New Friendship Is the Last Great Romance

Friday, January 22, 2016 - 6:44 am

New Friendship Is the Last Great Romance

First, we had coffee.

We sat outside, because it was a beautiful Oakland day. We started talking about books, I think. I can’t really remember, honestly. I just remember this moment when I was looking into her bright eyes and listening to her self-assured voice, the voice of someone who knows herself and has been through enough to have no time for pettiness, and I thought to myself, “She is really something. I don’t want to let this one get away.”

At this point, it would be fair to assume that I might be trying to date this woman. In fact, I’m in a committed relationship and I’m on the straighter end of the sexuality spectrum. Instead, I was befriending her. As I’ve stumbled my way into my mid-30s, I’ve realized that the most romantic relationships I have these days are often platonic, female friendships.

It sounds contradictory. My most romantic relationships are platonic? But the kind of romance I’m talking about isn’t sexual. The kind of romance I’m talking about is charged with the magnetism of the unknown.

It’s nervously texting a new friend something pretty random and hoping she’ll shoot something witty back — simply because it’s fun to be in touch. It’s “learning” someone — is she the kind of person who goes to a hip hop dance class or would she rather make some fancy mixed drinks and watch our kids smash all the different colors of play-dough together? Will she be less into me when she realizes that I don’t cook? Is it time to share the hard stuff with her or will she think it’s too much, too soon?

(cloudblue / )

I moved across the country a few years ago, so I’ve done this dance a lot recently, and I find it thrilling. I also find it not unlike what happened between my partner and me when we met. In the very beginning, there is the witty banter, the checking one another out, the refreshingly easy laughs. A sort of meta-evaluator in my head is watching and saying, “Oh wow, okay. Huh. This is really fun.”

The time is flying, the equivalent of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but for friendship. And then there is this “click” moment where I just know that I’ve met one of my people. My meta-evaluator says, “I’m totally into her. I hope she’s into me.” I get a little nervous. It feels good to be nervous.
My life is otherwise so set in most ways. I have made a lifelong commitment to two people — my husband and my daughter. I live in a home that I hope to stay in for many years. I’m a writer — always have been, always will be. That identity takes many forms, but at this point, the daily practice of it is as familiar as my own toes. I know it through and through. Sometimes it surprises me, but mostly, I can anticipate the fact that I’m going to be surprised (if that makes any sense at all).

But friendship — it’s an enduring wild card. I don’t totally know when a friendship will prove to be lovely but mostly circumstantial (we were in the same graduate school class or were neighbors for a while), and when it will transcend the challenges of modern calendar matching. There is nothing better than that lunch that you look forward to and relish from start to finish despite any busyness that may lurk at the edges.

(David C. Wong / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

Ongoing, I don’t know whom I’ll meet and I don’t know if we’ll have a pleasant, but forgettable connection, or if some part of me will light up in her presence and crave to keep lighting up. I don’t know if our illumination will be reciprocal. Maybe I’ll be totally hyped by being in her presence and she’ll find me interesting enough but not someone she can’t live without. That’s the risk, and it’s part of what makes the whole endeavor so intriguing.

If you’re wondering why I’m focusing on female friendship, here’s the skivvy: while my male friends are some of my most precious and long-lasting, I find that it gets harder and harder to forge new male-female friendships once you’re married. If you meet a new guy, it’s often frustratingly assumed that he’ll be “primary” friends with your husband and you’ll be “primary” friends with his wife, even if you actually prefer the guy. Or it’s just assumed that you and your husband, together, will be friends with the guy. This isn’t a rule, just a tendency I’ve noticed. Some of the same romance can exist with couple friends or when my husband and I both “fall” for a new friend, but it just isn’t the same.

There’s been much-needed analysis lately about the ways in which friendships are often de-prioritized in our modern lives, discounted, or seen as an optional icing on the cake (the cake being marriage and parenthood). In truth, long-term friendship is our lifeblood — the thing that remains when all else, including marriages, fail.

(David C. Wong / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

My longest running friendship is with someone that I met in third grade. Twenty-five years later, we can call one another up after months of no contact, say a few words, burst into tears, and the other person knows exactly what the blubbering is all about. There is nothing she could do that would make me stop loving her, plain and simple. That’s intimacy. That’s constancy.

But new friendship, often totally left out of the public conversation, is a way to feel continually alive, nervous, when seen again for the first time. While my oldest friends know who I’ve been, my new friends help me understand who I’m becoming. Even a small comment can feel enlightening, “Well, you’re so good at that…” I am? Oh, I didn’t used to be?

It’s fun to have new mirrors to look into, new chemistry to experience, new stories to hear. I’m so grateful to keep swooning.

(Alex Naanou / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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