“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I recently parted ways with most of my chosen fam. Last December, my best friend, S, told me that she, a queer person, was dating a cop. She knows cops are a deal breaker for me: she saw me have a panic attack when cops broke up Los Angeles Pride last year during our vacation together, and people close to me have been criminalized by police and often feel threatened by them. I’ll admit that I should have talked to her about it right away, but instead I sat on my feelings for a month or two to figure out how I felt and what to say. I recently cancelled a birthday trip I was planning for myself and told S that it was because of her partner, but that I loved her and that we could talk about it at a better time. That’s when everything exploded; I was promptly unfriended by everyone in our friend group. I’m not the first person to be exiled by S, and I’ve witnessed how her social capital can get people ousted from social circles.
My questions for you are: should I hold onto hope of figuring this out, or should I let it go? How do you make new friends at 30? Is chosen family really a thing? What happens when our politics cost us things we’re not sure we can live without?
Thanks so much,
All Cats Are Beautiful
This really is an awful situation — there’s nothing more painful than sticking by your principles and then being punished for it by none other than the people we love. Unfortunately, that happens a lot in the world we live in, by which I mean a world rife with systemic violence, oppression and the disposability paradigm — the notion that if we cannot get along with someone, the best solution is to get rid of them. On the other hand, I can tell you that you stand in good company. After all, who is a revolutionary if not someone who risks punishment in order to stand up for their morals?
Of course, that may be cold comfort right now. You’ve just gone through a terrible relationship rupture with your best friend and possibly your whole friend group. You’re likely feeling betrayed, angry and confused, and that all makes perfect sense for the situation you’re in. Perhaps we can start by taking a moment to honour those feelings: what you are going through is not fair. You were trying to be a good person, to really live your politics, and now you may have lost some relationships. No one deserves that.
Next, let’s sort out some of the underlying issues at stake. You’re asking some big questions here, and I think a lot of people in our generation are asking themselves similar things at the moment: what does it mean to be a good person (ie, standing up against cops), and what happens when trying to be good brings us conflict with our loved ones (who might be dating cops)? How do we make friendships last as adults who are struggling in a time when the ravages of late-stage capitalism have made economic and social survival so very precarious? What do we do when it feels like we’re being disposed of?
I can tell from your letter, ACAB, that you’ve fully thought through the ethics and impact of the police on marginalized communities. For readers who aren’t as familiar, however, I’ll go through them briefly here:
In short, while mainstream, middle-class communities are often taught to associate the police with safety, protection and “the good guys,” many marginalized people experience police very differently. Black, Indigenous, migrant, and sex work communities in particular report having extremely negative relationships with law enforcement due to being disproportionately targeted and subjected to abuses of police power — sometimes extending to sexual assault and murder. Beyond the abuses and misuse of power, however, the nature of policing as an institution means that police officers are tasked with using force to uphold the law, even when the law is oppressive or unjust. A classic example, of course, are the laws against homosexuality that, until relatively recently, resulted in thousands of queer and trans individuals being arrested, beaten and imprisoned by police. Understandably, then, many activists and members of oppressed communities see the police as dangerous and antithetical to liberation.
So it makes sense to me, ACAB, that you take a strong moral stance against the police. When it comes to your best friend, S the cop-dater, my sense is that you are struggling with accessing and holding interpersonal boundaries. In this day and age, people tend to think of boundaries as a pop psychology term that refers to a list of rules about what people can or cannot do to each other. I like to think of boundaries, however, as simply being the difference between one person’s needs and the needs of another.
In order to successfully set a boundary, it is necessary to accomplish three basic tasks: 1) knowing and understanding what your needs are in a given situation; 2) expressing those needs to the other person; and 3) successfully defending your needs if the other person challenges them. In a healthy relationship, both people feel safe enough to set boundaries and trust each other enough to respect those boundaries.
In the case of S and her partner, it sounds like boundaries might have been compromised from the get-go. You mention that when she told you that she was dating this cop (which you may not understand, but must accept as her right), you spent a couple of months trying to figure how to respond. I’m curious, ACAB: why the delay? What is it about your relationship with S that made it so hard to talk to her about this? And was there something either you or she could have done to make more space in your relationship for this kind of difficult conversation? (I would encourage you to get really specific here, and write down a list of potential answers to this question.)
Of course, it’s hard to talk to someone about what we need if we don’t know what we need! This is where the work is all on you, ACAB. You might take some time to really explore this question on your own, with a friend or maybe even with a therapist/counselor/spiritual teacher/tarot reader. What would you really need from S for your friendship to continue? In acknowledging that we can’t control the behaviour of others, if she really wants to date this cop, well, there’s not much you can do about it once you’ve already explained how you’re feeling.
It may be important to distinguish actual safety needs from your political preferences. Does the presence of this cop in S’s life actually physically threaten you and the people in your life who have been criminalized, or is your emotional response to them more about what they stand for symbolically? Would there be a way for you to separate those parts of your life so that S’s partner doesn’t have access to them? Would you be able to hang out with S if she agreed that her partner wouldn’t be present? Are these acceptable compromises to you?
When we are unable to set boundaries in a relationship, we either withdraw, lash out or try to bring in other people to help us. When you cancelled your birthday trip, ACAB, it sounds like you tried to withdraw (at least temporarily), and it sounds like S might have both lashed out and brought in other people. Neither of you had the opportunity to express your needs and boundaries in a relational way — a way that allowed for dialogue and exchange. I don’t know why this is — only you and S can really know — but I’m curious if such an exchange might have been possible.
One way that could have looked, ACAB, is if you had been able to talk with S in person rather than texting. I’m also curious about the element of canceling your birthday trip — while I think I understand why you did this, it might have felt to your friend like an implicit message that she had “ruined your birthday” or something of that nature. I wonder if things might have looked different if, in that moment, you had the opportunity to explain to her how you felt about cops (even if S already knew), to express your feelings of confusion and concern for the vulnerable people in your life. I wonder what would have happened if you had been given the chance to look S in the eye and tell her not only that you loved her but were afraid of losing her friendship — that you hoped there was some way the two of you could work things out.
Trust is born in vulnerability, ACAB, which is the scariest part of love. In trust, there is the possibility of betrayal and of being disposed of. Yet the opposite of disposability is need. This is the great challenge of adult relationships: to set boundaries in a way that creates opportunities for more, not less, connection.
Of course, all your best efforts may come to naught. Like I said, we can’t control (or even predict) the behaviour of others, we can only give them chances to show up as their best selves (which we do by showing up as our own best selves). That you’ve observed a pattern of S triangulating conflicts and “exiling” people doesn’t seem to bode well for future attempts at reconciliation. It may even fall into an abusive pattern, if S’s default response to conflict is to lash out and punish others. Here I would once again suggest taking time, both on your own and with help from others, to figure out if this relationship has been safe for you to set boundaries in the past, or if it hasn’t really ever been. Were there other conflicts, political or personal, that you and S managed to resolve? Going over this relationship history will help you to make a decision about whether to let this go or try again.
Either way, ACAB, going through this with mindfulness and good intention is exactly how we learn to make new friends at 30, or 40, or at any age in adulthood — through painful growth, experience and learning how to extend our trust when it’s worth the risk and how to hold and heal ourselves when people let us down.
We like to romanticize chosen family in the queer community, ACAB, because so often our biological families have let us down. We like to believe that our chosen families are ride-or-die, indestructible bonds that we hold onto forever. Having been through some similar ruptures to the one you’re going through now, I’m beginning to suspect that chosen family is very similar to blood family: we love each other, yes, but we also hurt each other by holding on too tightly, or not tightly enough, and we let each other down because we’re human. And sometimes, yes, we lose each other too.
The only thing I can say, ACAB, is that I encourage you to keep reaching out; if not to S, then to other people in general, because it’s worth it — worth the anxiety and the pain and the inevitable conflicts and heartbreaks. Because you are worth it. Connection is always possible, and maybe forgiveness is, too.
This, I believe, is what the revolution is all about.