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If You Want a Relationship, You Need More Than Two People

If You Want a Relationship, You Need More Than Two People

A Russian philosopher helps explain.

We got married a year after meeting at a friend’s birthday party. The whole thing was practically an Ocean’s style heist. They pitched him. They talked me up. They told my life story. They showed photos of me at parties. They did the same thing for him. They showed me pictures of him hiking in Europe and Africa, along with a video of the one time he’d gone out dancing. He was smart. Adventurous, quiet.

Two big friend groups came together that night, packing the back room of our favorite bar. That’s where we eyed each other, biding our time, catching up with acquaintances. Finally he walked up and introduced himself. We spent the rest of the night side by side.

We knew what was going to happen.

We try to do it all by ourselves.

You don’t hear a lot of stories like this anymore. Everyone’s bumping, swiping, and grinding. We’ve outsourced one important factor in dating to a handful of apps and algorithms.

Nobody lets their friends set them up anymore.

You might even say we don’t have those kinds of close friends now. We’re so busy hustling, we don’t spend nights just hanging out. We don’t linger over dinners and then go somewhere else for ice cream or drinks. We think it’s all a big waste of time now.

You still need friends.

Gary Vee and everyone else is wrong. You shouldn’t close your eyes until your 30. You shouldn’t be working 12 hours a day churning out content or developing some personal brand.

You should be out making actual friends.

Some of us do (or did) spend a little too much time crawling from one bar to the next for hours on end. I regret some of that, but not all of it. Just sitting around coffeeshops on campus is how I wound up meeting half the city I lived in, and reading a lot of books.

This extended social circle is how I got dates. We played matchmaker with each other all the time.

Once in a while, it worked.

Even when it didn’t, dating around gave us valuable life experience. We gained insight into ourselves. We learned what we wanted, and what relationship skills we lacked.

You need other people to understand yourself.

One day I was reading through a Russian philosopher named Mikhail Bakhtin, waiting for my penultimate boyfriend to show up. That’s when I stumbled across a passage that changed everything I thought about love and identity. It also ended my relationship.

Here’s what he said:

Individualistic confidence in oneself, one’s sense of personal value, is drawn not from within, not from the depths of one’s personality, but from the outside world.
— Mikhail Bakhtin, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Basically, the story of who you are is told by other people — not just you. What we call an identity is the emergence of all of our social interactions and relationships, including the romantic ones.

This flies in the face of Western attitudes about identity. We’re always yapping about self-made this, self-made that.

My fiance at the time hated this critique. He argued with me about it for hours. He was a Neo-Platonist. I was postmodern. He thought I was corrupt to the core, and that he would save me with the Socratic method. He wound up just making himself mad.

A few months after that argument, we broke up.

Chalk it up to philosophical differences.

Your friends play a huge role in your love life.

Let’s stop pretending they don’t, or that they shouldn’t. You can’t kick your friends out of the bedroom — not figuratively. They’re in your head all the time. They inflect your thoughts.

They speak through you.
They shape your desires.
This is why you choose them carefully.

On a literal level, most of us want our friends to approve of our partners. We need them to get along. If someone can’t make it through a weekend with your friends or family, it’s a bad sign.

Your friends aren’t just appendages.

They’re you. They’re a reflection of your entire worldview. This is exactly something I tried to ignore in half my relationships. I didn’t think it was important if my friends had trouble getting along whoever I was dating. Who I dated was my choice.

Finally, my last failed relationship changed my mind.

He couldn’t survive a party with my friends. He got jealous. He threw tantrums over board games. He tried to one-up everyone during conversations. The nights usually ended with me having to calm him down and reassure him that we’d be okay.

We weren’t.

After the breakup, my friends decided to take matters into their own hands. They were going to jump-start my next love connection.

I didn’t take kindly to it at first.

I felt like I was being manipulated. It almost felt like an arranged marriage. But things clicked so fast, my protests died off.

You learn a lot by watching someone’s friends.

Our first date wasn’t dinner and a movie. It was brunch with a group of friends. He gave me a ride. Brunch was hosted by a marine who worked as a bartender and wrote poetry on the side.

He topped off everyone’s orange juice with vodka.

There must’ve been 20 people there. It was the best kind of first date. The tone was relaxed. We didn’t feel the need to say or do any of the usual first date crap. We got to see each other in action with our friends. Everyone was already treating us like a couple.

We wound up hanging out for most of the day, and I learned more about him than I’d learned about anyone in that amount of time. He listened to people. He made quirky observations. He made everyone feel good. He was fine staying just left of the spotlight. We weren’t just talking about ourselves, we were showing our real character.

It makes conventional dates go better.

We didn’t go on an official date until meeting each other at three different social events with lots of people. Then we went out for a simple dinner. The intimacy hit us right away.

Dinner turned into a long walk.

Soon we were holding hands. A few minutes later, we were kissing on a bench near a fountain.

We felt like we’d known each other for a long time. It wasn’t because of some quiz or a list of questions. It was because we had so many friends in common, and their history was our history.

It helped that he was really good looking.

Friends help you solve problems in a relationship.

You have to be careful who you share your business with. That doesn’t mean you should keep everything a secret.

Good friends can help with your relationships. Maybe they’re not a counselor, but they know you better than you think.

They know when you’re sabotaging yourself. They know what you want or need but won’t say out loud. Your partner’s friends know this too. They know their friends. They can share knowledge to help you both chisel around your obstacles. They can mediate.

When your partner does something strange, they can help you understand why. They can give you context.

They can even vouch for you.

Example:

My future husband’s mom wasn’t too sure about me at first. It was going to be a problem. She was afraid I’d break his heart. She didn’t know if I was virtuous enough, since I didn’t go to church.

His mom was a language arts teacher at a local high school. One day she mentioned me to one of the younger teachers, someone she trusted. She unloaded some of her worries. The younger teacher happened to be one of my best friends, going back ten years. I also knew his sister. We’d gone camping and hiking together all throughout college.

He said, “Jessica’s one of my favorite people.” Then he told her a few stories that put me in a positive light, and showed her I actually had a value system that didn’t hinge on organized religion.

In-law tension melted away. His mom actually gave me a chance, because we had a trusted friend in common. Maybe we would’ve worked through these problems on our own. But having that friend saved us from years of awkward Zoom calls and family dinners.

Don’t underestimate your friends.

We think it’s all on us to build love with someone. We think we have to start from scratch. Some of us might’ve even decided to turn our love life completely over to robots who judge our compatibility with someone based on the most superficial personality traits.

We don’t build friendships the way we used to. We invest so much time and energy into personal brands, even if we have nothing to sell. This could be the reason why so many people feel so profoundly alone.

It kills me that right now the parties and brunches where I finally stuck love can’t happen, and probably can’t for a long time. Over the last few years, I’ve let my own friendships wither a little.

When this is over, let’s get back to friendship. Let’s stop thinking everything we need comes from within, or from a screen.

We need friends.

It’s never too late to go get some.

Thanks to Dan Moore.

Image by Angelo Cordeschi

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