We worship passion. We equate love and longing. We lay prostrate to the belief that “chemistry” is at the heart of sustaining a relationship. We chase after the golden idol of attraction in all of its forms. And yet, we live in a cultural that has an abysmal success rate for healthy, loving, longterm marriages. Clearly, something is terribly askew in our understanding of what makes love last.
There are many components, of course, that comprise a healthy relationship: shared morals, values, and vision are essential; a true and basic desire for the others’ well-being; a willingness to grow and learn together, especially when the going gets rough.
But the one that stands above the rest is so simple: friendship. If you’re going to spend the rest of your life with someone, doesn’t it makes sense that you would actually like the person?
Yes, yes: I can hear the anxious-chorus singing: But my partner irritates me all the time! I know. Irritation is part of the human condition, especially when you’re highly sensitive. But that’s just the point: that despite the irritations and idiosyncrasies that drive you up the wall and make you want to jump out of your skin, something still compels you to say YES to this person. Something keeps you in. And I’m here to say that that “something” is nothing to sneeze at. That something is, in fact, a small miracle.
When my clients talk about feeling irritated with their partner I often respond with, “If you lived with your mother or your best friend for a week, how irritated would you feel?” They always smile, knowing what I’m getting at. We carry a pernicious belief that we should never feel irritated, and when we focus on the areas of struggle or imperfection, we lose sight of the unglorified and unromantic notion of simple, good, honest, basic friendship.
Friendship doesn’t sell. Friendship doesn’t inspire love ballads and romantic comedies. There’s no romantic drama in friendship, no chase that creates the longing that creates the feeling of what we call love. Friendship is is-ness: it’s just what is. No flares. No frills. Just down-to-earth reality. It’s what a healthy marriage is made of, what Robert Johnson referred to as “oatmeal love.”
Elizabeth Berg expresses this beautifully in her novel, “The Pull of the Moon”, when the 50-year old main character is reflecting on herself during a long, midlife road trip on her own:
I wanted to be able to tell Ruthie [her daughter] how to be popular, how to make and keep friends. But I was – and still am – pretty much a loner, one who wearies of almost everyone’s company much too soon. My mother told me that when I was four, I came inside from where I’d been playing with another little girl, my first play date, and said she should go home now. Seven minutes had passed. Even when I got older, I’d be sitting with a bunch of college friends and suddenly had to leave. They were good-natured about it, they knew me. “Uh-oh!” they’d say. “Nan’s gotta go, get out of the way!” I wanted Ruthie to be different from me, to be someone who could make casual conversation without clenching her fists, who could be comfortable at a party. Well, she is that. She is quite sociable. But she’s like me, too. Thus the miracle of mothering. Thus the duck who puts her head under her wing but still watches her ducklings bustling about her, their heads held high.
Suddenly I miss the scent of Martin. Isn’t it funny, he has turned out to be the one I can be with the longest. – pp. 95-96
I smiled broadly when I read this passage. I thought first about my highly sensitive, introverted clients who need time alone like an essential nutrient, who wither without space to turn inward and and time to reconnect with their own deepest selves, who struggle in social environments and diagnose themselves with “social anxiety.” I thought next about myself, and a vivid memory from childhood came to mind of having a friend spend the night and waking up in the morning counting the minutes until she went home. I needed my own space back. I needed to breathe my own air. And then I wondered how I would ever get married if I could barely tolerate sharing a room for one night.
I did marry, and still marvel at how much bed-space I share with not only my husband but also with my kids. And it’s not only bed space, of course: as introverts we must grow our tolerance threshold if we are going to share a daily life with intimate others, to adjust to a life without much time for silence, stillness, or curling up in bed for a day to surrender to a good depression. But the true miracle is when we find someone with whom we want to expand this threshold, someone with whom we actually like.
Life is long. A partnership these days requires that we draw upon so many aspects of ourselves: financial, social, familial, parenting, sex, household maintenance. We are business partners, sexual partners, parenting partners, and so much more. And if, underlying all of these relationships, there isn’t a basis of friendship, the rest will fall apart. For it helps enormously to basically like the person, to enjoy spending time together, to find yourself more times than not in a place of ease where the relationship just works. Again, this doesn’t mean a life without tension, conflict, and irritation; that’s par for the anxious-sensitive course. But there’s a well-being that underlies these bumps in the road, something deeper that informs and sustains the two of you. That something is a blessing to behold.