From the Archives
“We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”
— Holly Hunter in Home for the Holidays
Whenever you set out to talk about minority rights, you end up crashing into the issue of identity. And this invariably swerves, again and again, into the issue of family. The poet Sharon Olds once said, “A family is a mystery,” and this is probably why I can’t get enough of it in novels, film, clinical trials, and yes, even in real life. Show me someone fascinating and I can’t wait to meet their parents.
In and outside of the holiday season, twenty- and thirtysomethings so often love to extoll the importance of friends over relatives, echoing Oscar Wilde: “Friends are God’s apology for family.” Our first true friendships usually begin in adolescence—the time when we start wanting to forge our identities independently from our families—and this sets the standard whereby friends are seen as a respite from all of our obligations: from parents and siblings, from school, from work, from the exhaustion of the holidays spent with the relatives. “My family drives me nuts, my friends get me,” pop culture says. “Sure I love my family, but I actually like my friends.”
And yet, friendships ultimately prove to be fleeting with age, as life partners and earning money and having children begin to take priority. A study at Oxford University found that taking on a romantic partner generally pushes two close friends out of your life. A serious boyfriend or girlfriend is, after all, a super-close friend and there are only so many hours in the day to fit people in. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the addition of in-laws and children require us to quietly toss a few more buddies overboard. Or at least scratch them off the gift list.
Few of us like to face the harsh truth that the number one facilitator of friendship is convenience. How many people have we doused in superlative praise, spilled our hearts to, bragged with about our never-ending awesomeness, only to eventually lose touch because we live too far away, we’ve changed our habits since that new job/baby/boyfriend, we haven’t spoken in so long and wouldn’t know what to say? Sure, we’ll fling them a Facebook birthday greeting, but composing an entire email would require so much apologizing for having taken this long to write…
Maintaining a friendship requires effort, as author Julie Klam said in an interview with Linda Holmes on NPR two years ago:
She realized, too, that it wasn’t an area that was being written about very much in a way that spoke to her experiences. She found a lot of clichés, but not a lot of insight. “Everything that I had read about friendships was always … platitudes about, you know, ‘friends are like flowers and you have to water them’ or whatever. Or the T-shirts with the koala bear and the flower and the ‘Friends are…’.”
So… Why is there so much writing about so many aspects of our lives — love, sex, money, family, careers — and so little about the inner workings of friendships that are so central to so many people’s lives? Maybe, Klam theorizes, it’s because friendships seem disposable and interchangeable when you look at them like an efficiency expert. “There’s some sort of thing about, like, ‘Well, if you don’t like the friend, just don’t be friends with them.’ Rather than the idea of working things out.” Working things out, as you know if you read other kinds of relationship books, is the usual ideal outcome, rather than bolting when trouble strikes.
… And of course, that’s what makes keeping up with your friends complicated. When I ask her what she considers the big challenge of adult friendships, she emphasizes that it’s legitimately hard to make time for them, because they’re not, you know, mandatory. And the older you get, the more things in your life are mandatory.
Perhaps this is why there is such a paucity of stories about friendship in books and film. A friendship can be destroyed without any drama. All the characters have to do is lose touch.
And that can be fine. Many friendships are simply not worth laboring over. Time changes every one of us and there is little point in forcing ourselves to pretend to be someone we are not simply for the sake of sustaining the appearance of something that no longer serves us. Scores of people can be your perfect match in a single context: that course you took together, that team you both played on, that year you roomed together when a deep heart-to-heart required nothing more than walking down the hall and flopping onto the bed with a beer. (Or maybe there was more convenience in those years before you roomed together and had no idea how much/little time/money s/he spends on cleaning/personal hygiene/video games.)
A friendship is significant if it can survive all the changes and challenges life will inevitably throw at it. But the same goes for family, to the extent that I believe there is really no difference between the two. As Andrew Solomon wrote in what I still consider the Best Book of the 21st Century, “Love becomes more acute when it requires exertion.” The exertion can be exquisite.
Family can be fun to be with, but what they offer with far more consistency is purpose. This is why studies find that parents are often happier watching television than spending time with their children, but it’s their children—not television—that inspire them to endure when they are faced with pain or hardship.
Many traditional beliefs about family are not helpful. If you’ve explored this blog at all, you know I believe bloodlines are dangerously overrated. I also believe it can be damaging to expound upon the virtues of lifelong commitment and forgiveness without exception. While many people abandon others all too easily because they are more concerned with their own comfort than anyone else’s, just as many people remain in emotionally abusive relationships because their generosity trumps their self-care. I have sadly witnessed enough toxic relationships to know that some ties are better off severed.
This is why I define family not by genetics, but as the people you are so close to that they regularly drive you crazy – while still being worth the grief. They are the people who know you so well that it embarrasses you to think about. They can simultaneously be uncles, cousins, godmothers, half-brothers, former coworkers or classmates. But no matter their origin, once it’s clear to me that I will always stick by someone no matter how vexing they can be, they are family to me.
Because if novels and films and social psychology tell us anything, it’s that you can’t get truly close to another human being without being annoyed by them.
Originally published December 2014