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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Evolving Friendships with Secrets

I wrote about friendship in an earlier post, about three categories of friends: enduring, situational and distant. I noted that I had four male and no female enduring friends (in my narrow definition of that class,) and yet many more female than male distant friends. I went on to say that many female friends and ex-lovers had ended up distant rather than enduring due to a combination of changed circumstance and societal norms; they would focus on marriage or career, and societal or possibly workplace conventions would make it difficult to remain close to me.

As this blog indicates, there are three relatively recent features of my life that force me to consider how friendships may evolve differently in my future. The first and most obvious is my changed status to a “taken man,” but the second and third, perhaps more interesting, are the emergence of two new classes of personal relationships I have acquired in the past few years of my adventures in sex and relationships. Let me focus on that for a moment: my life rolodex now holds two new categories of entry:

  • Secret Friends. Not an ex-lover, not a friend, and definitely not a co-worker, these are mistress candidates and providers with whom extended time has forged a relationship. The social differences are vast: in this new class of relationship false names may be the coin of social intercourse, and impenetrable firewalls are common for ordinarily shared personal information. For example I can introduce an ex-girlfriend to a co-worker, but it is awkward to do so with a mistress-candidate or provider. I might not even be able to introduce them by name! (I call this category Secret Friend because I have found that several cellular handset models in Asia have a special address book category for “Secret Friends.” Among other things, calls and text messages to and from Secret Friends are not logged, their caller ID may not appear on the front of your phone, their calls may not even audibly ring your phone, and information has a special associated password. I am told that some even have two passwords, one of which only shows innocuous information to allay the concerns of a suspicious lover!)

  • Friends Keeping Secrets. These are usually business associates with whom I am particularly friendly, but they are powerful and in Asia, so they fool around. And it is so socially acceptable that they do so, that they freely involve me in their escapades (and I have involved them in mine.) But these are friends who hold a secret about my behavior that, although acceptable in their social circles in Asia, even in certain kinds of mixed company, are not as acceptable in the ones I have in the United States. By convention in their society, these behaviors are not talked about openly. But also by convention, you continue to do it, even after you are married.

Every adult in America has heard of or experienced the challenge of evolving a friendship through marriage. As I noted in my previous posting about friendship, I believe it is easier for men to bring male friendships forward as they are married than it is for women to marry and bring their male friends forward. On the other side, being a man heading into marriage, I do not see any problems bringing my male friends forward; and as I have discussed previously in a post about temptation, discussions with Jenny indicate no problems that are out of the ordinary in my bringing female friends forward, in particular since all my female friends are distant anyhow.

But these two new categories are a little different. They surface dichotomies in my life, which creates new challenges:

  • Secret Friends surface a dichotomy between the 1) clandestine society layer of life where patrons and providers interact, and the 2) open society layer where American society stays blind and happy, typified by my United States-based work and charitable-giving circles. These two circles want to be separated by a one way mirror, the first likes to look at the second, but the second just doesn’t want to know anything about the first lest it’s carefully constructed edifice of Morality be exposed to rational self-examination. Odd, isn’t it? That the clandestine society is so open-eyed, and the open society so closed-minded?

  • Friends Keeping Secrets surface a dichotomy between my Asian ethics and my Western ethics, which at best have an uneasy peacekeeping relationship. It is a fairly new moral fracas, so the territorial boundaries just aren’t very clearly marked and, worse, the arsenal of weaponry available to each side is uncatalogued and with unknown effect. At best I know they have different strategies: Asian morality is patient and Western is urgent. More on this below.

So if there is a land-mined demilitarized zone between these two sets of rival sides, clandestine vs. open, and Asian vs. Western, then the navigation of this problem calls for some tricky driving across the minefield.

Let me address the Friends Keeping Secrets first, since I’ve talked about some of it in the temptation post. As I noted there, some friends have been quite supportive. But even the supportive ones expect at some point for me to “come back” to their society and rejoin the fun. They can wait. And this is the sort of attack that Jenny worries about — the slow burn that erodes your will back to the animal hindbrain — an attack against which I may be inexperienced or uncertain. And perhaps even more insidious is their ability to freely and skillfully mix business objectives into this potent elixir of temptation. They’ve had a thousand years to perfect it, and it’s just not a mode of negotiation to which I am accustomed. Recall this is not the blatant “I hired him a hooker to blow him in the cab” kind of thing that appeared in the movie Wall Street (and in retrospect was a remarkably prescient view to Charlie Sheen’s later experiences), or that I did recently for Mark (although in a slightly more Asian fashion.) This is far more subtle and long term. Setting up relationships and circles of friends and family, tied up with business and pleasure, and looping your life into the Gordian Knot to the point where it all is no longer separable. You are bound by so many interlocking obligations and, voila! part of the society. So indeed I wonder and second guess myself: I am changeable and adaptable, in both positive and negative ways, and I am vulnerable to this sort of attack.

The reader knows the decision I made on this one. I elected not to migrate this group of relationships, and have attempted to the best of my ability to delegate it all to somebody else — The Man. And I have tried to meet this group only on my home turf (I’ll write more about that later).

So I ran away on the Friends Keeping Secrets. Now what about the Secret Friends?

There is an conventional wisdom that states that you do not pay providers to come to you, you pay them to leave. And part of the implied contract is that there is no expectation of a relationship beyond the transactional nature of the business. Yet my experience indicates that in some cases the conventional wisdom is completely wrong — both provider and I will enjoy interacting beyond the boundaries of a transaction, but still trapped under this strange umbrella of subterfuge inherited from the clandestine manner in which we were introduced.

Similarly it is often understood that providers keep dual identities so at some point they can leave their provider life behind. It is less rarely discussed how they can migrate relationships from the provider side to the real world side, and when it is discussed, it is almost universally labelled a Bad Idea. In symmetry, a patron keeps his two lives separate so he can deny the clandestine and socially unaccepted life. In many cultures this is not so much socially unaccepted, but a way to provide face saving to a cheated wife or lover. In the United States, of course, there is The Moral Code, but we still have to make an offering of face saving to society at large — those people at work or family members or, dammit, the kids! who may know how life really works, but certainly don’t want to see it. And here, too, migration of a relationship from one side to another is discouraged.

Beyond the issue of the Moral Code — which is properly only a Moral Hazard to the patron and provider — much of why migration is discouraged, I propose, is because the migration is in the context of love. Don’t fall in love, we are all warned (on both sides of the patron/provider relationship.) Spill-over into the real world only creates complications because of the irrationality and chaos of love and sex combined with the social pressures that would befall the social outing of “that kind of relationship.”

Again, implied is the idea that the relationship was mostly about sex. Hardly surprising, since prostitution is about sex, but there is this other kind of provider — the one where the choice to patronize was based on other attributes of beauty such as conversation, wit and deportment; maybe a sex act never even happened.

Perhaps that is still considered cheating in a relationship. But it’s interesting to consider why would that be infidelity? Is it because sex was possible, a contemplated part of the deal? Or because it is clandestine and appears sneaky? Or merely because a spouse or lover should provide all stimulation of that sort and so it is wrong to even entertain the potential of another?

So I have this issue. Several very interesting women, some of whom are still providers, some of whom are not, and some who never were... but all of whom I have met under these socially disreputable circumstances... some of with whom I might have had sex and some not... do I migrate them or not?

Of course it isn’t a unilateral decision. Some providers have opted out already. Others are uncomfortable. But for the most part the decision is in my hands because I was the patron, and the expectation is that, well, remember that “conventional wisdom?”

I don’t have the answer to this one yet. Partly I’m interested in comments and advice. Partly I’m still working it out. At the moment given how I ended up dealing with the other dichotomy, I am skeptical I can deal with this one very well. Certainly it’s easier to see a natural migration from Secret Friend to distant friend, and then migrate as usual (see above.) In certain very carefully controlled cases I could see migrating from Secret Friend to situational friend, in a work context. But that is a real narrow set of cases, and it may have a null set result.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe it's best to avoid maintaining ties to old habits when trying to make major life changes. You've already discovered that it's confusing/difficult/tempting for you to be in certain familiar situations and to experience certain triggers. Since you are committed to building a monogamous future with Jenny, it's in your best interests to eliminate ostacles that threaten your chosen path.

7/29/2006 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would advise you to focus on Jenny and evade unclear relationships with women. I am a young female lawyer, have traveled extensively by myself working and studying on different continents and to be honest, have met and enjoyed inumerable men, not all of them sexually, but almost none of them 100 % platonic either. In addition, all of my (platonic) close friends happen to be male.

I've been in a truly fulfilling relationship for a while now and have tried to eliminate temptations as much as possible, which was hard because, to a large extent, it also ment cutting off friendships and social connections that had evolved over the years.

Sometimes it still happens that one of my past favorites calls or emails and I get so tempted to just sneak away to some magical place for a weekend, it is almost too much to bear. As long as this doesn't happen I am perfectly happy, since my partner usually satisfies my needs on all levels and still provides the challenge I need.

From my experience clear lines make relationships less complicated and more enjoyable for everyone involved.

7/30/2006 4:08 PM  

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