Update: America Magazine is also thinking about spiritual friendship!
It’s Holy Week, and, among other things, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ friendships. The betrayal, the loyalty, the falling-short, the fear, the tenderness, the accompaniment. How “he loved them to the end,” washed their feet, broke and shared bread, asked them to stay awake with him. How they followed him, were confused by him, let him down, surprised themselves, loved him. There are other models of spiritual friendship, too, like the first Jesuits, St. Vincent dePaul and St. Louise de Marillac, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande. I love learning about spiritual companionship, especially this Holy Week.
I’ve got to thinking about my own friendships, and how they might be changing now that I’m married.
In her speech at our wedding reception, my matron-(so old, K!)-of-honor and BFF poked fun at the fact that when I was in college, I set my calendar chock-full of “coffee dates.” Coffee dates were also known as check-ins or life chats; they implied deep conversations in the dining hall or our favorite on-campus sandwich shop. They could be shared with someone I’d just met and wanted to get to know better, or a longtime friend; topics could include funny stuff, hard stuff, meaningful stuff, spiritual stuff, relationship stuff, school stuff, any stuff. Coffee dates were the birthplace of my desire to join JVC, the mill where I processed my experiences, the laboratory where I explored the relationship between spirituality and social justice, the church where I found connection with now-lifelong companions on the journey. These coffee dates solidified many close friendships that I treasure.
Over the past several years, these friendships have transitioned through many moves, many locations, changes, breakups and engagements and weddings, grad school programs. These friends are dear to me, and have been central to my identity (That’s a dead-giveaway for my Enneagram type, no?). They are my “beloved companions,” as we say, and have been beautifully supportive of J. and I’s relationship, my most beloved companion. They have nurtured us, supported us, encouraged us, and sent us on into marriage.
Since being married, though, I can feel my relationship to my concept of friendships changing. Does that make sense? My identity as a friend, the way I receive my friends, how I think about friendships – essentially, the “way I do friendship” – feels like it’s changing. This feels both painful and freeing.
On a pure logistical level, it has proven difficult to maintain long-distance friendships. We live in a small apartment where you can hear every conversation, and I’m less inclined want to have a “phone date” with a good friend (often of epic lengths, 2+ hours! You know who you are) when J. is studying most evenings. We are learning how to live together, and I haven’t yet figured out how to do long distance phone chats without feeling overly distracting (J., of course, is a great sport about this, using headphones or shutting the office door. It’s me who feels rude!). There are other times when I feel I am less transparent to friends when J. can hear me, and this impacts our ability to connect over the phone. Sometimes self-consciousness and fear gets in the way, too, like when I don’t call my friends back for WEEKS because there’s never a perfect or quiet time, or if J. is around I don’t want my friends to think I’m not giving them my undivided attention, or if I fear I will be perceived as not prioritizing friendships if I need to cut our conversation short for any reason (Bleh! Projection!).
Other times, phone chats are inclusive of J., when we are both on speakerphone or Skype and we all talk together. Sometimes this strategy is super fun, and other times it feels like it’s compromising our individuality (i.e., “From now on, we come as a packaged unit! Get used to it, friend!”). For example, my BBF and her husband, who live in London, share the same small apartment logistics as we do, and that often means that her husband will pipe in our conversations unannounced (something I usually find funny and lovingly accept, but was something I initially had to get used to). While including our partners in some parts of our friendships is expected and healthy and welcome, it’s nonetheless a change. Recently, I experienced the opposite of this inclusion, when my college buddies and I planned a fun girls’ weekend away, with no boyfriends or fiancés or husbands allowed. It was super fun to think about a mini-reunion, and I’m a huge fan of women-only time, so it surprised me to notice myself hesitating. It surprised me to hear myself say “That sounds great! Let me talk with J. and get back to you,” to think about the financial implications for a weekend away, to consider 3 nights without J. almost cruel in the context of NFP. I am learning how to balance being a conscientious wife and good friend at the same time; most of the time, these two identities support each other and are not at-odds, but they have challenged my sense of balance. I think this is why couples seek out “couples’ friends”; it feels easier in many ways! We’ve loved spending time with the young married couples at our parish, and are grateful for community in marriage.
For in-person hangouts with local friends, J. and I have talked about our expectations for making plans. As a general rule, we try to check-in with each other before making plans during times that we have named as important for us to be together, such as weekday dinnertimes and weekend mornings. At the same time, we both find it super important to support each others’ friendships outside of our relationship and try to help each other facilitate this in a way that is also respectful of our bond.
Other times, I’d simply rather spend quality time with J. than be with friends, in a quiet evening together at home. I can feel my care and attention turning inward to our household, not in a self-absorbed way hopefully, but in a way that honors the sacredness of this new beginning for us and the fact that this new thing growing takes time. I find myself prioritizing J.’s needs and our relational needs. I suppose I feel less available for friend time as I seek to create more space for our marriage. This startles me; I had always reacted against this sort of turning inward. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to turn you outwards, in service to others?!
Theologian Richard Gaillardetz (who is quickly becoming my go-to), instead talks about this turn to the relationship as a “freely chosen limitation…to explore the depth of human experience with this one person over the breadth of human experience that can be explored prior to a marital commitment” (A Daring Promise, p. 55). Strength and identity in this one unique relationship, then, can send us outwards in service, but not without first freely choosing to be limited. This marriage should make us better friends to each other, better friends to others, a better daughter and son, better able to serve. Choosing this limitation paradoxically becomes expansive.
This is one of my favorite photos from our wedding; our bond encircled with beloved companions.
May all know this warmth, companionship, and accompaniment.