extent in old age) to put friendship at the center of your life. The ultimate hope in a quirkyalone world is to make that less weird—to expand the range of connections that we can have at all stages of our lives.
Ancient Greece presents an interesting contrast to our own era, when romantic love is the only song on the radio dial. We make romantic love a religion, the savior, the only meaning of life, the only way to transcend the mundane, to give meaning to life, or to be eternal. But many ancient thinkers—Aristotle and Cicero among them—considered romantic love to be essentially random and motivated by beauty, and viewed friendship as a more powerful bond than blood relationships and romantic ties. According to historian John Boswell, the idea of being “just friends” would have been a paradox to Aristotle or Cicero—no relationship was more emotional, intimate, or intense. Reverence for platonic friendship was not limited to one culture. In the 19th century, romantic friendships between women were very passionate and celebrated for those qualities. Writing love letters, kissing, snuggling, and pledging eternal devotion were once quite accepted among same-sex friends, as long as they didn’t actually have sex.
According to the website celebratefriendship.org, other cultures have had “formal customs regarding intense friendship. Native American cultures had ‘blood brother’ rituals. Hawaiian, Polynesian, and some African cultures even included a ritual of opposite-sex platonic friendship. (Thanks to this ritual, you could have both a spouse and an intense opposite-sex friend, each celebrated with a separate ceremony.) Some of these rituals granted friends the legal powers and responsibilities of blood family members.”
What about friendship today? In her essay, “So . . . Are You Two Together?” published in Ms. in 2001, Pagan Kennedy, author of Pagan Kennedy’s Living: A Guide to Maturing Hipsters, contemplated the complexities of friendship with her roommate Liz. They both have boyfriends, but they have chosen to live together to share a home and build a life. They bought a decaying Victorian together, run several businesses and one nonprofit group out of its rooms, go to parties as a couple, and spend holidays with each other’s families. She reflects that if they were lesbians, as people sometime assume them to be, they would “fit more neatly into a box. But we’re straight.”
Because there is no appropriate language for their relationship (roommate doesn’t cut it) Pagan Kennedy tells people that she and Liz are in a “Boston marriage,” a phrase from the 19th century to describe a range of relationships in which women opted out of marriage and paired up together to live together and maintain their freedom and independence. Sometimes Boston marriages were closeted lesbian relationships; often they were not. Kennedy describes the institution this way: “Most likely, the Boston marriage was many things to many women: business partnership, artistic collaboration, lesbian romance. And sometimes it was a friendship nurtured with all the care that we usually squander on our mates—a friendship as it could be if we made it the center of our lives.”
Continued in Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics by Sasha Cagen