On friendship, and maybe also love

Hardly an adult man is to be found, at least in the Western culture, who has never been told, by a woman he courted and who rejected him, something like this: “…but we can be just friends!”

Just friends? These words usually make me wonder what does friendship mean for women who thus speak. Surely they would not agree with Chekhov, the Russian playwriter, when in “Uncle Vanya” wrote:

MIKHAIL. Are you in love with her?
VANYA. She is my friend.
MIKHAIL. Already?
VANYA. What do you mean by “already”?
MIKHAIL. A woman can only become a man’s friend after having first been his acquaintance and then his beloved—then she becomes his friend.
VANYA. What a vulgar philosophy!

But was Chekhov’s really a vulgar philosophy? I reckon the answer depends on every person’s idea of friendship, on how each of us interprets and understands this word. Unfortunately, our languages are quite helpless in naming the several degrees and types of friendship between two people. In the English vocabulary, we jump from simple “acquaintance” all the way up to “friend”, and that’s basically it. The same goes for Spanish, French, Russian… I always miss some intermediate word for naming those who are more than acquaintances but not as much as friends; or, alternatively, for those friends who are specially close and loyal: those in whose hands you can trust your secrets, property and even your life. On the other hand, and given the fact that languages are usually very good at words for concepts and ideas important for the cultures who speak them, perhaps most people do not care much for distinguishing among different kinds of friendship, and only a few of us are concerned about this.

According to the English dictionary, friend is a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard; a really broad definition. In Spanish, the equivalent term bounces us to “friendship” (amistad), which is defined as trust and disinterested affection between people. In Russian, the same word (дружба) means relationship based on mutual affection, spiritual closeness, community of interests, etc. Interestingly enough, the common element shared by the those languages is “affection”, another broad concept. It is really hard, with these definitions dictionaries give us, to establish any difference between the many degrees of friendship that there are, except by using complementary adjectives like “loose”, “good”, “real”, “close”, etc. Thus, as turns out, the workmate with whom we usually have lunch, the neighbour we get along with, the penpal that often writes to us, the colleague of some group with whom we have congenial talks, members of our biological or political family, the comrade who fought alongside us in the war and underwent the very same hardships together, the inseparable buddy we know from childhood… apparently they all belong to the only one box labelled “friends”, under the only condition there is any kind of affection between us. This is quite unsatisfactory, quite insufficient to me. I would need at least two words, two boxes with different labels: one for the closer and more affectionate, another for the less commited. But the dictionary refuses to please me: it only offers me adjectives instead.

This shortage of terms is probably the reason why I have a tendency to reserve “friend” for those whom I more appreciate and respect, for those I know -and who know me- well enough, for those I mentioned above whom I can really trust and confide in (up to the reasonable measure human beings should be trusted), those who are always there when you need them. The rest I prefer to call “acquaintances”; but then this is so aloof…

Hence follows, then, that friendship involves for me the higher degree of affection, loyalty and camaraderie I feel for and bestow on someone else; and this is why I find very implausible -so to say- the just friends proposition I begun this text with.

I believe men and women are different “things”, in the extent that male and female are the solution evolution came up with in order for life to keep working. There are some plants (maybe also some animals, I am not sure) whose male and female specimens have nothing outward in common, to the point that only an expert could tell they belong to the same species. These differences are, of course, a lot less substantial in mammals, but they exist and are essential. (As a matter of fact, I suspect that, in the case of humans, such differences pertain not only to the external appearance and reproductive organs, but extend to the brain as well. That is why I always feel helpless when it comes to understanding women thoughts, emotions or feelings, their aspirations and goals, the way they conceive life, etc.; actually, I do not even try any more, for it is an inviable task, a waste of time and energy. I just try to cope the best I can with their -often excessive- emotional behaviour and accept it as an unpredictable inevitability, like thunder or rain.)

All of this is to say that men and women are probably not meant to be “friends”, but rather love mates, partners. They feel mutually attracted because Nature wants it so. No matter how much societies have culturally evolved, our biology does not yet allow us to overcome or bypass our basic impulses. We can perhaps supress or restrain them, but not escape them. And when I wooed a woman I liked, friendship (my particular idea of it) was certainly not what my hormons were asking for; and if all went fine and we engaged in a relationship, then we might have, in time, developed something resembling friendship… but not quite. Even when I did not have the smallest intention of courting a given woman (be it because she was already engaged, or a close relative, or for some social reason “forbidden” to me), still I could not help my male instincts meddling with, and distorting, my whatever “honest” approach to her. I could try -and perhaps succeed- in fooling myself and others, but it was impossible to fool my entrails, my real deep self, which conditioned my feelings and attitude. No sincere and -as for the Spanish definition- disinterested friendship can arise from that. How could I become close friends with a person whom my bottom head was urging me to shag if I got the chance without facing the ensuing consequences?

More yet: how could we have been “just” friends, when friendship is -for me- the closest my feelings can get (leaving aside love, but more on this later) for a fellow human being? The word “just” implies “only”, a smaller degree, but there is no higher degree for me than “friends”. I think, if ever a woman told me “let us be just friends”, I would surely feel like replying: “That is not possible, but we can be just lovers if you want”. Perhaps the only way I could befriend a woman would be if I did not feel the smallest physical attraction to her, and at the same time she had sort of a “manlike” mentality, the kind of which might enable us to mutually, intimately understand each other like men do between themselves. But that is very unlikely, because, for the reason given above, I find it not much easier to understand women than I can horses or chimpanzees. (And before you get way ahead of myself: no, this does not mean I consider women to be inferior humans in any sense.)

(By the way: you may have noticed I am using here the past tense when talking about myself. This is because the older I get, the more tempered my passions get and the readier I am to befriend women.)

A special mention here deserve the so-called “online friends”, so common in this “virtual” world of our times. Is it possible to develop a friendship for someone we have never met in person, but only “virtually”? I admit I do not have a clear answer to that question. I suppose in general we could say “yes”, at least according to the broader definition of “friend”; and yet, what degree of commitment there can be with a flow of lines coming along the waves to our screen? Friendship always refers to persons, but for all I know the text that shows up in my email or messaging tool might very well come from a programmed robot, a highly perfected answering machine; or perhaps from a prankster, a scammer, a hypocrite or a psychopath. How do I know? Well, now of course we have video chat, which is as close as it can get to a physical contact, and much harder to fake. But, in any case, no matter how warm or affectionate a relation can get with an online friend, nothing can compare with physical interaction: they belong to different worlds, different dimensions. I cannot talk for others, but at least for me such relationships usually aspire to a future personal meeting, even if such aspiration is doomed to never come true. To me, these online talks serve as a first approach to the person behind the words I am reading or listening to; but if I see we share common views and can get along, there is usually a moment when I would like to meet her (or him if the case be) and then develop a real, non-virtual relation.

“And what about love? How come you have not mentioned love in a text about interpersonal relations?”, some would ask. Well, I guess because love is possibly the topic about which most has been said and written for the past centuries, enough for compiling a 1,000 volumes encyclopaedia; and so, there is not the smallest chance I could come up with anything new. But if you still want my opinion, I adhere to those who say there are two main types of love: brotherly and romantic, of which the first is perhaps the only sincere and honest. The love we usually feel for our family (parents, children, siblings and close blood ties), as well as for some good old friends, is possibly the purest and most disinterested one: that kind of sentiment we develop along years of very near attachment and joint experiences. Romantic love, however, is quite another matter. Here I subscribe the opinion of those anthropologists according to which romantic love is basically a construct (and not a very old one, by the way) societies have built in order to disguise our sexual desire, our lust, and at the same time justify the loyalty to our partner demanded by our zoological kind. Different animal species have developed various ways of safeguarding the continuity of genes. In homo sapiens (and some other animals), this way is the family. The ABC of evolution tells us that, since we always know for certain who the cubs’ mother is, but cannot be sure about the father, then in order to minimize the chance of a male feeding the offspring –i.e., providing for the genes– that are not his, the female’s loyalty must be guaranteed. This, and no other, is the real reason why traditionally men’s infidelities have deserved less social reproach (or even none at all, depending on the culture) than women’s. But conjugal faithfulness became all the same a widely adopted social demand, and that may be -partially, at least- how romantic love came into fruition: in order to curb our impulses and refrain from trying to mate with whoever we can, we convinced ourselves (through various psychological and social tools, of which religion was one) that there is -or there must be- a special, sort of sacred attachment towards our partner: the romantic love. It is also a way of hallowing that particular instinct we, I am not sure why, find somehow shameful.

But this romantic love, often extremely passionate, when not bordering on obsession, has very little to do with the love we feel for our blood relatives, or for our dearest friends. That consacrated love is rarely disinterested, and it might even not be true. Of course this does not mean that we cannot develop, given enough time, a purer love for our partner and then -exactly like Chekhov wrote- a friendship. But at the beginning, during the first stages of a romantic relationship (mainly during the wooing), most of the time the love we experience, that fascination or bewitchment, that mesmerizing feeling that gets us spellbound, the famous “butterflies in the stomach”, is rather a fantasy or, at the very least, something else we maybe should not call love.

There is a Spanish film from the 90’s titled Why do they call it love when they want to say sex? I was never interested in watching it because I am very well aware of the bottomless banality, the extreme vulgarity and deplorable quality of Spanish cinema since the so-called “democracy” fell on us; and I am sure the director and scriptwriters of that movie could have been asked, in turn: “Why do you call it cinema when you want to say pornography?” Still, that title sounded not only catchy to my ears, but quite consistent with reality the way I see it; and to this day I have not forgotten the sentence.

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