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Friday, June 13, 2008

Like chocolate and wine, friendship is one of the great pleasures in life?

Now, a number of scholars are seeking to shore up friendship in a surprising way: by granting it legal recognition. Some of the rights and privileges restricted to family, they argue, should be given to friends. These could be invoked on a case-by-case basis - eligibility to take time off to care for a sick friend under an equivalent of the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example. Or they could take the form of an official legal arrangement between two friends, designating a bundle of mutual rights and privileges - literally "friends with benefits," as Laura Rosenbury, a law professor at Washington University, puts it. One scholar even suggests giving friends standing in the tax code, allowing taxpayers to write off certain "friend expenditures."

Such changes, proponents say, could contribute to a shift in how our society values personal relationships. In part, they say, the point is to acknowledge that society has already changed: as more people are living outside of marriage, friendships have become the primary relationships on which many Americans rely. But a broader aim is to recognize the universal social and psychological benefits of friendship, which rival those of other relationships, notably marriage, that receive active state support. New laws could elevate friendship's status, recasting it as an essential part of our lives, rather than a luxury often sacrificed to other priorities.

Changes of this kind would "allow you to say, these are people who matter deeply to me," said Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is one of the thinkers in favor of friendship law. "I want that to count, not only in my own intimate life, but in the eyes of the law."

Most of the scholars in this nascent movement are part of a larger push to challenge the privileged status of marriage. They believe society would be better off supporting a broad spectrum of relationships, rather than exalting one kind above the rest.

And this, in turn, has led to some of the movement's strongest opposition. Critics charge that marriage deserves its special status, and that friendship, a fundamentally different kind of relationship, does not warrant the same kind of recognition and support. Other skeptics hold that friendship should stay outside the law for its own sake - do we really want friends with red tape?

"There is an ethos that if something is important, the law should be on the scene," says Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia. "I think we should resist that urge."
Like chocolate and wine, friendship is one of the great pleasures in life that turn out to be good for you, too. (And unlike those goodies, there's no caveat about moderation.) Research indicates that friendship boosts both physical and mental health, especially among the elderly, a growing demographic. One Australian study from 2006 suggested that close friendships did more to increase longevity than did family relationships.

Abundant research confirms that friendship, with its shared confidences and laughter, enhances health by reducing stress. Social connections are associated with stronger immune systems and less vulnerability to infectious disease. One factor in women's greater life expectancy may be their comparatively robust social support networks and intimate female friendships.

The boons of friendship extend to society at large. A 2004 study based on Gallup poll data found that employees who have a "best friend" at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Ethan Leib, a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, points out that friends save the state money by providing care and services during illness and emergencies.

Yet the state has never pursued a role in supporting friendship, the way it has, understandably, in the case of marriage. Spouses get income tax breaks and an array of other rights and privileges. They are eligible to take leave from work to provide care under the Family and Medical Leave Act; to make medical decisions on each other's behalf in the event of incapacitation; and to bring suits for wrongful death on each other's behalf, among other rights. They are also granted immunity from testifying against each other in court.

Over the past few decades, the laws governing marriage and family have shifted. In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of landmark reforms made marriage a radically different institution: women were granted equal rights within marriage, "illegitimate" children were granted legal rights, and no-fault divorce made dissolving a marriage much easier. More recently, a number of states have created civil unions and domestic partnerships.

In the view of some analysts, though, the reforms haven't gone far enough - the law now needs to catch up to the society it helped to shape, in which many more people live outside marriage. The reforms made marriage fairer and less compulsory, and they have even begun to recognize committed romantic relationships between members of the same sex. But for the most part, the law hasn't acknowledged the other types of important relationships that people can form.

"If the law decides to support some relationships, why not others that similarly involve care and support?" asks Washington University's Rosenbury. "What is it about marriage or marriage-like relationships - that is, relationships that are assumed to have sex in them?"
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