A Dialogue on Love and Friendship

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This is part of an ongoing dialogue with Daniel Cardoso, in response to his article From love to friendship: The politics of relating

Dear Daniel,

Indeed, the expectations and stereotypes around romantic love (and its sexual component) have played a crucial role in structuring contemporary intimacies. And you’re also right that the polyamory can easily become assimilationist if it only stresses on the feelings of love. While your analysis focuses on the affective, I’d like to contribute a cultural-linguistic perspective, which is also a post-colonial one. I have been thinking how the “metaphors we live by” (George & Johnson, 1980) – here by “we” I mean Anglophones – can structure our understanding of intimacies, or more broadly, interpersonal relationships, in an insidious way. The first half of the following reflections will be less directed to romantic love and polyamory per se, but to the possessive, contractual individualism that profoundly buttress those Western generated and globally traveling ideas.

For instance, I often heard, in poly communities, among NVC (non-violent communication) folks, at Tantra/ New Age workshops, and in popular psychological self-help books/videos, the term “own your feelings”. As a non-native English speaker, I found it an odd saying that is almost impossible to translate into Chinese. I used to think it was simply a linguistic difference, and would try to find the closest equivalence when doing part-time translation works for a Dutch-funded Chinese sex-education website. But now I tend to be more sensitive to the power dynamics in the very process of translation, and in the very desire to import those “advanced” ideas from the West to China (Liu, 1995).

I haven’t researched on the etymology of this term, but the word “own” seems to have a close linkage to property. “Own your feelings” thus treats feelings analogically to one’s property that one can and should “own”. Property ownership is a key concept in classical liberalism: it is an indivisible right on certain tangible object with clear boundaries, the crossing of which without consent (invasion, occupation, stealing, etc.) can result in civil or even criminal liabilities. Property can be borrowed by or transferred to others, but it’s first and foremost “yours”. The naturalization of such right comes together with the deep-seated beliefs of the spirit of contract, and relates to the process of civilization.

Just like intruding into one’s property is uncivil, feelings had better be accommodated in the land of their owners. Others can listen to your suffering empathically, but ultimately it’s “your” responsibility to own them, process them and take care not to bother others too much. Emotional fusion was thus deemed as a threat for the autonomy of two mature selves (Illouz, 2012, p. 164). Of course, when saying “own your feelings”, people nowadays may not directly think about property, yet the fact that we use this metaphor so handily shows exactly how the liberal individualistic ideas of ownership, boundaries and consent have so profoundly imprinted on our everyday life, to the extent that the metaphor is not just a mirroring of the reality, but is performatively making and remaking it. Metaphor matters (to materialize and to become important) the way gender matters.

Another example is the word “negotiate”. Originated from Latin word negotiat- ‘done in the course of business’, from negotium ‘business’, from neg- ‘not’ + otium ‘leisure’, it also has a strong connotation of contractualism. It is “not leisure” (here we also see the modern public/private divide), and it assumes that the business is legally valid only if it is done by rational, responsible agents. What I often see in social-science literature is nevertheless two derivative meanings of this word, e.g., “this book asks how Asian queers negotiate their daily life” or “we focus on the way polyamorists negotiate their roles and identities”. When I first encountered these sentences, I had to check the dictionary. Then I found negotiation in the former means “finding a way over through obstacles”, and in the latter it implies that one’s roles and identities are malleable, like the provisions of a contract, in different scenarios.

In both instances the word enshrines the agency of the subjects in spite of tough situations, which I do value. My problem here is mainly with its translatability. I saw many English-informed Chinese literature using the term negotiation (xieshang, with xie meaning together, and shang meaning business or derivatively discussion) to describe how people survive hardship, too. It has increasingly become an intelligible term among Chinese scholars, but it hardly makes sense in our daily language. Here I’m not suggesting that ordinary Chinese are not used to doing business negotiation in a liberal, rule-of-law society. I just wanted to point out that in Western modernity the business metaphor has permeated into many aspects of daily life and become a dominant, thus also unmarked, way of thinking and communicating, yet it does not always smoothly and unproblematically fit into another linguistic community.

I can think of many other expressions with such taken-for-granted universal assumptions. “Emotional literacy”, for instance, has an elitist and neoliberal tone that sees education (and nowadays self-education) as one’s individual responsibility to achieve upward mobility. And like the word negotiation, it also assumes the supremacy of rationalism – even emotions need to and can be rationally understood and managed. Or, the term “sexual citizenship” (actually even the word “citizenship”) can hardly speak to me and many folks in non-Western-democratic cultures. I used to feel so ashamed for not being able to well use it in my academic writing, a must-have for feminist/queer scholars, till I read Vera Mackie’s thought-provoking analysis on the imperialist assumptions in this term (Mackie, 2017). Actually, even what I just used, “this term doesn’t speak to me…”, was also something I used to doubt – “speaking” here is a metaphor that suggests how Westerners prioritize verbal communication over silence and other forms of expression.

The linguistic is political. As a non-native English speaker and a less experienced researcher, I would like to share with those in similar positions that if we don’t quite understand a term, it’s probably not just because we haven’t read enough literature. We also don’t have to push ourselves to pick up all the fancy words and uncritically imitate what the masters in our fields have written. Pondering over the linguistic nuances can also be an entry point for cultivating post-colonial sensibilities, which I think is indispensable for studying gender and sexuality in global power asymmetry.

Sorry for going a bit astray; now let me come back to your discussion on love and friendship. My previous linguistic analysis suggests that in addition to the affective similarity between the popular poly discourse and romantic love (i.e., many deeply felt loves v. one deep true love), they also share many ideological assumptions, both being Western(ized) ideal of intimate relationships in differently historical contexts. Such an ideal is largely based on contractual freedom enjoyed by purportedly equal, autonomous, rational, desiring, unique and self-realizing individuals. The universality of these progressive values is also the major undertone of romantic love and polyamory.

However, the high level of freedom and independence necessarily accompanies the high probability of breaking up once the loving individuals (whether mono or poly) find each other incompatible. It becomes a legitimate and wise thing to move on and find the next suitable person, be it “the one” or “the one-of”. Emotional instability thus becomes commonplace, too. Such insecurity can feed back to the contractual individualism, in that the devotion of one’s precious romantic affection (and for polyamorists, the even more precious time) had better be rationally calculated and distributed, preferably to someone who responds more or less equivalently – after all, few rational persons want to invest in a business without payback.

To avoid talking in too abstract terms I would like to go personal. I find the careful calculation and risk management the most heartbreaking aspect of being poly (or perhaps being in love in a choice-abundant world in general), although most polys, myself included, are not willing to acknowledge our close affinity to these business-like logics. For a queer-diaspora junior academic who has not secured a stable career track, who can hardly make ends meet, and whose partners in other countries are all in similar situations, commitment and altruism seem to be the last things we’d like to associate ourselves with.

I always remember the weepy words said by one of my partners living in Australia whom I can only meet once a year, “I don’t dare to like you too much”. Sadly, I don’t, either. We reserve our affections not simply because we don’t trust each other enough or we don’t want to be hurt; but there’s always a no-future warning flaunting itself between us, not only in Edelman’s sense (a hetero-marital-reproductive future), but in the sense that, to use a line in the theme song of the popular TV drama “You’re the Worst”— “I’m gonna leave you anyway”. When we no longer believe in the fairy tale of being with one true love forever, it seems to make more sense to buy into the neoliberal mantra that “take good care of your own life first, and your relationships will naturally thrive around it”, a truism many poly guidelines tend to tell us, too.

It is within such individualism and precarity, I argue, that the allure of a loving, sustaining marriage, no matter how illusionary, keeps its vitality. Here’s another interesting example. A close Chinese friend of mine, who proudly claims to be a “slut”, is currently madly in love with a married man, and now they’ve decided to be monogamous (of course, he is technically non-monogamous, because he is still legally married). She told me how she could not resist to say “stupid words” like “marriage” to him, although in a reserved way:

You know I hate the ideas of forever love and the stupid institution of marriage, so you must not take it literally what I’m going say next — darling I love you sooooo much and I really wanna marry you!

She knew that her boyfriend appreciates her free spirit and her resistance to marriage, and he had the similar disdain of marriage (he claimed that he only got married out of “familial obligation” and “social necessity”). However, he would also say to her sometimes banal words like “marry me” or “I want you to be mine, and only mine, forever”. Both of them see the marriage certificate as “just a piece of paper” that doesn’t define their attachment, yet they found it difficult to find other words that can have the same weight to the deep connection and commitment as represented by the typically romantic saying of “marry me”.

In their case, when bigamy is impossible and when their extra-marital relationship (or his cheating) is a shameful secret that cannot be known to their social surroundings except for a few close friends, the expression of “marry me” shows their eagerness to get their relationship recognized and blessed like other “normal” spouses do. Here we see that, in addition to the economic-legal rights attached to marriage, the symbolic meaning of marriage as an announcement of the legitimacy of an intimate relationship and as public display of affection (PDA) is also crucial. Researches have shown that PDA is important for the formation of attachment bonds and psychological intimacy, and since there is an element of “public”, it had better be intelligible by the widest population. Proposing a marriage, in this sense, is one of the most affective-linguistically appreciable ways of PDA, even though they were only saying it between themselves.

Therefore, much as I endorse Foucault’s “friendship as a way of life”, I do not think it has an immediate effect of disturbing the centrality of the marriage-love-commitment-futurism assemblage. It is for this reason that I argue the theorization and politicization of friendships should patiently discover, and indeed create, languages to express bonding that go beyond romantic love and its individualistic assumptions. More importantly, these languages need to be practiced widely enough, both in our daily life and in pop culture, for them to make sense to a larger audience, so that when we need some sorts of social recognition, when we need to express commitment and belonging (as well as the wish to “be long”) that are not insulated to non-romantics, there can be many more possibilities than “love” and “marry me”.


George, L., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Illouz, E. (2012). Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Cambridge: Polity.

Liu, L. H. (1995). Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity–China, 1900-1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mackie, V. (2017). Rethinking Sexual Citizenship: Asia-Pacific Perspectives. Sexualities, 20(1–2), 143–158.