Why not to let your spouse tell you to stop being friends with somebody: Rethinking the Importance of Friendship vs. Erotic Love in Our Society

Let’s not think that we should jettison even our closest platonic friends if our wife/husband says so.

Let’s not think of friendship as expendable, that if we fall in love, we can let our friendships wither and die and it doesn’t matter.

Friendship is also important: You need friends, not just a lover, in your life.

Also, let’s not think that for a marriage to endure, it must be full of passionate love all the time, or else it’s time to look elsewhere.  Simon May writes in Let’s Fall in Love Like the Ancients, published in the Washington Post on 2/8/13 (no longer available on the Web):

There is no holiday celebrating friendship, but only since the mid-19th century has romance been elevated above other types of love. For most ancient Greeks, for example, friendship was every bit as passionate and valuable as romantic-sexual love. Aristotle regarded friendship as a lifetime commitment to mutual welfare, in which two people become “second selves” to each other.

In the Bible, King Saul’s son Jonathan loves David, the young warrior who slays Goliath, “as his own soul” and swears eternal friendship with him, while David says their friendship surpasses romantic love. Ruth declares her friendship for her mother-in-law, Naomi, in terms equivalent to a marriage vow: “Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge. . . . Where you die I will die.”

Today, friendship has been demoted beneath the ideal of romance, but they should be on an equal footing. We tend to regard our friendships as inferior to our romances in passion, intimacy and depth of commitment.

Often they’re little more than confessionals in which we seek a sympathetic ear to help us fix–or escape–our romances. When Harry met Sally, they progressed from friends to lovers.

And on Facebook we’re all “friends” now, further downgrading the meaning of what should be a selective and multifaceted bond……

But all human love is conditional. We love others because of something, whether their beauty, goodness or power; because they belong to our families; or because they protect and nurture us.

By recognizing that all we have is conditional love, we are less likely to give up on our loved ones as quickly as we often do, less likely to be worried if we occasionally fall in and out of love with them or they with us, and less likely to scare them off by expecting their love to be of superhuman strength….

And finally, let’s release romantic and marital love from the stranglehold of sexual expectation. Sure, sex is an unsurpassed pleasure–but you can have a tremendous erotic bond with a person and have sex only infrequently….

I’m not suggesting that we revive medieval courtship, but we should think of sex as just one of the bonds and delights of erotic love, rather than as its touchstone. If sex isn’t going so well, or if desire is no longer so urgent, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we love less urgently, let alone that it’s time for a change.

These days, it’s easy to get the impression that once you get married, your spouse is supposed to be your best friend and confidant, and your family and friends are to take a backseat while you greatly reduce time spent with others outside of your home.  But this is a modern concept which actually isolates us in unhealthy ways.

As a housewife, I can tell you this is true.  I love my husband, I love my child, I’m very close to my husband, yet when I don’t have social contact outside the home, I feel just as lonely as I did as a dateless teenager.

We must make more of an effort to stay connected with friends and family, or else we could find ourselves slowly becoming suicidal.  God made us to be social creatures, spending time with people outside our homes, not hermits who consider relationships with friends and relatives to be of secondary importance.

And when a marriage ends–as every marriage inevitably does–by death or divorce, the surviving spouse will now have to pick up the pieces with a diminished social network.

Also, we don’t want to smother each other.  If spending too much time with your boyfriend or girlfriend will slowly destroy your relationship, why not the same with a marriage?

[T]he current societal expectation that a spouse can provide all the emotional sustenance a person needs is bad not just for people’s ties with community, but for marriage itself. —The Marriage Penalty by Shankar Vedantam

 

Many people believe that marriage is the fundamental building block of society, an institution that broadens social ties and ensures that individuals will not grow old in isolation.  Perhaps that was true in the past, when marriage was a central unit of economic production and political organization.

But today, despite the benefits that a good marriage delivers to the couple and their children, marriage actually tends to isolate partners from other people in ways that pose potential long-term problems both for the couple and for society as a whole. —Marriage Reduces Social Ties by Naomi Gerstel & Natalia Sarkisian

Stephanie Coontz argues in Too Close For Comfort that we have found new joys in marriage because of the changes in how we view it, but at the same time we have “neglected our other relationships, placing too many burdens on a fragile institution and making social life poorer in the process.”

In the olden days, one’s spouse was not expected to be a “soulmate” or one’s closest confidant.  It was considered “dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion.”

Victorian society had no problem with same-sex friends showing physical affection, even sleeping in the same bed; this was not assumed to include homosexual desire or activity, as it would today.

(For an example, note that Frodo and Sam’s relationship in Lord of the Rings would have been perfectly normal and acceptable.  But these days, Youtube is full of videos poking fun at Frodo and Sam’s supposed homosexual relationship.)

By the early 20th century, though, the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage.

Under the influence of Freudianism, society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.

In the 1950s in American middle-class suburbia, this trend reached its peak as women were told fulfillment lay in marriage and motherhood, and men were told to “let their wives take care of their social lives.”

When these suburban women began going back to work in the 60s, they realized how wonderful it was to have contact and conversation with people outside of the home again.

So why do we seem to be slipping back in this regard?  It is not because most people have voluntarily embraced nuclear-family isolation.

Indeed, the spread of “virtual” communities on the Internet speaks to a deep hunger to reach out to others.  Instead, it’s the expansion of the post-industrial economy that seems to be driving us back to a new dependence on marriage.

According to the researchers Kathleen Gerson and Jerry Jacobs, 60 percent of American married couples have both partners in the work force, up from 36 percent in 1970, and the average two-earner couple now works 82 hours a week.

The more we lose the real-life ties we used to have, the more we depend on our romantic relationships for “intimacy and deep communication”–making us “more vulnerable to isolation if a relationship breaks down.”  Sometimes, these excessive expectations actually cause the marriage to break down.

To fix this, we should “raise our expectations for, and commitment to, other relationships, especially since so many people now live so much of their lives outside marriage.”  The way to strengthen our marriages is to

restructure both work and social life so we can reach out and build ties with others, including people who are single or divorced.  That indeed would be a return to marital tradition–not the 1950s model, but the pre-20th-century model that has a much more enduring pedigree.

In How to stay married, Coontz goes on to say,

Today, we expect much more intimacy and support from our partners than in the past, but much less from everyone else. This puts a huge strain on the institution of marriage.

When a couple’s relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever. But we often overload marriage by asking our partner to satisfy more needs than any one individual can possibly meet, and if our marriage falters, we have few emotional support systems to fall back on.

Without “gratification and support” from others outside the marriage, spouses have “less to offer each other and fewer ways to replenish their relationship”–and the marriage falls apart from all that weight.  Nowadays, “almost half of all Americans now say that there is just one person, or no one at all, with whom they discuss important matters.”

We commonly find warnings in popular culture against spending too much time with friends or family, against letting these ties “interfere” with time spent with the spouse.  Psychologists tell us to rebuff those who might compete with our spouse and children for our attention.  “But trying to be everything to one another is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to the tensions of modern marriage.”

I just looked over a book written by fundamentalist author Wayne Mack, Sweethearts for a Lifetime; his ideas of a successful marriage seem more like becoming clones of each other: You have to have all the same friends, do all your recreation together, learn to enjoy each other’s activities, etc.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to do all the things my husband does for recreation, he doesn’t like everything I like, and I don’t want to force him to be with my friends, or have him force me to be with his friends if I don’t care for them.

Also, jettisoning friends because your spouse does not want to be with that friend, sounds like betrayal of the sacred bond of friendship, and can very easily lead to one spouse controlling the other by choosing which friends to like and not like.

One passage of the book says to learn to like whatever your spouse wants to do sexually, but what if what your spouse wants is painful, degrading or disgusts you?  Another passage says to not keep secrets but consider everything to be your right to share; does that mean it’s okay to snoop through my husband’s e-mails?

I don’t want to know every intimate detail of his work; I don’t want to know all his temptations.  I want to allow him space to be his own person, and I want the same courtesy.

Men and women have different ways of perceiving things and reacting to them.  We tend to expect our spouse to be our best friend.  But that may not always happen. For the simple reason that a best friend is–usually–of the same sex as we are and has similar ways of responding. —Three common problems in a marriage

[Myth #]1. THE RIGHT PERSON WILL MEET ALL MY NEEDS.  Even if you have found your “soul mate,” one person cannot be the sole source of your need satisfaction. That’s too big a burden, and impossible besides.

Your partner is a human being, not an all-knowing, all-compassionate, love machine. You’ll need multiple sources–God, friends, a strong sense of life purpose, healthy self esteem, and a willingness to take responsibility for your own happiness. —Love Myths

This article not only describes the problems with our tendency to retreat into our own little world after a child is born, but how we can combat it and the depression it causes.

What Happened to my Friends?

Lucky is the man or woman who has a friend like Samwise Gamgee. Some of us may have a spouse who comes close. I know of no one who has a living friend, other than a spouse, like Sam.

The reason is not that such friends exist only in fiction. Aristotle identified this category of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics.

No, the truth is that 21st century people have lost the knowledge of how to be such a friend.  Such friendships are based upon good character. Very few people have characters that merit such friendships.

Part of the stupendous power of the Tolkien myth is that the myth taps into the incredible longing everyone has for this type of friendship. Few people know the reason such friendships are impossible in today’s world. Why? Most people do not have the high moral character necessary for such friendships….

Why is The Lord of the Rings such a powerful myth? Why did the final installment earn almost half a billion dollars in its first eighteen days?

Because all of us want the fellowship illustrated in the films. Because we want relationships that last. Because we want to feel super-glued to family and friends, like the glue that bound Sam and Frodo. Because we want involvement. Because we want shared creativity and wonder, because we want loyalty and commitment.

And yet we don’t have this feeling. Oh, if we are lucky we have it in one relationship, maybe a spouse. But in general we don’t have it. In general we tend to be atoms bouncing around the eternal void, occasionally bumping into another atom, exchanging a curse or a smile.

Ought we not create our own Fellowship of The Ring? Ought we not create relationships that will last a lifetime? Ought we not build delightful things, even at some risk to ourselves? Ought we not discover something with ourselves that demands eternal loyalty and commitment?

Having identified these aching needs in ourselves, perhaps we will make a mighty effort to secure fellowship in our own lives. —Friendship and loyalty in Lord of the Rings

It takes much time and sustained commitment to arrive at the third level of close friendship. From within the casual friends, a smaller group of close friends begins to gather. In an discussion of building friendships, it should be understood that although close friendship may be your goal, that level of commitment sharing and trust is harder to achieve.

Intimate friendship is the fourth category. Friends in this category are very special and rare. At this level of sharing, intimate friends feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings. This type of friendship is usually marked by a deep understanding of and appreciation for the view and values of those involved.

A desire for intimate friendship is a basic human quality that calls for a giving of self to others; it can result in a lasting love relationship.  A person would be fortunate to have 5 intimate friends in a lifetime. —Friendship in the 21st Century

While it’s hardly a bad thing to be close to your spouse, we must not treat marriage as if it must fulfill all our needs for social contact and support, while all other contacts outside the home are somehow secondary or even detrimental.  To do so is to seriously weaken not only our own social ties and support, but society at large.

As the above writers argue, widening our social circle and gaining confidants outside the marriage will actually strengthen our selves, society–and our marriages.

Also see this post.

This topic leads on to my write-up on jealousy.

–First written 2008/2009, and slightly modified in the years since.

 

Index to my Life Opinion pages:

Topics on Page 1

Technical Virginity–i.e., how far should a Christian single go? 

Are Spiritual Marriages “real”? 

Am I supposed to spend all of my free time at home with my spouse/kids now that I’m married?  Will that strengthen my marriage–or weaken it? 

Topics on Page 2

Is it okay to be jealous of the opposite-sex friends of my spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend? 

Topics on Page 3

Abuse in all its forms: Links to help 

My Personal Stories

 

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