Today, we are responding to another thoughtful question from a reader:
“I’ve seen the stuff written about celibate same-sex relationships recently and I have questions for you two. When people get married they are usually attracted to each other. When people are in relationships and aren’t married, aren’t they also attracted to each other? Why be in a relationship with someone if you aren’t sexually attracted? Wouldn’t that be more of a friendship? Is sexual attraction a requirement for a relationship to be more than friendship? It sounds like you don’t think so.”
We’ve been responding to this question and others like it for months now in comments, so it’s probably the right time to address this in a full post.
First, it’s important to clarify what a person means when asserting that a particular relationship is “more than friendship.” This phrase could be interpreted in at least two ways: either as “greater or more significant than friendship” or “more than the reductionist understanding of ‘friendship’ that has come to determine the word’s meaning for most modern westerners.” The two of us would not say that our relationship is greater or more significant than friendship. After all, our relationship began as we grew closer in friendship to one another, and we still consider ourselves friends. However, we prefer not to use the friendship model for describing our relationship. Both of us have a strong distaste for categorizing things that involve a high degree of mystery, and we don’t see any need to define our relationship using one word in particular to the exclusion of all others. We tend to stay away from friendship language in general because neither of us feels that it suits our situation, and we do not sense, as some other celibates do, that reclaiming the term “friendship” is part of our vocation. While our relationship is not greater than friendship, we understand it as different from friendship. It’s difficult to discuss exactly how if most people focus on whether we are “just friends” or a “sexless marriage” as though those are the only two ways of describing an arrangement between two celibate people who share life and have made lifelong personal commitments to each other. The phrase “just friends” contributes not only to the devaluing of friendship, but also to the devaluing of alternate approaches for discussing relationships outside the marriage/friendship binary.
Now to an assumption present in this reader’s question. The claim that people who are married are usually attracted to their partners is probably not testable considering cross-cultural differences in what leads people to marry. The fact that levels of sexual attraction to one’s partner can vary throughout the course of a relationship leads us to question the idea that all people in paired relationships experience sexual attraction to one another. Why be in a relationship with someone if there isn’t sexual attraction? There are many possible reasons: spiritual growth, intellectual attraction, the desire for non-sexual companionship that reaches beyond what western society considers “friendship,” financial stability, learning how to be less selfish and more compassionate, and so on. We consider it a problem that so many people today have made sexual attraction the ideal focus for seeking a partner. This mindset devalues other parts of the mystery of attraction. If you replaced “sexual” in the title of this post with “intellectual,” “spiritual,” “emotional,” or just plain “mysterious,” would you be inclined to ask the same question?
Attraction is mysterious and has a various dimensions. Who could possibly identify all of the reasons why one feels compelled to strike up conversations with a stranger or deepen relationships with specific people? People are relational. But it’s rather uncommon to find any person with whom one falls into an organic pattern of relating. These people really stand out in one’s relational circle, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who, what, why, when, where, and how. As we’ve thought about our closest relationships, we have seen that some defy categorization to the point of being almost laughable. As an experiment, try thinking about your best friend. We would wager that you thought of several people from many different places across your lifespan. Now try thinking about people with whom you have a commitment to be present through thick and thin. Once again, it’s likely you called to mind several people from different spheres in your life. Who would you talk to at work if you were facing a crisis? Where would you hang out to enjoy your Friday night? Who has your back whenever you need your support? How have you kept up with people even as life circumstances have changed? One of the reasons why we’re generally averse to taking the approach of reclaiming “friendship” is that we consider many of our friends in this category as a part of our “family of choice.” When people commit to being present in all things, they change the character of their friendships.
Some readers might say, “But being present through thick and thin is a vow that married people make to one another.” We say, “Yes, that’s true. We would hate for any two people to get married without committing to sharing life together earnestly. Nonetheless, marriage isn’t the only relationship defined by commitment.” People make all sorts of commitments. We commit to working in particular workplaces and gathering with specific groups of people. Local churches exist because Christians commit to gathering as a community. One of the ways we can tell if a person is truly committed to a particular local church is if that person remains even after times of significant change. Attraction precedes any question of commitment. How can we make an authentic commitment to anything unless we first take notice of it? There’s a point at which we connect so deeply to other people and places that it’s difficult to see ourselves as simply “two individuals.” That’s why we can speak of becoming a “member” (quite literally, a body part) of a church. And sometimes the word “friendship” fails to capture the beauty and mystery of particular relationships.
Ultimately, using the word “friendship” to describe every close relationship that isn’t marriage or a genetic or adoptive relation devalues both the concept of friendship and the idea that there are possibly more kinds of close relationships. We’re generally agreeable to thinking about how close relationships take on the character of being family. Yet trying to force fit so much into the friendship box seems more an effort to satisfy those disquieted by celibate partnerships than to have meaningful conversation about the mysterious gift of human relationships.
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