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Monday, September 20, 2010

Real Thoughts

I think the majority of people who read this (which means two of the three) will disagree with what I have to say--and that's okay. In truth, I hope in the end that they are right and my findings are incorrect. But it's time for me to lay out my findings over the past few years in regards to human relationships.

Briefly, this was of interest to me because I've always felt I could not sustain long-term, honest, close relationships but I wanted to know for sure, so I decided to test this theory in the hopes that I could find what I was lacking, fix it, and learn how to enjoy such relationships.

1. Relationship: A situation in which intimate, platonic emotional bonding occurs between two people not bound by blood or marriage.
2. Long-term relationship: A relationship lasting longer than two years. Note: This time limit has been known to change throughout the duration of this experiment, beginning first with three months and increasing as each time barrier was met. After polling people I know, two years seems to be a generally accepted boundary for someone who is involved in one's life long-term.
3. Honest relationship: A relationship which allows each participant to know of past events which have shaped the other's life, as well as the creation of an environment in which opinions might be expressed, safely discussed, and disagreements allowed as a matter of course. Also one in which feelings might be expressed without fear of manipulation or coercion, and both parties feel free to speak their thoughts, albeit with tact and consideration.
4. Close relationship: A relationship which allows confidence, one in which each party would be probable to turn to the other for advice, opinions, or a listening ear. Such a relationship would also provide comfort when necessary, as well as encouragement and love, and "relentless forgiveness" (this term does not belong to me).

Frankly, given the above definitions, I was certain such relationships didn't really exist at all, so trying to see if I was capable of participating in one seemed doomed for failure. In the first place, I would need to find a partner willing to conform to my definitions without actually being told what those were, and in the second, it seemed that every exemplary relationship I encountered, once I delved beneath the surface, had components which excluded them from being examples of that which I was seeking--the most glaring of which was honesty.

I found friends who declared they told one another "everything!", then found myself in the unenviable position of hearing one or both parties saying to me, "Don't tell __________________, but...", and then those friends who talk about everything would disclose to me all the things they don't tell each other. Naturally, they had various valid reasons for not discussing those topics with each other, but still--in the act of disclosing confidences to me, they nullified their relationship's validity within my experiment. Indeed, I found no relationships which would fit my definitions, although I believe they exist, and based on that belief, I embarked on my "friendship" adventure.

This is not the first time I've attempted this type of experiment.

Finding relationships which fit the first two criteria is easy. One encounters those regularly. I certainly haven't spent my life friendless. I have the type of personality which seems to draw people, most likely because until recently, interaction with me consisted of  my asking questions (people love talking about themselves), and being delightful and funny, but never wasting their time by discussing myself. As much as most people don't like to admit it, that type of person is approachable and comfortable--and completely disposable. I was that person.

However, the honesty criteria is next to impossible to find and closeness, as defined by me, conversely seems to lend itself to drama and distance. It requires a unique combination of people to be able to withstand the intense vulnerability required by each, and also integrity and a belief that each party will not betray the confidence of the other. This is a difficult component to access, and I admit my flaws in this area, as I believe most people have them, as well.

I was surprised that within my experiment I was able to find at least ten people who approached my definitions in their relationships with me, and four who were able to nearly perfectly conform to those definitions. This exceeded my expectation, certainly, but also allowed me to learn the following:

1. Relationships within the parameters set by me are not unavailable to me, nor have they been scarce in my life because I am incapable of participating in them. Rather, they have not been plentiful because I have rarely been able to create an environment in which I felt safe enough to participate. This is not a flaw in my personality, but a reflection on my background and also on society, as a whole. Such relationships are revered in fiction, but not in fact. People mention yearning for such a friendship, but our society creates few situations in which such relationships can be fostered. Indeed, chance meetings and short-lived hook-ups seem to be encouraged both within and without the sexual context. In essence--I am perfectly capable of building and maintaining the friendships I have been seeking, but it takes the participation and commitment of both parties for such a relationship to be considered authentic.

2. While there is a definite benefit to such relationships, there is also a large work component involved, and if both parties are not putting forth effort, these relationships are not sustainable. This element seems to be the ultimate truth. How long can one continue close, intimate, platonic relationships? Or perhaps more pertinent: How long will the desire to continue such relationships last? And this seems to be the key difference between me and most of those with whom I've discussed this topic. All have expressed a desire to have lifetime friendships, but they are perfectly content with sporadic contact which spans many years. They would describe the lunch dates I have with high school and college friends (which take place about once every ten years), as quality time and reconnection, and would describe those friends and I as having life-long relationships. Certainly, I plan to remain in contact with these friends, but I consider them incidental to my life, not integral to it.

3. I am uncertain, in reference to the point above, whether relationships falling within the definitions I have set forth, can continue indefinitely. I'm not saying they cannot, and I hope with all my heart that they can, but I don't know. At this point I am entering year five with the relationships I am currently fostering. As I analyze the life changes which have taken place in our lives, I'm amazed the friendships have lasted this long, but in a lifespan graph, five years is not very long. Understanding that I am hyper-vigilant in this particular area, I often see waxing and waning of these relationships, and I suppose as long as both parties have a desire for continuance, it will be so, but I admit to doubting more often than not, that such desire is unlimited.

My personal conclusions are thus: On my part, I don't believe I will ever stop wanting my friendships to continue, nor will I stop working toward such an end. But in the process of my experiment, I've learned to accept and celebrate the autonomy of each party. A friendship which continues out of obligation, coercion, or habit produces no joy, and for me, seeking for joy is the reason I began this quest in the first place.

Interestingly, the initial delight of finding someone new, learning all one can about that person, and enjoying the compatibility of a new relationship is something I have not sought for awhile. This could be because my past couple of years have been difficult in many ways, and I had no emotional reserve to expend on such activities, or it could be that I'm simply not interested in that right now. There is an undeniable exhilaration in those moments when one discovers a person who seems to fit perfectly in one's life, but I seem to have no desire for that feeling, nor for the work involved in getting to know someone new.

Finally, the extroverted exercises of the past few years seem to have left me feeling exhausted and lately I'm yearning for solitude and obscurity. I often find myself regretting that so much of me has been shared, wishing I could somehow disappear into anonymity rather than revel in the fact that I have nothing to hide. This is true in my casual social interactions, but also in my more intimate friendships. I did not expect this. Knowing people know me well (albeit only a few), does not bring me the comfort and security I thought it would.

Perhaps this is one reason why people allow close friendships to wane. The honesty becomes overwhelming, or the intimacy stifling. I don't know. I do know that I have not yet reached that point of extremity, in spite of my recent feelings of discomfort. My heart wishes for the relationships in my life to continue while my head searches for solutions to ease my discomfort, and I am not yet certain what the outcome will be because it is an outcome which must be determined in tandem with those who participate in such relationships with me.  And so I have no answers, but certainly more information, which is what all good experiments are about anyway.

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