Beyond Romance

Nine types of everyday relationships that are more intimate than you think

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Image by Flickr user: opticalreflex / Creative Commons

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Think intimacy, and images straight from the greeting card aisle probably spring to mind: silhouetted figures walking along the beach; heads bent together over a candlelit dinner; raised wine glasses backlit by a roaring fire. But break free of these Hallmark clichés, and you realize that intimacy is all around us. Intimacy goes further than romance to encompass so many of our everyday relationships—relationships that have nothing to do with amorous or sexual attachment but can yield more intense, deeply felt moments than all the leisurely strolls and six-hour dinners put together. Some of those relationships pop up in places that might surprise you.

Coffee-Shop Connection
Perhaps it’s the early-morning haze, or maybe it’s the precaffeine stupor, but there’s something intensely intimate about that daily, almost wordless interaction between you and your favorite coffee-shop barista. (But beware: The moment you exchange names, this fragile intimacy can burst and give way to daily bouts of strained small talk about the wind chill, yesterday’s ball game, etc.)

A Circle of Friends
Many observers predict that by the year 2020 the majority of Americans will live alone. And who better to pad out this singleton society than good friends? As we’ve already seen in television shows like Sex and the City, Friends, Seinfeld, and Entourage, many people derive their most intimate moments not from late-night pillow talk with a significant other, but from a tight circle of pals.

Bumper-Sticker Bonding
When you’re taking a road trip deep in the heart of America, especially during election season, the bumper sticker of a like-minded soul can lift your spirits and forge an immediate, if fleeting, connection.

Co-Worker Confidants
Forget Marx’s theory of alienated labor. Due to the rise of 20th-century concepts like “company loyalty” and “company spirit,” says sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, the office is now seen as a cozy place. Many of us spend more waking hours at work than at home these days (especially during a sluggish economy when employees are squeezed for extra productivity). The silver lining of all those long hours? An everyday intimacy with our co-workers that recalls the salad days of college. As opposed to catching up with a friend every few months over a rushed lunch (“So, what’s going on with you?!”), workplace intimacy is about developing a casual shorthand, chatting about matters both large and small, and bonding over that seemingly inexhaustible topic: the clueless, brutish boss.

“The New Homosociality”
Call it a renaissance of male bonding. From Lord of the Rings to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to even Average Joe, notes Don Romesburg in Bitch (Summer 2004), men are forming transcendent romantic bonds that sidestep the “Is he gay?” question. “Frodo and Sam . . . enjoy a love story as big as an IMAX screen, declaring heartfelt devotions as loud as THX allows. But there’s not necessarily anything gay about it,” writes Romesburg. “This growing trend in popular culture is a revived form of old-school romantic male homosociality. The New Homosociality. . . shines light on male emotional relationships that place neither sexuality nor—more crucially—its disavowal at its center.”

The Mother-Nanny Relationship
An increasing number of professional women are employing—and maybe exploiting—nannies in order to make good on the plum job, great family, and fully realized self-identity that feminism promised, writes Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2004). In the article “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” Flanagan writes about the embattled intimacy of mother-nanny relationships, an intimacy, she says, that goes beyond bumping into each other in the nursery or fighting for the kids’ affection to fair labor issues of whether or not these nannies, many of them recent immigrants from developing nations, are receiving Social Security payments. “Naomi Wolf wanted a revolution,” Flanagan quips. “What she got was a Venezuelan.”

Animal Kinship
Who needs romance when you have pets? As the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss observed, the intimate essence of who we are can be found “in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.”

Object Relations
Armed with cell phones, iPods, and Blackberrys, we have become the people we used to hate. Card-carrying Luddites notwithstanding, most people these days would be lost without the various objects they see simply as extensions of themselves.

Cyber Fan Clubs
The ubiquity of chat groups, websites, and blogs devoted to tracking our various celebrity obsessions means that armchair connoisseurs can, as never before, ooh and aah with each other over their favorite musicians, filmmakers, and artists, forging an intimacy based on mutual unrequited love for another.