On a celibate breakup and what happened after.
Before I knew what was happening, or before I was willing to admit that I knew what was happening, it was too late to save the friendship.
In hindsight, the moment that symbolizes the end happened like this. I was walking back from the library for the last time. The next day I would board an airplane for home, having managed, in some way I can’t now fathom, to finish my master’s-degree thesis while stumbling through a darkening depression that left me almost unable to read. The occasion of that darkness was my friend’s new romance, and my experience of it was almost entirely defined by a deepening jealousy. My friend was my best friend. We both said so often. We had once shared a house and talked sometimes about doing so again in the future. And so, fingering the cellphone in my pocket, I tried to forget for a moment that I wanted him single again, wanted him all for myself. I tried to forget the painful, gradually dawning awareness that he did not want those things. I pulled out the phone and called him, ready to put my best, least envious, least aggrieved foot forward. Tonight would be our last time to see each other for a while, I told him when he answered. Could we, in light of that, have dinner together, just the two of us? I knew the answer as soon as he started to reply. He would not be able to have dinner with me, no. He and the woman he was now dating had already made plans, he said. For a moment, it seemed that he wanted to apologize, but instead he wished me a safe flight, promised we’d speak soon, and hung up. The next thing I did was look for a place where I could sob without being seen.
It has taken me years of therapy and spiritual direction to face up to what, in retrospect, is the clearest, simplest explanation for those tears. I had fallen in love with my friend, and I was in that moment confronted with the realization that I wasn’t willing to share his love with anyone else.
Many gay men, I’ve since learned, have similar stories to tell about the hazards and hurts of falling in love with straight men who don’t—who can’t—reciprocate their attraction. But my story differs in one crucial respect: I chose—am choosing, in fact—to make myself vulnerable to this experience. Gay schoolboys’ crushes on straight friends can pack such a devastating wallop, many go out of their way not to repeat them, looking for love from then on out with people who actually want to love them back. But I don’t join them in that quest. My friends have told me I’d make a good husband, and I confess that I think they’re right, but I decided years ago that to pursue the kind of marriage I feel suited for—to pursue marriage to a man—would violate my Christian faith in a way my conscience couldn’t tolerate.
The year before I wept into my silent cellphone that night at the end of grad school, I had, in fact, written a manuscript that was eventually published with the title Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. In that book I tried to articulate what are, by most contemporary measurements, my very strange theological convictions about gay love. Marriage, I argued, was intended in God’s plan to be “male and female”—Jesus says as much when he reaffirms the teaching of the book of Genesis—and any sexual intimacy outside of that marital bond missed the mark of God’s design for human flourishing. But, as I also made clear in that book, I didn’t harbour that theological belief because I had experienced any diminishment of my longings for same-sex love. The so-called Kinsey scale, when it appeared in the 1940s, shocked a nation by suggesting that very few sexualities are purely same- or opposite-sex oriented, but since puberty I’ve known myself to be pretty much on the exclusively homosexual end of the scale. I was and am gay. But I determined I wouldn’t live the way gay men were now, in a world racing toward the Obergefell ruling, expected to live. I wouldn’t date men, wouldn’t have sex with them, wouldn’t marry one of them, wouldn’t build a home and adopt children with one.
Little did I know what that self-denial would do to my longing.
Bargaining for Friendship
For a long time, I found abstinence relatively easy. It’s not trendy to admit this, but I didn’t experience a sexless adulthood to be a fate worse than death, in part, perhaps, because I tried not to rev up my libido by seeing how close I could get to the line of intercourse without stepping over it. I didn’t look at porn; didn’t install any hookup apps on the smartphone I eventually, well into my thirties, acquired; didn’t try to make out with the other celibate gay Christians I ended up befriending after my book was published. I told myself, with gumptious optimism, that the celibate life was doable. Running errands one day, I listened in my car to a recording of a roundtable discussion on sex and marriage led by Tim and Kathy Keller, the prominent Christian couple from New York City, and I remember nodding in agreement when they said that for people who commit to it, practiced chastity actually makes it possible to go for long stretches with a noticeably tamed sex drive.
What I didn’t realize, though, is that, for the intentionally abstinent, giving up sex is only part of the deal, and there’s more than one line you can step across.
What if my decision to give up gay sex, if it’s going to be livable at all, also secretly entails a decision to give up any “exclusive” sort of closeness with men I find beautiful and wonderful?
When I first met the friend I eventually cut ties with—I’ll call him Spencer—I was convinced that I was managing desire well enough. On the day we were introduced to each other, we ended up with a dozen other guys in a church’s gymnasium playing “shirts versus skins” basketball. As Spencer peeled off his T-shirt, I stole a glance, suddenly stirred by his beauty but also determined not to go home and fantasize about it. I told myself that, like the early Christian renunciants I’d read about in Peter Brown, I didn’t want my mind to be ruled by lust. I could practice what the evangelicals of my childhood called “custody of the eyes.”
Still, I tried to befriend Spencer. I suggested we go out for dinner, just the two of us. Then, despite wanting to take him out again the following night, I would wait for what seemed like a respectable amount of time before texting to ask if he wanted to go have a beer at a hip new bar I’d heard of. (What are the rules for cultivating a chaste-but-much-closer-than-“normal” friendship? I wondered.) He always said yes and usually reciprocated with his own invitations.
I came out to him early on in our friendship, but I made it clear I was swearing off romance. We talked a lot about an ex of his, and about his uncertainty about when or whether to go to grad school. After a few months, he invited me to join him on a road trip out to meet his parents and siblings. I felt like the luckiest man in the world when he told me he felt he’d shared as much or even more with me than he had with any other friend.
I started to notice, though, when he wasn’t as available. One time when he invited me to visit a rock-climbing gym with him, I immediately said yes, but, athletically challenged as I am, I declined subsequent invitations, and that opened the door for him to ask someone else. That someone else ended up being a girl, and the knot I began to feel in my stomach when he’d say over his shoulder as he left our apartment, “I’m off to the gym with Alissa,” became my telltale sign that something was wrong.
I became petulant, manipulative. I looked for evidence that I was still the friend he really opened up to, the friend he entrusted his heart to, and I typically found just enough to assuage my jealousy . . . until it wasn’t enough. It’s fine for him to have other friends, I told myself, so long as I still get to be the confidant, the closer-than-a-brother friend the Bible talks about. But when it stopped being fine, I pouted and cajoled. I wrote long emails to him, analyzing our relationship and declaring his commitment half-hearted. I asked for face-to-face time, so we could hash it all out yet again. I was, I imagine, insufferable.
In his essay on friendship, C.S. Lewis says that while we imagine lovers standing face to face, gazing into one another’s eyes, we picture friends shoulder to shoulder, engaging in some common pursuit or passion. Lewis also says that the first condition of having a healthy friendship is to want something other than friendship. Lewis, I believe, was on to something, but I didn’t want to hear it at the height of my friendship with Spencer. (Eventually, in a follow-up book to Washed and Waiting titled Spiritual Friendship, I criticized Lewis’s failure to see that friendship could indeed be just as permanent, devoted, and exclusive a form of love as marriage.) I wanted to reel Spencer back in, to get back to the way we used to sit, knees almost touching, at tiny tables in trendy coffee shops and talk about each other’s lives. I didn’t care much about whether we were both gazing at the common pursuits we might or might not have; what I wanted was to gaze into his eyes. And I wanted him to tell me, even though he was straight, that maybe we could go on doing that for years to come.
I look back now on my friendship with Spencer as, among other things, a kind of spiritual bargain. God, I believed, was asking me to give up gay sex. That seemed to be the clear teaching of Scripture, and I wanted to be faithful to it. But God, I believed with equal conviction, was not—could not possibly be—asking me to live without love. Spencer was God’s solution to my loneliness, I was convinced. And, in so many words, I told God that I had made my peace with sexual abstinence—so long as I got to keep my friendship, the closest friendship I’d ever had, with Spencer. That was the deal. I felt confident about it, at peace with it, ready to shoulder the burdens of the decades ahead, so long as Spencer could live next door.
Biological and marital kinship, it turned out, had become the site around which a deeper, sacramental kinship would flourish.
That phone call on my last day of grad school put an end to the bargain.
Does Celibacy Mean Loneliness?
Recently I have been reflecting with my spiritual director on my friendship with Spencer. I’ve told him the story of the friendship’s too-good-to-be-true beginning, tension-filled middle, and eventual demise, and he’s listened as I’ve tried to describe the lessons I think I’ve learned from it. Here’s a snippet of an email I sent to him not long ago:
I’ve been reading Sarah Coakley’s book The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God (so rich and provocative!) and she talks about celibacy (and marriage too, but that’s another story) as “prayerful surrendering of inevitably thwarted desire to God,” and I’ve been thinking: What if, over the long haul, the “thwarted desire” isn’t just physical/sexual but also emotional/relational? What if part of being celibate just is feeling perpetually under-loved in the way you want to be loved? What if part of being celibate is giving up not only sex but also covenantal physical proximity in chaste friendship?
These questions have nestled into a more or less permanent place in my psyche since the end of my friendship with Spencer. What if, I regularly ask myself, my decision to give up gay sex, if it’s going to be livable at all, also secretly entails a decision to give up any “exclusive” sort of closeness with men I find beautiful and wonderful?
After that phone call with Spencer, we tried for a while to work things out between us. But, as I would later put it in my book on friendship, in which I tried to tell a bit of the story of what happened with us, “the collision of my ongoing sense of loss and loneliness with his burgeoning joy at newfound love ultimately proved combustible, and we decided a season of not speaking to each other would be for the best. That season turned into months and then years, and the friendship slowly dwindled.” In its wake, I vowed to myself that I would never repeat this mistake again. I would spot the warning signs next time around. If I found myself feeling jealous of a male friend’s closeness with others, I would scrutinize my motives for any hint of latent romantic attraction and perform the requisite brake pumping if any appeared.
I made this vow under the conviction that my jealousy of the woman Spencer eventually married was the lit fuse that caused the friendship to detonate. Never again would I try to come between a straight man and the woman he loved, I decided. After the pain of losing Spencer settled into a quiet ache, I promised myself I would still try to enjoy closeness with men, but I wouldn’t count on my desire being reciprocated, especially if the friend I wanted to be close to were married or were dating someone seriously. I memorized those plangent lines from Auden—“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me”—and felt that they encapsulated my sense of my vocation from here on out. I would try to love my male friends even if they didn’t, or couldn’t, love me back.
I’d say about my friendships with couples: “If you press me to say why I love them, I feel it can only be explained by replying: ‘Because they are they, and I am I.’
It’s been a decade now, almost to the day, that I spoke to Spencer that night on the phone and flew home the next day without having given him, as I’d imagined, a long goodbye hug. In those intervening years, I’ve tried putting my vow to work. I moved into a house with a decent-sized dining room so I could start inviting people—not just one “best friend,” not just one “spouse substitute”—over for dinner.
At first I invited mainly singles, but soon married couples with kids started crowding into my home to try my culinary experiments, and I in turn accepted invitations to join my married friends in their homes. With two couples in particular, our occasional dinners slowly turned into weekly (or sometimes more than weekly) ones with a set choreography: After one or the other couple cooked dinner, I’d do the dishes as they put their kids to bed, and then the we’d sit in their living room drinking wine, watching TV, talking late into the night.
At first, I worried that these friendships were yet another form of spiritual bargaining: If I can’t have sex, and I can’t have a partner-minus-sex, then, God, at least let me be friends with married couples! But I don’t worry much about that anymore. I’ve gone out of my way to observe more emotional boundaries, and I bring up any attractions I’m feeling to my spiritual director. I don’t find myself clutching at my married friends with the same sort of fearful jealousy I experienced with Spencer. Certainly that reflex lingers in my emotional repertoire, as those who know me well can attest, but I spend most days just feeling lucky that I have five couples in my life who have each asked me to be a godfather to their children. I have little confidence that I’ll necessarily be next-door neighbours with any of them for the rest of my life, as I used to hope I’d be with Spencer, but I also have no fear that these relationships will come to an end. We seem to have developed the kind of bonds that one gay man described like this: “I have a blood family, but I have an extended family . . . my friends.”
I spent my childhood and adolescence fixated on the kind of family I was certain was the only sort worth having: I wanted to be a husband and a father, one whose very identity was defined by permanent relationality. (You can’t stop being a father, and you shouldn’t, according to Jesus, stop being a husband once you’ve promised to be one.) Instead I’ve been given a different sort of family, one marked by promises of a sometimes-overlooked kind. When the married couple with whom I currently share a house and I sat down recently to be interviewed about our unusual living arrangement, we surprised even ourselves, I think, as we talked about how much the practice of godparenthood had reshaped our understanding of what family is. Before they had children of their own, my housemates, Aidan and Melanie, had become godparents to another couple’s son, with whom they had shared a home previously. They stood at the font as their friends’ baby was sprinkled with water and marked as Christ’s own forever, and they promised to help raise him in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And soon thereafter, that baby’s parents would stand next to me at the font as Aidan and Melanie’s daughter was baptized, and we together—weaving an even thicker skein of commitment—made the same promises in relation to her. Biological and marital kinship, it turned out, had become the site around which a deeper, sacramental kinship would flourish, tying us all to one another not only by the well-known forms of conjugal and parental love but also by the sometimes less-celebrated form of voluntary devotion. We were, we felt, proving Jesus’s words true: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children.”
Now, as I enter my late thirties, almost all of my close friends are married couples. I recently flew to Minnesota to visit a husband and wife old enough to be my parents. In the aftermath of my friendship with Spencer, they had me over for dinner every Tuesday night for the following year and helped me pick up the pieces. At those dinners we talked about everything from theology and literature to our shared love of golden retrievers and hiking in Colorado to the death of their twenty-four-year-old son. Once, we travelled together, just the three of us, to a wedding in Sweden.
Soon I’ll be spending part of a sabbatical in the guest bedroom of another couple—one of the couples whose dishes I used to wash while they gave their kids baths and helped them into their PJs. I expect that most evenings during the couple of months I pass there will be filled with playing board games with their preteen son and reading books to their younger daughters until they go to bed, at which point the husband, the wife, and I will make desserts, watch whatever British murder mystery show is popular at the time, and, not infrequently, talk about things we really can’t tell too many other people in this world.
If you asked me whether these friendships are better than what I had with Spencer, or better than what I might be able to find with a husband, I wouldn’t know how to answer that, and I don’t think I’d want to try. My friendships with married couples aren’t, I hope, simply a next-best-thing substitute for not getting married. I don’t want them to be the chip I hold for when the time comes around again to haggle with God for a reprieve from loneliness. All I can say is that I feel a love for these friends that isn’t consumed with envy, and they seem to feel a love for me that isn’t reducible to pity. What Montaigne said of La Boétie I’d say about my friendships with couples: “If you press me to say why I love them, I feel it can only be explained by replying: ‘Because they are they, and I am I.’"
When I told another celibate gay friend, Eve Tushnet, author of the book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, how grateful I am that I share a house with a married couple and their daughter, my goddaughter, how comforting and stabilizing it is to come home after work and make dinner alongside someone, how glad I’ve become even for the little annoyances because of how they’ve rescued me from the much darker annoyance of living in unobserved isolation, she told me I should write about why it is that I’ve developed such close friendships with married couples. “That’s not exactly most gay people’s experience,” I remember her saying in effect, and I suppose she’s right. All I know is that I am glad those relationships are part of this gay man’s experience, and I wish I could go back to the young man I was once, crying into his cellphone the night he said goodbye to his best friend, and tell him, “You’re going to find love again, and it’s going to be beautiful.”