Over the past couple of years, I’ve broken, repaired, and been broken by a handful of relationships. To say that it’s been painful and dramatic for most parties involved would be an understatement. In any case, one consequence of all my personal relationship drama is that I’ve been thinking more deeply about how relationships function. I’ve come to a few conclusions, which might very well change again in the future. Regardless, here they are.
The first is the one I came to the quickest and perhaps the one I believe the most: Attraction is very much illogical.
I think, for most of my life, that I have unconsciously believed the opposite. Now that I think about it, this might have come from conflating the concepts of liking and attraction. They’re related, but not synonymous, as far as I can tell.
To like someone means that there is an inherently positive feeling within you regarding the person that you like. One usually begins to like someone else for some reason (a personality characteristic, for example), after they have gotten to know them to some degree. Liking is logical in the sense that, if you genuinely like somebody, you will be able to come up with reasons why.
Attraction, however, is another matter. It’s that factor, often primal and unexplained, that draws one person to another. One does not need to know nearly anything about a person before they can experience attraction towards them. Attraction may initially draw people together; once they are together, they might subsequently start finding logical reasons to actually like each other. Liking can lead to attraction, of course, especially of the sexual kind, but it is not a prerequisite to attraction. You can be attracted to someone you’ve never spoken a word to, and who may not even align with what you consider your “type.” Hence my belief that attraction is mostly illogical.
It is probably clear by now, but just in case: I am speaking of attraction in the broadest interpersonal sense, not just the sexual one.
As a gray-ace person, I experience a lot of strong attractions that are far from sexual. For me, this means that it often manifests in the form of almost absurdly intense friendships. My attraction to someone provokes me to start a friendship, then it proceeds to color that friendship with something close to obsession, on my part. This has happened to me with most of my best friends, and my most recent ex-best friend, Joshua, was no exception.
It was during my relationship with Joshua (we were best friends for four years) that I really began to understand how illogical attraction is. I liked him, of course, and I could provide several reasons why: he was gentle, extremely kind, a fantastic listener, had good taste in art, phenomenal musical talent and singing voice even if he refused to believe it, and most importantly for me, he understood me better than anyone ever had before. Creatively and intellectually, we were good with each other. Emotionally, however, we were not.
There was a near-perpetual friction in our relationship. It got to a point where I felt like I was constantly angry at him about something, whether it was his general inertia, his noncommunicative tendencies, his chronic forgetfulness, or just indifference to my mood and emotional needs. Besides, I was almost always giving more than I was getting.
Hindsight is 2020, isn’t it? I loved him more than anyone else in the world, but it was obvious from at least two years into the friendship, even to both of us, that we should not have been best friends. The latter two years of our friendship was punctuated with Joshua frequently telling me that I needed to leave him, and me thinking I needed to leave him but refusing to. I refused to because I was desperately, illogically, attracted to him.
Despite how unhealthy and unbalanced our friendship was, I wanted him—specifically him—as my best friend. There were at least two other people in my life that would probabaly have been much healthier besties for me—one of whom is my current bestie (love you, sis!)—but I wanted him. And there is no logical reason why. All the reasons that I liked him did not make up for the fact that our friendship made me stressed out and miserable. I was attracted to him to the full extent that an ace person can be attracted to somebody: you want to get as close to them as possible (and leave sex completely out of it).
Why do people stay with people that are bad for them? With people that frustrate them out of their minds? Why do people keep going back to other people despite warning signs that are impossible to ignore? Whatever it is that draws people to others in the absence of reasonable explanation is what I understand as attraction. It’s value-neutral, automatic, unintentional. Who we are attracted to doesn’t have to make sense.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that who we aren’t attracted to doesn’t have to make sense, either. I have met a lot of people that seem, on surface level, like they should be compatible with me—similar interests, talented, generally quite nice—but I have no interest in being intentionally friends with them. And it’s really not their fault, nor is it mine. (I don’t experience sexual attraction the way allosexual people do, but I imagine that sexual attraction functions quite similarly.)
This is almost too obvious to even spell out, but most people don’t want to sleep with everysingle person of the gender(s) they’re attracted to. You may have people in your life of those genders that you love dearly with all your heart, but it wouldn’t even cross your mind to consider having sex with them. And “catching feelings” doesn’t always work like it does on Disney Channel, where the besties-for-years almost always end up being romantically attracted to each other. It’s assumed (I know this from experience) that when allosexual people who are generally attracted to each other’s genders spend enough time together, they will inevitably end up catching feelings. But the simple truth is: People are just not attracted to who they are not attracted to.
I was never sexually attracted to Joshua, and, as far as I know, he was never sexually attracted to me. (I have no idea how things would have turned out between us if that had been the case. My guess is either catastrophic decimation or transcendental devotion, no in-between.) If you asked me why not, I couldn’t tell you. I liked him more than enough to make the gray in my gray-aceness pop all the way out, but it did not. If you asked him why not (and I have), he wouldn’t be able to tell you either. We are currently not speaking, but when we were, I found out that he couldn’t explain why he wasn’t romantically (or even generally, really) attracted to me, nor why he was attracted to his girlfriend.
I’m talking a lot, and I’ve only used one relationship in my life as an illustration, but I think I’ve made my point to satisfaction.
Another thing I now believe strongly about relationships is this: We are different people with different people. C.S. Lewis explained it briefly but eloquently in The Four Loves, one of my favorite nonfiction books:
I believe this strong influence of friends on each other is true for at least most people. As a highly suggestible person, I probably experience it to exaggerated degrees, which has helped me notice it more. I may discover, for example, that if I spend much time with a particularly funny friend, it becomes part of my personality to not only make more jokes (especially around them), but the jokes I make would fit well into their brand of humor.
Of course, the friendship influence can be a lot subtler and more general. A friend may unconsciously influence another to be kinder, or crueler; more creative, or more logistical; more spiritual, or less—and so on.
I want to modify my central statement a bit, because “We are different people with different people” strikes me, even now, as an exaggeration. It would be more truthful to say that each person we are in relationship with might magnify a different part of our character. It is not that we change and literally become different people; it is more like something that is already inside us grows big enough to temporarily obscure other things within us. Some of my friends/acquaintances may know me predominantly as a cynic, others predominantly as a creative person, others as predominantly Africanist, or predominantly Christian, etc.
I am intense, I am obsessive, and I am prone to addiction (and I believe one can be addicted to a person). So imagine me in an intense friendship for several years, how my understanding of myself may become so tied to the other person, influenced by them, to some extent constructed around them. And then, almost suddenly, I am ungraciously extricated from the relationship. “Unmoored” would be an understatement! The consequence of such a breakup is that, for a long time, I cannot figure out who the hell I am even though I’ve known myself all my life, and neither can I figure out why this is the case. (Clarity is often delayed in the presence of overwhelming emotions, as I suspect you know.)
A small but important part of what I’m trying to say is that losing someone is pretty literally like losing a part of yourself.
Yet another thing I believe is that it is so much easier to accept someone with all their sins when you are not the one whom they sinned against in the past.
I have a friend whom I have sinned against and who has sinned against me. Our sins against each other have had repercussions that may linger still, even though we have since reconciled.
Before we reconciled, in a season when I harbored tons of anger and bitterness towards them, they were still making new friends. At least one of those new friends had heard my version of the story of how my friend had grieved me. But if I thought that would dissuade this person from making friends with my old friend, I was mercifully wrong. Their friendship grew, even though this person and I had been on good terms; even though they knew that the friend they were making was on bad terms with me.
I don’t think it hit me until very recently, just how personal emotions are. The intellect can grasp facts and fact-like statements without provoking visceral reactions. If I tell somebody my story of how someone hurt me, they might think, “OMG, that’s awful! I’m so sorry that happened to you.” But my story will likely not make them automatically as homicidal as I am towards the bad guy in my narrative. (Just as a caveat, though, I personally have no tolerance for rapists, and so if someone has sexually violated a person I know, I will feel homicidal towards that person even though I was not the one sinned against. Pray for me if you want.)
When my friendship with Joshua ended, I told some of my friends, perhaps a bit too briefly or incoherently, how he had hurt me. And after I did that, to go on the TL, for instance, and see all my friends—whom I thought loved me—interacting with Joshua on the TL like my heart wasn’t in the worst shape it had ever been, almost drove me mad. My expectation was that, if those who loved me found out that someone had grieved me, they would henceforth behave towards that person as though they were the ones personally grieved.
LMAO. I got jokes, innit.
Even speaking for myself, I would probably have very little issue making friends with someone whom I know has a history of broken relationships (whether of familial, platonic or romantic natures) behind them. It is especially easy when I don’t personally know whoever it is they have a broken relationship with. And, as illustrated earlier, it also seems easy for people who do personally know the person who was sinned against. Writing this, I can think of several people who have gone ahead and built friendships with people I have temporarily severed from my life.
I’m having to learn to accept this as one of the things I cannot control, no matter how it hurts.
Last one for this post: It is very difficult to maintain meaningful friendships with people whom you don’t feel like you can be your full self around.
If you think about this, this is related to the point about us being different people around different people.
It is most often unintentional, when we make people feel like they can’t be their full selves around us. What happens is, we make assumptions of our friends based on what we know about them—sometimes accurate, sometimes false. A friend might have an active sex life, for example, but feel like they can’t express their sensual side around me because I am celibate. Or perhaps someone who is accustomed to casual swearing may find themselves stilting their own words around a friend who is personally committed to Christian-like purity in their language. These things are not exclusively from fear of judgment, I think; sometimes, it’s just vague discomfort or self-consciousness.
I suspect this is why people compartmentalize friendships: they are comfortable with certain friends about certain things, and not about the rest. So you have your cinema-buddy friends, which may be different from your book club friends, who may be different in turn from your party squad, your study buddies, your church friends, etc. I don’t think I have ever gotten used to the idea of compartmentalizing friendships, though—for better or worse, I don’t even know.
I have had to ask myself why I am able to maintain close friendships with very select people at any given time, while being around other friends for too long tends to exhaust me. This phenomenon is one of the answers I’ve come up with: I might like a certain person immensely, hut if I don’t feel like I can be my full self around them, we are probably not going to have a very intimate relationship. Besides, I feel like I can sense when someone doesn’t feel fully comfortable around me. Such feelings have an energy that pervade the air.
This, I think, is why being around certain people energizes me. It takes a lot of energy to hold back various parts of yourself at a time, hence the exhaustion. Conversely, the freedom of releasing all those restrained parts in the presence of someone else is immensely relieving. A lifted weight you might not even have been aware that you were carrying.
Kindred spirits are hard to come by. And besties—true besties—are downright blessings.
-Akotz the Spider Kid