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Friendship Love vs. Romantic Love

Sometimes, I overhear the strangest things. Last weekend, for instance, I attended an arts festival. It was crowded, and as people walked by, I would catch snippets of conversation. I wasn’t really paying much attention — until a group of teenage girls walked by, and I heard, "So, is Kimberly a lesbian?" That caught my attention. Granted, I have no idea who Kimberly is. She could be somebody’s elderly spinster aunt. But I’m assuming that Kimberly is another teenager. It reminded me of a very sad trend I’m seeing — the pressure for teenagers to self-identify as "gay" at a younger and younger age. I could write a column about that. Maybe someday I will. But for today, I want to write about something slightly different. I want to talk about friendship. I read a book recently about the courtship of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. In it were published many of the letters the young Mary Todd wrote to her girlfriends. The letters were typical of correspondence between young women of that era, filled with emphatic proclamations of love. (You know, "If I were to miss you any more I would surely die" and "How I long to once again gaze on your lovely face" — stuff like that.) Taken for what they are, these letters are really very beautiful expressions of innocent friendship love. But, every once in a while, some revisionist historian comes along claiming that such-and-such a historical figure was really a lesbian, and then offers letters like this as proof. These were normal, beautiful, non-sexual friendships between women who nearly all went on to marry and live productive, fertile, heterosexual lives. Intense same-sex friendship is important. It is important to all of us, at any age, but nowhere is it more crucial that in the lives of young men and women. From about age six until somewhere in puberty, boys and girls go through a developmental stage known as the "homo-erotic" stage. This is the time in their lives when they are developing their identity as male or female. Their relationship with their same-sex parent is very important at this stage, as are their relationships with their same-sex peers. Most of us can recall the intensity of those friendships. These are the years when they spend all day in school with their friends, then go hang out at the mall together, then go home and call each other on the phone. (Well, I guess now they e-mail each other or get together in chat rooms or whatever. It was simpler in my day.) I remember, when I was in seventh grade, crying bitterly at the realization that my "best friend" wasn’t going to be my best friend any more. At the time, that was a primary relationship in my life. These young friendships can be beautiful. They teach about love, about generosity, about putting others first. They build a foundation for a lifetime of healthy same-sex friendships. And, in helping form strong gender identity, they actually help lay the groundwork for riskier opposite-sex relationships in the future. These friendships can be turbulent, of course — filled with the ups and downs of hormonally induced teenage angst. But even those conflicts provide a learning experience, and help prepare men and women for the complexities of adult relationships. Those young friendships seem threatened today. In this highly sexualized society, that sexuality hangs in the air and colors everything around it. With "gay" characters on every sitcom, and gay clubs springing up in high schools, intense same-sex relationships are bound to be viewed suspiciously — or approvingly, but in the wrong context. It’s normal for young girls to have strong feelings for their girlfriends. The same is true for boys. Those feelings and those relationships actually help form the foundation for healthy heterosexual relationships later on. Pre-teens and teenagers experiencing those feelings in this day and age are more and more likely to conclude that they must be "gay," that those feelings must indicate a permanent orientation toward same-sex attraction. I believe that these problems follow us into adulthood. With so much emphasis on romantic love (whether hetero- or homo-) as the fulfillment of all of our needs, the role of friendship has taken a back seat. Single people long for marriage as a panacea for loneliness, thinking that a spouse would be the only companion they would ever need. Married people wonder why it isn’t working out that way. The answer is simple, according to my (happily married) friend Kristine Franklin. It’s because men and women are just "so danged different." Those differences, of course, are in many ways what attract men and women to each other. No matter how rapturously in love we may be, those differences are never completely overcome, and no man will ever "get" a woman like her girlfriends do, and vice versa. Those friendships are beautiful and very necessary. I’ve always been a big fan of the late George Burns. I think part of the reason I was so crazy about this man I’d never met was because of what I learned about his relationships. George Burns was married to — and crazy about — the same woman, Gracie Allen, until her untimely death 39 years after their wedding. He also had the same best friend — fellow comedian Jack Benny — for 55 years, until Benny’s death in 1974. How many people like George Burns do we see today — who are so loyal to family and to friendship? I think it’s a shame. It’s a shame we are increasingly sexualizing early experiences of friendship love. It’s a shame we glorify romantic love, which of course deserves its own glory, to the nearly complete exclusion of the important love of friendship. We can live without romantic love, but it’s mighty hard for anyone to live without friends. And Kimberly, if you’re reading this, I really don’t think you’re a lesbian. Bonacci is a frequent lecturer on chastity.

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001