Does the concept of a romantic friendship sound too bizarre to wrap your head around? Well, before we get down to explaining why it’s not, we’d like you to ask yourself a few questions: What do you look for in an intimate relationship? Emotional support? Intellectual stimulation? Loyalty? Honesty? Shared interests? Probably most of these. Perhaps all. And what then do you look for in a friend?
In 2021, researchers asked university students and adults to describe the behaviors they associated with friendship and those they linked with romantic love. They ended up with nearly identical descriptions for both. The researchers also found that two-thirds of romantic couples start as friends. That’s hardly surprising since, for a greater part of our history, friendship and romance have been joined firmly at the hip.
Love is friendship set on fire, we’re told. And so, we spin in circles around the altar of love, hoping to be best friends with our romantic partners, or looking for romantic love with friends. After all, isn’t all-consuming romantic love the end goal? And friendship the cherry on top?
But what if our deepest bond lies outside the friendship-romance binary? What if our most fulfilling love lies somewhere in between friendship and romance? What if our idea of commitment is not one centered on romantic love, but rooted firmly in friendship? Well, that’s where the line between friendship and romance blurs, and we head straight into the territory of romantic friendships.
What Is Romantic Friendship
What is a romantic friendship? It is a relationship between two people who are more than friends, but less than lovers, whose emotional intimacy, deep love, and sense of commitment equal that of traditional romantic partners/spouses, sans the sexual angle.
The term romantic friendship dates back to a time when men and women formed intense, even exclusive, same-sex relationships. Some even gave heterosexual marriage and traditional romantic relationships the boot to settle down with their closest friend, sharing their home, table, and even purse — without any apparent self-consciousness.
Such arrangements are well-documented in Renaissance literature on male friendships and had their heyday in nineteenth-century to early twentieth-century America in the form of Boston marriages. Boston marriages involved single and financially independent women who were far more than housemates. They often made a life-long commitment to each other and harbored deep love for one another. And they formed such same-sex relationships without alienating public opinion or seemingly upending societal norms.
That’s because, back then, people thought choosing lifelong mates based on romantic love was, well, plain absurd. Thus, romantic friendships, especially female romantic friendships, were encouraged, though sexual acts or sexual relationships between people of the same sex were taboo. So, an intense friendship that is not really romantic, but not really platonic? Is there some sexual attraction involved?
The question of the sexual or nonsexual nature of intimate friendships has relationship chroniclers divided. Some have highlighted the nonsexual nature of romantic friendships. Others have suggested that they can turn into sexual relationships. Largely though, romantic friends seem to have kept sexual intimacy out of their equation, even though many of us would find it hard not to associate some of their behaviors — sharing beds, kissing, and cuddling — with it.
Related Reading: 11 Types Of Taboo Relationships You Should Know About
More than friends, less than lovers
Going by contemporary accounts, similar relationships and practical arrangements are gaining traction in modern times. Romantic friends, not necessarily from the same sex, are buying homes and adopting or raising children with their besties. Some are living with their much-married friends as a family unit. Others are ditching romantic relationships to choose a dear friend as their primary life partner. Some are making it official by exchanging vows of everlasting love and getting hitched.
In an article in the Telegraph, author Tracy Emerson, who has lived in a Boston marriage with her friend Susie for over two decades now, has described their relationship as being more than friends, less than lovers — as one of emotional but not sexual intimacy. According to her, though they have kept their bank accounts separate, their day-to-day interactions resemble some aspects of a typical marriage and some of an open and polyamorous relationship.
Romantic Friendship Vs Platonic Love
So how can you tell if you are friends and lovers? Just friends, not lovers? Friends on the way to becoming lovers? Lovers but not friends? Lovers on the way to becoming friends? Friendship love vs romantic love, which description fits? Romantic attraction vs friendship, which would you choose to build your life around? What if you reject the friendship-romance binary altogether? Where are you then? How do you know you have a platonic relationship vs romantic relationship or something in between?
Well, here’s the thing about relationships: they can be incredibly hard to define. This is because we are all unique and so are the ways in which we connect with one another. No neat little label can quite capture what two people feel for each other and defining relationship boundaries is pretty much like drawing lines on sand. While there are no hard lines, there are degrees of separation. Here are some that separate romantic friendships from platonic ones:
|Romantic Friendship||Platonic Love|
1. You have romantic feelings for your friend. Intense as they are, these feelings are rooted in committed friendship, not romantic love. Hence, they may or may not be sexual.
1. You are definitely more than friends, but there is no romance or pressure of dating. They are your non-romantic soulmate and your relationship is of a nonsexual nature.
|2. More often than not, your relationship takes priority over other relationships, including romantic ones. And your romantic partners know it.||2. You may value your bond over other relationships or mutual friends, but you would probably not prioritize it over romantic love or marriage.|
|3. You think of each other as family. In fact, you may choose to partner up for life and live as one.||3. You may spend a lot of time together, call each other family even, but you probably would not spend your entire lives as one.|
|4. Romantic friends share deep love and feelings of commitment, almost like partners in a marriage. In fact, they think of each other as their significant other and are a couple in many ways.||4. You trust each other, you value each other, and are closer than two peas in a pod, but you would not describe your friend as your primary life partner.|
|5. You tend to take major life decisions together, you may move continents to be together, or you may even buy homes or adopt kids together.||5. You may seek them out for advice on major stuff, but you’d probably not plan your lives around each other to such a degree.|
Can there be a romantic friendship between a man and a woman?
When Harry met Sally, he was quite emphatic: a man and a woman cannot be friends since “the sex part always gets in the way”. Studies have since shown that people believe platonic friendship between a man and woman is very much possible (though to be fair they’ve also found that many people secretly hope their friendship would turn into something more). So what about romantic friendship then? Can there be a romantic friendship between a man and a woman?
When a platonic relationship between a man and woman doesn’t quite escape the lens of Eros in our modern times, it’s not a stretch to say that a romantic friendship between a man and woman would be quite tricky to navigate. Especially, if there are romantic partners or spouses in the mix. It is highly doubtful that a romantic partner would accept not being your No. 1 priority. That’s not to say that a romantic friendship between a man and woman is well-nigh impossible. After all, when it comes to relationships there’s no one-size-fits-all template. And who says there needs to be one?
Could You Be In A Romantic Friendship With Someone? 7 Signs That Say So
They say there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. So what kind are you harboring in your heart? Modern love has tangled up romantic love and other kinds of love so tightly that it is often hard to tell them apart. Amid all our collective confusion about love, how do we know what kind of love we are feeling toward a friend? How do we figure out whether the bond we share is platonic, romantic, or that of romantic friendship? Well, here are 7 signs that show you could be in a romantic friendship with someone:
1. You are truly, madly, deeply in love
A participant in one study on non-sexual passionate friendships describes meeting her friend thus: “…if there was love at first sight, then, that was what it was when I saw [her]. And it wasn’t anything sexual, it was just sort of like, I have to know this girl, and it was such an attraction from me toward her.”
Though they eventually drifted apart, the participant had deep and uncommonly intense feelings of love for her friend. She even described their parting as a “breakup”. Another described her friendship as “almost like dating somebody”.
Feelings of fierce and passionate love, even in the absence of sexual attraction, are the hallmark of a romantic friendship. Only here, there is a sense of ownership/belongingness, safety, validation, and unconditional love and acceptance, which lies outside the narrower confines of regular friendships and the trappings of romance.
There is a deep desire to know each other, be with each other, and share your daily ups and downs with each other, which does not necessarily need to be cemented with physical intimacy or demonstrate the sexual aspects common to traditional romantic relationships. This is perhaps what gives these friendships their romantic feel.
2. You struggle to describe your bond
The term romantic friendship slowly shed much of its innocence as the twentieth century progressed, with sexologists, Sigmund Freud among them, increasingly declaring same-sex intimacy and same-sex relationships as perverse and highly undesirable. They even heaped new terms on romantic friends, such as “lesbian”, “gay”, “morbid”, and “diseased,” or as historian Lillian Faderman notes in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, “twilight lovers”, the maladjusted who dwelled “midway between the sexes”.
This left people hesitant about expressing love for friends, especially those of the same sex. Over the years, with the flux of modern times and modern love, some of the more negative labels have fallen off and some new ones have been tacked on: best soul friend, my person, ride or die, non-sexual passionate friendship, committed friendship, intimate friendship, companionate friendship—and yet, romantic friends still struggle to find a language that would make their bond clear to outsiders.
To borrow the words of Oprah Winfrey, whose close friendship with Gayle King has invited much scrutiny over the years: “How can you be this close without it being sexual? How can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, always admires you?…There isn’t a label, there isn’t a definition of what this is supposed to be.”
Related Reading: No-Labels Relationship: Does A Relationship Without Labels Work?
3. Your lives center around each other
Romantic friends take the terms emotional intimacy and emotionally invested to a whole new level. They are deeply attuned to each other’s wants and whims, finish off each other’s sentences, and seem completely preoccupied with each other. As the participant of a study relates: “So I think that our husbands see that our connection is the primary connection and I think that they kind of feel peripheral.”
This is hardly surprising considering that romantic friends devote a huge chunk of their energy and attention to each other. Yet, by becoming each other’s center of gravity, they become a haven or a safety net from which they can explore other friendships, and romantic relationships, or even experiment with and stretch the possibilities of what love looks like.
Romantic friends may even enter into other unconventional relationship dynamics, such as ethical non-monogamy, a type of non-monogamous relationship where they may pursue multiple sexual/romantic partnerships all at once, but with one caveat: all their partners know about each other.
What makes all this possible? Their committed friendship since they can always “look over their shoulder and know their friend is there for them,” say Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, the authors of Big Friendship, who sought couples therapy at one point to save their friendship.
4. You show an immense level of care for each other
They are your 3 a.m. phone call, your 5 a.m. airport ride, and your anytime pick-me-up. They are the ones you can count on to drop everything and run to you should you need it. They are your chosen family. The ones you choose to rely on completely. Your shock absorbers for when things go wrong. And in a society where friendships are considered secondary in the hierarchy of relationships, romantic friends are proof of how people outside the traditional family — your friends — can slip into key roles of confidants, cohabitants, co-parents, and even caregivers. In fact, they challenge traditional notions of the role friends can play in our lives.
5. Distance does not change your connection
Another thing that’s really unique about romantic friendships: though you are less than lovers, your feelings don’t really seem to dissipate with time or distance, as one would see with other traditional relationships. You know you can count on your romantic friend, even if you live miles apart and hardly ever get a chance to talk as much as you would like. But when you do pick up the phone, back you go, picking up right where you left off.
That being said, romantic friends can’t really bear to be apart and tend to make every effort to stay close. Any separation, or the thought of it, can even trigger high levels of distress, or anxiety, in such friends, say researchers.
Related Reading: Separation Anxiety In Relationships – What Is It And How To Cope?
6. You aren’t afraid to show how you feel
While they may fall short of a full-blown romantic relationship, especially in the sexual aspects, romantic friendships still have a lot going on. Butterflies and skipped heartbeats, candlelights and flowers, sweet nothings and starry eyes, and simmering feelings and hushed sighs — you can expect to feel all this and more with a romantic friend. What’s more: romantic friends aren’t shy about wearing their hearts on their sleeves. So if you are in a romantic friendship, you most definitely won’t hesitate to show your friend you love them.
In fact, passionate expressions of love and even physical affection are quite the norm among romantic friends, particularly those of the same sex. They may hold hands, stroke, kiss, and cuddle. They may even get jealous or possessive. What is extraordinary here is the degree of affection they shower on each other, which is why their intimate friendships transform into “full-blown attachments” even without sex, say researchers.
7. Your connection is often mistaken to be romantic
You aren’t afraid to shout your love from the rooftops. You weave your lives around each other. Call each other over for a cuddle. You are utterly and hopelessly engrossed with each other. Your connection is exclusive. It doesn’t change with distance or dim with time. In fact, the thought of separation puts you in a royal funk. Need we say why you’ve got everyone around you thinking you are romantically involved?
Related Reading: 20 Signs You Are Ready To Be In An Exclusive Relationship
Is A Romantic Friendship Sustainable?
The proponents of romantic love would have us believe that there is something inevitable about romantic love and marriage. About finding the one person who is our best friend, lover, cheerleader, emotional support system, the person we turn to in sickness and in times of struggle. In short, the one person who is our ‘everything.’ But here’s the problem.
“If you prioritize only your romantic relationships, who is going to hold your hand through a breakup? Relying on your spouse to be your everything will definitely undo your marriage. No one human can meet your every single emotional need. If you only prioritize your kids, what happens when they’re grown and living far away, wrapped up in their own lives? Or if you only prioritize work? Wow, that’s too sad to even contemplate,” say Sow and Friedman in Big Friendship.
Romantic friendships take this pressure off, and in doing so, they allow people to open up their hearts to what love can be, rather than what it should be. They allow people to step over the shambles of modern-day romance, transactional relationships, sexual politics, and fragmented families to redefine models of marriage and family and reimagine networks of care beyond them.
Are romantic friendships sustainable? Depends. Many romantic friends spend decades together, with their bond surviving the rough and tumble of real life. Others end up going their separate ways or even rekindling their friendship after an estrangement. Long-lasting or not, they show that sometimes, love is best understood as an excess of friendship. Aristotle would agree.
- Romantic friendships involve intense emotional intimacy and commitment
- Unlike full-blown romantic love, they may or may not involve physical intimacy
- Romantic friends prioritize their bond over other relationships
- They may even partner up for life and live together
- They may take major life decisions together
- Ultimately, they show deep, long-lasting love can take many forms
Essentially, romantic friendships prove that intense friendships can be as fulfilling as romantic or spousal love, replace it even. They hold up a mirror to another kind of abiding love—the kind that puts friendship, not romantic love, at the center.
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