Wednesday, February 04, 2009

take responsibility for your relationships!


To answer your last question: merely pathetic.

While I agree with the author that social relationships can be divided into levels of intimacy and cohesion, I completely disagree with the valuation process. It completely ignores the more complex realities of social interaction.

Weingott is right that we have different degrees of social interaction: strangers, acquaintances, intimate platonic friends, and romantic partners. There are more of course, but for the sake of the conversation, let's leave it at that without getting into the vagaries of different levels of sexual/romantic intimacy and commitment. Strangers are those with whom we lack social ties. Once we form ties, however, the tie strength is dependent on so many things that social network theorists are still fighting over how to operationalize this variable. Most agree that we tend to form ties with people who are like us: homophily on the basis of race, gender, class, education level, activities, shared social ties, etc. I may form a tie with someone who is "like me" on whatever basis, but the tie strength will change as the relationship matures. Once the link is formed, it is not static--I have met people through a shared interest in a certain activity, and the at-first casual relationship deepened and became more intimate with time, the sharing of experiences and confidences. So Weingott gets it completely wrong by trying to decouple the "instrumental" and "intrinsic" valuation processes of relationships. Relationships, whether platonic or romantic, are rarely either one or the other. In fact, it would be a rather unfulfilling relationship if it were one or the other. Not that you need to get every personal need from a romantic partner or close intimate friend, but the bases of such relationships are complex, multi-layered, and difficult to disentangle from each other.

I am not disputing your argument that romantic relationships are inherently valuable. Far from it. It's more that I'm wondering how such an idea is even being disputed. My best friend of fifteen years is someone whose character I value greatly and whom I regard highly, and from whom I get many instrumental benefits: emotional support, physical affection, conversation, company, etc. My partner, who is also my best friend, supplies all of the same instrumental benefits, and I also value him highly. The two relationships are not completely comparable of course, because while I have the same life-long commitment to both, in the latter relationship the stakes are different (I am loathe to say "higher") because it carries a level of intimacy that is greater, and thus more complicated, than mere tie strength. If anything, I would have expected someone to argue that romantic relationships have an even greater intrinsic value than friendship (also a fallacious argument), because of the extra layers of intimacy that distinguishes a romantic relationship from a merely platonic relationship. I do not only mean sexual intimacy and the possibility of taking a dyadic social relationship and expanding it to form a new family unit and integrating each other's social networks and families. I also mean that it's just a different type of love, one that compels a person to contemplate forming a life-long commitment to another that is monogamous in ways that friendship is not (I can have many friends, and I am not polyamorous), and intimate in physical and emotional ways that friendship is not.

Much as I love my best friend, she is not my only best friend, and I have "broken up" with a few close friends in my time. When friendships dissolve because of distance (emotional or physical), it's as sad as one of those relationships that are "near misses" but for timing, distance, maturity, etc. When friendships break up because of acrimony, it's as bad as any breakup, and no, you probably don't keep in touch with that person, much as you value them as a person or the experiences you shared with that person. Much ink has been spilled over the sadness of a friendship breakup. Thus, I was kind of perplexed that there was even an argument to be made that friendship relationships are more valuable than romantic relationships, when I find them to be pretty comparable. If anything, I wish that people would see romantic relationships as being friendships with a huge degree of formal and informal commitment, and friendships as being every bit as complicated and pleasurable or painful as a romantic relationship. Then maybe people would act more responsibly and sensitively in both.

I'll move on from the points you covered about instrumentality and then debated with Weingott, and I'll even pass over the debate about the inherent sexism of holding one type of relationship more valuable than the other. Besides, I sort of agree that it's because romantic relationships have depreciated in estimation in current pop culture. It has done so, I think, because of the general tendency to see things either/or, rather than as being extremely complicated, as if you had to choose between everlasting love or everlasting friendship (and why anyone would assume that either is everlasting without work is beyond me). Didn't Carrie get more mad at Miranda's betrayal than she did at Mr. Big's in the Sex and the City movie? Didnn't Seth Rogen's character have to grow up and move out of his buddies' house in order to man up enough to stay with Katherine Heigl's character in "Knocked Up"? Anyway, that's neither here nor there. I'll let that part of the argument end.

Rather, I'm more interested in the idea of being "duped." Meaning, that when relationships end, some people think that they have been utterly manipulated and duped into liking/loving someone who has no other apparent redeemable qualities, with whom they have nothing in common, and for whom they have lost all respect and no longer consider "virtuous." Man, these people must have bad taste in others. Either that, or in doing so they attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility in selecting partners for themselves, or any role they may have had in perpetuating the relationship. I've had plenty of relationships, platonic and romantic, end. I wouldn't blame the other person for my involvement. Sure, everyone tries to market themselves as agreeable and sane, but otherwise relationships are not unilateral contracts made by a party with completely unequal bargaining power. I find it rather distasteful that someone would enter into a relationship with another and upon its end, abdicate all responsibility for their own emotional involvement. In a normal, non-rape type of relationship, no one is forcing them to respond positively to the purported charms of another, or enter into a romantic and physical relationship with the other. Why then the accusation of being duped? Why date someone you had nothing in common with? Why absolve yourself of human agency, free will, and responsibility? It's just such a cowardly cop-out.

So more than accusations of sexism in either direction, I'm more upset about this culture of victimization. Not victim-blaming, but rather the idea that we are all pawns in the game of love, that we are all overrun by biochemical reactions and subject to the machinations of more sophisticated lovers with no other redeemable virtues, and that we're all jutst basically sexual instruments. Ew. That's just not healthy. I would prefer a more mature conception of human interaction, one that's more complex. Otherwise, it's like that old sociology trope that we're all bound by constraints (institutional, societal, etc.), without acknowledging that everyone has agency and independent motivation. I protest againt this! Mainly because all of my bad relationships, platonic or romantic, have caused me to grow as a person and recognize bad signals in others and bad behavioral traits in myself. I've learned, through the counsel of others, how to dissociate myself from negative people and from bad relationships. To blame others for everything that has ever happened to me would be to deny this potential for growth and independence. Nowadays I have mostly healthy relationships with people whom I admire and from whom I learn to grow as a person. The relationships are both instrumental and inherently valuable: I enjoy their company and I value them as people. My current romantic relationship is great because we have become each other's best friend and main support, but we also have a deeper commitment to one another than I have ever had with any other person, and with each day we acquire new shared experiences that bring us closer. Were any of these relationships to end, I would be really sad, but I would also be really grateful for the experience. I would certainly accept my own part in the relationship, and I would feel like I learned something--but not that I was duped.