“Kiss your friends' faces more. Destroy the belief that intimacy must be reserved for monogamous relationships. Be more loving,” read the first lines of a paragraph attributed to Loren Mathis, often spotted in picture captions or as a boldly designed image. They’re words to live by for those exploring a new era of love beyond the confines of dating, courtship, engagement and marriage. But understanding love and intimacy as being suitable for sharing widely doesn’t start with the TikTok or even Tumblr generation. What happens when we look at cultures outside of “the West” and see heterosexual men holding hands, or look back just a few decades and read the adoring terms with which women addressed their friends in the letters that they sent dutifully, daily?
We realise that the idea of intimacy being for couples is like the idea that girls wear pink and boys wear blue: recent, rooted in little sense, and ultimately harmful. Just like society’s expectations about how we should dress – whether based on gender or otherwise – conventional expectations of what love looks like are in place largely because the expected is comfortable. But it’s also stifling, and an idea so fragile that it falls down under the weight of just the question, “Why not?”.
While recent years have brought an accelerated understanding, acceptance and appreciation of a broad range of sexualities, we still tend to conceive of deep love as something that’s tied to that sexuality – something that exists within the confines of conventional coupledom. No-one tries to suggest that friendship isn’t good and important, but the value that’s added to your life by your pals, mates, and best buds isn’t given the same gravitas as that you’re expected to receive from your partner, that most significant of others – your other half.
In reality, our friendships tend to be some of our longest-lasting relationships, and some of the first in which we choose the company of another human just because we enjoy it. It often continues that way, too – while we can’t choose our families, as they say, and seek out partners for a variety of reasons including sex, child-rearing and dual incomes, our friendships tend to be based on simpler stuff. Sure, a best friend is someone who gives great advice, is generous, makes you a better person, and more, but the main criteria is that they’re wonderful to waste time with.
What friends are for
For some of us, of course, our first friends are siblings – and for many sisters, there’s something extra special about a friendship that lasts through stolen sweets, “borrowed” clothes, no-holds-barred competition for the front seat or the last slice of pizza, and the kind of mishaps that become family folklore. However fast or slow we might be to learn some self-control with our siblings, they tend to continue to tolerate us – and even if our childhood or adult relationships are far from perfect, they’re our first lesson in letting relationships evolve through their best, worst and weirdest. For those whose siblings have been an unacknowledged source of support and joy, it’s an excellent time to speak up.
We are family
Motherhood, in many cases the most selfless love that any of us will experience in a lifetime, has also been given another look. Selflessness doesn’t come without a cost, for one thing, and we’re slowly beginning to understand and speak openly about the toll that motherhood takes on every part of life. By setting boundaries and speaking up more readily than our own mothers might have, the current generation of moms are working towards parenting from a place of understanding and empathy rather than frustration or fear – and finding themselves more appreciative than ever of what moms have gone through by doing the best they could be.
A love like no m(other)
After all, we’re embracing radical self-love (and -forgiveness, and -acceptance) with perhaps more enthusiasm than ever before. We’re learning that it’s not just about confidence in a crowd, but also about being truly comfortable in your own company (where all of us end up eventually, even in the age of social media). Like every relationship, we’re coming to see, this one takes work, and there may be no-one who needs your love more. Celebrating yourself is valuable, and digging deep to embrace the imperfections is priceless.
The one + only
Let’s end as we began: with a quote much-beloved on Instagram. “If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” Ru Paul once asked (and many others repeated). Whether you greet Mama Ru’s question with a “mmhmm” of agreement and realisation or you feel that loving others is sometimes a little easier than appreciating yourself, there’s no denying that other relationships become easier with a good deal of self-assurance. Get carried away and infatuated, share the love with everyone who makes your world a warmer place, and nurture your own needs. Whether or not the pulse-racing, romantic variety of love is your heart’s desire this Valentine’s Day, there’s no denying that love grows where it’s cultivated and celebrated.
I got you, babe