Friendship: The Love that Dare not Speak Its Name

Today, Universalis offers a reflection about friendship:

Friendship: the love that dare not speak its name

Once upon a time, there was friendship. Once upon a time, society accepted that the love of friends could be the single most important thing in a person’s life, and they did more than just accept, they celebrated the fact. Throughout history, discourses and sermons have been written in praise of friendship. When Alfred Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hugh Hallam died tragically young in 1833, he spent the next seventeen years writing the great poem “In Memoriam” as a memorial to his friend; and Hallam is a first name used among the Tennyson family to this day. Looking further back, we can see Damon and Pythias, Pylades and Orestes, David and Jonathan…

Perhaps the change was the fault of Freud and Oscar Wilde; and then again, perhaps not. But today no love is accepted as valid that is not in some way sexual, and even if we set out to reject the sex-obsessed outlook of today’s society, we think in those terms despite ourselves. When St Aelred writes of “this most loving youth”, we all say to ourselves “oh yes” in a knowing way, sure that we have guessed the smutty truth.

What a waste! What a wicked denial and perversion of love! God has made friendship – did not Christ have his own beloved disciple? – and how dare we corrupt it and deny it! Of course, we must not despise sex: sex is holy, divinely ordained as a way of love and procreation – but it is not the only love. Friendship is not “mere” friendship, not a second-best; still less is it a repressed substitute for erotic love. It is a love in its own right, powerful, holy, overwhelming. A world with Eros but without friendship is a world full of isolated, self-obsessed couples, of love unshared – a sad thing indeed. And we are heading that way.

The denial of friendship is an evil thing and evil in its effects. When my pulse beats faster at the sight of my friend, when his presence feels like a bolt of electricity – is this really sex in disguise? Am I to run away – which would be a tragedy – in order to preserve my chastity, or am I to try to overcome my revulsion and make a pass – which would be worse? Modern society seems to give us nothing but this harsh choice between a cold heart and a hot body. Who knows how many of the impressionable young are led into ultimately unendurable vices precisely because they cannot face what seems the only available alternative? And when, as is inevitable, they have destroyed friendship by turning it into something it is not, what choice do we give them but to repeat the error, each time more desperately? As if one could see the stars by diving ever deeper into the mud!

Let us accept friendship. Let us accept it as a true and passionate gift of God. Let us accept it in others without reading anything else into it – “repressed” or not. Let us rejoice if it is given to us, be glad if it is given to others. Jonathan loved David not because of what he could get out of him, but because he was David: let us celebrate this motiveless love of the Other, an echo of the pure love of Heaven. We ought to love everyone like that: but one should at least start somewhere.

And if, like Aelred, we have made the mistake of seeking a physical consummation of a love that does not require it, then let us, like St Aelred, not recoil from that love but go forward, transcend that error, until the love becomes a redeemed and radiant thing that others will see and rejoice, giving thanks to God.

(Thanks to Melinda Selmys for bringing this to my attention! If anyone knows who wrote this, I would love to get in touch with the author.)

30 thoughts on “Friendship: The Love that Dare not Speak Its Name

  1. Thank you for this post. It has come right on time. Let us embrace friendship, “repressed” or not, and if we make an error, let us not run, being controlled by sin in our paranoid effort to avoid it, but let us keep training ourselves for the pursuit of godliness within our friendships, forgiving and “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of he upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14)

  2. No love is valid that is not in SOME way “sexual” because otherwise it is not human:

    2332 Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.

  3. Reticence in Christian friendships could be linked to social class patterns. Christians in the UK are very reserved but that might be because Church is predominantly a middle-class activity here. The poorer members of society are much more affectionate and passionate in their friendships.

  4. What Mr Belgau craves isn’t friendship, it’s romantic love with sex removed.

    Earlier ages frowned on gay sex but tolerated chaste romantic love. They labeled it “friendship” as a polite smokescreen. But it was always more than that.

    Mr Belgau is not lamenting the disappearance of friendship because friendship has not disapeared. He’s decrying the collapse of the social acceptability (or at least tolerance) of chaste romantic love.

    When you look at it logically though, if society now accepts same-sex relationships, why should there be any need to continue labeling them with the euphemistic term “friendship”?

    If Mr Belgau wants a partner he should go out and get one and not try to pull a pretty Victorian veil over the nature of the relationship by calling it a “friendship”. Whether he has sex with his partner or not, their relationship will be far more than a friendship.

    Of course finding someone who’s willing to embark on such a bloodless idyll with him may not be easy, especially as the pool of men who in previous ages might have been willing to settle for a celibate relationship is now much, much smaller than it used to be. He may well fall in love with someone who doesn’t share his convictions and refuses to be bound by them. But we all run that risk when starting a relationship. Some of us will end up alone no matter what we believe because we just don’t find the right guy.

    I’ve been lucky enough to escape that fate, but if I hadn’t, I don’t think I’d blame it on society and social attitudes. If I didn’t have a partner it would be down, in unequal shares I think, to me first, and then
    to pure dumb luck. People generally find what they seek and when you block your ears to the perennial cries of woe of the single and lonely and look past their excuses and complaints, it’s usually easy enough to see why they’re alone. From obesity to chronic halitosis to OCD-like behaviour to self-destructive tendencies, there’s almost always something keeping the single that way. It could be a particularly rigid set of beliefs that sets so many conditions on a relationship that it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever consent to live by them. Surely this is the problem Mr Belgau should be looking at rather than lamenting the supposed disappearance of friendship. Friendship hasn’t disappaeared. It’s just that what he wants isn’t friendship. It’s love. And the number of men willing to forego a sexual relationship because of religious scruples is vanishingly small nowadays.

    • I’m not sure that earlier ages labelled chaste romantic love as a “polite smokescreen.” Its more likely they simply had a broader idea of the kinds of love that could potentially be included the label of friendship.

      • Earlier ages were so determined to prevent two people of the same gender loving each other, they automatically degraded any same-sex relationship to the status of “friendship”. Some elderly people (and quite a few Christians) still do it.

        This is something that annoys me intensely because words are important. Attempting to redefine gay relationships by using the wrong terms to describe them is a sign of total disrespect. My partner’s parents do it: to them I’m their son’s “friend”. I’ve argued the issue with them before but they cannot and will not use any other term, as if calling our relationship a friendship somehow transforms it into something anodyne, platonic and definitely un-gay. They’re living in cloud cuckoo land of course, but that’s what people often do when faced with something they don’t like. They try to make it go away by giving it a harmless name.

        My partner’s parents are the kind of people who, if they found a ravening lioness in their drawing room, would probably deal with the situation by calling it Mrs Jones and handing it a cup of tea and a plate of cucumber sandwiches. And then be completely taken by surprise when it attacked them and ripped them to shreds. What they can name, they can control. Or so they like to think.

        The same is true of traditional attitudes to gay relationships. Calling a passionate romantic love affair (celibate or not) a “friendship” tames it and folds it away into a nice, secure drawer where it can do no harm. Or it used to. The fact that most of us no longer accept this kind of verbal whitewash means it’s no longer very effective. You have to consent to having your relationship covered by a “polite smokescreen” of acceptable words. If you don’t, the illusion is shattered.

        At a recent family party that my partner had to threaten not to attend if I were not invited too, his mother went about introducing me as her son’s “friend”. My partner followed us around the room saying “Actually he’s not my friend, he’s my lover, but my mother seems impervious to this fact. We’re getting married soon. Do come, won’t you?” As her brazen attempt to annex our relationship and present it as something socially acceptable (in her eyes, at least) was foiled by our refusal to hide behind her polite smokescreen, she retreated below stairs to take out her anger and frustration on the catering staff. As most of them were Polish, couldn’t understand a word she was saying and therefore seemed likely to chalk her ill-humour up to just another uptight hostess having a meltdown, we left her there until she calmed down. We’ll do the same if she tries a similar trick in the future. Quite who she thinks she is, defining other people’s relationships for them, is beyond me…

        Anyway, whichever way you look at it, presenting a romantic relationship (celibate or not) as a friendship is inaccurate, homophobic and quite simply dishonest. Call it what it is: love. But don’t try and shoehorn it into a box marked “friendship”. It just won’t fit.

      • It interests me that you are so angry at people who seek to define your relationship in their terms, yet you feel free to insist that you can speak about my desires and relationships in your terms, rather than the terms I have used.

      • Bitter about what?

        About being able to get married to the man I love? About all of the advances the LGBT community has made in recent years? About the prospect of real equality, respect and formal legal recognition of the validity of my feelings and relationship?

        Quite frankly, I’m not sure exactly what there is for a gay man to be bitter about nowadays. Unless he’s also a conservative Christian. Having my beliefs knocked down from their previous position of power and sidelined by a society that views them as largely irrelevant might make me bitter. But luckily I’m not in that position.

      • You will have to answer your own question by yourself but you are bitter nonetheless. If you want my opinion the reason might be that your partner’s parents are obviously ashamed of your relationship (?)

      • And thinking about it you might be bitter because others refuse to take the path that you’ve taken. I mean others such as the fellows here at SF… Is this part if your bitterness? Only you can answer. But don’t do it here… Do it in the silence of your heart.

      • Etienne,

        I am not on the side of the celibate folks here. I sit on the fence but feel there is nothing sinful about what I am. That said, you are pretty angry and understandably so. I am glad you met someone special and I am sorry his mother denigrates your relationship. That is selfish of her. That said, the celibate gays aren’t your enemies they are your brethren. You may not like the path they have chosen and I certainly worry their road will end in misery for them but they are still just like you and I.

        I can’t even imagine what it must be like for you, knowing the guy you love is dealing with a mother too ashamed of him to just be honest. I have experienced a love of another guy and his pain had been and still is my own pain. You poor guy. You seem to have a good and passionate heart. Just be there with him and try and support him in these times of trial. I know you are hurting and don’t really mean to lash out.

        Society is coming around, slowly but surely. Try not to lose hope and don’t take it out on your own people. Just care for your soon to be husband. He is lucky to have a guy with a big heart like you.

    • Sure, Ron probably wants romantic love without the sex attached. He probably also wants the sex attached, at some level. And he wants intimacy without romantic love or sex attached. And he wants to be holy.

      Wants don’t dictate actions, however. Like all of us, Ron is capable of choosing what actions and relationships he wants to pursue. He isn’t choosing to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with other men, though he may very well be pursuing relationships of intimacy and deep friendship with other men. Your interpretation — that all such relationships are homosexual in nature — would seem to imply that most men before 1800 or so were repressed gay men, since most of them had intimate friendships with other men. I’m afraid there’s just not much evidence for your view, however.

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  6. “It interests me that you are so angry at people who seek to define your relationship in their terms, yet you feel free to insist that you can speak about my desires and relationships in your terms, rather than the terms I have used.”

    That’s a fair comment, which I’ll answer by saying that I haven’t been talking about your particular desires and relationships, but rather about gay relationships in general.

    Of course you have the right to call your own particular relationship what you want. If you call it a friendship, then as I (and most other people) understand friendship to be non-romantic, we’ll view your relationship as strictly platonic. If you tell me this is not the case and you harbor romantic feelings for your friend, I’ll still respect your right to call your relationship whatever you want, but I’ll consider it as something more than a friendship. So will pretty much everyone else.

    The problem with my partner’s mother’s attempt to label my relationship with her son as a friendship is that she’s being dishonest about it. Both she and I define friendship as a non-sexual relationship, whereas she knows full well that I’m sexually intimate with her son. So she’s willfully misrepresenting the nature of our relationship. I think that gives us the right to be angry with her. We don’t go about describing her relationship with her husband as a friendship. She should do us the same honour, don’t you think?

    • Etienne, your original statement was, “What Mr Belgau craves isn’t friendship, it’s romantic love with sex removed.”

      You can’t say that you “haven’t been talking about [my] particular desires and relationships, but rather about gay relationships in general.” You can admit that you were hypocritical to define what I wanted in your terms while objecting to others defining your relationships in their terms.

      But try to be honest about what you’re doing, rather than just claiming you were not doing what you manifestly just did.

      And yes, I think it’s reasonable for you to want your relationship acknowledged as what it is.

  7. What I’m saying is that my definition of friendship does not involve romantic love. This is a definition shared by society as a whole. Friendship and romantic love are different kinds of relationship and although one may develop or transform into the other, there’s a clear boundary between each kind of relationship.

    The kind of relationship you’re talking about, both society and I would describe not as friendship but as romantic love.

    If you wish to call such feelings friendship then by all means, go right ahead. You run the risk of confusing most people because your definition is not the generally accepted one, but I’m sure you’re already aware of that. You’ll have to be willing to deal with the consequences of any misunderstandings that arise as a result, of course, but again, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you’re not already perfectly aware of. Most Christians seem to be. Indeed they seem to relish the awkward situations their contrarian stances and oddly turned vocabulary land them in. I suppose it’s grist for the mill, really. All the more opportunity to cry “persecution!” and lament over how misunderstood they are…

    Anyway, to answer the charge of hypocrisy, need I restate the fact that my objection to my partner’s mother’s use of the word friend is rooted in the lie she tries to perpetuate by applying it to my relationship with her son? This woman has the same understanding of the word friendship that I do: i.e. that it is a non-sexual relationship. By introducing me as her son’s friend she is trying to convince others that our relationship is something she knows it is not. Even if she shared your definition of the word, applying it to my relationship with her son would still be dishonest. She knows we share a bed and she knows what happens in it. She could choose to remain silent on the subject and nobody, least of all me, would complain. But instead she chooses to tell bare-faced lies.

    Compare her lies to what I said to you and your charge of hypocrisy against me is revealed as utterly baseless. What I said to you was that in commonly accepted terminology, the kind of relationship you’re seeking is not called friendship but rather romantic love. To compare that to my justifiable anger at my partner’s mother’s outright lies and then accuse me of hypocrisy makes no sense whatsoever. Quite honestly, I would have expected better of someone who philosophizes for a living.

    When it comes to terminology, we can agree to disagree. Common politeness will make me call any relationship you might have a friendship, if that’s the word you insist on applying to it. In common parlance it might be called something completely different and I might still urge you to consider using that common parlance for the sake of general comprehension, but if your mind is made up to call a spade a trowel then so be it. I’ll just have to remember to trundle out the appropriate word if ever we discuss this subject again, which I suppose won’t be too difficult given that I can usually remember that people of your nationality call taps faucets and bonnets hoods, so one more word shouldn’t be that much of a stretch.

    Tell you what, as a further gesture of goodwill, I’ll even refrain from putting crude inverted commas around the word when referring to your definition of it. Christians trademarked that particular literary provocation when they started referring to our marriages as “marriages”, so I can certainly attest to the animosity it creates. It’s your relationship so you get to label it and I’m quite happy to repeat that label as it’s written. But you’ll have to allow me the free use of my own judgment when deciding what it actually means.

    • You’re right that “intimate friendship” or “spiritual friendship” is a category that modern people don’t understand. But it isn’t homosexuality masquerading as friendship. It’s something real and concrete — and common, in the past. Read Plato, read John Chrysostom, read Augustine, read Aelred, read the gospel of John, read the letters of C.S. Lewis — heck, even read Oscar Wilde, who I can tell you have a penchant for!

      Wilde did not, when brought to trial, suggest that male friendship was all, at root, sexual. He appealed to a long tradition of chaste (though sometimes sexually charged) male friendships, running through Plato to the Bible to Shakespeare to Michaelangelo, and so forth. Wilde would, I expect, be disgusted to find that his efforts to liberate this sort of friendship have really buried it under more wreckage.

      • Indeed you are mistaken. I am not a fan of Wilde. I like “The Happy Prince” because it’s so bleak and I’ve always loved “The Birthday of The Infanta” for its nonchalant racism, but apart from these two little gems, I find his writing maudlin and, for want of a better word, slightly too “Irish” for my taste. I like my English literature to be English you see, and the English aren’t supposed to feel. If they must, they should jolly well keep it to themselves. Which is exactly what Wilde cannot do. But then he wasn’t English, was he?

        In any case, it seems to me that Wilde was arguing not for friendship but rather for love, chaste or not. In the stilted society of the 19th century Britain, friendship was the only word that could be applied to such feelings without causing immediate outrage and inviting even worse retribution than that meted out to Wilde.

        I have no doubt that if Wilde had lived today, his vocabulary for describing those feelings would be very different.

        Society now recognizes romantic love between two people of the same gender, whether chaste or not, as something more than friendship. We’ve evolved since Wilde’s day and the terms we use to describe our relationships are evolving as well.

        You are of course free to keep on using applying an outmoded term to your relationships, but fewer and fewer people will understand what you mean by it and this will lead to a great deal of confusion and many misunderstandings. Not that I think this will bother you at all. As I noted above, the more misunderstood the Christian is, the more he seems to feel that he’s suffering for his God. And as his God just loves to see him suffer and the Church recommends it as the best means of currying favour with him, I should imagine you must be quite content with your choice of words and society’s lack of understanding of them.

      • Hi Etienne,

        Missed the mark on the Wilde comment, I admit — I thought your “cucumber sandwiches” reference was a dead giveaway. (The only time I’ve ever heard of them is in Earnest).

        Whatever one’s impression of whether Wilde was (a) a sexual libertine in hiding, or (b) a man who enjoyed being provocative and had an ambiguous attitude toward his sexuality, I think it would be very hard indeed to read his writings and interpret all intimate friendship between men as homosexual.

        As for your comments about how I like to define my friendships, they’re quite amusing. Do you think that whenever I cultivate a close and trusting friendship with another man, I want to get into his pants? Or simply that there is something erotic about it?

        If it’s the latter, then I guess I would ask what you mean by “erotic”? Do I want to be in sync with my friend, to think and feel certain things — even passionately feel certain things — together with him? Sure. Do I want to have sex with him? Probably not. And even if I do desire my friend sexually, on occasion, I don’t see why that is pertinent to the relationship. I have friendships with women where I sometimes experience sexual desire too, but I’m not thereby dating them, nor is our relationship thereby erotic.

  8. Etienne’s posts are yet another example of why we simply should not care about the opinions of sexually active gays (well, many of them). The fact is that they will often read eroticism into close same-sex friendships because that is consistent with their experience. Never mind that far more than 3-4% of men in many cultures engage in such friendships.
    The opinions that matter are those of god, not modern culture. Modern culture has no influence over our salvation.

  9. Well, between Rosa’s amateur brand of daytime TV psychoanalysis and “happiness”‘s complete dismissal of my life and experiences as totally irrelevant, I sure know where I stand with fundy Christians.

    I wonder, being as evangelism is apparently a Christian duty, how well do you think you’re doing on that score? Considering the arrogance and contempt I’ve just encountered here, marks out of ten are somewhere near zero. Or just below.

    • I’m not psychoanalyzing you. I know how bitterness looks like because I’ve been bitter myself. You are bitter, the cause is for you to find out.

    • Ettiene,

      You seem to be under the spell of a naive “essentialism” regarding friendship vs romance and their respective emotional scripts which is simply historically naive.

      For example:

      It’s the same naïveté, ironically, that conservative Christians have when trying to deny that there is even an undercurrent of homoeroticism in same-sex friendship between heterosexuals (of course there is!)

      Human emotions and relationships are not so neatly compartmentalized, and if we had to be entirely realistic, each experience would be sui generis.

      But your essentializing of what are in fact historical contingencies (such as “romantic love” in general; a rather late narrative) is just baldfaced.

  10. I think it would be best not to try to draw conclusions about other people we only know through blog posts or comments. We usually don’t have enough insight to really understand the other person. And when we try to infer their motives, there’s a good chance we’ll be wrong and alienate them, rather than helping them discover real insights about themselves.

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  13. Thanks, Ron, for posting this. We’ve clung a bit too long to the Freudian assumption that any kind of physical attraction or interpersonal intimacy originates from latent (or perhaps patent) genital-erotic desire.

    That being said, because we can’t always neatly compartmentalize our sexuality, such close friendships are bound to arouse us sexually from time to time. But there is no reason why such arousal must necessarily find its fruition in the physical act of sex. When we insist on the necessity or essentiality of this connection, we end up limiting the possibilities for human flourishing instead of expanding them.

    In fact, a possible explanation for our high divorce rate lies with our tendency to ask too much of the marital estate. I’d argue that marriage is ultimately strengthened by our nurturing of deep chaste friendships outside of the marital estate.

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