Several years ago, I judged one of my two best friends because she worked in marketing. She and I met through a part-time job we shared in undergrad, and we bonded over our enjoyment of writing and our shared Vietnamese ethnicity. During undergrad, we did not talk much outside of work, and we did not grow into best friends until a few years after we both graduated. We had different social circles back then, with hers including a boyfriend of several years. I also used to evaluate people more based on their jobs, and I thought more highly of people whose professions directly involved helping others or promoting social justice.
Our friendship intensified beginning in late 2018 to early 2019. This best friend and I love ourselves no matter what any man thinks of us, which introduces an element of irony because men helped bring us closer together. At that time, I found myself in a situationship with an academically successful, artistic, emotionally unavailable Asian man. She was in the midst of navigating a situationship with an exciting, chaotic, and uncommunicative man who shared her sense of humor. We texted each other support about these men; even now, we laugh about how she texted me while holding her phone underneath a boardroom table during an important meeting to roast the guy I found myself attracted to back then.
In May 2019, I took a risk with our friendship. I had started feeling closer to this friend over the past few months and considered whether we could take our friendship to the next level, though I wondered about her level of interest and commitment. In the middle of a text conversation about her mom’s recent visit, I told her that I felt that I sometimes put in more effort to communicate in our relationship. I felt a little nervous to share my thought about our communication with her, though comfortable and confident in doing so too.
My friend’s response still stands out to me today. Instead of getting defensive, she asked more about how I felt about our communication. She texted, “can you give me more details about where I’m overlooking you and I can work on fixing it?” as well as “are there specific areas where I’m not putting enough effort in, or is it more in general you don’t feel as though I value the friendship as much?” In a way, I felt surprised by her comfort with addressing the immediate interpersonal dynamics of our relationship. I felt relieved, too, given past situationships and friendships that turned sour when one of us shared our negative emotions or disappointments about the relationship. This friend and I texted further about the issue – I also checked in about if she felt satisfied about my level and method of communication – and since then we literally have never experienced any conflict with one another. Now, we Skype on Wednesday and Sunday nights, where we often eat food and almost always laugh, process and analyze our lives, and reinforce our shared values of independence and self-determination.
That text conversation with my close friend that occurred over two years ago symbolizes one of the qualities I value most in my friendship with her: relational safety. Like my other best friend, she approaches conflict instead of avoiding it, advocates for her own needs while listening to others’, and can attune herself to how other people feel while honoring her own emotional experience. My best friendships remind me of this Gail Caldwell quote in which she describes her friendship with one of my favorite writers, Caroline Knapp, about trying to process and resolve emotional baggage instead of letting it fester and grow.
Several years ago, I think I used people’s jobs or future career aspirations as a shortcut to determine if they may provide me with some form of relational safety. However, over the past few years, I have witnessed people with Ph.D.’s in Psychology and people who participate in leftist organizing harm vulnerable students as well as fellow people of color. I have observed people who graduated from Ivy League and other prestigious schools interact with others in non-self-aware and hurtful ways. Now, at 26, I see with more clarity that how people treat people is how people treat people. Proclaimed social justice values and impressive accomplishments aren’t proxies for active listening and interpersonal accountability.
I write this all not to say to settle for someone just because they’re relationally safe. Relational safety is the bare minimum. On top of their well-developed interpersonal skills, my best friends are funny, critical thinkers, question and resist amatonormativity, fight social injustice, and share some hobbies with me. I’m not saying they’re perfect, because no one is perfect, including myself. However, so many people have told me that my expectations for a potential male romantic partner are too high because I often say I want a male version of one of my best friends. I always roll my eyes and ignore people when they give me that feedback. If I already feel completely satisfied with myself and my best friends, why would I spend my precious time on anyone who’s anything less?
Sometimes I judge myself for not knowing some of these lessons sooner. Like, duh Thomas, just because a guy has read bell hooks and Audre Lorde doesn’t mean he can provide relational safety. My growth in this area reminds me of the scene in Lady Bird when the protagonist falls for a guy who she sees reading The People’s History of the United States. Though this guy apparently is well-versed on the genocidal and racist foundation of the US, he still treats the protagonist poorly. I watched this movie and this scene well before my situationship in which I learned a similar lesson to Greta Gerwig’s character in that film. Instead of judging myself, though, I’m choosing to practice self-compassion and to cherish my growth. What matters is that I’m trying to be better and to do better, and for those pursuits, I don’t think there’s an age limit.
What do you feel like promotes relational safety in relationships of all kinds (e.g., platonic, familial, romantic)? Has the way you engage in relationships shifted over time at all? Any general reactions to this post? Omg also now I know of course not to judge people based on their jobs (unless they’re like, police) because of the economic reasons that underlie why people may feel forced to pursue certain lines of work. Anyway, until next post!