The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Other Significant Others: Living and Loving Outside the Confines of Conventional Friendship and Compulsory Coupledom

The Other Significant Others: Living and Loving Outside the Confines of Conventional Friendship and Compulsory Coupledom

We move through the world largely unaware that our emotions are made of concepts — the brain’s coping mechanism for the blooming buzzing confusion of what we are. We label, we classify, we contain — that is how we parse the maelstrom of experience into meaning. It is a useful impulse — without it, there would be no science or storytelling, no taxonomies and theorems, no poems and plots. It is also a limiting one — the most beautiful, rewarding, and transformative experiences in life transcend the categories our culture has created to contain the chaos of consciousness, nowhere more so than in the realm of relationships — those mysterious benedictions that bridge the abyss between one consciousness and another.

When we hollow the word friend by overuse and misuse, when we make of love a contract with prescribed roles and rigid, impossible expectations, we become prisoners of our own concepts. The history of feeling is the history of labels too small to contain the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again. It takes both great courage and great vulnerability to live outside concepts, to meet each new experience, each new relationship, each new emotional landscape on its own terms and let it in turn expand the terms of living.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

That is what Rhaina Cohen explores in The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center (public library) — a journalistic investigation of the vast yet invisible world of unclassifiable intimate relationships, profiling pairs of people across various circumstances and stages of life sustained by such bonds, people who have “redrawn the borders of friendship, moving the lines further and further outward to encompass more space in each other’s lives,” people who have found themselves in finding each other.

What emerges through this portrait of a type of relationship “hidden in plain sight” is an antidote to the tyranny of the “one-stop-shop coupledom ideal” and “an invitation to expand what options are open to us,” radiating a reminder that we pay a price for living by our culture’s standard concepts:

While we weaken friendships by expecting too little of them, we undermine romantic relationships by expecting too much of them.

A generation after Andrew Sullivan celebrated the rewards of friendship in a culture obsessed with romance, Cohen writes:

This is a book about friends who have become a we, despite having no scripts, no ceremonies, and precious few models to guide them toward long-term platonic commitment. These are friends who have moved together across states and continents. They’ve been their friend’s primary caregiver through organ transplants and chemotherapy. They’re co-parents, co-homeowners, and executors of each other’s wills. They belong to a club that has no name or membership form, often unaware that there are others like them. They fall under the umbrella of what Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, calls “other significant others.” Having eschewed a more typical life setup, these friends confront hazards and make discoveries they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Noting that her interest in the subject is more than theoretical, catalyzed by her own expansive relationship with another woman in parallel with her marriage, Cohen considers these category-defying bonds as a countercultural act of courage and resistance:

I began to see how these unusual relationships can also be a provocation — unsettling the set of societal tenets that circumscribe our intimate lives: That the central and most important person in one’s life should be a romantic partner, and friends are the supporting cast. That romantic love is the real thing, and if people claim they feel strong platonic love, it must not really be platonic. That adults who raise kids together should be having sex with each other, and marriage deserves special treatment by the state.

With an eye to the long lineage of people who have defied the categories of their time and place — the kinds of people populating Figuring, which I wrote largely to explore such relationships — she adds:

Challenging these social norms is not new, nor are platonic partners the only dissidents. People who are feminists, queer, trans, of color, nonmonogamous, single, asexual, aromantic, celibate, or who live communally have been questioning these ideas for decades, if not centuries. All have offered counterpoints to what Eleanor Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Southampton, calls compulsory coupledom: the notion that a long-term monogamous romantic relationship is necessary for a normal, successful adulthood. This is a riff on the feminist writer Adrienne Rich’s influential concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” — the idea, enforced through social pressure and practical incentives, that the only normal and acceptable romantic relationship is between a man and a woman. Some of the first stories we hear as children instill compulsory coupledom, equating characters finding their “one true love” with living “happily ever after.”


It can be confusing to live in the gulf between the life you have and the life you believe you’re supposed to be living.

In the remainder of The Other Significant Others, Cohen relays the stories of people who have sliced through the confusion to build lives that serve them through tailor-made relationships that reward the deepest and truest parts of them, relationships that reimagine what it means to love and be loved, to see and be seen — relationships like those of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on love and resisting the tyranny of relationship labels, then revisit Coleridge on the paradox of friendship and romantic love.


Jonathan Franzen on How to Write About Nature, with a Side of Rachel Carson and Alice in Wonderland

Jonathan Franzen on How to Write About Nature, with a Side of Rachel Carson and Alice in Wonderland

I grew up loving Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My grandmother read it to me before I could read. I read it to myself as soon as I could. I loved the strangeness of it, and the tenderness. As a child mathematician, I loved knowing that a grown mathematician had written it. But what I most loved about the story was Alice’s fearless curiosity and compassion as she encountered all the creatures populating Wonderland. I loved the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat and Bill the Lizard because Alice loved them.

This is what makes Wonderland Wonderland: To its denizens, it is just their world, mundane as life. “This is water.” What confers wonder upon it for the reader, what makes the story a story and not a vignette of ordinary life in an ordinary world, is the view through Alice’s wonder-smitten eyes as she moves through it, and wonder is the mightiest catalyst of care.

We care because she cares.

Art by Tove Jansson from a rare 1966 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In the century and a half since Lewis Carroll, a lineage of writers — Richard Jefferies, Henry Beston, Rachel Carson, Robert Macfarlane, Richard Powers — have applied that method to this world, reminding us that we too are living in a wonderland, as real as it is improbable, for nowhere else across the inky vastness of spacetime strewn with billions upon billions of other star systems is there another world lush with life, as far as we yet know.

“Nature writing” and “environmental writing” are odd terms, one intimating that we ourselves are not nature (which Denise Levertov captured poignantly in her poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World”) and the other casting nature as something that surrounds us, in turn implying our centrality. Those writers who have gotten humanity to care about the natural world — which is the world — have done so because they themselves have moved through it with a sense of wonder, each of them an Alice making a Wonderland of Earth.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

This is what Jonathan Franzen affirms in a passage from his foreword to Spark Birds (public library) — a lovely Orion anthology of essays and poems celebrating the wonder of the feathered world, featuring such beloved voices as Mary Oliver, Terry Tempest Williams, and J. Drew Lanham, co-edited by Franzen himself.

With an eye to the basic A-to-B structure of a story propelled by a sense of purpose along the axis of its plot, he considers the challenge of creating a dramatic narrative around creatures whose primary purpose is basic survival, creatures “driven by desires the opposite of personal” and free from “ethical ambivalence or regret” — those marvelous, maddening complexities that make for the human drama. He writes:

Absent heavy-duty anthropomorphizing or projection, a wild animal simply doesn’t have the particularity of self, defined by its history and its wishes for the future, on which good storytelling depends. With a wild animal character, there is only ever a point A: the animal is what it is and was and always will be. For there to be a point B, a destination for a dramatic journey, only a human character will suffice. Narrative nature writing, at its most effective, places a person (often the author, writing in the first person) in some kind of unresolved relationship with the natural world, provides the character with unanswered questions or an unattained goal, however large or small, and then deploys universally shared emotions — hope, anger, longing, frustration, embarrassment, disappointment — to engage a reader in the journey. If the writing succeeds in heightening a reader’s interest in the natural world, it does so indirectly.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells resisting the erasure of nature’s language from our cultural lexicon.

Rachel Carson — who awakened the modern ecological conscience by making of science a magnifying lens for the inherent wonder of the natural world and rendering that wonder in the poetic language of universal emotion — conveyed this indirect enchantment in her magnificent National Book Award acceptance speech: “If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” she said at the ceremony where she shared a table with the poet Marianne Moore, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In consonance with Carson’s credo that “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race,” Franzen celebrates the power of writing with feeling, with wonder, with reverence for life:

We can’t make a reader care about nature. All we can do is tell stories of people who do care, and hope that the caring is contagious.

Complement with marine biologist Andreas Weber on poetic ecology and the biology of wonder, then revisit Rachel Carson on writing.


How Emotions Are Made

How Emotions Are Made

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his revolutionary 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings — a gauntlet thrown at the classical view that emotions are the brain’s response to the outside world, hard-wired and universal. In the century-some since, we have come to discover that this embodied construction of emotion, known as interoception, is the tectonic activity shaping the psychological landscape of being, which the brain then interprets to navigate the world based on concepts derived from past experience: learned frames of reference that classify and categorize the blooming buzzing confusion of reality into comprehensible morsels of meaning.

This is the model psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett advances in her constructed theory of emotion, detailed in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (public library) — a bold, empirically grounded challenge to the classical view that events in the outside world trigger emotions inside us, instead showing that our affect is largely the product of prediction and that we feel what our brain believes. Emerging from this revolutionary view of what it means to be human is the assuring intimation that by consciously reexamining the predictions and beliefs entrained by our past experience and culture, we can take charge of our own emotional experience — we can re-render the reality we live in, which is always lensed through our interpretation of meaning.

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. (Museum of Modern Art.)

Barrett — who worked as a clinical psychologist before she came to lead a team of a hundred scientists at Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory — writes:

An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world… In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.

A generation after philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in her visionary work on the intelligence of emotions that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature [but] parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself,” Barrett adds:

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

Unlike the core assumption of the classical view, which treats the basic emotions as inborn and universal, displayed and recognized by healthy people across different cultures in the same way, the theory of constructed emotion holds that any universality of emotion is due not to shared wiring but to shared concepts. With an eye to the various wonderfully untranslatable words denoting concepts of common experiences in a particular culture for which other cultures have no direct equivalent, she writes:

What’s universal is the ability to form concepts that make our physical sensations meaningful, from the Western concept “Sadness” to the Dutch concept Gezellig (a specific experience of comfort with friends), which has no exact English translation.


Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.

And yet our experience is shaped by our past, encoded in the very circuitry of the brain — the neural pathways that formed our frames of reference as we responded to life. Barrett writes:

Some of your synapses literally come into existence because other people talked to you or treated you in a certain way. In other words, construction extends all the way down to the cellular level. The macro structure of your brain is largely predetermined, but the microwiring is not. As a consequence, past experience helps determine your future experiences and perceptions.

Tears of grief from The Topography Tears by Rose Lynn Fisher

These templates of prediction are set as much by our personal experience as by our culture:

The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.

But while past experience filters the present, it does not predetermine it. The human brain is a prediction machine that evolved to render reality as a composite of sensory input and prior expectation, but by continually and consciously testing our predictions against reality, we get to construct our lived experience — largely the product of how the brain handles its natural prediction errors. Barrett writes:

It can be a responsible scientist and change its predictions to respond to the data. Your brain can also be a biased scientist and selectively choose data that fits the hypotheses, ignoring everything else. Your brain can also be an unscrupulous scientist and ignore the data altogether, maintaining that its predictions are reality. Or, in moments of learning or discovery, your brain can be a curious scientist and focus on input. And like the quintessential scientist, your brain can run armchair experiments to imagine the world: pure simulation without sensory input or prediction error.

What emerges from this new theory of emotion is nothing less than radical new understanding of being human, counter to the long-held dogma of essentialism — the intuitive but misguided idea, dating back to Ancient Greece, that everything has an immutable innate essence, which predetermines its destiny. The classical view that human emotions have a universal fingerprint in the brain and represent universal responses to the world is a form of essentialism Barrett indicts as “a self-perpetuating scourge in science.” Drawing on a wealth of research from her laboratory affirming the theory of constructed emotion, she distills this potent antidote to the old dogma:

Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.

In the remainder of How Emotions Are Made, Barrett examines how the theory of constructed emotion can help recalibrate everything from mental health care to the criminal justice system, revolutionizing our very understanding of human nature along the way. Complement it with the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray on the interplay of reason and emotion, then revisit Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s unusual and lovely dissent against essentialism.


Hermann Hesse on Discovering the Soul Beneath the Self and the Key to Finding Peace

Hermann Hesse on Discovering the Soul Beneath the Self and the Key to Finding Peace

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings told students from the hard-earned platform of his middle age, not long after Virginia Woolf contemplated the courage to be yourself.

It is true, of course, that the self is a place of illusion — but it is also the only place where our physical reality and social reality cohere to pull the universe into focus, into meaning. It is the crucible of our qualia. It is the tightrope between the mind and the world, woven of consciousness.

On the nature of the self, then, depends our experience of the world.

The challenge arises from the fact that, upon inspection, there is no single and static self but a multitude of selves constellating at any given moment into a transient totality, only to reconfigure again in the next situation, the next set of expectations, the next undulation of biochemistry. This troubles us, for without the sense of a solid self, it is impossible to maintain a self-image. There is but a single salve for this disorientation — to uncover, often at a staggering cost to the ego, the constant beneath this flickering constellation, a constant some may call soul.

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) takes up the question of discovering the soul beneath the self in his 1927 novel Steppenwolf (public library).

Hermann Hesse

He writes:

Even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men* habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications — and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again… And if ever the suspicion of their manifold being dawns upon men of unusual powers and of unusually delicate perceptions, so that, as all genius must, they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves, they have only to say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key.

Accepting the fact of the bundle is not easy, for it requires seeking the deeper unifying principle, the mysterious superstring binding the bundle. (After all, daily you confront the question of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of physiological and psychological change — a question habitually answered with precisely this illusion of personality.)

With compassion for this universal human vulnerability to delusion, Hesse observes:

Every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares the delusion.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Considering this ego-self a kind of “optical illusion,” Hesse insists that, with enough courage to break the illusion and enough curiosity about these “separate beings” within, one can discern across them the “various facets and aspects of a higher unity” and begin to see this unity clearly. He writes:

[These selves] form a unity and a supreme individuality; and it is in this higher unity alone, not in the several characters, that something of the true nature of the soul is revealed.

A generation before Hesse, Whitman, after boldly declaring that he contains multitudes, recognized across them “a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal.”

We call this consciousness, this higher unity of personhood, soul.

I see my soul reflected in Nature — one of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Knowing that even the soul is two-fold, Hesse offers his prescription for resisting the easy path of illusion and annealing the soul from the self. Half a century before Bertrand Russell insisted that the key to a fulfilling life is to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Hesse writes:

Embark on the longer and wearier and harder road of life. You will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complexities still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul, if you are ever to find peace.

It is only by nurturing and expanding the soul that the self, fluid and fractal, can be held with tenderness. And without tenderness for the self, Hesse reminds us a century before the self-help industry commodified the concept, there can be no tenderness for the world and no peace within:

Love of one’s neighbor is not possible without love of oneself… Self-hate is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same cruel isolation and despair.

Couple with Virginia Woolf on how to hear your soul, then revisit Hesse on the courage to be yourself, the wisdom of the inner voice, and how to be more alive.


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