What really counts as a relationship? Especially as an intimate or important relationship? That’s the topic of this month’s free sample chapter from my new book, Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life.
I ask people about their relationships fairly often (surprise, surprise). I’ve noticed something interesting that generally holds true, regardless of whether people prefer to ride the traditional Relationship Escalator or whether they have taken a huge step away from it. Unless I prompt them, people almost never mention their friendships.
Something about the word “relationship” tends to make people limit their list to sexual or romantic partners, especially their current lovers, spouse or life partners. Occasionally they might mention their children, parents or siblings as well. But in general, if I don’t hint that friendships might fall under this umbrella, usually they don’t mention them, either.
After they describe their relationships, I often ask about their most important nonsexual of nonromantic relationships. Here, I sometimes see the light bulb click on. Maybe one in three will say something like, “Oh, well I guess my friend X is probably one of the most important people in my life, we’re always there for each other…” Then I learn that X has been their closest friend and a mainstay of their emotional, social and logistical life for years longer than the current lover or life partner who they first listed in their relationship rundown.
Of course, most people still give me blank stares at this point. It often takes me saying, “Do you consider your friendships to be relationships? Are they important in your life?” before they make the connection.
“Oh, yeah! Totally!”
Then, the variety and depth of human connection rolls out. Intensely meaningful and valuable ties with people they encountered in all sorts of ways: through mutual friends, at events, at work, in their neighborhood, online, former lovers or partners and so much more. All sorts of people connecting in all sorts of ways. At least on an emotional level, many of these connections are quite intimate. People often express gratitude at being able to trust others with profound vulnerability, and for the steadfastness, compassion and no-bullshit honesty that their friends offer. Even to the point of wanting to entrust the guardianship of their children to a friend, should the worst happen.
Because sometimes the worst does happen, and that’s when friendship can show up in force.
Very recently, one of my closest friends died far too young.
Michael valiantly embraced life and had an unmatched talent for cultivating deep friendships with all sorts of people. He managed to spin a lifetime of diabetes-induced disability into a tapestry of creativity and connection, seasoned with his own special sarcasm sauce. We were friends for over 16 years, sharing long conversations, raucous laughter, bitter tears, frustration and exhaustion. Occasionally we fought, and when needed we called bullshit on each other. He was my music mentor (our friendship theme song was Frank Zappa’s “Cosmik Debris”), and I encouraged his remarkable writing talent. He married a kickass woman and they have two brilliant children, and I am grateful to have these individuals in my life as well.
Eventually his poor health mounted a sneak attack. A severe stroke left Michael incapacitated in Intensive Care for a week. And then he died, the day after his 44th birthday. Yeah, he had a flair for drama.
Most of our friendship was conducted by phone, email, audio recordings and text chat. Except for six weeks when he crashed at my home, we always lived in different cities, and often in different states. Getting together was challenging, with me not owning a car and with him being a blind amputee. (He always contended that my mobility challenges were more severe than his. Wiseass.) But we were both Word People, and thus we clicked. We were never lovers, but always fast friends.
If that wasn’t putting my heart on the line for someone then I don’t know what is. My friendship with Michael will always remain one of my most important relationships. Period.