By Olivia Haveron
In our romantic relationships, we normally expect our partner to be our first priority over everything else, whether we see this as a problem or not. Of course, even with the closest platonic relationships, their friendships reigns a different type of relationship than the romantic kind. However, what happens when we break this norm? Rhaina Cohen explores this in her article in The Atlantic “What If Friendships, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?”
Here, she takes a look at Kami West, who has gone through one too many relationships ending after explaining that her best friend Kate Tillotson is number one. No matter the circumstance, she will always take first priority and she is not going anywhere. After sensing that he was not coming first, West’s boyfriend at the time called Kate a “slut and a bad influence” as an “attempt to keep her away from her best friend.” This was a turning point for West where she vowed that she would never let another man strain her friendship, but instead they would have to adapt to her.
What happens when these societal norms are switched? “Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1. Our worlds are backward.” Cohen goes on to discuss America’s evolution in the legitimacy of relationships. For the first time in history, same-sex couples are allowed to seek marriage, Americans are getting married later than ever before. Even young adults are opting out of a marriage license and rather are simply living with their partner.
I personally think back to my own parents’ relationship: my mom and dad married each other at 31 and 28, respectively. Especially for my mother, this age to marry in her 30’s was seen as taboo. Today, you see more and more people marrying way into their 30’s with no complications about it.
The only part of the romantic relationship that hasn’t taken this fundamental shift, according to Cohen, is the concept of the monogamous romantic relationship that takes priority over all else. Most aspects of West and Tillotson’s relationship break the friendship norm and veer into the typical romantic type (i.e. live in houses they purchased, raise each other’s children, hold medical and legal powers of attorney over one another), seemingly a romantic relationship without the sex. It reminds me of a sort of Will and Grace-esque relationship, or Sherlock and Watson as the better comparison.
Intimate friendships like theirs and so many others go against all of society's expectations that are put against them, being custom designed for each individual. These friendships are the most significant, even though it is incomprehensible for others. At the same time, these friendships should be “models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care”.
Cohen goes into various other examples of these platonic relationships, even expanding further on West and Tillotson’s own friendship.
Yet, the confusion and head turns surrounding these relationships were not always shocking to the eye; in the 18th to early 20th century intimate same-sex friendships or “romantic friendships” were in their prime. Effusive letters titled to “my love” or “my queen” would flourish, and authors would devise literary plot lines around the trials and tribulations of these romantic friendships.
Now, this is one space that I would possibly call into question if these relationships were actually more romantic than platonic, just based on the norms of the time and how women would use their writing to express their true feelings. Even my own professors would say “they’re just really good friends.” This is not to discount these intimate friendships of today in the slightest. The idea of the romantic friendships creates a proto-same-sex friendship of this sorts.
Cohen does touch on this point though later on. Historians declare that definitive claims cannot be made about these past relationships, especially on a sexual level, but what is certain is the period’s norms allowed for a possible intimacy in friends that would not be unusual today. Many scholars even argue that many aspects of the now-familiar categories heterosexuality and homosexuality didn’t even exist before the 20th century, including passion and affection between people of the same gender were more normalized. And men were accepting of their wives having these relationships because they saw it as training for wifehood; women were not fiscally in a position to live without their husband so why does it matter.
In the present though, if these friendships are even more serious than the concept of marriage, but do not have the legal backing behind them, Cohen asks the question: When do we decide that this partnership is “real”? In many cases these friendships reign as more affectionate than the legal sort. It appears that our society today is almost creepily obsessed with sexual intimacy. Cohen describes the comparison between these two relationships as “Companionate romantic relationships and committed friendships appear to be varieties of the same crop, rather than altogether different species”.
And if you define real relationships by the basis of sex, you are not only discounting these intimate friendships, but also the romantic relationships that does depend on sex, and the asexual community: those who may feel romantic attraction, but not sexual attraction, part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Americans are beginning to shift the norm relationship into something vastly different, redefining love. Experts are even encouraging heterosexual couples to look towards queer and immigrant communities to get a better understanding of healthy models of marriage and family. And, according to Cohen, the Coronavirus Pandemic has forced us to look beyond our usual networks of the nuclear family.
While a platonic friendship of the sorts might not be for everyone, these relationships can teach us something about what we should look for and prioritize in our own lives. What do we truly want love to look like? The world is changing and so are our relationships. With our idea of what our romantic norm looks like, life ever changing, why can’t the concept of our friendships adapt too?