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Reimagining Love — Romantic Friendships

“What if we reimagine relationships? Where you don’t have to cuddle with the person you kiss. You can be held and cuddled and loved by someone else entirely. Do you need to be held today? I will hold you and I won’t fuck it up.”

Before thinking, because thinking disrupts being, I moved my body to hers. Saddled my legs on her lap. Rested my shoulders under her arm. Snuggled my head on her chest. And she held me like that. Tickling my arm recounting stories about her life. Listening to stories of mine.

I cried. A little. These things make me cry. Acknowledging need for human connection, love and touch. Allowing myself to have it. With a woman close to my age that is not my partner. Honoring attention to physical affection.

Acknowledging touch attention as personal. This strikes at the core of unworthiness and resistance that’s built up over a lifetime and became biology. Embedded in my cells.

It slowly releases each time I am held by my friends. It arrived when touch was absent and dissolves when it’s present.

I’ve only recently uncovered the term “romantic friendship” although I’ve known iterations of it throughout my life. Romantic friendships became popularized in Victorian age. I’m sure romantic friendship has existed as long as friends have. It appears the 19th-century populated it as a term when the roles between men and women were so divided that men felt like they needed other men to achieve their goals out in the world, and women, stuck at home, developed deep bonds with each other.

These relationships were referred to in familiar slang we use for sexual relationships: “smashes,” “crushes,” “spoons.” Sometimes queer relationships were created through romantic friendships, but not always. Often they were profoundly romantic and platonic.

In Bell Hook’s work on love she talks about how,

“we can develop primary bonds in platonic relationships that are constant, committed, and able to last a lifetime. These relationships ensure that the woman who does not find a perfect mate will still know true and abiding love. And at the end of the day it is this love that sustains us and gives life meaning.”

My romantic friendships with a close circle of women is what gave me the courage to acknowledge my life wasn’t as full as I hoped marriage would make it. Many young women I know entered marriages thinking it was the solution to love only to feel emotionally underserved.

When I found out about the affair my husband had, my romantic friends promised I would never have to make any decisions alone. They held me when I left him, gave me rooms and couches to sleep on. Listened to me repeat the same stories as if they had never heard them. Let me weep, snotty-faced weeping. Brought me bubble bath and burritos. Moved me out of the house that was my marriage and my life. Made me music mixes, sent me songs, poetry, gave me books. Traveled across the country to hold me.

My romantic friends gave my life meaning when I thought what my life had meant was over. And in a lot of ways what my life meant was over. Love and connection, however were not. Not with my friends. Love and connection with my friends has more meaning, energy, and vigor than my marriage ever had.

With all this friendship love it’s not surprising that romantic friendships don’t fit well inside patriarchy. People are suspicious of close ties between friends, quick to define them as sexual. One of my close friends and I have encountered this with her ex who is convinced that our bond is sexual. He is suspicious of our relationship despite conversations where she reassures our platonic partnership. It’s not surprising really. But we don’t care. We love each other too much to care.

Bell Hooks talks about this issue too,

“Romantic friendships are a threat to patriarchy and heterosexism because they fundamentally challenge the assumption that being sexual with someone is essential to all meaningful, lasting, intimate bonds.”

Liberated. Like many of us feminists hope we will achieve. Romantic friendships are liberating. I find myself raptured by the satisfaction of romantic friendship.

I had this same rapture when I was a young girl before I chose to marry and invest my energy in that primary relationship exclusively. My lifetime friends watched as this diminished my expression of the romance and love I had always expressed in our friendships. I knew I had disappeared in this way. I just thought I’d grown up.

Grown up girls don’t dance in front of mirrors with their favorite girlfriends or gush over them in love notes or texts. Grown up girls are busy making a life, raising kids, working, building power, wealth and security. Grown up girls don’t build love. They dismantle that shit.

A midlife divorce kind of changes things up. It ends up that grown up girls love.

“Along the way we do find soul mates, true friends, life companions. We find communion. Another great wisdom gift that women offer to those who have not yet discovered its pleasures is the wisdom that it is better to know the joy of dancing in a circle of love than to dance alone.” -Bell Hooks, Communion: The Female Search for Love

Some of my most cherished romantic encounters. With romantic friends Who I am in love with:

  1. Lying nude in bathtubs. Refreshing with hot spring water. On a rooftop. In the Redwood Forest. Under the stars. Next to a river. Recounting memories of my friend’s father who died just days before.
  2. When we were teenagers, eating acid, taking turns reading, “The Mists of Avalon” aloud. Climbing out on the roof to watch the city.
  3. Sneaking my friend’s step-brother’s car. Jamming Biggie Smalls. Gas-and-going. Making our way to a missile silo to watch the stars.
  4. Burning sage in my friend’s shed. “Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich. Walking through pines to the creek. Taking off all our clothes. Lying naked in the soft moss under the trees and sunlight.
  5. Tagging in the train yard. At sunset. Under the Rocky Mountains.
  6. Watching a full solar eclipse. At the base of the Tetons. Next to a river. Lighting a candle. Listening to my friend’s story during the eclipse. Writing a poem. Jumping into the river.
  7. The day I got kicked out when I was fourteen and had to move in with my best friend. Spending an entire day swimming in post-storm Holland Park drainage ditch water. On acid. And dying my hair black.
  8. Being held by two friends. Weeping through the loss of a childhood wound. During a lightning storm.
  9. Countless dance parties. Including the one where my friend from NYC Skyped in and danced with me for over an hour.
  10. Lighting a fire in my backyard. With my step-daughter. Roasting marshmallows. And getting real about how much we love each other. How confusing it is to be separated in this way. How we are even closer now despite being separated.
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