This is the second entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”
American society seems to be going through something of a love crisis if you ask me. We’re completely captivated by love, or at least the idea of love. There are hundreds of songs, movies, books, plays, and talk shows, among other things all revolving around the concept of love. I’d wager that it’s probably one of the most commonly talked about things in this entire country. Without our fascination (or perhaps obsession) with love, I would also be willing to bet that the majority of pop musicians and young adult authors would probably be out of work.
But at the same time, it appears as if we don’t really know all that much about love despite our insistence on saturating our existences and media with talk of love. According to the American Psychological Association, somewhere between 40-50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, with subsequent marriages only having higher rates of divorce. For the one relationship that we’ve all been taught and socialized to view as the epitome and encapsulation of love, it’s not doing the best job at upholding the standards that we’ve been spoon fed with love songs and romcoms. And yet, we still hold to these sensationalized stereotypes of love that don’t seem to quite square up with reality. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good Taylor Swift album as much as the next (and seeing her in concert is still up there on my bucket list), but I think that all the emphasis that our culture has heaped upon love, specifically romantic, idealistic love, has poisoned and tainted our view of what love really is and how it covers a lot more ground than American pop culture is willing to give it credit for. Instead of giving us a well-rounded, holistic view of what love is, we’ve been offered a distorted version of love with all the rough edges blurred out until it’s been censored to a warm, fuzzy feeling inside that gets us drunk on fairytale delusions and leaves us with false hopes when reality rouses us from our stupor.
The craziest part about this counterfeit love that we’ve been sold our entire lives is that it also gets us to buy into the false notion that love somehow doesn’t exist in its purest form prior to marriage. Sure, we might be able to state as a fact that we love our parents or that we love our siblings or that we love our friends, but when it really comes down to it, we don’t really believe it, or at least that how it appears to me. Rather than recognizing those relationships as true forms of love, I think that we tend to rationalize our devaluing of other forms of love by qualifying it, spewing out phrases like “just friends” or “love him/her like a brother/sister.” Though diminishing the worth of those types of love might not be our goal when we use phrasing like that, it still serves to create both a psychological and sentimental division between the different kinds of love that we experience. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, especially when you consider the fact that Greek has somewhere between 4-6 different words to describe love depending on how you categorize them, but the danger comes when that mental separation is combined with the American cultural idea that romantic, sexual love is somehow on a higher plane than the other forms of love that we experience.
We've been sold a counterfeit idea of love that says its purest form exists in marriage and only in marriage.
If you don’t believe me, just think about the majority of successful movies that come to mind. Many early Disney movies and romcoms as a genre typically center their stories around a certain couple falling in love and getting married or navigating their romantic feelings for each other. Again, that’s not bad in and of itself, but the majority of those movies treat that relationship as if it’s the beginning and end of all their problems. The conflict of the plot revolves around the romantic and sexual tension between the main couple, and the film usually culminates with a happy ending where the two lovers end up together, strategically placing the curtain call and final fade to black after a declaration of love or a wedding or something else similar, visually and sentimentally communicating that the success or at least the beginning of the success of that relationship is the end of the story and insinuating that all of the problems and conflicts in the film have been tidily resolved because of that relationship when that’s seldom how events play out in real life. Beyond that, the friends and families of the main couple are usually side characters, if they exist, and frequently, their relationships with those main two characters are not elaborated upon. To me, this seems problematic, because it seems to suggest that love only exists between those two people, and it relegates the relationships that they have with everyone else to the background or the sidelines, automatically placing those relationships on a lower level by default while the romantic, sexual relationship is elevated to a pedestal out of reach.
The majority of romcoms treat romantic relationships as if they're the beginning and end of all our problems when that's seldom how that works out in real life.
This harmful hierarchy of love is something that my friend Nikki and I have realized and are still continuing to unlearn and remind each other. Nikki is one of the bubbliest and most genuine people that you’ll probably ever meet. She’s a joy-filled human being and always sincerely glad to see you whenever you might cross paths with her. Even when she’s sad or upset, there’s still an underlying sense that whatever is going on is just a minor setback, and that’s probably one of my favorite things about her. But also, I think that most people don’t give her enough credit for the wisdom and insight that she has on the world. Out of all my friends who have taught me things, I think that she’s one of the few that’s taught me something that’s actually changed the way that I live and approach the world.
Last year, during my senior year of college, we both studied abroad back to back semesters. I was in Spain from the end of August until mid-December, and she left for South Korea mid-February and won’t be back for a couple more weeks until the beginning of July, so I didn’t get the chance to see her all that often, since we were only in the same state and country for about two months total. But I also think that she unwittingly taught me more during that period of extended physical absence than during the previous year when we were around each other all the time.
Even though we loved the school that we went to, had great, amazing friends, and were about to set off to travel the world on different continents, something still felt oddly off, like something was still missing from this novel-esque existence. Going to a small Christian college in the Midwest, we naturally attributed this state of dissatisfaction to the fact that we were both still very, very single, essentially pitying ourselves like that one thing was an affliction that drained the joy out of the rest of our lives. It seems illogical to juxtapose those things in writing, but when #ringbyspring is a very real assumption and stereotype of the Christian college that you go to, it doesn’t feel quite as much like the joke that it was originally supposed to be. It felt like a real threat to a happy existence.
Though originally a joke, notions like #ringbyspring really start to feel like a threat to a happy existence, because it tells us that we won't be happy until we're in a romantic relationship.
While I was in Spain, Nikki and I kept in touch over WhatsApp, and I can still remember the mutual amazement and ecstasy when we discovered that WhatsApp also supported voice messages. That aside, we would periodically send each other long updates on life, something that we’ve continued to do now that I’m home and she’s in South Korea. Over the course of the four months that I was there, I would intermittently revive the topic of our (or mostly my singleness), but she started telling me that I didn’t have time to worry about that because “YOU’RE IN SPAIN!” she would say. Instead, she would ask me about some of the places that we had traveled to, about the food, about the people that I was there with, and that topic would gradually drop off the radar. Maybe she was just trying to get my mind off that one specific topic, but I think that the underlying message that I heard every time she said, “YOU’RE IN SPAIN” was that there’s so much more to life and to love than being in a relationship with one specific person and getting married someday. There are places to travel, friends to make, foods to try, and so much more in our world than simply worrying about falling in love. We were made for so much more than that.
There's so much more to life and to love than being in a relationship with one specific person and getting married someday.
And I think that both of us have grown more into that revelation as time has gone on. A few months ago, after she had been in Korea for maybe a month or two, I messaged her on WhatsApp and asked how she was doing with that line of thinking and she answered by telling me that she didn’t really think about it that much anymore. She explained that she was far too busy making friends, figuring out public transportation when the signs are all in Korean, trying out karaoke bars, and traveling all over South Korea to be preoccupied with such a minor detail of life. Hearing that put a smile on my face from thousands of miles away, partially because I was incredibly glad for her, but also because I understood what that felt like, probably because she’s the one that taught me.
Understanding that life doesn’t orbit around romance and finding that person was probably one of the most liberating lessons I’ve ever learned, and I’m glad that I had a friend like Nikki to teach it to me, because I’ve definitely heard that idea before, but I don’t think it ever really sank in until she pounded it into my being by constantly reminding me of it. Before, people would say that getting engaged and getting married wasn’t the focus of your life, but they would still act and behave as if it were. I think what really made it real when it came from Nikki was that she lived like it. She reiterated that it wasn’t the center of the universe and then went out and lived and breathed it so that you could see that it was what she really believed. I think that’s what makes every lesson come alive.
And what a poignant lesson. I know a number of people who have gotten so wrapped up in trying to find romantic love that they’ve either cast aside their friends, fallen into a state of depression and self-pity, or both. But maybe if we finally decentered romantic relationships in our universe and knocked down the pedestal that they sit on, we’d be able to open our eyes and see that the world truly is so much more vivid and rich than that. Maybe we’d be able to love our friends better and be more satisfied by them if we weren’t always so fixated on finding the one, because the world is so much bigger, brighter, and richer than that.
Coming up in this series on friendship: covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media if there are any other aspects of friendship I should write about!