How many boyfriends and girlfriends have you got? It’s starting to look increasingly common to have at least two or three.
Only some of them aren’t really ‘girlfriends’ or ‘boyfriends’. They’re ‘partners’, or ‘husbands’ or ‘wives’. Or they’re ‘lovers’, ‘flings’, or ‘mistresses’.
Or they’re ‘friends with benefits‘, or ‘casual aquaintances’ or ‘affectionate friends’. Or exes we’re still friends with, and/or share a bed with. Or people we’ve ‘friendzoned’. Or people we slept with once, or twice, or three times and might sleep with again – “but it isn’t a thing”. Or, it is a “thing” but it isn’t a “thing, thing.”
Or people who we can’t actually sleep with because they’re a friend’s partner, or an ex’s friend, or we work with them, or because we’re best friends and the stakes are too high, or they’re out of bounds in some other way. Who we then spend most of our waking hours thinking about, and most of our sleeping hours dreaming about, and tell ourselves and everyone who asks that it absolutely isn’t a “thing” either.
It’s all very confusing.
The one certainty is that the old nuclear-family-track structures aren’t as certain as they once were, and it’s rare that anyone keeps all of their intimate feelings exclusively for just one person. Some of us might once have hoped for that; but then all those other people just insist on getting inside our heads (and our hearts. And sometimes, our pants).
There’s been a little whirlwind of internet activity recently, proposing polyamory as a solution to all this. The idea seems to be that you can cut through the Gordian knot of relationship confusion by simply accepting that one partner isn’t enough. In the writing of the most evangelistic polyamorists, there’s an implication that we can all have happy lives if we all get ten partners and all hold hands and skip through butterfly meadows, occasionally stopping for some free love.
The only comments I’ve made on non-monogamy before have been satire. But just for a moment, let’s take polyamory as a serious proposal.
Firstly, I don’t like the word ‘polyamory’. I think it’s silly. It’s particularly silly when people use it to describe themselves, as if it were some rebellious identity-defining queer sexual orientation, rather than a social relationship structure. It makes them go around saying things like, “Yes, I’m poly. Are you poly? Have you met Polly? Polly’s poly,” etc.
Not to mention how fucking smug it all is.
But I do think it follows from my comments on love before – both on this blog and at Stand-Up Philosophy (video here) – that there are many kinds of love, which can overlap in ways that needn’t be exclusive or finite, either of kinds or of subjects. We can feel eros and agapē and philia and storge, and so on, in any combination, for anybody. And we should be pragmatic about that.
So as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong in principle with having as many of whatever kind of relationships work for you.
But I think this only works on condition of a very important caveat, and it’s the point I’ve been trying to make all along. It’s this: the necessary condition of all good relationships, with anyone, is that we love others first as friends: that what we feel for them is primarily a combination of philia (we actually like them) and agapē (we care, and we want what is good for them).
So there is no such thing as ‘just’ friendship – friendship is the crucial factor. It is what motivates us to treat others with kindness. It’s the condition of everything which is good with others, and it can be the answer to anything bad. It can be deep and enduring and profound, and it matters. Friendship is the most important thing.
I don’t trust people who say they ‘can’t’ be friends with their lovers, whether it’s before or during a relationship or after a separation. Needing some space after a change in the relationship is understandable, but if you never cared for that person the way a friend does, then you probably never cared enough to have them in your life anyway.
And I say ‘change in the relationship’ rather than ‘break-up’ because, if people are primarily friends then the word ‘break-up’ doesn’t make sense. Nothing is ‘broken’; there is just a distancing between two friends who had previously been very close (and in practical terms, you might stop sleeping together). But however sudden or painful that distancing might be, people who are worth caring for will still care for each other.
So, friendship is the most important thing. But that’s not what you’re reading this for. You’re reading this because you hope I’ll say something that fits in with your opinions about sex and monogamy. It’s eros that you’re interested in, not philia.
So I’ll add another point: that there are (at least) two sub-categories of erotic love. There is one kind of eros (or desire) that simply wants to physically connect with someone, to gain access to their body for a moment in time. And there is another kind of eros, that wants to possess another person psychologically and emotionally.
In other words, there’s the desire to get sexy with someone, and the desire for someone to be YOURS FOREVER. They’re both common feelings.
But there’s a lot of bullshit in romantic culture, intended to make us believe that the second kind is more virtuous than the first, or that it must be a condition of it. This is wrong, and in my opinion somewhat perverse. Wanting someone to be emotionally in thrall to you indefinitely is not ‘purer’ or more virtuous than just wanting to get their clothes off.
Lust in itself isn’t jealous, doesn’t threaten to trap anyone, it doesn’t stalk them or bully them or murder them. It just wants to rub up against you. Lust is pure; Disney-style romantic love is kind of creepy.
And it’s not just creepy; it’s a serious danger to personal liberty. The only time it’s necessary to put a limit on the number and variety of relationships we have, is when we confuse those two types of desire, or believe that they must exist and can only exist together. That is what the ideological commitment to monogamy is: it’s when we come to believe that sex must give us not just temporary access to the desired person’s body, but ongoing possession of their soul. And I don’t think this can be right.
Over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more difficult to understand the idea of being “with” just one other person indefinitely; to give your body and soul over to being just one other person’s possession and property, and to think of that as some kind of real, fixed and binding structure that is morally inviolable. It’s almost asking for trouble.
A lot of monogamists claim that they don’t think or act like this all the time. When they are ‘single’, they say, they have ‘casual things’. What they are saying is that when they can’t find anyone who they might eventually want to possess completely, they’ll fuck people they don’t actually care for or like that much. They use people; and then they are surprised and hurt when they are used themselves.
Plus, we are never “with” just one other person. Apart from the common confusion at the start of this post, we’re always also part of a community, part of a family, part of a society.
Of course we will often have a best friend, a closest friend, and we might also have very good reasons to want to keep sex as as something we share only with that friend who we trust and desire most. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and I have to admit that I’ve personally often preferred it. Only those of us who are lucky enough to have had a best friend, with whom it is possible to share all the kinds of love there are, can know the value of that.
But no realistic commitment to just one other person can permanently exclude all the other people, neither emotionally or sexually. And we don’t need to; if we stop belittling friendship with words like ‘just friends’, recognise it as the highest kind of relationship that is possible, and recognise sex as something that friends can do if they want and if they really do care about each other, then we don’t need to construct imaginary walls around our relationships.
Why can’t we think beyond securing the possession of someone else’s heart and sex for ourselves? Why can’t we all be friends, in that necessary, profound way I’m trying to describe? Maybe we’d want to sleep with one or some or none of our friends – if you truly care about them, it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. What’s important is that we like and care for our network of friends.
In fact, why can’t we think of ourselves like constellations of stars? We float in space, always ourselves, but always a part of a constellation; gravitating towards each other in twos and threes, sometimes more, shining our light and warmth on each other, but never in a vacuum and always with the constellation present.
Maybe I’ll be drawn towards you by a kind of gravity I can’t explain. Maybe we’ll drift apart, pulled by the gravity of other stars; maybe we’ll keep coming back again. Maybe for a time, I’ll be the brightest thing in your universe and you’ll be the brightest in mine. Maybe just for a few hours – maybe until our light goes out.
And if that fades, it doesn’t mean we failed; we succeeded in lighting each other for as long as we did. And if you turn your light on others and away from me, I’ll feel cold; but I never owned the fire in you, and I’d have been a fool to expect to orbit forever around just one sun. And you were never my only source of light, either. I’m never floating through space alone, and there’s always light to be found.
I am one amongst a constellation of stars. The light I give is unlimited and I won’t stop shining it on you, and all my friends, for as long as you’ll receive it. And when a star dies, its light and warmth remain.
Of course, many people cannot think like this. They feel alone if they can’t lock someone else up for life.
Perhaps they need friendship most of all.