Friends with benefits — yay or yuck?

Friends with BenefitsOne positive feature of aging is the long-range perspective that it offers. You can see the birth of good ideas, and then watch their fate as society grabs it. With enough time, you can witness ideas pass in and out of social favor. Sometimes that time period isn’t very long.

Friends with benefits is one of these ideas. In my world, it began as something of a fun, optimistic, and cheery entity. Even the word usage felt zip-a-dee-doo-dah happy. Friends with benefits. How fun — like winning an unexpected bonus prize.

It meant that the bonds of friendship could open wide to embrace sharing sensual or sexual affection. You could give each other pleasure as a pure act of friendship. It was a variation on that mythological goddess called free love. Friendship seemed like a good enough reason to give each other some joy.

Traditionally, relationship commitments involve practical matters such as career concerns, finances, family ties, and so on. You based giving the green light for sex on your negotiations about creating a life as a couple. While dressed up in romantic imagery, it was, in essence, a business deal.

Friends with benefits, often written as FWB, stood in stark contrast to “just friends.” The latter was often heard as the sterile kiss of death for someone aspiring to break through the curse of an unrequited love. “Let’s just be friends” meant that an iron gate of rejection had been clanked shut against any possibility of romantic or erotic love. Forget about it. Ain’t happening.

To me, friends with benefits was comforting. It was mutually beneficial. In the most optimistic flavor of free love, it often led me to feeling good about humanity. When the joy of sex still meant something, it allowed me to feel joy.

Little did I realize then how pathetic it was going to get as time marched on.

FRIENDS WITH MEANINGLESS SEX

It wasn’t very long before the term friends with benefits was also being uttered for all of its negative implications. For many people it became synonymous with meaningless sex. It became more about benefits than friendship. The glimmer of warmth and fun from the original idea had worn away from its chafing with dumbed-down, pornographic versions of what sex was.  It morphed from a term of endearment into a term of shame.

There was a loud gong of implication that anyone who considered FWB as a positive lifestyle choice, even temporarily, was of less than stellar character. Males seeking FWB relationships were cast as sexual predators or immature playboys. Females were cast as sluts. Just as happened with the term swinger, FWB came to stand for “having a sexual relationship without being emotionally involved.” It also came to mean that people who didn’t have the balls to commit to a relationship would sit on the fence for awhile.

Originally for me, friends with benefits was something like a vitamin pill or medicine intended to bring comfort and joy. I loved my friends. I wanted the best for them. Friendship was the power concept and benefits was an add-on extra for an already thriving emotional connection. It was not sex without friendship, sex without caring, or even sex without love. For me it always felt like a gift in the power of now.

WORD HABITS

In heated discussions, words and phrases are often tossed about habitually without much thought given to the richness of their meaning. Sex is one of those words. Friends is one of those words. Sex with friends can be a double whammy.

Sex can mean anything from a loveless physical activity among strangers to a deeply fulfilling sacred encounter. Friends can mean anything from barely known casual acquaintance to  cherished soul mate. Sex with friends can mean anything from an act of desperation with an acquaintance (no time limit on friendship required) to a spiritually transformative encounter with a lifelong friend.

People who use FWB as a term to judge or insult are clearly defining their terms in the most negative way. Cheap sex, shallow friendships. People who have a happy relationship with FWB (and possibly with sex itself) define their terms in more complimentary ways.

Much of the terminology here is confusing. You have the previously mentioned “just friends” which is a red light to sex, red-light districts excepted. Then there is “more than friends,” which is supposed to imply green lights for sex but in a way that is beyond friends with benefits. More than friends implies lovers. Lovers implies an emotional bond.

I have noted that sex frequently does not get its due as something magnificent, a treasure for humanity. As an institution, marriage legitimizes sexual relationships, and yet it seems more like establishing property rights than holding sex as sacred. I don’t hear many people conceiving of marriage as entering the temple of exquisite beauty to share the ecstasy of God’s gifts to humanity.

With sex routinely trashed as a brainless activity, something for dickheads, predators, whores, and losers, it’s much more difficult to envision friends with benefits as sweetness and light. As the term comes more to imply loveless sex among relationship wimps, I often wonder exactly what the benefit of FWB is supposed to be.

Empty, vapid, mechanical sex? Oh, boy, where do I sign up?

FWB Scenarios

In my world, friends with benefits emphasized friendship. Sometimes circumstances made a marital commitment or a declared committed relationship unwise or impractical, but the desire to share pleasure was still very strong.

I was raised in a time and place where “free love” was idealized as joyous. I was around for the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the Northern California counter-culture of the 60s and 70s. Alternative lifestyles were common in my circle of friends in my neck of the woods. I grew up prizing intimacy, harmony, and creativity. I conceived of sexual sharing as a way for two people to connect more emotionally. A deeply felt sexual connection would inspire my desire for relationship-building.

In my case, I was a struggling artist for much of my life. As such, I was not a good bet for a woman seeking financial security in a mate. However, I made a loyal friend and was a sensitive lover. Swinging never appealed to me. I liked emotional involvement even when it did not include living together. I was a go-to person when someone wanted a good listener who gave honest feedback on hard-to-talk-about subjects.

In the world around me, I saw different FWB arrangements. Some situations created too much mobility for stabilizing a relationship. Students might attend different universities, often beyond commuting range. People in the military or those whose jobs involved extensive travel often had relationship difficulties because of it. Sometimes people were reluctant to “settle down” because their life was inherently unsettled.

After a brutal break-up or a lengthy period of loneliness, a FWB relationship could be a true blessing. I’ve had times where they were hugely healing, a positive morale boost for climbing out of the pit. If both people are on the same page that this is a gift of mutual affection and not a commitment to build a new relationship, they can help ease the pain of a troubled heart. (If they are not on the same page, it can be the beginning of bad day.)

Friends with benefits seemed to particularly benefit those of us who were not A-list specimens in looks, wealth, power, or other mainstream status markers. A-listers are more accustomed to getting what they want, and you could say they have more bargaining power in the competition for mates. As a B-lister, I was grateful for the intimate encounters I had with friends. We may not have had it all, but what we had felt special. I think B-listers excel at appreciation and innovation just because we have always had to find ways to feel loved in a world keen on sorting, ranking, and rejecting.

Aging also presents plenty of obstacles not encountered as much in youth. For example, singles in their later years often have to deal with where to live. Whose residence becomes the chosen one? Does that mean that one of them sells a house? Are there extended family issues with that, such as adult children of seniors who strongly object to Mom or Dad’s choice of a new partner? Or maybe after a couple of serious betrayals, someone does not want to immediately put a new love partner on-board as a co-owner or beneficiary. Friends with benefits is good enough, at least for now.

Sometimes medical conditions and other recovery scenarios make friends with benefits an attractive option. Life throws us many curves. Sometimes we find ourselves very alone in dealing with these curves, and it is a great blessing to find any semblance of love and support during these ordeals. FWB is not just about wild sex. It is also about more sedated forms of compassion and caring. Cuddling, hugging, empathizing, laughter, free speech, and energy exchanges are also benefits friends can share.

Alternative lifestyle scenarios also figure in here. While this is (fortunately) changing, GLBT people were legally forbidden from marrying, often creating the situation where what amounted to FWB relationships became the most practical choice. Then there are people who simply and unapologetically like being sex friendly and don’t buy the premise that making love with a friend is not emotionally meaningful.

People sometimes say that FWB relationships happen because people can’t make up their minds about committing. It’s also noted that sometimes people start off as casual bunkies and then unexpectedly fall in love. This could be a problem if one one of them wants a deeper involvement. The friendship portion could shatter if rejection or jealousy feelings rear their ugly heads.

A MORE INCLUSIVE WORLD

Having had some morale-saving FWB relationships over the years, I find it most irritating how the idea has been corrupted from when I first encountered it. I think that anything we can do to make life nicer for people, especially those needing a lift, is a good thing. I also hate to see the beauty of sex dragged down into the morass of shame, ridicule, and mainstream trivialization.

I have great empathy and also sorrow for people who suffer loneliness and rejection, feeling excluded from the good life. It’s not that they necessarily are excluded, but they feel that way, and that’s just as bad. Although it is definitely not a surefire answer, a sex-friendly friendship can be a blessing.  It has saved me on occasion.

I was and still am a sex-positive idealist. I thought that lovemaking was healthy for the body, mind, heart, and spirit. I thought that if we humans moved more toward loving intimacy regardless of the form relationships took, we would be better off as a species. For me, intimacy always inspired caring about the welfare of the person I was intimate with. I thought others would feel that way, too.  At least a few did.

Friends with benefits — yay or yuck? I still say yay, but I would ask more questions.

The romance of death

Romance-of-deathDuring my father’s last days and into the mourning process that followed, I encountered something I think of as the romance of death. Everyone we talk to has his or her own unique  inner vision of what dying means.

I have written plenty about how mass culture consistently portrays death as a tragedy, a scary story, or an occasion of great sadness. Then I bray that the fear of death is so common and profound it becomes a major motivational force used in many cultural traditions including all types of marketing.

Afraid to die? Worried about you or your family? Buy something.

But there are some among us, myself included, who view death as a great journey, a cosmic adventure. We reject the idea that death is a horrible thing. We romanticize death as a transition, a portal through which we travel to a heavenly life. Death is a fresh start to another existence.

In my case I’ve read books about near-death experiences, spiritually transformative experiences, out-of-body experiences, and mystical experiences. I’ve talked with people who have had them. I get excited about all the possibilities that may possibly await us.

It is with that conceptual filter that I viewed the arc of my father’s physical decline. While I feel sad that I no longer have a physical dad to talk with, I honestly feel a sense of celebration that he did everything he needed to do here. He is free to fly with Mom.

EVERYONE HAS A STORY

Everyone has a different idea about what death entails. That’s what close friends and relatives of someone dying deal with — the wide variety of personal interpretations of the death experience. The topic often does not come up in everyday conversation until death or dying is actually here and now, sometimes without much advance notice.

We experienced this when my mother died in December of 2011. Some people wanted to turn it into a great loss. “Sorry for your loss” is a major tagline. I appreciate the love and sentiment behind it, but it’s not like we lost a Super Bowl or an election. To me, a loved one changed form. I believe that she is still here, just beyond the reach of my physical senses.

“She is with the Lord now,” others would say. People who have a religious outlook on life project their story of faith and/or dogma onto the story. They interpret every sequence of events in that well-traveled path in their faith-based consciousness. Good for them, not my path.

Even people who are religious sometimes treat death along the lines of bad luck, a shame, a burden, or sadness. It seems like a disconnect in faith to proselytize about living with Jesus yet still paint death in sad or tragic terms.

Some people interpret how sad you feel about someone’s death as a sign of the intensity of your love for that person — that somehow it is disrespectful to view passing in any happy way. It’s as if you have to put on a good grief show to satisfy them.

When my mother died, my father was of course sad. He had spent nearly 75 years together with that woman. Yet out of his love for her he was relieved that she no longer had to suffer. We in turn feel the same way for him. He had a pretty painless and comfortable two and a half years after my mother died, but in the very end, like in the last ten days, the pain appeared and changed everything.

HOLLYWOOD

When I was a kid my father took me to Los Angeles to see the USA-USSR Track Meet and a little bit of Hollywood. One night we went to a midnight screening of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. There is a scene in the movie where a guy  kicks a pail and dies.

“He kicked the bucket!” Dad announced for all to hear with a loud, hearty laugh. His explanation helped others get the visual pun.

Hollywood has some legendary endings. Hollywood makes death a dramatic event. Much of the time it is quick — bang, bang, you’re dead. At other times it is IV drip slow intended to jerk some tears around.

During my father’s final days, it was so tempting to wait for him to say something profound or symbolic, the genesis of years full of pondering.

“Rosebud,” like in Citizen Kane.

“It is a good day to die,” like in Little Big Man.

We hovered around Dad waiting for him to surprise us with quotable gems. Sometimes he would say things out of the blue as if talking in his sleep. He seems to have led a few meetings, at one time speaking in his robust school superintendent’s voice from forty years ago.

Dad never talked about his own death except in practical terms like cemetery details. He did not wax philosophical about it and rarely mentioned it. He never said anything like, “I’m dying.” Whatever he had going on on his inner universe stayed in his inner universe.

But he did say, “Beautiful flowers … the sky is so perfect … nice and clear.”

What a tease!

IT’S NOT TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE

I remember in 1977 when Dad was writing his retirement speech. He liked to sprinkle humor into the mix, so he wrote, “Superintendents never die. They just lose their faculties.”

Part of the romance of death is “last conversations.” People visited Dad, some anticipating a good wrap-up show, a Tuesdays with Morrie thing.

One woman asked Dad if he had any words of wisdom to leave behind. He seemed to struggle for something good, knowing that the spotlight was shining on him. Finally, he said, “Obey the Lord.”

Huh? Dad, is that you?

Dad was a spiritual man in his actions, but not in his vocabulary. He rarely if ever preached or opined on religion or the meaning of life. He taught by example over rhetoric, which is probably why he struggled with the question.

People called to ask if they could visit. They wanted to share memories, a few chuckles, a sweet good-bye. It was hard to tell them it would not happen the way they most likely imagined.

Book authors and movie-makers love to depict deathbed scenes. Those depictions presume that the person dying still has the mental faculties to track conversations, retort with pithy comebacks, and divulge juicy, long-held secrets. Dad spoke mostly in energy through his hand squeezes, twinkling eyes, and angelic smile.

During one last conversation, he said to me, “You … are … a … great … [shrug].”

Superintendents never die.

WOO-WOO EYES

For most of my life, I have been of a woo-woo lover. I enjoy pondering universal mysteries (as this blog amply illustrates) and a big part of that is what happens when we die. Are we here for a one-trick pony show or is there more to life that we’ll discover when we pop out of our bodies and zoom through the tunnel at the end?

My father apparently had little curiosity about the great beyond. I did not push my views onto him just as he did not push his onto me. I look with amusement at how I yearned for my father to break silence and share precious clues about his journey, which someday will be a journey for me, too. Will his journey support my vision of reality, or will I have to remodel my house of beliefs?

Perhaps all of the woo-woo phenomena that sound so incredible do, indeed, lack credibility and are neuronal show business. (I still don’t think so, but its not as if I haven’t been fooled before.)

To my surprise, about a year ago Dad read — and enjoyed — Proof of Heaven, the tome by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander on his near-death experience. Yet Dad got bored with Glimpses of Eternity, Raymond Moody’s book about shared death experiences and deathbed visions. The Guggenheim’s Hello from Heaven, a study on after-death communication, didn’t float his boat either.

Many of my friends characterize dying as a sacred adventure. Some had their own near-death experiences where they ventured out of their bodies. They had an ecstatic time and have no fear of death. A few have written books. So they, too, have their own unique take on someone dying, and it’s hardly ever sad. They view death as graduation from Earth School, the reunion of a lifetime, and the coolest trip ever.

My conception of the universe may prove to be entirely imaginary, but I love thinking of Dad flying with Mom. It is a vision of joy I hold sacred.

EACH TO HIS OWN

We all have our own conception of how the world works and what meets and greets us when we die. My dad did not share his vision, so in the end we go with what he expressed that he wanted when he was more consciously able to make his choices.

In my own case, I want a death that is part Monty Python and part Journey of Souls with some Johann Sebastian Bach accompaniment.

While Dad was dying I watched Private Life of Plants, a BBC mini-series featuring David Attenborough about the incredible ways plants have evolved. The intricacies are astounding. Watching this, I couldn’t help thinking that mass culture has dumbed human death way down into a soap opera far inferior to its true cosmic design. The whole of life may be much more wonderful than we know.

What do you truly yearn for?

Waterfall-kissingThe subtitle of my blog Soul Embraces, as you can see, is “What do you truly yearn for?”

I think that some of us are terrified to fully answer that question for ourselves. To actually put a voice to those deep cravings and expose ourselves before a witness — whether that listener is a flesh person or a spirit being — makes us feel very uncomfortable.

I know this happens to me. Here I am this big advocate of creative visualization and writing out your goals and desires, and I often find keen ways to avoid noting my own yearnings in any way but what someone reading my mind could comprehend.

RESISTANCE IS FUTILE

I know that many people resist savoring positive pictures of a desired future — the whole enchilada or just the guacamole highlights — because they don’t want to face the disappointment of not receiving what they yearn for. They figure that if they openly hunger for something, it sets them up to have it denied. Not engaging with these deep wishes keeps them out of the doldrums. “Why wish for something I cannot have?”

In my own case, I recently had a new look at my childhood programming. My mom died in late 2011 and I have been hanging out with my 94 year-old dad in the family home, which has given me fresh insight into my personality development.

As the baby boy of the family, I was not encouraged to voice my wants. I was number 4 in the pack order. My conditioning was mostly to accept what the higher ups wanted. I learned how to be extremely flexible because I was neither taught nor encouraged to take charge, lead, make decisions, or be bold. I was taught to respectfully follow and support the pack. Unwittingly, I was also taught the fine art of passive aggression, or getting my way by quietly manipulating circumstances under the radar (like many women of the 1950-1960s learned how to do.)

As a result I became extremely flexible in dealing with life, such as in handling dull jobs. My hunger was to be a creative writer and exercise my brilliance all day, but economic reality set in and I had to earn a living or starve. I took on brain-numbing clerical jobs. My potent mind kept me personally entertained while many co-workers saw me as an under-achiever.

I also discovered (after a life of learning experiences) that I was programmed to be most egalitarian in love relationships. I strongly believed in partnerships and in supporting my partner. I liked strong women and was very flexible, even comfortable, in letting them take the lead with me singing back-up. My upbringing never featured heavy doses of male privilege consciousness; I was bred to respect and listen to women.

The problems I had occurred when women expected me to flat out take charge. I had little training for that. I was trained to be happy in fourth place.

Childhood also prepared me to be satisfied with not having much materially — not to want. We weren’t impoverished, but I heard the money doesn’t grow on trees lecture enough to constantly be conscious of curbing my yearnings. My parents were children of the Great Depression. Flexible as I had been taught to be, I grew up finding low-cost pleasures. I was trained to be content with what I had and not to dream big. Fourth place.

So with this background, I resist thinking deeply on what do I truly yearn for? I often even have trouble answering the simple question, “What do you want?”

I am programmed to sound a little like a Miss America candidate in my answers to that question. “Oh, I want for everyone to have something happy to smile about.”

A CLOSER LOOK

I’ve noticed that in pondering my yearnings, I rough sort them into two categories. First are the safe ones, the ones that could easily be spoken to anyone because they are universally acceptable. Yearning to establish a nice vegetable garden is not going to offend anyone. It might even draw praise. I can yearn to go walking in national parks or to get better at Photoshop or to improve my blogging skills or adopt a dog. I am decent enough at making lists like that.

Other yearnings are more problematic. Not as safe. Some require lengthy footnotes and disclaimers.

They’re the ones in the sorting bin that get marked private. Sometimes they’re so private I don’t reveal them even to myself. I discovered this tendency through my reluctance to include them in written visualizations about what I would like my life to look like. Yeah, what do I want?

Well, yummy sex.

MEET THE CRITIC

I am my biggest critic in the private yearnings category. I judge myself with great ferocity.

“Want sex? Yummy sex? Well, you can’t want it unless you have the committed relationship that goes with it. Jerk. You’re not in love so you shouldn’t want sex. Plain and simple. And make your desire sound more intelligent, will you? Geeze! How much respect are you prepared to lose?”

So in the voices of my inner committee of critics, I encounter the tsunami of pain that turned the bliss of sexual play into a Shakespearean tragedy of angst, rage, and grief. Sexual beauty has been uglified beyond belief in our world. Ironically, sex is farther out of the closet than it has ever been. It has invaded our homes through the Internet with a mere google. Yet I’m shocked at how stubbornly joyless it has become. Sex itself seems to be suffering from a bi-polar disorder.

With sad regularity, different visions of gourmet erotic play flash before my eyes. To me they are beautiful, magical, filled with natural and spiritual wonder. All you need is love. But in a world where the news covers pedophiles, rapists, predators, and other creeps with rapt attention, and we’re being taught to objectify each other as targets for our various lusts, admitting to having a healthy sexual appetite is becoming more dangerous — especially for an older guy like me.

By current pornographic standards, my yearning for intimate rapport would be considered unbearably vanilla — too blunt to showcase in a Hallmark card or to confess at the dinner table, but laughable to those who fancy themselves as erotic sophisticates. My vision of joy between the sheets comes inclusive with all the mental and emotional trimmings of fully engaged intimacy. But how to express it in tweet simplicity in this often-hostile world?

CONFRONTING FEAR

I have learned that admitting what I truly yearn for means confronting fear. Can I admit those precious desires and give fear the razzberry?

One of the better retorts I tell myself is that if I am afraid to give voice to my cravings for soul-filled sex, others are, too. And if everyone is afraid to express their desires, you know what will happen. Yawn. So putting it out there is better than putting it in the vault of secrets. It might actually lead to something.

Another retort is that I am responsible for creating my happiness. I am the author of my life. Waiting for others to create my life — even though being fourth place trained me to do that — doesn’t work very well. Part of creating the life I want is opening the energy doors to yes, I want that.

Why not turn stifling my outburst of desire into inviting and inventing fulfillment? So another retort is that even if so much of the world has turned sexuality into a garbage pit, does it mean that I am required to accept that downer vision as my own? Do I have to wait for the world to enlighten up before I savor the yum? Can I move up to first place now?

Yes! It’s time for me to write out what I truly yearn for, and to include the yummy parts.

What do you truly yearn for?

Sometimes I go floating down the stream of life, carried along in the currents of circumstance, and I don’t really put myself on pause to figure out what I truly yearn for. I was very heavily trained to be grateful for what I had and what I received. I was not so trained for getting what I want or even dreaming about what I want.

I know a lot of people like that. We have a rough idea of what we would like, of what would please us, but we have no specific vision we embrace and certainly not a plan. Our life is often being flown on auto-pilot and we respond to the needs and wishes of others.

I think one of the best techniques for getting what you want is to express it, at least to the person who matters the most — you!

What do you truly yearn for?

JUST DO IT

Put your life on pause.

Brainstorm what you truly yearn for.

Write it all down.

Get it out of your brain cooker and put it on paper or computer file.

Optional: Visit it frequently to stay focused on what you truly yearn for.

Optional: Make pretty charts and grafts.

TRUE CONFESSIONS

I don’t always do what I recommend. This time, however, I am doing it. I decided to do the things that I recommend other people do.

Wow, what a concept!