Here in the last quarter of 2021, friendship has never been more vital, or seemed more elusive. As we approach two full years of COVID-19 distancing, we haven’t partied with friends, or travelled to see loved ones over the holidays. We’ve all missed many a Bat Mitzvah, bachelorette bash, and Bris. We’ve had to make do with Zoom-weddings and graduations. And as a result, forced separation has altered my understanding of friendship. And of love—is there a difference?
In classical Greece, defining the various flavors of love was an art form. Seven terms were commonly used for variations on attachment and affection, while the English language seems impoverished in that department. You know the word Agape, meaning empathetic, universal, selfless love of others, including strangers. And of course you know the term Eros, basically defined as crazy-hot sexual attraction, pleasure, and even obsession.
But then there’s Philia, for intimate friendship, true goodwill toward a beloved intimate companion. (But intimate in what sense?)
There’s also Ludus, playful, flirtatious love. It’s emotional catnip, not as heavy as Eros, and nowhere near as loyal as true-blue Philia. And there’s Storge, the absolute, protective, familial love a parent feels for a child, or a patriot feels for a nation. I’m feeling Storge when I describe someone as being in my tribe.
These distinctions ring true, but here’s what: I now realize that love relationships of all kinds have more in common than we like to acknowledge. My most heartfelt loves contain some percentage of more than one flavor, especially Storge, Philia and Agape. My marriage adds Eros (and Ludus) to that staunch mix.
Why do we try to neatly compartmentalize these variations, and take such great pains to separate romance from friendship? If struck by the stinging dart of non-reciprocal Eros, we may say glumly, “He/she/they just want to be friends.” If we define a caring bond as primarily Philia, but include casual sex as a convenient side-dish when needed, we say we’re FWB. If an initially non-sexual friendship has morphed into a physical passion, we gloat, “Oh, we’re a lot more than just friends now.”
I find that all relationships conform to the same basic trajectory. Granted, the relative sexual temperature at any given moment varies, and can change on a dime, but this seems like a technicality. Because, in the end, love is love.
A friendship may unfold slowly, calmly, then deliciously take you by surprise. Or things may begin with an instant, chemical, electric bristling of magnetism—a “click”—across a crowded room. A friendship may begin with a deep, secret, unrequited crush, or burst into life with the immediate, mutual recognition of commonality, of shared vision, of tribe. And although we don’t experience these initiations as sexual, they closely parallel the story-beats of every rom-com ever written.
Friendships, like erotic loves, undergo phases of growth, transformation, progress, diminishment and loss, sparking every emotion from exhilaration to despair to contentment.
Jealousy and rivalry often color friendships, especially, dare I say, between women. I’ve literally had a grown-ass woman say to me with a straight face, “Well, if you’re gonna be best friends with Kathy, then you can’t be best friends with me.” And I laughed—sorry, not sorry.
Just as there are differing flavors of sex, there are differing kinds of friendship to suit your needs, your moods, your whims. Just like there is junk-food sex—cheap, greasy, guilty, tasty, nasty, naughty, and so satisfying—there are junk-food friendships. Someone you want to hang with, have fun with, but who really isn’t up to your standards for daily consumption may be a junk-food friend. This is similar to vacation sex: when in Tulum…I’ve often formed junk-food friendships in the workplace, so I’d have someone to eat lunch with. Haven’t you?
Then there’s the true-blue bond, something that’s more than just convenient. In fact, my key test of friendship has to do with what happens when it’s NOT convenient. Will you drop everything? Will you go out of your way? Will you walk through fire? I will.
Perhaps the most important realization about the universal nature of love is that every “couple,” whether bumping pretties or not, operates under an uneven dynamic. Writers of greeting cards and self-help books often cite a 50–50 energy balance as the goal, and this is moose-feathers. There will always be the Lover and the Beloved. One of you will always want it more than the other one does. Somebody’s gotta be the Alpha. In my experience, however, healthy relationships allow these roles to reverse, which can be interesting, confusing, or both.
This realization is especially helpful to me. Since I know that the exchange can never be entirely reciprocal, and is never truly unconditional, I can usually stop myself from making extreme demands that only end in hurt feelings and disappointment.
And, dear heart, this fact: it won’t last. It can’t. American culture in particular is naïve when it comes to assessing the seasons of the heart. La donna e mobile, feelings change, and it’s unrealistic to expect any love to stay forever. The dissolution may be a gradual drifting apart, or a violent split with a fiery break-up. As with erotic love, how the finale feels depends upon your expectations. You may be devastated and heartbroken, or dizzy with relief. (Free at last!)
Accepting all of this may seem tough, but viewing friendships as a form of romance is making me a better friend. Here’s how I see it:
CIRCLING AND SNIFFING. The approach begins when one of you senses the other, and it’s on. One of you sends a no-pressure email or text for coffee or a museum outing to get an initial reading. You suss each other out.
CHALLENGE AND DISPLAY BEHAVIOR. A key indicator in primate studies. Each party presents their best assets to establish a dominant or submissive role. This is when we try to live up to the fabulous persona we’ve created for ourselves on social media. Past generations called it putting your best foot forward. You both determine if the other is worthy of attention and pursuit.
CRUSHING. There’s no denying it. A new friend, like a new job, can pump you full of endorphins and make you feel as sparkly and giddy as a 14-year-old chugging that first Mike’s Hard Lemonade on a balmy summer night. School’s out. I’ve got my learner’s permit, my skin’s almost cleared up, and my braces are finally off. And he/she/they LIKE me! The hackneyed “Love Languages” model applies here. Depending upon how neurotic you are, you may feverishly check your phone for new texts, likes, and emoticons, and scroll endlessly through those first email exchanges, searching for a sign. You. Can’t. Get. Enough.
COURTSHIP. Here is where The Lover and The Beloved first establish their roles. It’s the aspect of any relationship that I genuinely cherish, and one which can last for the duration of the alliance.
In our erotic relationships, we typically take care to maintain what we call “mystery,” or illusion, but that’s a cynical view.
For me, the ongoing courtship in any kind of love relationship is not based on deception, but rather on appreciation. For instance, I’m punctual when meeting my friend, because the occasion is important.
I wear lipstick and perfume and earrings for the same reason. I remember and acknowledge birthdays, and I send flowers impulsively. And like a granny, I digitally clip and forward silly, interesting or amusing items that I think my friend will enjoy. Call it the honeymoon phase. Kind of romantic, really.
THE FIRST FIGHT. It may not be a fight at all. More often than not, it’s really an oversight or a missed cue. And whatever form it takes, this initial conflict is the first significant test of the bond’s strength. Will the friends/lovers bounce back? Will the love withstand the wound?
MORE TESTS FOLLOW. We may test each other unconsciously, subconsciously, or deliberately. And sometimes we really have no choice.
I once lived about five minutes from my then-best friend. When I totaled my car on the Santa Monica freeway in the middle of a historic downpour, I twanged my neck and spine in such a way that sent me down into that dark place best captured in medieval Christian paintings of the Inferno. Souls in hell.
The impact that crumpled my trusty Nissan Sentra like a styrofoam cup also compressed a few cervical vertebrae (“soft tissue injury”), and the physical sensation—called “referred pain,” like a serving fork being pressed into my right bicep—was so nauseatingly savage that I hoped my heart would stop beating and in so doing set me free. And I am not the suicidal type.
My best friend Didi forgot that I was stranded up in Laurel Canyon, alone, unable to leave my bed, even though she was the first person I told. (She was preoccupied with her daily spin-class and shop-lifting at Nordstrom. Yes, really– one of her endearing tics) I didn’t hear from her. She didn’t stop by. So I had cat food and toilet paper delivered via taxi.
Months later at a party, when I confronted her about the abandonment, she shrugged. Oh, well. Tests are often painful, but the data doesn’t lie.
FORGIVENESS. Betrayal doesn’t exist without trust, trust being the basis of love. If you don’t love someone, they can’t really betray you, but merely annoy you. In the aftermath of an abandonment, betrayal or other major let-down, or simply the natural evaporation of the crush, some relationships rally the resilience to go on, and actually become greater, stronger, deeper, sweeter, more luminous, more true. Others don’t, of course—and good riddance to the latter.
The practice of forgiveness never means that you become a doormat, by the way. Quite the opposite, in fact. Forgiving a loved one with an open heart can be the point at which you refine your boundaries in a more accurate, evolved way. This calls for kind (not brutal) honesty, and a gentle fierceness. Doing this creates a new level of intimacy, as well as new vulnerability.
In the best ways, a deep friendship resembles not only a love-affair, but a marriage, too. Sure, that buzzy first blush is long gone. By now, you’ve held each other’s hair when throwing up. You’ve died a little when your friend was indifferent to something that really, really mattered to you. You’ve seen your friend be petty, or small, or greedy, or dishonest, or deceitful, or mean-spirited, and most likely you’ve been that way yourself, too. There probably have been, as Carly Simon sang of marriage decades ago, silent noons, tearful nights, angry dawns.
But still. When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell your friend. When the world breaks you down, and you need a warm, safe place to fall apart, you want your friend’s arms. When something frightens you, you know that you can whisper the truth to your friend. And you can still shriek with shared laughter until your faces hurt. You may still play flashlight-tag in your pajamas after a few margaritas, or meet each other at a coffeeshop for a good cry.
And this is where treating your friendship like a true romance works its alchemy. Nurture and steward your love to renew it. Unlike big-shoulder-padded Didi, be willing to stretch beyond your own immediate bubble of convenience for a minute. Make the effort. Laugh at your friend’s favorite joke, again. Agree to have Chinese takeout for dinner when you’d really, really rather have cream cheese on a poppyseed bagel. No, you don’t have to compromise every time, just this time. It’s a small price to pay for staying in the love-zone—however you choose to define it—as you drift off to sleep.
And when tomorrow comes, and you wake up again, you’ll have a friend.
All photos courtesy of Unsplash
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