When Briallen Hopper, author of Hard to Love, was suddenly single for the first time after six years of romantic coupling, she was devastated. “I honestly believed that as far as I was concerned, all joy in life was gone.”
Now what? Should she desperately seek “the next plausible straight man”? Or perhaps reinvent herself as self-reliant and independent?
Hopper did not like either option. She felt “too wary” about the first option. Even more intriguing was her reason for dismissing the second option. Briallen Hopper doesn’t want to be independent. She considers herself a leaner, someone who leans on other people. She is proud of her “fierce dependence.” In the opening chapter of Hard to Love, “Lean on: A declaration of dependence,” she explains why. Along the way, she disabuses us of some of our favorite beliefs about self-reliance. It is, she says, “often less a virtue than a myth.”
She also shows us the third way that she discovered in her own life, the alternative to both re-coupling and rugged individualism – the way of friendship. Hopper started out with the same prejudices against friendship that the culture is peddling: It’s second rate. It’s just a temporary stop on the way to sterner stuff. But that’s not how her own life unfolded:
“In the wake of my breakup, after my initial collapse, I didn’t think I would ever lean again. But when I instinctively turned to my friends, not daring to hope for anything more than some social sorrow-drowning, I was met with surprisingly sturdy affection, and I unexpectedly learned to lean more confidently and steadily than I ever had before. Rather than resting all my weight on one unreliable man, I began to spread myself out. I learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed learning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional, and on lavish, unrationed, unanticipated kindness.
“The forms of love that had once been ancillary and supplemental became, collectively, everything.”
She also learned to reframe the questions that would guide her life:
“…I began the long process of learning how to lean without the simultaneously reassuring and panicking pressure of a marriage plot, or any other plot. The urgent question of my twenties was always, “Is this relationship going somewhere?” .…Was the love sturdy enough to bear a lifetime’s worth of weight? It never was. But leaning on friends is never going anywhere, it is not proof of anything, and there are no mandatory standards for it to meet or fail to meet. You just find yourself together, side by side, and then one day you are depending on each other, bearing one another’s burdens, basking in each other’s warmth, for decades or only for a moment.”
If you are worried that this is headed toward syrupy sentimentalism, no need. Yes, Hopper believes that “leaning can be love.” But she also knows that “it is also an improvisation and a risk.”
I’m a social scientist. I like to back up my arguments with great data – and lots of it – from rigorous studies. In my TEDx talk, for example, I used scientific research to suggest that one of the reasons many single people are doing so much better than expected is that instead of having “The One,” they have “the ones.”
Sometimes, though, what grabs people more than the most comprehensive empirical evidence is a compelling personal story, beautifully written. That’s what Hopper offers, not just in the chapter I’m discussing here but in the entire book. (I’m writing a review, but I didn’t want to wait until I finished to share some of Briallen Hopper’s great insights.)
In a later chapter, “On spinsters,” Hopper describes her spinster friends as “my loves.” They are the people “who know that, although in the eyes of the world and the law we are alone, we are not alone.”