Misha Bitoslivkin

The Wrong Kind of Family


ISSUE 46 | LOVERS AND FRIENDS | NOV 2014

I. Too Close! A Kind Of Incest

I once asked my best friend Katie why sex is so often seen as inimical to friendship, indeed as one of the few surefire ways to mess up a good friendship. I had recently ended a two-year romantic relationship and was feeling a heady mixture of vulnerability and emotional instability and excitement about relating to new people in new ways.

I wasn’t trying to have sex with Katie. “I mean, I don’t want to have sex with you, but why would sex necessarily fuck up an otherwise healthy friendship?”

Katie paused for a beat before responding, giving me a look of mingled puzzlement (Am I understanding your question correctly?) and exasperation (I’m pretty sure I’m understanding your question correctly, but I am wondering if you are being willfully obtuse).

“Well, think of it this way,” she said. “What if one of your friends wanted to be your best friend? Wouldn’t that change things for you?”

 

I like this response because it did point out a particular way in which I was being obtuse: I was treating sex as something easily separable from a whole complex of feelings, a facet of romantic life one can isolate and analyze, figure out, and unproblematically decouple from romance and hitch to friendship.

I don’t think we have to buy into either an idealized ideology of romantic love or the notion that sex reflexively engages particular kinds of biological (inevitably, gendered) responses to entertain the idea that sex, if not always then at least quite often, makes things different, changes the essential tenor of a relationship.

Of course, a lot of us discuss our sex lives openly with our friends. We describe, analyze, laugh at our desires, hang-ups, embarrassments, relive the most sublime and the most humdrum or even scarring experiences. But in talking about these things with friends, we can exert a degree of control over them that inevitably escapes us when we’re with our lover, when we’re in, and not just talking about, our desires.

All of which is just by way of saying what everyone knows on some level, which is that sex is, well—intimate.

 

Which is not to say that the connection between sex and feelings is simple. I imagine that, depending on the person, it runs the gamut from “If I have sex with someone I will fall in love with them” to “Fucking is when my feelings go on vacation.”

In my own experience, sex alone doesn’t necessarily engage any particular emotional alchemy. But if I already have a set of strong feelings of admiration and attraction for a person, having sex with them has the potential to send those feelings careening into extremes of euphoric delirium or, if things don’t go so well, despondency: the potential to make me fall in love.

 

If you do decide to have sex with your friend, it seems like things could go four ways: nothing really changes, things get “weird,” the friendship falls apart, or it becomes romantic. But aren’t a lot of close friendships romantic from the start?

After all, many of the features I think of as defining a best friend are the same ones that define a longterm romantic partner: they should be available for emotional support, they should be someone you want to share life experiences with, they should be someone you can reveal your inmost thoughts to without fear of judgment. Anyone who has read Aristotle or Montaigne knows that, historically, ideal friendships have often been conceptualized in much the same way that we conceptualize ideal monogamous romantic partners today. Friendship, that is, has long been seen as romantic.

Indeed, when we want to shine the best light on monogamy, we discuss it as being not essentially different from best friendship. Your spouse should be, in addition to the co-signor on the mortgage, the co-parent of your children, and the person whose job entitles you to health benefits, your best friend (or at least a best friend).

 

The other thing I like about Katie’s question is that it points out the ways in which “close” or “best” friendship on the one hand, and romantic love on the other, can both be illuminatingly examined in relation to “normal” friendship. I have always thought of both romance and close friendship as an elevation, a deepening, or an intensifying of what’s already there in “normal” friendship. And in that sense, as things “higher,” “deeper” or “more intense” than, perhaps they are more similar to each other than either is to normal friendship.

Maybe your relationship with a good friend you visit every couple months isn’t that similar to your relationship with your boyfriend. But your relationship with your best friend, whom you’ve known for thirteen years, lived with for two, and whom you’ve spent large swaths of your life talking on the phone with every single night, might be.

 

I emailed my other best friend, Rebekah, with the same question I had asked Katie, and told her how interesting I found Katie’s response. (Katie is also Rebekah’s best friend.) Rebekah’s reply:

A considerable part of why I am not sexually attracted to you is because you are my brother, and I think romance is often really anxious about what affective kinship structures it is ok or not-ok/incestuous to build. Which is maybe another reason one’s romantic partner can never really be their best friend, because it would break a taboo about what kind of family that person is allowed to be.

The idea that there is something of kinship in close friendship, something with less biological substance than blood but more psychological reality than mere sympathy, leads to a rather alarming conclusion: If your monogamous partner is really your best friend (and there’s no shortage of cultural messages telling you that he should be!), there is something a little bit incestuous about your love life.

Which makes me think that maybe the apparent similarities between close friendship and romantic love are somewhat misleading.

 

Then again, maybe Rebekah, Katie and I are just unusual in looking for family instead of romance in our best friends.

Pop culture is after all full of indications that some people do want to have sex with their best friends, as well as the message that opposite-sex friendships must inevitably resolve into the stable state of romantic love—just google “movies about best friends falling in love.”

 

Close friendship probably has, for different people, as many meanings as romance or even sex. But there are good reasons to believe the cliché that adding sex to your close friendships is playing a dangerous game: you’ve introduced a kind of intimacy that you and your friend had previously, implicitly or explicitly, agreed not to provide each other. You’ve completed a circle of sorts around your particular dyad, and it shouldn’t be surprising if you start to feel a little bit claustrophobic.

When I think about my own close friendships, about what kind of family they are, the incest taboo feels persuasive to me. It helps me make sense out of what we mean when we worry that sex would make our friendships get “weird.”

 

If your monogamous romantic partner should be your best friend, and your best friend is a great example of someone you shouldn’t have sex with, you stumble upon a distressing crux in the logic of your love life.

 

Recognizing this incest taboo helped me understand a dimly felt anxiety I had previously written off as a bit of groundless prudery: that combining romantic love with close friendship is bad news. Heaping romantic feelings on top of these already intense relationships feels too close to me.

My close friends aren’t allowed to be that kind of family.

 

But just because your lovers shouldn’t be your besties, doesn’t mean you should think of your relationship to them in a completely different way than you think of your relationship to your “normal” (less intense, familial, close) friends. In fact, thinking of your lovers this way might be a useful thought experiment: How would you act differently in love if you treated your lovers more like friends?

For me, thinking this way brings into juxtaposition certain aspects of friendship and romantic love I don’t often look at side by side.

It makes me ask: If my romances and my close friendships don’t seem so different in a lot of ways, what is it about my romances that have made them more unstable? Why have I struggled with ethically arranging my love life while I seem to succeed better in maintaining my friendships? What about the practice of friendship could be useful, or even possible, to apply in romance?

II. Two Wills Getting Close

If romance is the desire to be always with a person, to share everything with them, to feel them as a part of you, to make their plans your plans, their will your will—above all to get as close as possible to them—maybe it makes sense to say by way of contrast that a good close friendship assumes the willingness of both friends to curb these romantic desires in order to allow one another to be sometimes alone.

If romantic love is two wills seeing how close they can get before the scope of each feels unacceptably circumscribed, friendship is two wills seeing what they can do together and what they can do apart.

 

If your friend, even your best friend, asks you to reshape your life around his, compromise your career for him, or hang out with people you can’t stand—you’ve entered weird friendship territory. But you need only to be around a couple arguing over competing Saturday night party invitations to realize that romantic relationships often involve a conflict of wills that is considerably less prevalent in friendship.

Exceptionally heroic monogamous couples resolve this conflict by borrowing some of the practices of good friendship: curbing their desire to fuse two lives into one and giving their partner plenty of freedom to spend time with friends, pursue unshared passions, and be alone.

In less ideal circumstances, partners hash out the compromises each must make in order to make the relationship work: move to Philadelphia for her new job, put off the graduate degree to save money for a down payment on a house, please never play U2 again I hate that fucking piece of shit band. No one’s idea of the best time, maybe, but that’s love, that’s life, that’s two wills trying to get close without treading on the other’s toes or breathing down the other’s neck.

 

Straight-up bad romantic relationships conspicuously fail to ethically resolve this dilemma. One partner is swallowed up in the other, the scope of her will circumscribed to the extent that it no longer poses an impediment to her lover’s; or both wills fuse together until it’s hard to tell whether either partner knows if their desires are their own or their partner’s or neither.

In Jane Eyre, one of the most astute and ethically satisfying explorations of this dilemma in literature, both of these scenarios play out in succession. (Though the culmination of the first is happily avoided, its threat casts a shadow over the entire novel.)

By the time Jane meets Rochester, in her capacity as governess to his ward Adèle, she has spent most of her life grasping for whatever shred of dignity and autonomy can be had by a poor, unconnected young woman in England circa 1800. She progresses from the abjection of an abusive early childhood to the less utter abjection of an abusive boarding school, and finally, upon reaching adulthood, secures for herself the still less utter abjection of a situation as governess at Rochester’s estate. Jane is aided in this progression by luck, but it’s her conscious shrewdness and single-minded focus on maintaining and expanding her autonomy that propels her forward.

In accepting Rochester’s marriage proposal, it quickly becomes apparent that she is about to lose it all. Waiting for her in Adèle’s school room the day after his proposal (Jane is still nominally in his hire), Rochester quickly makes clear the terms of the catastrophe that has befallen her:

“Jane, you look blooming, and smiling, and pretty,” said he: “truly pretty this morning. Is this my pale, little elf? Is this my mustard-seed? This little sunny-faced girl with the dimpled cheek and rosy lips; the satin-smooth hazel hair, and the radiant hazel eyes?” (I had green eyes, reader; but you must excuse the mistake: for him they were new-dyed, I suppose.)

“It is Jane Eyre, sir.”

“Soon to be Jane Rochester,” he added: “in four weeks, Janet; not a day more. Do you hear that?” [He goes ahead and renames her “Janet.”]

I did, and I could not quite comprehend it: it made me giddy. The feeling, the announcement sent through me, was something stronger than was consistent with joy—something that smote and stunned. It was, I think almost fear.

“You blushed, and now you are white, Jane: what is that for?”

“Because you gave me a new name—Jane Rochester; and it seems so strange.”

“Yes, Mrs. Rochester,” said he; “young Mrs. Rochester—Fairfax Rochester’s girl-bride.” [Gross.]

In preparation for their wedding, he threatens to deluge her with the family jewels. He wants to “pour them into [her] lap.”

“Oh, sir!—never rain jewels! I don’t like to hear them spoken of. Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange: I would rather not have them.”

“I will myself put the diamond chain round your neck, and the circlet on your forehead,—which it will become: for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow, Jane; and I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy-like fingers with rings … I will make the world acknowledge you a beauty, too,” he went on, while I really became uneasy at the strain he had adopted, because I felt he was either deluding himself or trying to delude me. “I will attire my Jane in satin and lace, and she shall have roses in her hair; and I will cover the head I love best with a priceless veil.”

“And then you won’t know me, sir; and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin’s jacket—a jay in borrowed plumes …”

Luckily, something comes up—No spoilers!—and the marriage is called off.

By the time Rochester’s second proposal comes around, the terms are quite different. This time, Jane is able to marry him while retaining her autonomy, or at least enough of it to be ethically acceptable to her, because Rochester is reduced by this time to an utterly destroyed shambles of a human being. Devastated by Jane’s abandonment of him a year earlier, maimed and blinded in the conflagration of his estate—How did that happen? No spoilers!—by the time of Rochester’s second proposal, he is in no position whatsoever to control her:

“My seared vision! My crippled strength!” he murmured regretfully.

I caressed, in order to soothe him … As he turned aside his face a minute, I saw a tear slide from under the sealed eyelid, and trickle down the manly cheek. My heart swelled …

“Jane, will you marry me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A poor blind man, whom you will have to lead about by the hand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A crippled man, twenty years older than you, whom you will have to wait on?”

“Yes, sir … I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.”

“Hitherto I have hated to be helped—to be led: henceforth, I feel I shall hate it no more.”

It is an uneasy settlement, one in which the problem of the domination of one partner by another is not so much resolved as complicated by a shift in power and shallowly submerged under the surface.

In judging the altered power dynamics of this relationship, the reader will have to reckon whether the soon-to-be Mrs. Rochester will on the balance do more “leading” or “waiting on.” To Jane, at least, it seems an acceptable gamble, now that the odds are stacked in her favor.

 

If romance is habitually perched on the border of over-intimacy and its attendant power struggles, and if romance and friendship are not so terribly different, it seems fair to ask: Is romance just pathological friendship, friendship unable or unwilling to bridle the urge to get too close?

Friends at least seem less inclined than lovers to make such extravagant demands on one another’s autonomy, to try the alchemy of merging their friend’s will with their own.

 

In friendship, the problem of how two wills relate to one another is somewhat simplified. Between two friends there is typically an implicit agreement that each will find their sexual/romantic fulfillment outside of their particular dyad. Although this arrangement does entail a competing claim on the time the friends can potentially spend with each other, it is not one that compromises any essential tenet of their friendship in the way that monogamous romantic partners risk by opening up their relationship.

But friendship is not in itself immune to competing wills, or even to the potential for one friend’s identity to be swallowed up by the other. Plenty of friendships recapitulate the worst parts of romantic love. The most searing breakup of my life to date was with my high school best friend.

Yet it’s telling that this troubled friendship was exceptional, and that it was adolescent. In my adult life, friendship has, as a rule, proven more adept than romance at negotiating closeness.

 

III. Romance From The Perspective of Friendship

I know these things to be true:

  1. I want the friendships I have to persist, deepen, grow, and thrive.
  2. I want to have sex on at least a semi-regular basis.
  3. I want to have sex with people whom I respect, care about and like spending time with.
  4. I don’t want to have sex with my close friends, attractive and correctly gendered though they often are.
  5. I want romantic love in my life.

I feel like if I can figure out the relationship structure that best achieves (1), (2), (3) and (5) while avoiding (4), I will have figured out something important and useful.

When I think about what I want from romance, how I want to arrange my will in relation to another will, I’m thinking largely about how to create and maintain this structure.

 

It’s possible that (5) has no right to be on this list, that it shows me captive to the insidious idea that the absence of a romantic partner will make me lonely as I grow older; that I have internalized the pernicious cultural message that a person without a romantic life partner—let her have as many close friends, besties, caring relatives, and fun acquaintances as she may—is a poor soul deserving of pity. And I know that with my small but sturdy collection of friendships and family ties, and my wider network of friend-like acquaintances, I don’t keenly feel the lack of a romantic partner on a day-to-day basis.

I suppose I want romance because I am still excited about relating to new people in new ways, and because it gets harder as time goes on to make room for more close friends. Maintaining a romance might not be less arduous and time-consuming than maintaining a friendship, but it is a different kind of work, and variety tends to revive me.

 

Looking at romance from the perspective of friendship, looking at romance as a kind of friendship, should be intuitive because, for lot of us at least, this is the vantage point we already comfortably occupy. I may be pretty confused about what I want in my romantic life, but I am 100% positive about the fact that you can pry my close friendships from my cold dead hands. Thinking about the similarities between friendship and romance, as well as the differences, should help us think about what arrangements will allow us to maintain both of them in our lives, and on what terms.

 

And thinking about lovers as friends seems to me more sensitive to what becomes clear when you take a close look at the border between friendship and romance: not only are the lines porous and blurry—there are significant swaths of territory claimed by both sides.

 

Maybe the distinction we want to draw here is not between friends and lovers, but between close friends and “normal” friends (some of whom might also be lovers).

 

Is there something fundamentally unethical about pursuing romantic relationships ostensibly based on mutual respect, mutual caring, and mutual pleasure, while knowing from the outset that those relationships are by their nature disqualified from some Inner Sanctum Of Intimacy And Loyalty reserved only for one’s close friends? (I could add, Is there something inherently childish about my investment in creating elaborate hierarchies of friendship to organize the relationships in my life?)

Maybe, but there seems to me something unethical too about romantic relationships that involve a conflict of wills in which both partners often wind up seriously compromised. And keeping your best friends closer than your lovers need not involve any disloyalty toward them any more than keeping your best friends closer than your “normal” friends.

It’s not at all clear to me that maintaining some distance with your lovers, getting close but not too close, is the less ethical option here.

 

If I have been more successful in maintaining my friendships than my romantic relationships, and if these two things start to look eerily alike upon close examination, maybe I need to stop conceptualizing them as so radically different.

If things start to feel “incestuous” or “weird” when I think that my romantic partner should also be my best friend, maybe I need to cool things down a little.

Maybe what friendship can teach romantic love is the willingness to withhold some kinds of intimacy, to give one’s partner the space to create and maintain her list of desires: the agreement to let one’s lover, one’s friend, be sometimes alone.

 

One summer night a month or so after the breakup that prompted my question to Katie, still heart-bruised and a little bit broken, I met Rebekah and some other friends at a bar in Brooklyn. Several drinks in I hazily ventured to chat up a stranger, who rebuffed me with a sidelong glance and firmly turned her back. Feeling some crucial seams in my self-possession abruptly tear apart, I pushed my way to the bathroom to cry.

On my way out I stopped to tell Rebekah that I was leaving, making terse apologies and drawing stares from the table as I edged my way to the door.

Rebekah caught up to me as I reached the corner of the street.

“What the hell is going on? Are you ok?”

I told her I was fine, weirdly angry and sad and drunk, but fine, and that I needed to be alone.

She searched my face for a few moments, plainly shaken; took in a sharp breath, held it, released it in a low glottal.

“Um, ok. Will you text me when you get home safe?”

I said that I would, gave her a slack hug and walked away.

The next morning I texted her that I was sorry, and that I was going to be fine.