Our Maker is a relational being. Creator, Son, and Spirit. Like them, we are made to be in intimacy with one another. We crave companionship, understanding, loyalty, and love. For many, those needs are met from the moment we are born and placed into the safety of a parent’s arms. That child is surrounded by family that will protect and nurture them into adulthood until a time at which they are ready to marry. With that, the cycle will begin again. No matter who else they meet in life these relationships will be the most precious. They will be prioritized above all others. Society, and the church in particular, tells us that friendship is secondary to these familial and romantic relationships. Who we marry or who we are born to takes precedence over any other relationship in our lives. As someone who doesn’t have family and who is well into her thirties and still unmarried this leaves me feeling adrift.
When one doesn’t have a family- be it parents, siblings, or spouses- friendship takes on a new level of importance and necessity. No one wants to move through the world feeling like they are not a single person’s priority. We want to know that there is someone, at least one, out there who puts us before anything and anyone else. Someone that is concerned with our needs and our well-being. While I don’t have those traditional relationships, as I’ve gotten older I have come to realize the ways in which my many different friendships can fulfill my needs. There may not be one in particular that meets all of them -arguably, the same is true for marriages and family- but putting the effort in to cultivate relationships in my life that, as a whole, can fulfill those needs has proven to be such a gift.
I’m particularly lucky to have friendships that span the country. I have girlfriends like Jenn right down the street whose home I can walk to in mere minutes and I know I’ll be met with laughter and understanding. I have best friends, Megan and Amanda, who have seen me at my lowest and for eight years have been fiercely loyal and supportive (even as we’ve all moved around the country). I have my fellow justice and theology geeks of color that share my affinity for deep conversations and dance parties – folks like Alicia, Kenji, Micky, Zakiya, Teresa and Michael (just to name a few).
I have Joe who encourages me without ceasing and has helped to build my confidence as I took on writing this column. I have Shiri, one of the few people that can match my love for atrocious made-for-tv holiday romcoms. There’s Taylor who finally gave me a name to write under “emergency contact” so that I can take risks such as traveling to places like Standing Rock and know there is someone looking out for me.
Then, of course, there is Richard. The friend that, for the last four years, has made sure I have someone to spend the holidays with and who I will stand alongside as he marries his partner in a few short weeks.
This is hardly exhaustive. I have more friends in my life than is fair for any one person to boast of having. So many of these friends have their own loved ones and families and I may or may not hold the same importance in their life as they hold in mine but they fill such deep wells of need and I’m grateful for their presence.
It’s people such as these that have become a part of my chosen family. The term “chosen family” has been offered up by the LGBTQ community. For so many of them, biological family has been a source of pain and rejection (often as a result of non-affirming church teaching). Because of this, they have had to forge their chosen families from the friends that are willing to receive and celebrate all of who they are. I am grateful to my LGBTQ siblings for giving me this language. It is what I have had to do. It’s the case for many of us that come from toxic or nonexistent families. We’ve had to choose family that would step in when our family didn’t choose us.
I have spent so much of my life moving that I was well into adulthood before I had friendships that were more than a year or two old. I’m very used to people coming in and out of my life and I don’t trust in a permanency of relationships in a way that many others do. I’m trying but I’m not quite there yet. Trust does not come easy. It takes a great deal of intentionality for me. I am constantly wondering when people will make their retreat. When will they get a glimpse of the real me and cut ties? When will I prove to be too much work? This is what lacking that familial foundation will do to the mind. Intellectually, I know my friends have proven themselves to me time and again but healing is not linear and I may spend a lifetime learning this over and over. I just can’t help but wonder what learning it in community could look like.
Imagine how our posture and language would shift when speaking about family if we acknowledged the breadth of what that can mean. Imagine if we spoke of friendship with the same reverence we do other relationships.
What would it look like for people to learn a new understanding of friendship? To not hold up marriage as the ultimate signifier of maturity and status? To not indoctrinate people into the belief that there is one person, a romantic partner, that will fulfill all your emotional and physical needs- earning them the right to be placed before all other relationships? To not treat friendships formed during singleness as a stopgap to something better?
Oh! The retreats we could attend. Simply put the word friendship where marriage would normally go and voila!
“Friendship: Back to Basics”
“Heal Your Hurting Friendship”
“Weekend Friendship Retreat: Better Than A Year of Therapy”
“Whether you’ve been friends 6 months or 60 years, it’s a good idea to check the gauges and make sure you are both still headed in the same direction.”
I can’t help but assume a person’s healing with respect to family could be an easier road to travel if the church and society spoke more robustly of what it means to experience love through friendship.
On my best days though, I can see it. I can see that I am loved. I am accepted and I am wanted. Like Creator, I am never alone.