Meredith Efken, author and good friend, was a presenter at the Sacred Friendship Gathering last April. In these next two posts she offers pathways to de-sexualizing intimacy in friendship while expressing friendship love in letter-form.
Dan asked me to write about my experiments with writing love letters to my friends. I was inspired by the research he mentions in his book about how platonic friends in past centuries wrote passionate love letters to each other. There are examples of these kinds of letters between same-gender friends as well as cross-gender. Some researchers assume now that these had to be secretly sexual relationships, no matter what the friends would publicly admit. The best online article I’ve found addressing that topic is this one, by Heather Elizabeth Peterson. It also explains why the idea of passionate friendship (without sex) is so difficult for some modern scholars to believe.
I assume that many of these historical “romantic friendships” really were true friendships and not secret love affairs. Their letters to each other expressing passion and longing were a challenge to me. I have a group of very close friends, both male and female, for whom I feel that same passion and deep love.
But could I express those emotions to them? Did I dare, in today’s culture where sex is used to sell everything from canned mushrooms to French cheese?
I decided to try.
My first concern was this: Is a passionate letter going to be a blessing to my friend or is it going to make him or her feel uncomfortable? And if they don’t feel comfortable writing a similar letter in response, will both of us be okay with that?
In my closest friendship circle are nine people--all novelists like me. Four are men, five are women (plus me, of course). We all met because of writers conferences over the years, and we live all over the United States. To carve out more time together, the last couple of years we’ve started a tradition of taking a retreat together, and it’s been an amazing journey. Spending extended time together like that has deepened our friendships and created something extremely precious among us.
We have begun to learn how to express our appreciation and affection for each other in healthy, life-giving ways. However, with several of them, (admittedly, especially three of the guys) I don’t think it would be right for me to try to send them love letters yet. I don’t know how they would feel about it, and for the guys, it might create some awkwardness with their wives who don’t know me nearly as well. I think showing love starts with being considerate and not pressing for more intimacy than the other person is ready for. And it’s definitely important to stay aware of how my actions may impact my friend’s relationship with his or her spouse.
Additionally, some of my other friends in this group (men and women) are not as comfortable with lavish displays of affection and might feel awkward about receiving a friend love letter that uses romantic language. Some might feel like they’d be expected to write a similar letter in return, even though they would feel uncomfortable about it. I love them too much to put them in such an awkward spot. I try to be careful not to be too “mushy” with them--though sometimes, I think they like it in small doses.
So my guideline is first to show my love for my friends by being considerate. Just because I would love to receive a love letter from a friend doesn’t mean that all my friends feel the same way. Or they might really enjoy it, but it wouldn’t be worth the friction it might cause with their spouse. I think it’s important to consider these things ahead of time.
If a love letter isn’t going to work, there are certainly plenty of other ways to express love to a friend. At our retreats, some of my friends show love by cooking amazing meals. We take walks on the beach. Since we are all Christians (more or less), we pray and share communion together. Some of us sit through American Idol episodes even though we hate reality TV, just because the others love it. We talk and cry and brainstorm each other’s books, and help each other with our writing careers.
I’ve made art pieces for them, and we’ve told each other what we appreciate about each other. We laugh. We play poker. We hug. When we’re apart, we email and text and Skype.
There are so many, many ways to express love for each other. But still, I wanted to try something new. I wanted to take a risk and see what it was like to free-fall into a new place of intimacy. I wanted to try writing a friend love letter.
I started with the two people in my group of friends I am especially close to--one is a man, the other is a woman. With both of them, I’ve developed a very close, trusting and intimate friendship. With my male friend, we have already worked through a lot of the challenges facing cross-gender friends who are married to other people.
I knew that writing them love letters was not going to make either of them uncomfortable or cause them to feel any pressure to reciprocate.
My first attempt was painfully artificial. Even though I’m a writer, I haven’t actually written a lot of love letters, even to my beloved husband. We say the words to each other all the time, but we don’t often write them. So it didn’t come as easily as I would have thought.
The other problem was that passionate language has been completely sexualized. How can I say “I want you” to my friend without there being a sexual connotation? How can I express desire, longing, and the exquisite joy of being with my friend without it feeling sexual?
It seemed everything I thought of either felt uncomfortably sexual to me, or too bland, too platonic. Too stilted. Or it sounded like a cheap imitation of the florid Victorian love letters I was trying to imitate.
At one point, I thought maybe this was pointless. Maybe friends in the 21st century just aren’t cut out to express passion and reclaim romantic language for friendship. Maybe I should just read the historic letters of friendships past and be content with enjoying them.
But I am pretty stubborn. I knew I had to give it one more try.
And this time, something amazing happened.