When unimportant relationships are important

Recently, I wrote about my experience not forming close friendships. That’s not strictly speaking true–sometimes I do form some close friendships, but I tend to be uncommitted to them, and I often value friend networks over individual friendships.

Now I’d like to talk about how this causes friction with certain narratives in the ace community.

In particular, there is a narrative about friends who disappear the moment they form a romantic relationship, because they put a lot more priority on their romantic relationships.  I will use as an example, an excellent essay by swankivy, “Dealing with other people’s relationships“.

I’ll admit something I don’t like to say out loud. When I have a very good friend for many years and then they establish a romantic relationship with someone new, I can’t deny that I often experience a sting of disappointment.

[…]

even if said friend might protest that their romantic relationship doesn’t outrank their friend relationship with me, it TRANSLATES to less time they have for me, less emotional investment in what we might have always done together, less designating me as a primary person to hear their problems and triumphs or help me with mine.

(Note: I like swankivy, and I like this essay.  I chose this essay as my example, because I would rather critique something I like, than call out something I hate.)

When I hear this story, and try to locate myself within it, I take the role of the friend who abandons the other.  I’m the villain of the story, because I’m not committed to my friends.

Now take a look at this part:

One of the major reasons I want to write about FRIENDSHIPS being important is that we don’t really respect them as a culture, and balancing them with romantic relationships is not modeled well in our society. I want to provide examples of friendships being important–being more long-lasting sometimes than romantic relationships, or being just as vital to our mental health.

swankivy argues that we should treat friendships as important, but something I hope comes across in my personal stories is that I already consider my friendships important. So this comes across as devaluing my style of friendship, saying that if they were really important to me then I would treat my friends differently.

In short, there are two conflicts:

  1. By preferring an uncommitted style of friendship, I end up as a villain.
  2. The story assumes uncommitted friendships are unimportant, but I personally consider them important.

I think we can neatly resolve both of these conflicts by drawing a couple distinctions between different kinds of “importance”.

The first distinction, is between societal importance, and individual importance.

I, as an individual, might place a lot of importance on romantic relationships, and less importance on friendships. That’s fine, that’s my prerogative. But that’s not what swankivy is complaining about. swankivy is complaining about a pattern of people always choosing romantic relationships over friendships, not necessarily because they derive joy from ignoring all their friends, but because it’s the default choice. They may lack role models who simultaneously maintain close friendships and romantic relationships.

I don’t mean to oversimplify this by pretending that only societal choices are problematic, and individual choices are completely unproblematic. Individual choices are influenced by our culture, and are the source of our culture.  We all have our own preferences, but there may be an alternate universe where we learned to prefer different things, and perhaps some of us are happier in that universe.  I suspect that in an ideal culture, there would be room for a wide variety of relationship types, including both committed and uncommitted friendships.

The second distinction I want to make, is between closeness and value.

“Closeness” is a measure of time, priority, commitment, and intimacy of a relationship. Going by Queenie’s five factor model of relationships, you could say that each of these is its own complicated thing, but please accept the simplification for just a few more paragraphs.

“Value”, on the other hand, is a measure of how much I prefer certain types of relationships over other types–or how much I prefer them to having nothing at all. There have been a few times when I’ve wished that had more distance from my close friends, which implies that I find very close friendships to be less valuable than friendships which are not so close.  And if I lost all my casual friends, I would be very disappointed, which implies that I place positive value on my casual friendships.

The way we talk about the “importance” of relationships often conflates closeness and value.  We imply that the most valuable relationships are also the closest ones.  We believe the best way to persuade society that a certain kind of relationship is valuable, is to emphasize (or exaggerate) the closeness of the relationship.  And we ignore or deny the possibility of loose relationships being positively valued.


Let’s return to the example provided by swankivy. swankivy is unhappy when her close friends become more distant after forming a romantic relationship.  You could say that what is happening, is that swankivy highly values close friendships, but these friends don’t place as much value on it, or they place more value on uncommitted friendships.  It’s a conflict between people who personally value different kinds of relationships.  I agree that this is an unhappy circumstance, but I don’t believe that either person’s preference is “correct”.  A preference for uncommitted friendships is a legitimate one!

Where swankivy’s commentary has perhaps more force, is when she talks about the societal value placed on romantic relationships over close friendships.  She argues that balancing friendships and romantic relationships is not “modeled” in our society.  So, while a preference for uncommitted friendships is legitimate, that preference is influenced by our culture, possibly leading to more relationship conflicts than are strictly necessary.

I’ve resolved this conflict to my satisfaction. So, please carry on, and use these concepts to productively criticize the way society devalues your relationships, without devaluing my relationships in the process.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, Modeling, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to When unimportant relationships are important

  1. Sve says:

    (Sorry for commenting so late.)

    Thank you for writing this as I am currently living with a roommate who has a similar attitude towards friendship – they say they don’t form close friendships, friends are just people whose company they enjoy to pass the time and the only close friend they have is their girlfriend. Personally, this hurts to hear since I am someone’s who’s kind of on the opposite side of the spectrum – I’d say I might treasure friendships more than romantic relationships and I form incredibly intense emotional bonds with my close friends. The two times me and them have had this conversation and they expressed the above mentioned sentiment I started crying. It’s just that hearing them say “we’re not close and can never be as close as me and my girlfriend” makes me feel like I love them and they don’t and never will. But reading this comforts me. It also made me think of all the “unimportant” relationships in my life. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who loves and is very close with their friends but I realized that’s not actually true for all of my friendships. There’s people who I love having conversations with and spending time with them, we just click but I still don’t love them and I don’t feel particularly close with them, these relationships are still important to me. Thank you so much for changing my perspective.

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