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No Marriage Is an Island

How a revival of "spiritual friendship" can help spouses as well as singles.
spiritual friendship beer

My friend Wesley Hill has a new book out, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. As the subtitle suggests, the book takes his own position as a jumping-off point: the position of a gay man who accepts the teaching of his church that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. I’ll give the book a real review later—I read an early draft and it was fantastic—but for now I want to look at the relevance of Hill’s approach for those who don’t fit the description in his subtitle.

Hill depicts a cultural landscape in which romantic and filial relationships are the only ones we treat as life-shaping. We consider devotion, commitment, and intimate sharing of thoughts and emotions appropriate within marriage, for example, but creepy and clingy within friendship. We think choosing where you live and therefore which jobs you can take based on the needs of your spouse, your kids, or your aging parents, is ordinary and admirable. Choosing where you live based on the needs of your boyfriend is a bit risky, but understandable if you guys have been together for a while and are “serious about each other.” Choosing not to take a better job far away, choosing to stay in your hard-luck hometown, because your friends are there—that’s loserish and a little crazy.

It wasn’t always this way. Hill’s book, like mine, looks at cultures in which (some) friendship(s) had real, public meaning: cultures in which friendship could be a form of chosen kinship. Men who were “like brothers” could acknowledge that closeness in a way their culture could recognize. Friendship might be a means for the friends’ sanctification, a way to bring them closer to friendship with Jesus, as it was for St Aelred (from whose great work Hill’s book takes its title). Friendship might be an economic relationship, as friends shared household and finances. These cultures had plenty of problems—my book tries to at least hint at some problems we may face if friendship’s public meaning revives—but they were problems of love’s obligations, not problems of alienation and isolation.

Hill explores how our cultural expectations affect people who, for whatever reason, don’t expect to marry or have kids. How do we give and receive love? How do we lead lives which are fruitful and not just lonely expanses of time-before-death? So often gay people in the “traditional” (for lack of a better word) churches receive no hint that we, too, have vocations—that we, too, are called to love specific other people. So Hill is trying to restore “spiritual friendship”—intimate, lasting friendship which draws the friends closer to God—as a vocation for gay or same-sex attracted Christians.

But for now I want to look at a different question. Has making marriage the only intelligible committed relationship between adults been good for marriage? Has making romance the only haven for adult intimacy been good for romance?

When the only way to get devoted love is through romantic love, you might expect romantic devotion to be strengthened. The numbers suggest that this has not happened. Marriage rates are at historic lows (and see also this book) and while cohabitation has increased dramatically, cohabiting relationships are still much less stable than marriage (see Cherlin again for more). As our definition of family has narrowed, our families have destabilized.

We may expect that adding new people and new obligations would burden us. This is part of the worldview explored in Jennifer M. Silva’s Coming Up Short: Growing up means growing apart, losing trust, learning to stand on your own two feet. He travels the fastest who travels alone; and in this economy you’ve got to be ready to move.

But Silva found that the quest for independence and some modicum of control left people still burdened, still poor, and more alone. It turns out that the isolated dyad—whether that dyad is the romantic couple, as it typically is for the well-off, or the mother-child pair, as it is for those who aren’t wealthy—is almost as vulnerable as the atomistic individual. Two people can’t always lift a marriage on their own shoulders. Many men, especially, have only one confidante: their wife or girlfriend. This is stressful for the wife, and makes it all but impossible for the husband to know where to turn when the problems he needs to discuss are specifically problems with his marriage. (This may be part of why so many people nowadays have AA envy. Your sponsor is like an Army-issue friend! This is something I would think about a lot if I were structuring how a church welcomes new members.)

So it may not be surprising that Hill’s book closes with a beautiful depiction of his friendship with a married couple. He is not “support personnel” in their lives, and they are not consolation prizes or prostheses to replace the missing spousal limb. They are the “threefold cord” of Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.

For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.

Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?

And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

How can married couples attain the kind of “spiritual friendship”—and the emotional and economic interdependence—which Hill and his friends have found? Matthew Loftus gives some good thoughts on this search and its challenges, in a terrific reflection on spiritual friendship in a mobile economy. There’s a lot in that post—about class, about place—but as usual a big part of the answer is “give up your independence and accept that you’ll get to make many fewer choices about your life.” Surrender control and autonomy, and you might get love.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.



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