Opinion: ‘Just friends’ and other lies

Gina Barreca

You put away the Valentine’s candy and put on the Valentine’s pounds. Now it’s time to face The Six Truths About Relationships That Nobody Ever Admits:

1. When you enter your next relationship, you become the person you split up with. Were you the parsimonious one, always pinching pennies and putting quarters in meters? Were you low on tips and tight on taxi fares? In your next relationship, you’ll be giving 20s to the maitre d’ and springing for indoor parking at the airport.

Were you the tidy one, always doing the dishes? Your next squeeze will keep the kitchen clean enough for neurosurgery and you’ll be accused of leaving too many coffee cups unwashed.

Did you have to beg for affection, only to be told your significant other needed space? Just watch: You’ll be the one craning your neck for a gulp of fresh air when the hugs are too frequent and fervid in this next situation.

2. One partner secretly believes the other is in control and wields most of the power. “I can’t go anywhere without her knowing where I am and what I’m doing,” he sighs. “He gets antsy if I spend too much time away from home and gets weirdly passive aggressive,” she moans.

Together, as if in Broadway duet, they sing, “We always see your friends! Your family is the one who we have to work so hard to please that we never have any fun with them! You make it so hard when we do what I want to do that we always end up doing what you want to do, even when it seems like we’re doing what I want!”

3. It is not the “exactly the same” to be friends with people you had regular (or, even more strikingly, irregular) sex with as it is to be friends with people about whom you never have an erotic thought.

For example, erstwhile lovers tend to complicate conversations (or Facebook messages) with tiny smoke signals arising from their burned bridges. The “what-ifs,” and “if-onlys” and “who-knows?” can appear like contrails, apparently out of the blue, but actually evidence of a longer journey, above the heads and outside the horizon of the ordinary onlooker. Wistful is attractive in books, but in life not so much.

4. If you have conversations about how you are, in fact, only “just friends,” you are not “just friends.” Friends don’t have these conversations. I’ve had friends since junior high; we’ve talked a couple of times a week for 40 years. Never have any of us felt a need to pronounce ourselves “just friends.” It’s not a topic for anybody except people who have the hots for each other.

Don’t kid yourself. Think about it: When dealing with your dentist, do you feel a need to confirm, “You understand that we have good working relationship but that it doesn’t go any further?” Probably not. The phrase is shocking enough that you naturally avoid saying it to an individual holding a live drill in your mouth. If that is indeed the case, and I maintain it is, why isn’t it shocking enough to avoid saying to anybody with whom you’re not eager to become intimately involved — or who isn’t about to tell you to rinse and spit?

5. The French have a saying: “In every relationship, there is one who kisses and one who offers the cheek.” One always loves more; in every pair, one is reaching to offer and one is deciding whether or not to accept.

Of course, the French also have tiny waists and that terrific custardy kind of quiche you simply can’t find in America even at really good bakeries, so I’m not saying everything applies entirely to our culture. But I bet you’ll agree that when gauging the romantic relationships of others, from short-term dalliances to long-term marriages (always hoping these do not exist simultaneously), it’s easy to see who’s the kisser and who’s the kissee. Only in one’s own relationship do things become foggy and are phrases such as “We’re absolutely balanced” or “We trade off; sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s him” employed in all earnestness.

6. Love is a lot of trouble. But it’s worth it.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.