platonic intimacy, pushing the vulnerability boulder, and WHAT IS LOVE? (baby don't hurt me!)

my friends are the loves of my life and I will say it loudly!

“Anyway, I put your name down [as my emergency contact]. You’re my person.”

“I am?”

“Yeah you are. Whatever.”

I used to spend a lot of time bagging on romance movies and proclaiming my hatred for them. The Notebook was the one I hated most of all. Titanic, too. They were so cheesy and gross. I later realized that part of this was simply internalized misogyny and my rejection of anything that might seem too much of like a “chick flick” or fling me into the hopeless romantic category. Then, my junior year of high school I realized that actually most if not all of my favorite movies, the same ones that I cherish so dearly today, rewatching over and over, are romance movies.

You’ve Got Mail, Big, Stranger Than Fiction, Ever After, Moonstruck, The Wedding Planner, Working Girl, Ten Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, Clueless—just to name, you know, a few.

The difference between these movies and the “chick flicks” I so despised, I realized, was the genuine and authentic connection that existed between the characters who are purported to be in love. The romance in You’ve Got Mail is real not because Tom Hanks’ character is doing wild, silly crap like hanging from a ferris wheel to ask out a girl he barely knows—it’s real because it shows two people who think they know each other but don’t, and in getting to know each other, slowly and quietly fall in love over conversations of bouquets of sharpened pencils, moral issues, and what it means to grow into the best version of yourself.

Similarly, in Ten Things I Hate About You, the main characters who end up falling in love connect because they’re fake dating (well, okay, only one of them knows this), and in fake dating do fun things and also get to know each other through another lens. In essence, the foundation of any romance movie or show that comes off as romantic that I actually enjoy is that it is built on friendship, the appreciation of knowing exactly who someone is, which includes the messy parts, and investing anyway. Boy Meets World (Shawn & Cory’s friendship is epic, please don’t touch me), Good Will Hunting (which I maintain is a movie truly about the friendship between Will and his therapist, played by Robin Williams), the friendship between Meredith and Cristina in Grey’s Anatomy.

In the years since realizing these things, I’ve fully and enthusiastically accepted and dived head first into my understanding of myself as a “hopeless romantic” and appreciator of romance movies. Leaning into my love of love and intimacy has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself—mostly because it’s opened the door to being full of gratitude for and prioritizing the foundation of those movies—friendship and platonic intimacy and love.

Because I grew up moving around so much, I never got the experience of having friends I’ve known since I was very young like so many people I know. Making friends was really hard. Now, my oldest friends are from middle school, and my oldest good friends who I still have the strongest connection with are from high school. I used to be upset about my lack of friendships that have rich histories—years and years behind them. Seeing friendships play out in books and movies is how I learned about how to be a friend, how to be curious about other people, and how to do things that show you’re invested in being in someone’s life. That cute bleachers shit that Heath Ledger pulls in Ten Things? I would absolutely do something like that for a friend. I have.

Moving around meant that making new friends still felt difficult every time. Ultimately, I tried too hard to get people to like me. I got bullied for it. I was told I was “too nice in an annoying way.” I lost a lot of friendships because people felt I was too intense. I used to feel guilty and bad about this. I used to think I was “too much.” A lot of the time I still do. Some of my greatest abandonment issues stem from that fear of being “too much” and I used to hold myself back from being my fullest self and loving people too hard or putting “too much” effort into friendships and relationships because I might scare someone else off. As my therapist would say, I do this thing where I contort myself into whatever shape I think someone wants me to be because I want to be “good enough” for them. 

In July I was FaceTiming with my friend Turner, who lives in Nashville, and talked about her birthday and what she wanted to do for herself. She said she didn’t know and I asked her to explore her wildest dreams. When she said she wanted to throw a galaxy/heavenly bodies themed party, I was like “COOL, BOOKING THE FIRST TRIP TO NASHVILLE AND HELPING YOU PUT IT TOGETHER.” Then I proceeded to show up to Nashville, made a special cake, themed cocktails, and dressed up as the moon. Part of friendship and platonic intimacy, I think, is being ready and enthusiastic to jump into make someone’s dreams come true however you can.

I think a lot of the time if we’re “failing” in relationships, romantic or not, struggling to be the kind of partner or friend we want to be, communicate our needs, or build meaningful rituals, or we don’t feel we have the kinds of friends we can turn to and rely on, it’s because we are distancing ourselves from vulnerability, and therefore intimacy itself. And if you’re not the person doing the distancing in a relationship but it doesn’t seem to be working the way you want it to, it’s likely the other person is distancing themselves from vulnerability somehow.

Sitting at my friend John’s kitchen table this weekend, he and our friend Michael, his roommate, talked about friendship and relationships—how much work they are. Like a boulder you’re pushing up the hill. You are Sisyphus. The friendship is the boulder you are pushing for all eternity—and once you get it to the top, it rolls down and you’re tasked with starting all over again. But it’s too easy to have been hurt and allow that to make you feel like you are “doomed” to carry this boulder always. If anything, it’s a privilege and a gift to constantly be pushing the boulder of vulnerability and friendship and figuring out how to roll it up the hill. Because you’re building muscles while you do it. And, sorry to be cheesy, but one of those muscles is your heart.

Last year, I lost a friendship with someone I was so close to I just assumed it would last forever. Friendship is different from relationships in that way—our cultural digest of it has not signaled that it’s likely it’s something with an expiration date. Spoiler alert: It did not last forever, obviously. Someone I’d been friends with for a long time, who I had lived with at one point, who I had shared the deepest parts of myself with, shared a bed with, been as platonically intimate as you can be with someone—they simply ended our friendship in the most hurtful way you could possibly end a friendship—out of the blue. Here’s the thing I’ve realized in the last six months or so, though: it wasn’t out of the blue. She was signaling to me for a while that she wasn’t able or didn’t have the desire to push the boulder anymore. And I wasn’t letting it roll down the hill.

At the root of the ways we build relationships is our desire to be witnessed or our fear of being witnessed. That is to say that being Seen and Known by others validates our existence, and the relationships we create speak to how much we want to be Seen and Known. Some people are not ready for that. Some people are so terrified of this that they have walls up—some people’s are made of branches and vines, easier to cut through and grow into something else, while others are made of bricks and mortar, much harder to break through and can usually only be undone if there’s a secret compartment they’ve built into those walls to be able to get out sometimes, or are willing to punch through the bricks themselves.

In order to build real intimacy with people, especially friends—people other than someone you intend to date or love romantically—you have to want to go through the effort of punching through, pushing the rock, opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being Seen and Known.

The end of that friendship opened up a lot of wounds about being “too much.” But, in leaning on good friends who are just as invested in me and our friendship as much as I am invested in them, I’ve been reminded of this: The people who genuinely get you and want to make it work will love you and be in your life. They will push the boulder with you. You will not be “too much” for them. And anyone who feels you are “too much” should not be in your life anyway—and they will probably stop pushing the boulder whenever they do, and you either fight for it or let it roll down the hill. But it’s okay if it rolls away. The point is that experiencing those relationships that have either withered away or been blown up like shrapnel in the revelation that we were not on the same page about how much we mattered to each other has allowed me the space and given me the capacity to put my energy and intimacy into friends who are in my corner and want to build something with me.

I think of Sam and Frodo from the Lord of the Rings books and movies a lot. If you’ve never read them or watched them, in essence, Frodo is tasked with this Impossible Task to quite literally go through hell and high water to destroy an evil ring, and his best friend Sam sticks with him through it all. Sam’s loyalty to Frodo during the series is his most notable quality—that their friendship is a defining fact of both of their lives, and they are so invested in each other that they stay bound through the very worst. There’s one scene in particular that, when I watched it when I was younger, was so informative in how I think about friendship—how I still do. During a climb up a mountain to finally destroy the ring, Frodo is too weak and physically unable to keep climbing. Sam knows he can’t carry Frodo’s burden. He reaches out to him and says, “I can’t carry it for you. But I can carry you.”

That is the way I think about friendship. The relationships we build are about the boulders we’re willing to push up again and again and wanting to do the work to build the intimacy. To carry things sometimes. Or know when to say we can’t carry them. Here’s the thing: not everyone is going to know how to or want to push the boulder with you. That is okay.

Sitting here writing this, I am listening to my special playlist for when I have a crush. I am thinking of my friends while I listen because the grand emotions and wonder present in the lyrics and the tempo describe the same feelings I have when I have a really good conversation about gender and religion with my best friend John, or when I cook dinner with my friend Han, or when I text about prison abolition or memes or writing with my friend Reina. I am in love with my friends and I feel so lucky to build with them, that each person I am friends with is a vast universe and I am grateful to be ricocheting from star to star inside of that friendship. I consider my friends to be my partners in life. And my life has been rich and varied and much more full of adventure because I have shared the world and my existence with many different people, constellated with so many relationships instead of limiting myself to experiencing that intimacy with only one person—my heart now full of many rooms and many people with keys to them. The love I have to give and the things I want to share with people has not been limited to an idea that there is one Someone Great to give it to.

When you have people in your life who you admire, respect, want to care for, and can also go through the hard times with, it’s not just about feeling less lonely, or even having fun, or being seen. It’s about love as a practice. That is so much more than can be boiled down into a romantic relationship. That is expansive. You have to love a lot of people to learn how to do it.

If you don’t have some sort of romantic love in your life this Valentine’s Day and it’s something you yearn for and feel bad for not having, that is okay. I know everyone says “fuck Valentine’s Day” and rages against the capitalism of it all, a la Tom from 500 Days of Summer who says it’s a bullshit holiday made up by greeting card companies. But I mean truly fuck Valentine’s Day in the sense that we should all be finding ways to acknowledge, celebrate, and cultivate love in our lives all the time. And we should all be looking around to try to see where it is and what it looks like in different forms and kinds of relationships—not just what we’ve been conditioned to think love is.

Last week I made Valentine’s Day cards for some of my best friends to let them know how much I love and appreciate them and then last night I held a small party for some of them (I decided it was going to be a Bisexual Celebration so everyone there was bi, because look, I am who I am) with chocolates, cheesecake, freshly baked cookies, pizza and wine. A lot of people I talk to about the kinds of events like this that I throw think it’s a lot of effort. I guess it is. But my friends are worth it. And I love hosting things and cooking things and giving experiences to my friends as a way of making them feel cared for and held.

I’m not saying everyone has to do things for their friends that are extravagant or require lots of effort. But you should be doing things for your friends that require some effort.

So I ask you today about the friendships you have—if they feel like boulders you are proud and grateful to push—and how you’re actively providing and asking for intimacy in your relationships, not just the romantic ones. Are you having conversations with the people you love, actively asking how they are and what they need? Do you know what’s going on in their lives? Are you asking them to do the same for you? How are you building intimacy and vulnerability in your life and tending to your friendships? What are your love languages? What do you want from your friends? What do you want to give them? How can you Show Up?

I am very lucky to know that my friends are the loves of my life. I am very grateful to have friends who are constantly building intimacy, trust, and safe space with me. They are my rocks, and not the kind that I am “doomed” to be pushing uphill forever, but instead the kind I am so very grateful to push and be pushed by. 

Sincerely,
Elly