In order to understand the politics of friendships and human relationships, the concept of familiarity is a key area to delve into. The role of familiarity justifies several microaggressions and benevolent violence inflicted on individuals.
Let’s begin with the context of viewing the representation of romantic relationships in an overly referenced yet relevant media text, Arjun Reddy (2017) and its other linguistic counterparts – Kabir Singh and Aditya Varma. As several of you might be aware, the film unapologetically justifies abusive relationships on the pretext of physical and mental violence being inflicted in the name of love. Representations of abuse within romantic relationships and the justifications of the same are not new tropes in media nor are they unfamiliar occurrences in society.
These justifications of abuse on the pretexts of love and care venture into other relationships as well. We notice instances of physical and verbal abuse within parent-child relationships, where abuse is justified as a mechanism to ensure ‘good’ behaviour and upbringing. There are other implicit forms of violence that manifest as pressure to study well, build a career and ride on the conventional path to success.
These percolate into other relationships as well in the name of ‘concern’ where relatives position themselves as ‘well-wishers’. Unsolicited comments such as “you have put on weight”, “you have become dark”, “when are you planning to get married?” are said to be coming from a place of concern and care. But, in reality, these statements only make the person at the receiving end awkward and uncomfortable.
Oftentimes these forms of violence are tricky to call out because of the way they are inflicted and the power dynamics at play in those situations. These individuals are usually elders in the family whose comments if disputed run the risk of coming across as rude. And for once, if these individuals are called out or disputed, one is made to feel guilty and is gaslit about talking back to elders. Several times, immediate family hesitate to come to the rescue of those who are put in these uncomfortable situations because of notions around familiarity.
Familiarity in these situations then becomes an extremely toxic concept. Any abusive behaviour is justified as coming from a place of concern and care, both notions one closely associates with familiarity making it all the more difficult to navigate especially since they play on the guilt of owing respect to the family and the hierarchies within.
In the case of friendships as well, similar instances of toxic familiarities exist but are more complex in nature. Unlike familial ties in which familiarity is built largely without the agency of the individual, in friendships individuals are believed to have more agency in the familiarity building process. The choice element in friendships places the onus of consequences of the relationship entirely on the individual and also makes it that much more difficult to call the friendship quits or call out behaviour within it. Guilt finds its way into these relationships as well, where individuals find themselves conflicted about expressing their feelings towards friends.
“Friendship is a chosen relationship between more or less equal parties, characterised by mutual affection and regard, commitment, intimacy, trust, sharing, and caretaking,” writes Jean Keller in her paper ‘Dialogue among Friends: Toward a Discourse Ethic of Interpersonal Relationships’. Boundaries are already present, possibly even before the beginning of the relationship and get altered as one navigates within it. Over time familiarity is built allowing for smooth and honest communication to take place.
While some friendships act as safe spaces within which individuals learn and give genuine feedback to one another, there are others within which interactions reflect inherent power dynamics. There are gendered roles within friendships where the caring or emotional friend gets referred to as the ‘mother’ and often times takes on the role of the agony ‘aunt’ to resolve issues. In some instances, it is often a female friend who takes on this role substantiating the gendered nature of care.
Friendships are important support mechanisms no doubt about it. However, the proximity and familiarity provide room for these spaces to also turn toxic. Friendships can also become imposing and interfering because familiarity gives them an excuse to do so. While familiarities might not be actively constructed, the nature of friendships are such that once established, individuals believe they know everything about the others – or at least they think they ought to. Drawing boundaries around familiarity is an important stepping stone to be able to build boundaries around relationships. We need to go beyond trying to define a relationship on the basis of familiarity and challenge the same.
Arundhati Narayan is currently pursuing her post-graduation degree in Women’s Studies at TISS, Mumbai.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty