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Friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide
April 28, 2014 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place. Andrew Sullivan's book Love Undetectable, illuminated via BrainPickings.
posted by Athanassiel (27 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession.

Minor pony: Can we add lawsuit and obsession to "relationship type" when we "add a contact"? i mean crush is already there, lets round that shit out.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:49 PM on April 28 [6 favorites]


How do you impose a crush on someone?
posted by pwally at 8:55 PM on April 28


How do you impose a crush on someone?

Sexual harassment would be one extreme way, though there are milder forms of imposition.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:58 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


The classic "nice guy" move of hanging around doing everything they want while convincing yourself they owe you a relationship because you've put enough friendship tokens in?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:10 PM on April 28 [17 favorites]


Well, it's less of an imposition than a lawsuit or an obsession, but it's still an imposition.

It's as if the crusher is trying to unload all these feelings they don't know what to do with on the crush object, thus abdicating responsibility for them. Here, have my hopelessly romantic feelings, do something with them so I don't have to!

As the person who is the object of the crush, it's still a burden. Even ignoring the confession becomes a response in and of itself. Awkward all round.

Unless it's mutual, of course. In which case there's a whole different kind of imposition.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:16 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


I think this thread should be where we all talk about how awesome our friends are. I'll start. One time I had to be rushed to the hospital and I had my two-year-old with me and I had time for ONE phone call and I knew my husband was out of the office, so I called my friend and she left work (at her extremely demanding job) to meet me at the ER, took charge of my toddler, and had her secretary calling around to courthouses until she found my husband and had him pulled out of court.

(Also, if Sullivan has never "fallen in friendship" as suddenly as he's fallen in love, I posit that he has never been an adolescent girl.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:17 PM on April 28 [33 favorites]


I was just going to post an AskMe to find out if I can text a fellow straight lady to hang out if she's already turned me down once and I'm not really sure if she likes me or not. This is an example of imposing friendship on others, of which I live in constant fear.
posted by bleep at 9:33 PM on April 28 [6 favorites]


Two months ago, one of my friends came round after I tearfully rang him to tell him my kitty was really not doing well and I thought I would have to have the vet put her to sleep, and I didn't trust myself to be able to drive there. He came round and drove us to the vet and was there through the whole thing. He loved her too and having him be sad with me and say goodbye to her with me was one of the most awesome things a friend has ever done for me.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:59 PM on April 28 [7 favorites]


I'll say this: after the dissolution of the romantic relationship that lasted my entire adult life, I learned who my friends were. And they turned out to be infinitely more valuable to my sense of self than my significant other ever was. (Not that he's a bad dude, you understand, but I think I'd be okay going the rest of my life without a Serious Romantic Partner. Without a best friend, though? No thank you.)
posted by dogheart at 10:03 PM on April 28 [18 favorites]


I am so very fortunate in my life to have and have had more than a few really good friends, and several great ones. My friendships have been my primary non-family relationships for most of my life (even now one of the things I love most about my fiancée is that we really are best friends who totally enjoy hanging out together) and I simply would not be much of the person I am today were it not for my friends. I genuinely, unabashedly love my friends and would do just about anything for them. Unfortunately, many of them are non-local to me, so this bit really resonates:
Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.
I do enjoy the way that Sullivan really examines facets of our feeling selves in such great detail in his books.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:06 PM on April 28 [18 favorites]


OK, share time. Here are some amazing things my best friends have done for me:

--Driven across country with me just to help me move, and of course loading/unloading on either end. Twice.

--Taken me to the ER and sat and waited while I was patched up. Numerous doctor visit accompaniment, now that I think of it.

--Sat with me night after night after a major relationship ended and I was heartsick, listening to me say the same things over and over again, or just sitting in sullen silence with me.

--Loaned me money when I really needed it without my even having to ask, and never asking for repayment (of course I repaid it).

--Encouraged me to make a bold choice in my life in dating my now-fiancée (there is a fair age difference between us), and cheering us along the whole way simply because he saw how crazy we were about each other. He was totally right, and I needed his confidence.

--The bravest specific instance that comes to mind: when I was 21, my stepdad (who raised me) died at home while in Hospice care. My friend heard and immediately came to the house and sat with me on the couch in our living room while the funeral home folks came in to pick up the body. He sat there with me while they wheeled it through the room in front of us, saying nothing, just being there. He was a hero to me that day.

--Second bravest: during a really bad acid trip when I was much younger, after I brilliantly called my mother and told her I was having a bad trip and "wanted to make sure everything is OK," going with me to her house to talk to her to assure her that we were in fact OK while still completely tripping.* (To some of you, that will mean little; to those who understand, you see the heroism of this act.) He miraculously found enough lucidity to calmly explain to her that nothing bad was actually happening, we were just a bunch of artists playing with our brains on a summer weekend and her son just got a little freaked out. He completely saved me from traumatizing my mother, immediately reducing the incident in her mind from "OMG HE NEEDS TREATMENT AND A DOCTOR AND MAYBE CHURCH" to "what on earth has my crazy child gotten into now". A hero, man. (I was his best man years later, and he soon will be mine.)

My life would be so, so much poorer without my friends. I am lucky to have them.

*(yes, I actually did this, believe it or not. Unless you know me IRL, in which case this story is completely fictional.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:50 PM on April 28 [21 favorites]


Ah, yeah, I see that Sullivan is very strongly influenced by Aristotle, which is what I expected when I read the post. I'm not that willing to actually read Sullivan these days, so I only scanned the linked article.

There's a lot of value in reading both Plato and Aristotle about love and friendship. Plato highly values love, but he qualifies this by discussing how it so often is or becomes unvirtuous (see his distinction between what it means to love as opposed to be loved). Aristotle goes further by discussing, as Sullivan does here, how love so easily and frequently involves less reciprocity than it does a sense of ownership and obligation of the other toward oneself, while friendship is much less prone to this.

There's a way in which this can very easily become sex-negative, and as someone who's adamantly sex-positive, I'm wary of this. Nevertheless, I very much believe that lust is involved in this because there's something very deeply selfish about lust. Don't get me wrong, that's not inherently a bad thing — lust at its best is a sort of reciprocity of this selfishness, where mutual selfishness is also mutual selflessness. But, still, so often there's not reciprocity and so often a selfishness without selflessness becomes a kind of denial of the other person as a person. This is no small part of why sexual violence is such a virulent mode for the expression of violence. There's nothing more damaging than saying that someone is unimportant within the context of the most physically intimate act possible.

Okay, but that is sort of a model for what can go wrong with love, as well. Most people have a need for love, no less than most people have a need for sex. A huge part of how we think about love relationships is what we believe that the other person can (should!) add to our lives. These needs go to the deepest core of our psychology, they resonate with our childhood history and family dynamics. The emotional intimacy of love is just as selfish in some respects as lust, and is also very prone to a failure of reciprocity. Not reciprocity of being loved or being in love, but of the generosity, the selfless part of love. As with sex, a love relationship can devolve (or always have been) one in which the personhood of the other person is implicitly denied, they are seen as being essentially functional, satisfying a need, a means to an end (which, incidentally, is a violation of Kant's Categorical Imperative).

We talk, with some (though debatable) justification about an "addiction" to sex and even an "addiction" to love. We don't as often talk about an "addiction" to friendship — though insofar as the first two are valid concepts, I don't doubt that the last applies to at least a few people, as well.

Part of this is because the intensity of need is less with friendship than with sex and love, and also because the social obligations are much looser with friendship than with sex and love — which is to say that it's more difficult for one person to retreat into a selfish demand for obligations to be met without reciprocity in a friendship than it is with sex and love. There are fewer external forces maintaining a dehumanizing relationship (both real and internalized). That seems to be part of what Sullivan is arguing here.

And yet.

The funny thing about this is that, speaking for myself, there's something anesthetized, abstracted, and bloodless about these ideals of love, not unlike how sex with a total lack of transgression and danger and risk is ... lacking something that most people find inherent to the virtues of sex? Likewise, this idealized friendship is perfect and ideal in a way that is lacking something essential about what we want and arguably need in love.

Perhaps part of the essence of love is that there must be risk, there must be occasional digression into neurotic needy, selfishness — not only because maybe we need the opportunity to be with people who will let us be far from our best selves, but also and perhaps more importantly, because the struggle to not be our worst selves, with the stakes so high, and because it's easy to be a slacker and not keep trying to be our best selves, is so difficult and therefore a profound expression of generosity and respect for another person. It means, perhaps, so very much more than when it's safe and easy.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:01 PM on April 28 [13 favorites]


This FPP's text works pretty well for the dogs and cats "friendship" video too.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:55 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


Honestly, a lot of this is just semantics. "Friendship" is pretty much something you do. "Love" is an emotion, is something you feel. The feeling that you feel for a friend is fondness or admiration or some form of more-or-less love, and the thing that you do for someone you love or have with someone you love looks remarkably similar to friendship.

As someone who long, long ago had a beautiful, creative friendship ruined by intense feelings of overwhelming unrequited love, though, I am a bit less enthusiastic about the boundless limits of friendship. I find friendships with enough grokking and wavelength riding very quickly turn to feelings of romantic love. (It does not help that I am definitely somewhat less than totally straight on the Kinsey scale. Ugh, the agony.)
posted by quincunx at 12:15 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]


Also, there are definitely creepy friends and friendship obsessions. I don't know, maybe that person has never been a teenage girl, been involved in teenage girl clique drama, or seen "The Roommate" but creepy obsessions are sooooo not limited to romantic love.
posted by quincunx at 12:27 AM on April 29 [5 favorites]


[Comment removed. Metadiscussion goes to the contact form or in MetaTalk, not this thread.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:42 AM on April 29


Uh, yeah, re: not feeling anything for your friends, that's not actually what I said. I mean the word, the literal term "friendship" is not a label for an emotion like "love" is. Therefore, it's kind of apples and oranges. It kind of starts the semantic discussion off on the wrong foot. "Friendship" in a categorical sense should be compared to "healthy relationship" not "love", is what I'm trying to get at here. If you'll notice, I did say you feel something that is basically "love" in a general if not romantic sense for your friends. (I prefer to use the word "love" to refer to that sort of spiritual, familial, general love anyway- to my mind, the romantic love needs its own word! Stop hijacking "love" romance!)

FYI, for me, "something you do" is actually a step above "something you feel" so it's not at all a put-down, it's a compliment. And I definitely have developed feelings for friends before when I did not instantly feel romantic love for them at first sight, so I am not at all confident the lines can be kept so clear forever. I mean, to me, a relationship is pretty much indistinguishable from best friendship with sex at a certain point. Maybe with more closeness?
posted by quincunx at 2:47 AM on April 29


I don't think love is the real enemy; it's more the constant feeling in our culture that everything must be turned to profit of one kind or another (sexual or monetary) or be extirpated. Friendship is under a lot of pressure these days.

Your boss now insists you must speak to him as though he were your friend, on pain of career disadvantage; it was more honest when you called him 'Sir' and your subordination was explicit.

If you're not trying to turn friends into contacts or network nodes to help promote your business idea, you're using them to provide the therapy and support you need to get back in the commercial fray.

Meanwhile having signed up to Facebook you're committed to a paradigm of 'friendship' which values numbers above all and makes everything absurdly explicit and standardised.

If friendship as something anomalous, free, gratuitous and ineffable survives at all, it is a miracle.
posted by Segundus at 3:11 AM on April 29 [7 favorites]


quincunx and Segundus are right; Sullivan is primarily invested in reassessing the old distinction between eros and philia in a world that he suggests privileges erotic or romantic love to the exclusion of friendship or non-romantic affection (colloquially, "Platonic" affection).

However, he loses track of the ways in which friendship, or I suppose we could call it "friendliness," can be problematic even outside the context of one-way obsession or erotic fixation disguised with friendliness. For example, some above have noted the way professional exploitation and commercial motives often wear the cloak of friendliness.

To that I would add the ways in which conventions of friendship are frequently employed to exclude others from relationships of equality like those Sullivan prizes. Heck, it's not as if the ancient Greeks defined their society in terms of mutual equality; really, the notion of friendship in Aristotle and Plato must be considered as part of a social dynamic built on profound inequality.

Additionally, not all one-sided friendliness falls into the category of obsession or exploitation. It's quite possible to have a friend who is less invested in the friendship than yourself; or to have contact with a person who is unobtrusively friendly towards you, but for whom you simply don't much care. And this is all without getting into the way Facebook allows the quantification of friendships as social capital, which I suppose is what Sullivan means when he discusses the "digital" versus the "personal."

For all of these reasons, it strikes me as bizarre to claim that friendship is "a space where power ceases to exist," except as the same sort of "No True Scotsman" fallacy that also enables statements about "true love." Sullivan's notion of friendship might best be understood as a utopian aspiration, since it seems to require a genuine, universal or near-universal assent to the inherent dignity of people. We don't live in that world.

Taken as aspirational, though, I quite like elements of his argument against the privileging of eros and its conflation with other forms of affection, but I think the classical notion of virtue isn't the best road to take in getting there. Rather, it might be better to begin from the premise that universal dignity and the absence of hierarchy should characterize relationships in general, an idea that makes the categorization of types of "true" and "false" love sort of a moot point.
posted by kewb at 3:33 AM on April 29 [4 favorites]


So why should I take the opinions of Sully on friendship seriously, when he also believes The Bell Curve?
posted by MartinWisse at 4:39 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]


So why should I take the opinions of Sully on friendship seriously, when he also believes The Bell Curve?

Just insert the implicit "for white people" where appropriate.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:41 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]


I've told the story of the best thing one of my best girlfriends did for me.

The best thing the other one did: she lives in Ireland. We were pen pals when we were twelve and it just stuck. In early 2011 she came for a visit, for only the second time in her life; before she came she just said it was about time she did.

But when she was here she revealed the real reason she came - I'd been going through a really bad patch, but she could see that a lot of it was my own passivity and not standing up for myself in some big ways, and she had basically flown across the ocean to give me a pep talk and tell me that for the love of God I had to treat myself better, and if I wasn't going to do it for me at least do it for her because dammit she loved me and it was killing her to see me treating myself so badly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:29 AM on April 29 [7 favorites]


Drusus: A man should keep himself clean, not have slaves do it.
Tiberius: And how's he supposed to scrape his own back?
Drusus: He gets his brother to do it.
Tiberius: If he hasn't got a brother?
Drusus: He gets his son.
Tiberius: If he hasn't got a son?
Drusus: Gets his friend.
Tiberius: And if he hasn't got a friend?
Drusus: Then he should go and hang himself.
-I, Claudius
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:24 AM on April 29 [9 favorites]


Tiberius: I've tried it. Better to have a slave scrape your back.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:43 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]


It's been rather interesting to see the American center-right (by world standards, the slightly-less-far-right) turn towards virtue ethics as a sort of last-gasp salvage mission to preserve their ideology.
posted by kewb at 9:58 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: any chance you could post a citation or two for your passages of Plato and Aristotle? I'm incredibly curious to read more.
posted by cinoyter at 11:44 AM on April 29


Gee, well, with Aristotle it's chiefly in Nicomachean Ethics and with Plato, I'm naturally thinking about Symposium, but I feel there are some other dialogues where he deals with these issues, too.

I know you wanted more precise citations but I'm not an authority and I'm working from my undergraduate education of many years ago. I mean, we read all of, and closely, these works and my understanding isn't someone's gloss on greek philosophy or anything, but still. It sounds like kewb may be a good source.

The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a pretty good entry titled Plato on Friendship and Eros — I just scanned it a minute ago and if it's not what you were looking for from Plato, its references may point you more precisely to passages which are. I don't see an equivalent entry for Aristotle, and that's probably because much of this is essential to his Ethics and is covered in that topic.

My sense is that one should approach Aristotle and Plato and their contemporaries with considerable caution, ironically partly because their works are so accessible, so much of our own cultural legacy involves them — while there are also profound cultural differences that more casual readers fail to account for.

I specifically warn this in this context because their sensibilities with regard to agape, eros, and philos are very different from our own, but it's very easy to map our own onto theirs. There is a judeo-christian dualist metaphysics and its attendant related moral philosophy in our culture that is not present in theirs. Vastly complicating this is the simple fact that the judeo-christian cultures which were profoundly influenced by the classic greeks deliberately incorporated and reinterpreted these works into themselves, thoroughly confusing the issue for those of us in such cultures. It's very easy to think of Plato's love as a Christian-like repudiation of the sinfulness of erotic love (a la Paul et alia), but that's mistaken in some essential respects.

Furthermore, as kewb points out, conservatives have an interesting fondness for going to the classic greeks. There's various reasons for this, but a very important one is that the greeks enthusiastically embrace notions of virtue and such in a way that in our culture non-conservatives generally don't, and conservatives mistake this shared enthusiasm as a shared sensibility about what "good" means. And they're wrong — most especially wrong when it comes to anything and everything that relates to judeo-christian dualism vis a vis things like Platonic idealism, which they mistake for their moral dualism.

Basically, and perhaps all I should have written on the subject in the first place, is that if Plato and Aristotle argue for the inferiority of eros in any respect, it is emphatically not the same thing as when Christians argue similarly, given their foundational notion that the erotic is related to sin (at least to the temptation to sin).
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:52 AM on April 30


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