Friendships and the couple ethos
On the basis of their study of same-sex intimacies in the 1990s, Weeks et al. (2001: 50) noted (as did numerous other studies) that friendship ‘is key to understanding non-heterosexual ways of life’. It was the most important recurring theme among the 98 narrators in their study (of whom at least 70 were partnered) and was central to non-heterosexual relational experiments and practices of care, commitment and trust. They note that in the context of lesbian and gay lives, friendships were especially significant as the basis of what Nardi (1999) terms ‘invincible communities’. For sexual minorities, friendships have been at the core of chosen families (Weston, 1991), and at the heart of critical sexual communities where ‘friendships […] often become de facto families’ (Altman, 1982: 90). As Weeks et al. (2001: 52) put it:
Friendships particularly flourish when overarching identities are fragmented in periods of rapid social change, or at turning points in people’s lives, or when lives are lived at odds with social norms [. ] they can allow individuals who are uprooted or marginalised to feel constantly confirmed in who and what they are [. ]. They offer the possibility of developing new patterns of intimacy and commitment [. ] these features give a special meaning and intensity to friendship in the lives of those who live on the fringes of sexual conformity [. ] provid[ing] both emotional and material support […] affirm[ing] identity and belonging.
The quotation above implies that the more marginalised are sexual minorities, the more friendships are likely to be important (see also Rubin, 1992). Elsewhere, Giddens (1991) has argued that it is primarily individualisation that makes friendship especially important as an exemplar of the pure relationship in late modernity, where adult relationships are more egalitarian because they can be ended by either party as a matter of choice. The difference between these analyses is that whereas Weeks et al. (2001) see non-heterosexual friendships as central to an enduringly embedded sense of relational connectedness, Giddens sees them as indicative of relatively free-floating individual choices. Weeks et al. make a different point: ‘Friends may change; new people may enter the circle. But friendship networks seem permanent […] In contrast to the vagaries of one-to-one [couple] relationships, friends […] are the focus of long-standing engagement, trust and commitment’ (2001: 61). They argue: ‘Friendships are most important when they have been embedded in ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions and patterns, when you are accepted for who you are’ (2001: 60). For marginalised lesbians and gay men, friendships can be an additional, or the only, source of emotional, social and material supports and of recognition and validation. Even where family of origin are accepting, friendships can provide affirmation of the ‘real’ self that family may not see.
In light of this, we were somewhat surprised by the extent to which our young partners’ accounts of their biographies, current lives and preferred sources of social support suggested friendships to be transitional relationships and friendship networks to be less important than the couple or family of origin. As we shall discuss in more detail below, friendships were a regular feature of our partners’ previous single lives. While some partners deemed their current friendships to be as important as family, and many couples and partners valued socialising with friends, couple and family relationships mostly trumped friendships when it came to current intimate and caring commitments or the preferred source of emotional, social and material supports at critical life moments (see Chapter 7). The general tendency was to see ‘mature’ couple commitments and family commitments as enduring ties, and friendships and friendship networks as more transitional bonds. Before considering this, and other notable features of the young partners’ friendships, we look at how friends and friendship networks were valued in relational biographies. Frazer (215a) implied that his search for a partner was partly influenced by his personal inability to make friends:
before the relationship I was probably very insular, very insecure, quite quiet person, I didn’t meet people very easily, I was very insecure of who I was and who I should be. So I didn’t make friends or meet people very well […]. But I knew what I wanted. I can say that much. I knew what I wanted in life and in a relationship, and I didn’t know how I was gonna go about getting it.
Those who described their lives before their current relationships as less than satisfying often mentioned the absence of friendships as much as they did partners. It is therefore unsurprising that friendships figured highly in biographical accounts of more satisfying single lives:
I’d been single for ages, living in [Place], living in a shared house, you know nice group of friends quite a lot of lesbian friends, and just kind of having a good time […] so I was quite happy, I was quite settled.
I was in university, wanted to meet somebody, a girl […] I wasn’t very confident with who I was really, certainly the first two years of university, and then in my third year I met some really good friends and we started going gay clubbing and we started socialising together, outside of gay clubs as well so it wasn’t all, sort of, loud music and alcohol related.
I had quite a close small group of friends that I used to be out with quite a lot [.] probably most weekends and sort of stay round their houses that sort of thing, and ’cause a couple of them had their own places, I was sort of chatting to guys and stuff on the internet, met a few guys […] relatively short-term relationships but nothing overly significant.
I think mostly I went out and I had a very, very active social life in terms of going out with friends for dinner and drinks and trying to meet people and trying to meet women.
In these quotations, friendship is linked to feelings of happiness, developing a sense of self-confidence, being settled, socialising, companionship and connectedness. Erotic friendships, as discussed by Blasius, are also hinted at in Tim and Edith’s quotations where meeting ‘guys’ or ‘women’ referred to casual sexual relationships. Overall, friendships played a crucial part in most participants’ lives before their current relationships. In some cases, friendships continued to be strong after the participant entered a partnership. These included friendships that were seen as family or as ‘better than’ family. In discussing their current relational lives, 10 out of 100 partners referred to friendship in this way:
my friends have always been the substitute family I’ve had. My family is quite fucked up.
as I said before you know I’m very close to my friends […] I classify so many of my friends as my adopted family.
I class my friends, I’m close [to], my friends are my family.
we’ve both through our lives and our experiences have got very good friends and we find the support that we have from our friends […] supersedes the support we have from our family, really to be honest.
my friends are the most stable thing. I have friends from high school we’re all really close and that […] my family life, it’s not bad it just hasn’t been consistently stable.
I think it, friends are probably more important to me I think than my, than my family.
Support, comfort, stability and continuity – many of the ideals associated with ‘family’ that given families fail to live up to – can be provided by friends. In addition to these explicit accounts that linked friendship and family, in four cases couples used the language of ‘family and friends’ consistently in a way that suggested that they were reluctant to make a distinction. This points to how friends and family could be highly suffused relationships: where in practice friends could provide the ‘goods’ associated with family, and where family could provide the goods associated with friendships (Pahl and Spencer, 2004). Partners themselves represented the most suffused relationships of all: they were spouses, family and also ‘best friends’. Among 10 female and 12 male couples, friends were a regular feature in their accounts of their relationships and lives, but not to the degree that they suggested ‘families of choice’ or highly suffused relationships. These were often socialising and couple friends and less often ‘close’ friends. Among eight female couples and seven male couples, friends were mentioned but not in any significant detail. Friends were clearly significant to many, but in only in 18 out of one 100 cases did they seem to be as centrally significant as suggested by studies of previous generations of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. This we suggest is in large part due to the dominance of the couple as a relational ideal, and to the extent to which most partners were invested in the couple at the point in their lives when we interviewed them (see Chapter 4).
One feature of young partners’ current and past friendships, which distinguishes them from previous generations, was the mixed nature of their networks in terms of gender and sexuality. Commenting on their study of same-sex intimacies in the 1990s, Weeks et al. note:
One significant feature of our interviewees is the tendency for close friendships to be homosocial, or single sex, though this is by no means universal […]. A number of gay men who we interviewed claimed to not know many lesbian and vice versa […] to an important extent lesbians and gay men inhabit different social worlds. Many lesbians and gay men do mix together in networks, but for others there is a barrier which separates them.
Weeks et al. (2001: 61)
In contrast, among our participants, both women and men tended to have friendships with heterosexual and non-heterosexual women and men. None had only single-gender friendships, and several had mostly heterosexual friends. As Eric (220a) put it, besides a couple of gay friends ‘all of our other friends are just normal heterosexual couples’. Eric’s comment raises three issues. First, among young partners the barriers to friendships that cut across gender and sexuality were rare, if not non-existent. Some women made a point of noting that they had friendships with mostly heterosexual and gay men, while some men also made a point of noting their friendships with heterosexual men and lesbians. The fact that they highlighted these suggests an awareness that these friendships might be seen to be surprising. Second, by emphasising that their friends included ‘just normal heterosexuals’, young partners often underscored their own claims to ordinariness. In doing so, they refused reductionist assumptions about their ways of life based on their sexuality or same-sex relationship. Third, like Eric, many young partners’ accounts of their friendships emphasised ‘couple’ friends. While some partners did maintain independent relationships with friends, couples tended to talk about their mutual friends. Also, while couples did maintain friendships with people who were not in relationships, they tended to value friendships with other couples. In these respects, their friends were people like themselves who, irrespective of their gender and sexuality, shared their relational values and were often also married:
for me it’s nice that a same-sex relationship has this potential to be able to view each other as husbands and married, and it’s been quite wonderful that the support of friends and people that have said to us, ‘Wow, I really admire the commitment’ it’s so great, you know, sign of the times that we are the first sort of revolutionary era in terms of same-sex relationships that this is possible.
For the hegemonic voices of previous generations of sexual minorities, marriage and husbands were obstacles in the way of the gender and sexual revolution. Nowadays, for people like OJ, claims to marriage and the ‘right’ to be a same-sex husband is a revolutionary claim. This reflects a shift in the kinds of communities that young same-sex partners’ relational imaginaries tend to be embedded in.