Love Undetectable: Andrew Sullivan on Why Friendship Is a Greater Gift Than Romantic Love
Reflections on the cornerstone of our flourishing.
By Maria Popova
“A principal fruit of friendship,” Francis Bacon observed, “is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” Thoreau would “sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities.” St. Augustine described friendship as “sweet beyond the sweetness of life.” But what exactly is friendship — what defines its singular hallmark? Shortly after his dear friend Patrick’s death, Andrew Sullivan — one of the deepest thinkers and most enchanting writers of our time — was gripped with grief so all-consuming that it led him to examine the nature of friendship itself, a bond so special that its forceful breakage could induce pain of such unbearable proportions. In the altogether fantastic 1998 volume Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (public library), he considers the inner workings of friendship and argues that its gift is far greater than that of romantic love, despite our cultural bias for the latter.
For me, friendship has always been the most accessible of relationships — certainly far more so than romantic love. Friendship, I learned, provided a buffer in the interplay of emotions, a distance that made the risk of intimacy bearable, a space that allowed the other person to remain safely another person.
He argues that our world has failed to give friendship its due as “a critical social institution, as an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realized human being.” And yet, he concedes, the cultural silence around friendship also reflects an inherent truth about the nature of the bond itself:
You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.
Reflecting on the tragedy of loss that prompted his meditation, Sullivan adds:
A part of this reticence is reflected in the moments when friendship is appreciated. If friendship rarely articulates itself when it is in full flood, it is often only given its due when it is over, especially if its end is sudden or caused by death. Suddenly, it seems, we have lost something so valuable and profound that we have to make up for our previous neglect and acknowledge it in ways that would have seemed inappropriate before… It is as if death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extreme of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.
In that consideration, Sullivan turns to Aristotle, who is perhaps philosophy’s greatest patron saint of friendship. In Aristotle’s day, the Ancient Greek notion of phila cast a wide net to capture the many dimensions of friendship. Sullivan writes:
In Aristotle’s hermetically sane universe, the instinct for human connection is so common and so self-evidently good that there is little compunction to rule certain friendships out of the arc of human friendliness. There is merely an attempt to understand and categorize each instance of phila and to place each instance of the instinct in its natural and ennobling place. Everything is true, Aristotle seems to say, so long as it is never taken for anything more than it is. And so friendship belongs to the nod of daily passengers on a commuter train, to the regular business client, and to the ornery neighbor. It encompasses the social climber and the social butterfly, the childhood crush and the lifelong soulmate. It comprises the relationship between a boss and his employees, a husband and his wife, a one-night stand and a longtime philanderer, a public official and his dubious contributor.
Friendship, for Aristotle, seems to be the cornerstone of human society and flourishing, an integral part of happiness, and bound up inextricably with the notion of virtue.
For Aristotle, the defining feature of friendship was the trifecta of reciprocity, equality, and the physical sharing of life. Sullivan tackles the first element:
Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration, and the integrity of that admiration is not lost; one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met (and may fail ever to meet). And one may, of course, fall in love with someone without the beloved being aware of it or reciprocating the love at all. And in all these cases, the relationships are still what they are, whatever the attitude of the other person in them: they are relationships of admiration, business, family, or love.
But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.
Perhaps more challenging to grasp is the condition of sharing in one another’s physical life. Why should two friends be required to have regular physical and verbal contact? Sullivan writes:
It has been said that a person’s religion is best defined not by what he says he believes but simply by what he actually does. Equally, it could be said that one’s friends are simply those people with whom one spends one’s life. Period. Anything else is a form of rationalization.
What’s interesting to consider, however, is that at the time of Sullivan’s writing — and certainly in Aristotle’s time millennia earlier — the physical and the real overlapped far more congruously than they do today, in the age of digital sociality. Consider, for example, the friendship between two people who live apart and rarely spend physical time together, but are constantly and intimately connected via email, Facebook, Skype, text-messaging, and other digital extensions of physical presence. Is that relationship any less real, even though it isn’t rooted in physicality? Perhaps the criterion of “people with whom one spends one’s life” is better reframed as “people on whom one spends one’s emotional energies.”
Still, for both Aristotle and Sullivan, as well as the centuries of thinkers in between, the most important criterion for friendship is that of “equality between the parties.” Sullivan explains:
This may seem a banal point on the surface, but the more you think about it, the more significant it seems. It is linked to reciprocity. Because each human being is equal in his capacity to assent or not to assent to a relationship, each is, in some sense, radically equal in the capacity for friendship. Even in relationships in which one person vastly outweighs the other in money, or wit, or good looks, or social power, the inferior party can quit the friendship of his own accord and reduce it to its essential elements. A friendship is thus ultimately defined by the desire of each person to be in it. And it is successful insofar as that desire is equal between the two parties.
Friendship… is almost a central symbol of human autonomy, and the most accessible example of that autonomy in practice.
This notion of autonomy is what takes us to Sullivan’s most central point — the supremacy of friendship over romantic love, or Aristotle’s notion of eros, despite our culture’s compulsive fetishism of the latter:
The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence.
We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.
Still, Sullivan concedes, the allure of romantic love isn’t hard to grasp. It has been described as a unique experience that makes “the boundaries between you and not-you relax and become more permeable,” a “fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.” Sullivan adds to history’s most moving definitions of love:
It can eclipse every other emotion and transport us to levels of bliss and communion we have never felt before. It is intoxicating, but, unlike most other forms of intoxication, it appears to have meaning and depth. We believe, for a moment, that we have found our soulmate, that we are reunited with another half of ourselves that finally gives meaning to everything in our lives. And because we are with that person, more often than not gazing into his or her eyes, it is easy and indeed necessary to abandon perspective. In fact, it almost seems a crime against love to retain any sort of perspective.
Eros, Sullivan points out, blinds us to even such universal concerns as time and death — why else would lovers promise one another eternal love and swear that they couldn’t live without each other? More than that, they even “insist upon it, because to trap it in time would be to impair the inherently unbounded nature of the experience” and “because anything else implies that love is just one competing good among others.” But this quality of eros comes with a dark side:
Love is a supremely jealous thing. It brooks no rival and obliterates every distraction. It seems to transport the human being — who is almost defined by time and morality — beyond the realm of both age and death. Which is why it is both so irresistible and so delusory.
It is from behind that shadow that friendship shines its superior light. Sullivan writes:
Of course, the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it. It is also why, in part, the sober writers and thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds found it a self-evidently inferior, if bewitching, experience. But their confidence in this regard was based not simply on a shrewd analysis of love but on a deeper appreciation of friendship. Without the possibility of friendship, after all, love might seem worth the price. If the promise of union, of an abatement to loneliness, of finding a soulmate, was only available through the vagaries of eros, then it might be worth all the heartbreak and insanity for a glimpse, however brief, of what makes life worth living. But if all these things were available in a human relationship that is not inherently self-destructive, then why, after all, should one choose the riskier and weaker option?
And in almost every regard, friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide. The contrast between the two are, in fact, many, and largely damning to love’s reputation. Where love is swift, for example, friendship is slow. Love comes quickly, as the song has it, but friendship ripens with time. If love is at its most perfect in its infancy, friendship is most treasured as the years go by.
In fact, this difference in pace of development is what lends friendship its emotional gravitas. Sullivan continues the contrast:
If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest. But we don’t “fall in friendship.” And where love is often at its most intense in the period before the lover is possessed, in the exquisite suspense of the chase, and the stomach-fluttering nervousness of the capture, friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.
(In some instances, as Stendhal famously argued in his 1822 treatise on the role of “crystallization” in love, knowledge can be the mortal enemy of love, squeezing the hope-giving fantasy out of a reality that comes up short.)
Besides the difference in pace, Sullivan also points to a difference in intensity of investment, which translates into a difference in stability:
Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.
One interesting consequence of that dynamic — of the difference between eros and phila — unfolds in the realm of lifelong union, which Sullivan captures beautifully:
The most successful marriages, where the original spark of eros has slowly lit a flame of phila that sustains the union when other more compelling passions have long since died away. Indeed, one of the least celebrated but most important achievements of the increasingly successful battle for women’s equality is that it has properly expanded the universe of friendship for both men and women and made marriage more of a setting for friendship than for love. This is no mean accomplishment.
He contrasts C.S Lewis’s model of love as two people facing one another enraptured by the other’s gaze with the stance of friendship:
The classic stance of two friends is side by side, looking ahead in the same direction. The two stances are not complementary; they are opposed. And although it is conceivable to unite them, it is quite a hazardous enterprise. When a friendship becomes a love, of course, the moment may be partially liberating. But it is liberating precisely because one is leaving the distance and discipline that friendship demands for the union and abandon that love promises.
(For a gripping manifestation of the shift from one to the other, see Sartre’s letter to Simone de Beauvoir on “the pleasure… of turning abruptly from friendship to love.”)
It is precisely in how each bond addresses the question of control that the most important difference between the two is found:
Love is about control and loss of control. In love, we give ourselves up to each other. We lose control or, rather, we cede control to another, trusting in a way we would never otherwise trust, letting the other person hold the deepest part of our being in their hands, with the capacity to hurt it mortally. This cession of control is a deeply terrifying thing, which is why we crave it and are drawn to it like moths to the flame, and why we have to trust it unconditionally. In love, so many hazardous uncertainties in life are resolved: the constant negotiation with other souls, the fear and distrust that lie behind almost every interaction, the petty loneliness that we learned to live with as soon as we grew apart from our mother’s breast. We lose all this in the arms of another. We come home at last to a primal security, made manifest by each other’s nakedness…
And with that loss of control comes mutual power, the power to calm, the power to redeem, and the power to hurt.
Friendship, by contrast, offers a wholly different and diametrically opposed paradigm:
A condition of friendship is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another. And one is drawn to it not by need but by choice. If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy. As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist. But until a lover seeks to possess his beloved, the love has hardly begun. Where love is all about the juggling of the power to hurt, friendship is about creating a space where power ceases to exist. There is a cost to this, of course. Friends will never provide what lovers provide: the ultimate resort, that safe space of repose, that relaxation of the bedsheets. But they provide something more reliable, and certainly less painful. They provide an acknowledgement not of the child within but of the adult without; they allow for an honesty which doesn’t threaten pain and criticism which doesn’t imply rejection. They promise not the bliss of the womb but the bracing adventure of the world. They do not solve loneliness, yet they mitigate it.
Nowhere does this glorious dimensionality of friendship blossom more beautifully than in a letter that Patrick wrote Andrew shortly after the two, gripped with equal trepidation, shared with each other the same devastating news that they had both been diagnosed with HIV:
With all that’s happened to us — together and apart — I’m inclined to think that somehow we were chosen to know each other, to help sustain each other, and to teach each other about the mysteries of loving, living, dying. After the initial crush of your news, when I had been prepared not to receive but to give a report on my HIV status to you, I found myself strangely grown more attached and connected to you, even protective of you, and I felt an effusion of love and tenderness that, for the first time since I met you, was not constrained by considerations of others, of anything or anyone another than you, and me, and our feelings for one another. Somehow I was able to love you wholly, and this gave me great strength to face the greatest fears I have known. How is it that such news can clear an immediate path between us, sweep away the debris and the impediments…?
Andrew never found out how the letter continued, since Patrick never mailed it. This first page was found among his possessions a year after his death.
Love Undetectable is an absolutely sublime read in its entirety — the kind that plays more strings of your soul than you knew you had.
Published April 23, 2014