On Friendship and “Relationships”

This article in the Guardian really got me thinking about the rather strange and stipulative ways that we categorise relationships and privilege some of them over others– even those of us who e.g. think gay relationships are on a par with straight ones. In particular, we don’t give much thought to the ways that family relationships (defined in terms of biology or adoption) and sexual relationships are privileged above others. The article is about two women who are non-sexual, non-romantic life partners, who define themselves as friends. And people have a very difficult time understanding this sort of relationship. (Just a few questions this raised for me: Why is ‘family’ defined in such a way as to not include a relationship like this? Why is this relationship any different from that between people who once had sex but haven’t done so for 30 years? Why care about whether there’s any sex going on, or ever has been? How should we define ‘romantic’ anyway?)

13 thoughts on “On Friendship and “Relationships”

  1. Although for adults, they read as very thinly veiled queer lit, I have really enjoyed the way that the classic Adventures of Tintin comic books have modeled such an alternative, friendship-based family unit for my son. For those who haven’t read these absolutely wonderful Belgian stories written between the 30s and the 70s, they feature Tintin, a young reporter, who lives with his dog Milou and his best friend, the middle-aged retired, recovering alcoholic Captain Haddock. When not traveling the world together on adventures they live a cozy domestic existence in Belgium, sharing meals, taking morning walks together, etc. Often their friend, the brilliant, quirky, deaf scientist Professor Tournesol, also lives with them.

    If you can get past the colonialist, patronizing moments of racism that were pretty inevitable given the time and place of writing (actually, open racists are routinely vilified in the books – but the natives of various places tend to come off as quaint and somewhat helpless), these are completely wonderful treasures of books. The series does such a beautiful, unselfconscious job of normalizing alternative domestic partnerships for children.

    Plus how many kids’ books have a central character who is a wildly successful disabled academic? (Tournesol is often off giving invited lectures at prestigious conferences and the like).

  2. i agree, jender! we have family friends who live in just this sort of a situation, and have done for several decades. i’ve wondered before what’s with this weird assumption that inheritance, property, taxes, etc, need to revolve around a sexual relationship. i mean, what has one got to do with the other? and if it really does need to revolve around sex, why isn’t the state (and why aren’t corporations) doing a better job of making sure married couples are actually doing it? “i’m sorry sir, but our records indicate you’ve not performed oral sex on your wife for over six weeks. i’m afraid we’ll be dropping you from her insurance plan. (you could rejoin with a higher copay and a bit of light fondling in the evenings.)” it’s all so silly!

  3. Yeah, it would make a lot more sense to simply have a category of ‘domestic partnership’, available to any two consenting adults without restriction, that remained officially neutral on the private nature of the partnership (e.g. whether romantic, etc.).

  4. My understanding is that the PACS bill in France proposed just that, although I think that what passed was considerably more restrictive than originally proposed. Any readers of this blog know more about this?
    My own view is that people should be able to register a “shared household” irrespective of sexual relations– and I can’t see why it should be limited to two adults.

  5. The powerful right to form advanced boundaries of control (which are totally unworkable in the average ‘friendship’ model) fosters a unique sense of value and status as it relates to the legal marital or family structure.

    You know what they say about ‘law’.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this, Jender! The focus on marriage as a civil right by the LGBT community has left a large (and growing) portion of relationships out in the cold. According to the GAO, there are more than 1,100 rights bestowed on people who are married. By giving LGBT people the right to marry, the line that divides society by marital status is simply moved but as Nancy Polikoff and others have pointed out, marriage is often not the best answer to social policy questions. For example, in an emergency situation, best friends or non-married partners are often left out since only “family and blood ties” seem to count. I really think it’s time to move beyond marriage as the decision factor for governmental benefits. Granted, it can be easier to simply use marriage but very often important relationships are thereby ignored or marginalized.

    I can highly recommend Nancy Polikoff’s book “Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage” because it digs into this very well. We are so used to using marital status as some sort of gold standard that it’s difficult to imagine other ways of relating (I gotta check out those comics Rebecca mentioned!). Polikoff really got me thinking about how to move beyond this privileged (yet patriarchal and outmoded) institution. I am still struggling to come up with words, though, since most descriptors are so loaded: “Intimate relationship,” for example, would generally not be used to describe two girl-friends who know every single detail about each other but are both straight.

  7. The Alberta adult interdependent partner law (which was motivated by a desire on the government’s part to avoid same-sex marriage before it became the law of the land here) is actually an amazingly progressive example of the sort of policy you want.

  8. I like lp’s suggestion. Heh. More seriously, I seem to recall university domestic partnership policies that were specifically formulated not to require sexual/romantic relationships. As I recall, what was required was an agreement “to share the common necessities of life” (which seemed perhaps a bit too broad, since under many plausible readings most housemates would qualify; but hey, maybe that’s not so bad).

  9. In her book, _The Imaginary Domain_, Drucilla Cornell argues that adoption rights should be extended to individuals committed to raising a child together regardless of their sexual relationship. This is also discussed by Martha Fineman, Jackie Stevens, and others. You can find the relevant chapter by Cornell and other papers on adoption and family in Haslanger and Witt, _Adoption Matters_.

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