The impoverished status of friends
Georgie and Odetta described each other as ‘same-sex, non-sexual life partners’. They lived together for long periods of time, were happiest in each other’s company and contemplated buying property together. They borrowed each other’s dresses and stole each other’s lines. Georgie and Odetta were a ‘we’. Their friendship was one constant in a world of amorous variables.
Then one day while planting petunias, Georgie received a phone call. Something terrible had happened. In one of life’s inexplicable and unbearably painful moments, Georgie was told that Odetta had died that morning. Odetta was only 34. It was like a full-stop in the middle of a sentence. Georgie was given no explanation as to the cause of death and, more importantly, she had no right to inquire. After all, Georgie was neither a partner nor family. She was a friend, which at the moment of death meant nothing.
Georgie is my flatmate. I watched, somewhat helplessly, as she sank into her grief and I thought about the injustice of her position. She didn’t have the same rights to bereavement leave from work as she would have had if she had a place in the family unit. If Odetta had died at hospital, she would have had no immediate rights to visitation. She had no rights to information from police about the cause of death. And in the absence of a will, she would have no rights to inheritance.
In spite of its tremendous importance to our society, friendship vanishes in the arena of the law.
Wives, husbands, relatives and children all occupy privileged legal positions. Their status gives them immediate rights, for example, to make claims on wills, to visit and care for each other in hospital and certain testimonial privileges in court. Friends, on the other hand, are the spurned, invisible outsiders. Lurking beyond the family unit, friendship lives in the shadows of law.
Which is ludicrous given that friendship saturates every aspect of our lives. From facebook, to our compulsive viewing of television series about friendship (SATC, Girls, Friends) to the fact that more people are flying solo and choosing healthy friendships over dysfunctional relationships, friendship is more significant now than at any time in the past.
Yet the state acts like a parasite upon our friendships, or, more accurately, like a bad friend. It accrues all sorts of advantages from them, but stubbornly refuses to reciprocate. Think about the public health benefits of friendship. Not everyone has family they can turn to in times of illness and not everyone can afford the exorbitant costs of having a carer look after them when sick. While the state should provide care, the burden often falls on friends. But when it comes to recognising this private care in a public arena, the law is an almighty snob. It pretends you don’t exist.
Friendship is a proven psychological antidote to depression, it allows for identity-exploration and in the business world it forms the trust upon which commercial transactions take place. It’s also crucial to social integration. Politicians can bleat on about the importance of ‘tolerance’ but for many people, it’s often making friends with people of different backgrounds that enlarges and changes their worldview.
Historically speaking, it’s rather odd that we don’t give friendship a recognised legal status. The ancient Greeks, to whom we owe such illustrious inventions as democracy and frottage, had institutionalised friendship pacts. Up until the 19th Century, people dwelling on the Dalmatian coast (now Croatia) would perform a kind of marriage ritual with their chosen friend that would create a life-long bond with rights and duties. And when the English first encountered Tahitians in the 18th Century the first word they learnt was ‘tayo’ or friend. Making tayos with someone meant giving them inheritance rights, property and trading rights and committing to look after them in times of need. You even exchanged names. Friends were there for life and legal mechanisms made sure they honoured their promises.
Georgie and Odetta never exchanged names, but they did exchange promises to care for each other throughout their lives. Unfortunately, they weren’t living in Tahiti in the eighteenth century, but in contemporary Australia where in the end these promises meant nothing. In a legal environment where anything outside of the heterosexual family unit is viewed with suspicion, Georgie was denied the most basic rights at the time she needed them most.
If law is to protect those relationships that give dignity and meaning to our lives then it would do well to give friendship the same status as family. After all, as the wise Carrie Bradshaw once opined: ‘The most important thing in life is your family. There are days you love them, and others you don’t. But, in the end, they’re the people you always come home to. Sometimes it’s the family you’re born into and sometimes it’s the one you make for yourself.”
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