“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved
I have never understood the phrase, “just friends.” Friendship isn’t a a consolation prize. Friendships can be the most cherished, solid and enduring relationships we have, a chosen space where we can be intimate and vulnerable and seen.
Of course, it depends on how you define friendship.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as reciprocated goodwill. He suggests that in a healthy friendship, friends love each other for the sake of the other, as much as themselves, and they wish good things for each other, whether or not it directly benefits them.
I believe all my friends wish good things for me, but without a certain degree of closeness, I think it’s difficult to know how to participate in “reciprocating goodwill.”
One day, on a road trip, in an attempt to understand exactly what we were talking about when we mentioned a “friend,” my companion and I created an F-Scale, It was a long drive and we worked on this so thoroughly, I sometimes forget that these terms aren’t a codified language. For example, sometimes I assume other people know what I’m talking about when I say, “Yesterday I had lunch with Wendy, an F2.”
This whole idea of a scale may appear callous, but it’s astonishing to me that we don’t have more nuanced variations of the word “friend.” As someone who takes friendship seriously, I recognize that at least two of these categories would be better labeled as acquaintances–but in the interconnected era of social media, it feels necessary to use at least cop a nod to the F word. The base concept here is that anyone who actively wishes good things for another person is in the generic sense, a friend, but we might value our connections in some sort of vertical order, like this:
F 5 – Those I know the name of, and respect details I am aware of about their lives, but this information has mostly been garnered through other people in our shared social spheres, and is really more an illusion of connection.
F4 – Those I interact with publicly on a semi-regular basis, enjoy their presence and their stories, but our interactions are primarily through shared commitments, not specific intent.
F3 – Those with whom I share a meaningful connection, with whom I schedule to spend time and/or have multiple points of contact, but our in-person interactions are significantly limited by geography, conflicting schedules or otherwise disparate social systems.
F2 – Those with whom I have had many consistent, meaningful interactions, choose to prioritize time with, and care about the details of their lives–but we have not yet found a rhythm to our mutual interactions, so there is a degree of uncertainty, irregularity or question of sustainability.
F1 – Someone I care for deeply, with whom I have an ongoing conversation, mutual trust, respect, and honest disclosure. I care about their hopes, dreams, opinions and goals, as well as their faults, fears and failures and can read many of their thoughts and moods. I feel free to express genuine concern, without fear of reproach, and we can count on each other’s responsiveness. We both initiate and prioritize our connection, and give deliberate time and energy to each other’s welfare.
At a Writer’s Conference, I once had lunch with a woman who had her own friendship barometer and we eagerly exchanged notes. Her view was gloriously simple:
- I will have coffee with you.
- I will have a drink with you.
- I would bury a body for you.
- I would kill for you.
I told her I thought there was a pretty large leap between categories 2 and 3 and she laughed. “Thin love ain’t love at all,” she said, “that there is the line.”
And this got me thinking. Since love is definitely something exchanged between genuine friends, what do we mean when we say we’re in an intimate relationship? Is a healthy romantic relationship significantly different from our closest friendship? With an F1, I am personally open, willing and expecting to be transformed. If that’s the case, is romance an F1 with sexual attraction? Are there quantifiable differences between a lover, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a spouse or a partner? Is there a differing degree of loyalty inherent in each term? How often do people intuitively agree on how they prioritize their connections?
For many people, a romantic relationship requires more time and attention, as well as a commitment to and integration of shared values and experiences. But I would argue there is a similar element of interdependence between the closest of friends. And both friends and lovers can break our hearts.
Most Americans define an intimate relationship as one in which they’re sexually exclusive–but certainly not everyone does. And plenty of people are in long term marriages rich in friendship, shared interests and values, in which they no longer have sex.
Perhaps people who are in intimate relationships that work for both parties don’t play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries.
I think with romance, we often lose the delicate balance between effort and air. In most of our relationships, we don’t do the proverbial slow dance. We bob around each other, mirroring each other’s movements, holding hands, spinning in and out each other’s orbit, engaging with whichever person brings us the most pleasure or meaning in the moment. We make effort, then give space, and as we find ourselves getting closer, we tend to do more of the former and less of the latter.
In romantic relationships, however, we often expend and expect effort, without the grace of air, and with a possessiveness that can feel claustrophobic. While I respect and value the idea of mutual surrender between intimate partners, we are often less genuine and generous with our romantic love than with our Filia love. And because we are less attached to the fear of loss, we are frequently more committed to a practice of honest communication with a friend than we are with someone with whom we’re sexual.
We might do well to shift our expectations, and hold our romantic relationships to the same standards we hold our deepest friendships. Perhaps when people ask us what’s up, and we find ourselves having to categorize someone we may or may not be dating, we might more effectively explain, “We’re just romantic.”