A couple years ago, my best friend was arguing with her boyfriend about me.
This guy was a grade-A, emotionally abusive tool bag. Without going too far into the details of their relationship, I'll say that he had made it his mission to drive a wedge between my friend and me. Despite the fact that I lived thousands of miles away, he saw me as a threat to his hold on her.
Anyway, one night my friend (I'll call her Tara) and I had an especially hilarious conversation on the phone. I laughed until I cried, and so did she. The tool bag -- who I'll call T-Bag -- did NOT like this. In the midst of our laughter, Tara whispered, “Oh sh*t, I've gotta go. I'll call you back later.”
My stomach sank. Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t. What was happening? I tried to get in touch with mutual friends nearby to check on her, but since it was late at night in the U.S., I couldn't find anyone.
About 30 minutes later, she called me back, her voice hushed, and thick-sounding.
“I don't know … he just gets so mad when I'm talking with you. The laughing, especially. He's convinced we're laughing at him. It just infuriates him. He said, 'Louise will never choose you over her husband! I'm all you have!'”
In that moment, several things became obvious to me:
1. T-Bag had to go IMMEDIATELY. Friends and I had tried to eject him from her life before, but things were escalating and she had to GET OUT NOW. (A short while later, Tara's relocation was orchestrated by friends and family. While I could not be there, we were in almost constant contact as she extricated T-bag from her life.)
2. T-Bag had torn down my beautiful, spirited friend, and I HATED HIM.
3. HE WAS WRONG.
There is no “choosing,” there is no “either-or.” There is room in my heart for both my husband and the women I love. The love is not exactly the same, but take one away and I would be incomplete.
So often I think it's an expectation that once a woman is married, her friends — especially female friends — become secondary, a childish remnant from a former life. I often encounter this idea among friends, acquaintances, or family: that when a woman marries a man, the marriage consumes her.
Being a grown-up, married woman somehow means that a woman's husband should be her best friend, her lover, her soulmate, her everything. But how can one person be another person's everything?
Frankly, that's a lot of pressure, and I can't imagine being another person's EVERYTHING. I'm happy that I'm not my husband's everything, nor is he mine.
This is a convention that is changing, but even when I was in the process of merging my life with my husband's three years ago, there was a little bit of worry in the back of my head that I would somehow lose myself and my friendships, or that I was expected to.
But the truth is, without my female friendships I wouldn't know a thing about love.
The first person I ever got a love letter from -- arguably the only person -- was my friend Liz. We'd been best friends since high school, went to colleges very far apart, and were very lonely one spring break. Neither of us could afford to go home, and as we sat in our dorm rooms in different parts of the the country, we longed for each other's comfort.
Then I got an email from her. In her letter, she talked about relationships and crushes, friendship and intimacy. At one point she wrote:
“…but our friendship has taught me about love. I doubt other people, but I don't doubt you. I love you through your weirdness, you love me through my weirdness. Sometimes I'm somebody else with other people, just like you are. But I'm me with you. I want to be madly in love one day, but our friendship is a guide. That's how love is supposed to be. You're the only person I've ever wanted to write a love letter to. Thank you.”
I felt the same, and I still do. In that precarious time, when we were trying to figure out adulthood and how to be in adult relationships, Liz and my depth of acceptance and appreciation for each other's greatness and shortcomings gave me something to strive for.
Through boyfriends and girlfriends, Liz and my friendship was always a benchmark of how I deserved to be loved and cared for — by anybody.
I remember being in relationships where I was tacitly (or not so tacitly) asked to be someone else, to alter fundamental things about myself. Those relationships always began to sour as soon as I'd remember Liz's letter and think, “Is this how I want to be loved? Is this how I want to love someone? As someone I'm not?”
Decades later, I still think of Liz's words when I'm confronted with questions of honesty or authenticity in relationships.
The first time I said “I love you" -- and meant it -- was to my friend Beth. Those three words had always terrified me. I'd said it to people before, but I always felt a nagging guilt about it. I wasn't sure if I was being honest.
Beth was -- and is -- one of those friends who will never lie to you, no matter how painful it is to both of you. We worked in the same office when I was in my early 20s, and we became fast friends over our hatred of scanning archival photos and having to take notes at production meetings.
What struck me (and scared me) about Beth was that she was immediately able to see through my bullsh*t. While I could usually “charm” people into forgiving my forgetfulness or selfishness, she wouldn't stand for it.
“You're not a sh*tty person, but sometimes you really act like one.”
She said that to me one night to me after I had behaved especially lousy. I don't actually remember all the details, but it involved her waiting for me for hours while I flitted around doing God-knows-what. I could shirk off most other's anger, but when Beth looked at me, it wasn't with anger; it was with hurt and disappointment.
We had it out that night. Amidst the tears and frustration, I realized that Beth was angry because she cared enough to hold me accountable for my actions. Though I didn't see it in myself, she saw me as somebody better than the idiot I was acting like.
After the dust settled, I offered the most sincere apology I may have ever given up to that point. When Beth accepted and hugged me, I told her I loved her, and for the first time I meant it 100 percent. While I felt like I had had my armor torn away, I never lost my trust in Beth, and I'd never felt more loved.
That night I added “Holding the person you love accountable — even when it hurts” to my mental definition of love.
Over the years I've had many more experiences that have shaped what love means to me. Some were with men, romantic or platonic, but the majority have been with friends who are women. And while I've learned a lot about love in the 10 years that I've been with my husband — certainly, that living with someone in a physical relationship reveals things that aren't always uncovered in friendship — I find myself reaching for the lessons on love I've learned from the women in my life rather than past romantic relationships.
This is not to say that women's friendships are in service to the “ultimate payoff” of marriage. Blah, far from it. I'm not even really saying that this is entirely unique to women's friendships. I've just found that it is women who I feel a distinct kinship with.
For me, the ultimate payoff is that every time true love touches you, you learn a little bit more about how to love yourself and others. You learn how to see yourself through the eyes of the people who love you. You get to see what they see. I've been lucky enough to glimpse myself through the eyes of some amazing women.
Going back to T-bag's accusation that I'd “always choose my husband” over Tara. The choice would be like choosing between my arm or my leg. Both are important to me in my life, and if I had one torn from me, I'd spend so much time in pain from that loss that the other limb would be an afterthought.
That's an extreme example, but that's the level of rage I felt over T-bag even suggesting that thought to Tara.
I guess the point is, we don't choose who we love, but more than that, we don't have to choose who we love most. There doesn't have to be a winner.
I don't have one person in my life who is my everything, but the people I've chosen to love are everything to me. Without them I would be nothing.