Beshrew your eyes,
They have o’erlook’d me and divided me,
One half of me is yours, the other half yours,–
Mine own I would say: but if mine then yours,
And so all yours.
~ Portia to Bassanio, ‘Merchant of Venice’
You’d think relationships were everywhere, listening to us talk. But there is no such thing as a “relationship,” not really. Not in actuality. There are friends, comrades, cohorts, enemies, craftsmen, bosses, parents, siblings, lovers, wives, and husbands. But there is no such thing as a generic, neutral “relationship.” The fact that today we use the term to apply to all interactions indiscriminately should tell us something about ourselves.
What does it tell us? It tells us that we are so agnostic that we recoil from attributing any qualitative character to our personal interactions. That’s why we use the word “relationship.” Do you have a new love interest? You aren’t going to call it that, are you? You aren’t going to call it a romance, a courtship, or even a new seduction. That’s far too much commitment for you. You’re going to call it a new relationship. That’s our depth—that’s all the further we are prepared to go. We won’t even call our dates by that word. We say we are “hanging out.” That term fits us better because it maintains our agnosticism about the situation.
The generic and empty word “relationship” signifies, at best, a neutral exchange or an agreement between to autonomous parties. It does not imply anything about the participants, in and of itself. It is a business term pertaining to purely external things, something a race of traders would bandy around. That’s us though, isn’t it? We’re spiritual barterers, traders of friendships, hagglers of love. We peddle our wares and we handle the wares of others as commodities, trying to get the best deal, leaving the rest, sometimes splurging if we feel courageous or lonely, but always careful, always cautious not to go any further than “relationship.”
A relationship is a colorless, vacant monstrosity. It is evil not because of what it is, because it is really nothing; it is evil because of what it excludes. It is not an excess, it is a negation. It harms us not by leading us to an extreme, but by putting a perverse limit on our souls, inducing an inner atrophy.
In the way we use it, the term excludes the possibility of giving oneself for nothing. A relationship always implies two-way traffic. Two-way traffic isn’t bad, by any means. Two-way traffic is the ideal. When I give love I’d like to receive love; when I come to the aid of a friend I’d like to think that he’d come to mine. But I can’t know ahead of time that my love and aid will be reciprocated. I can’t know that I’ll be repaid in my friendships. If I knew, or demanded to know ahead of time, then it wouldn’t be a friendship and it wouldn’t be love. It would be a relationship. Relationships exclude love.
Relationships are safe. That’s probably the main reason they became the norm for a cowardly age. We were born into a sexually liberated world where everyone is personally atomized, alone, trustless. We were born in a time when something like life-long marriage sounds almost inconceivable. That’s why we don’t often have marriages. They are simply too risky. We don’t have friendships either. They take too much time. We have relationships in which we know the cost and in which we can control the level of commitment, which is always a minimum.
No one can really blame you for using this lens to view the world. You came into a society where ‘community’ is a ridiculous notion. The Andy Griffith show isn’t quaint for you—it’s stupid. Naïve to an extreme. The picture it paints is so far from your reality that you cannot even indulge in the playful exaggerations. You don’t see the humor. You don’t have the capacity for nostalgia to which shows like that were made to appeal. You can’t imagine a community in which everyone is either friend or neighbor, where you are intimate with everyone even if it is only because you know of their vices and they know of yours. This is the world of “relationships.”
We’ll have to change that, you and I. We’ll have to start taking risks at some point. At some point we’ll have to leave the safety of the relationship behind. We’ll have to rediscover the concept of sacrifice. That is something we could sink our teeth into, is it not? “Greater love hath no man…” and all that stuff. That’s where the fire is.
Obviously neither of us wants to die for a friend or for love, but we can and should want the possibility to at least be open to us. Else what will you do when, someday, you find yourself so rapt in affection for another human being that you feel inclined to make the sacrifice or take the bullet. In order to open that possibility we have to open ourselves again to love in its greatest extent, and this requires the rejection of relationships.
You’ll have to go further than just changing your language, but language truly is a start. You’ll find that difficult enough just applying qualitative terms instead of neutral ones. You’ll have to call a date a date. That’ll torture some of you beyond belief. You’ll have to make investments of yourself that you know will have little to no return.
Risks—real risks! That’s where the pain is, but that’s where the depth of human feeling lies as well. That’s where your humanity is hiding. Relationships are sterile. Bring back the life. The dirt and grime will come too, but oh the beauty of life!—it’s worth a bit of dirt here and there.