What is the real difference between friends and lovers? (Codependency question)
December 18, 2012 3:03 AM   Subscribe

What is the real difference between friends and lovers? (Codependency question)

I know this question is socially awkward, but what is the real difference? I was married at a young age and got divorced my mid twenties. During my marriage I never really had interactions with that many people (that was a combination of shyness and having an oppressive spouse). I haven't made any real friends in the past seven or eight years, but after I left my ex I kept getting caught up in these whirlwind romances. I've decided that I'm tired of romantic relationships and I'd just like to make some real friends, especially since my therapist observed that I have codependency issues. I was thinking finding and forming healthy friendships would help, but I'm concerned that I'd be codependent in the friendship too (looking to them for validation and always picking up the slack). I really have basically been spending the majority of my adulthood alone but I really want to get back out into the world. Any help on this topic would be appreciated.
posted by Cybria to Human Relations (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Fucking, or various sexual equivalents. Really it is that simple
posted by Blasdelb at 3:17 AM on December 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

...which is to say that, yes, it might be a good idea to watch for codependency in your relationships with people you are not sexual with - especially if your going cold turkey on codependency with people you are sexual with. This still sounds like it is a really good idea as even if you do end up beginning to form codependency with friends, it might help make those patterns more obvious without relationship baggage obscuring everything.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:22 AM on December 18, 2012

Friendships can look like any of the following... or anything else for that matter!

- I see you regularly at some shared activity thing we do. Sometimes we grab a coffee afterwards.

- I pop in one day most weeks for a cup of tea. Every now and then we might ask each other for favours (walk the dog, grab something from the shop). We generally try not to unload masses of drama on one another, or at least only to do so occasionally. Sometimes our lives are busy and we don't see each other for weeks on end, with maybe an occasional catch up phone call. Occasionally we go to the pictures together or on a hike or out for a meal.

- I'm round your house half the evenings in the week, one or other of us cooks. Every time one of us needs a hand with anything we phone the other. We call each other to talk about how our day went. We take each other into account when making our holiday plans.

Now if you take any of those descriptions and add "sometimes we have sex", that's lovers for you! The only difference is that in the last case, if your lover finds another partner, you break up, but if a friend with whom you are that intertwined finds a partner, you have some difficult times ahead making space in your friendship for the new relationship.
posted by emilyw at 3:45 AM on December 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

There is another difference, which is that (generally speaking) most people, once in a relationship, establish the amount of time they want to spend together and then stick to it more or less, escalating now and again when they get serious, move in together, have kids etc. For example, when you're first dating maybe once a week, then a couple times, etc etc.

With friends, you can not see them for days, weeks, months, sometimes years, and with most friends, especially good ones, you can pick up more or less where you left off.

So if you have a buddy you only see once every few months it doesn't mean you're never destined to be Great Friends, it's all about the quality of your time together.

Mentioning this because when I was younger I used to frantically beanplate about friendships, omg I haven't heard from this person in ages, maybe they don't want to hang out with me anymore, whoops I haven't called that person in a few months MAYBE OUR FRIENDSHIP IS OVER. Whereas in fact, they're just there and so is our friendship, ready to be awesome again whenever we need it :)
posted by greenish at 4:15 AM on December 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I find a distinction between Friends With Benefits and Lovers, so to me the regular occurrence of sex doesn't automatically cross the semantic bridge.

After sitting here reading that sentence for five minutes and wondering what the distinction is, I have concluded that it's the word "love", expressed. There's a difference of bond between people I'd say "I love you" to, and those whom I consider friends, even very close friends.

And after another few minutes, I think the word "love" comes into play when a relationship becomes concerned with assuring a shared future, not just arranging a shared present -- no matter how fun or sticky that present is. (Of course, love doesn't automatically mean sex either.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:18 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the answer lies in the primacy, and expectations of primacy, of the relationship.

A lover expects primacy above all others. Even a mistress (of a married man) expects to share primacy in some aspects of being a lover. Where a lover does not get primacy above all others, the relationship is more likely to either collapse or fail.

Friends may also expect primacy, but the top end of their expectations are typically primacy above other friends, not one's lover or spouse. Where a friend expects primacy above all others, the relationship is more likely either to become that of a lover, or to collapse or fail.

Sex is important because it is often a line in the sand where people expect both primacy and exclusivity. But it is not the necessary feature, IMHO. People can have sex with friends. Marriages may become sexless. It is a good indicator.

Intimacy is important too, because it correlates closely with primacy and exclusivity. But again, I don't think it is a necessary feature. Best friends may be more frank and intimate in many aspects with one another than they are with their lovers.

Time is also important - i.e. how much time people spend together/speak/see one another. However, there are examples of lovers who see one another infrequently and friends who live in one another's pockets.

Overall, when one defines primacy - one's status to another - we look at what someone gets first call on or exclusive access to, or shares with. We could also look at their named status. There is no magic formula, but a combination of primacy in terms of sex, intimacy, time and named status all serve to define the boundaries between friends and lover. Those boundaries are grey because friends do become lovers, and vice versa, and important aspects of how we define "being friendly with" and "loving" are shared across both groups.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:14 AM on December 18, 2012 [18 favorites]

I think my feelings are most like MuffinMan's above, but I can think of many, many functional exceptions to those guidelines. On the other hand, I'm not sure what drawing distinct lines in fuzzy sand is going to get you. If your issue is codependency, then regardless of whether you are looking at relationships with friends, with lovers or with the entire overlapping range between and beyond, you need to address and avoid that behaviour.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:26 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, the bright line is sex.

It sounds like you're easily caught up in romantic relationships and that the time you spend on those is crowding out your opportunities to form platonic friendships. I feel ya. I've spent most of my life in male-dominated (like, 10:1) environments and it took me a long time to figure out how to make friends with people who didn't have an ulterior motive to get into my pants.

I suggest that you take a (temporary) break from socializing with straight men. Gay men are OK as long as you are not sexually or romantically attracted to them. Focus most of your efforts on meeting and making friends with straight women. Lesbians are OK as long as you are not bisexual or bi-curious.

Basically, take any possibility of sex or romance (even an unrequited crush) off the table for a while so that your entire social life is filled with people with whom you can only form strictly platonic friendships with.

Focus on developing those friendships until you have at least a couple of close platonic friends. Learn from experience what those relationships feel like and how they work. Once you've got a handle on that, begin reintroducing (straight) men into your social life.

Going forward, whenever you begin getting to know a new man, ask yourself "Does this feel more like platonic friendship or a potential romance?" If it feels like a potential romance (or unrequited crush, in either direction) and the man in question is *not* "husband material," abort the budding friendship before either of you get hurt.

Don't neglect your platonic friendships once you begin dating again. Set aside at least a couple of days a week to spend with them. Your platonic friends will be with you through thick and thin even as boyfriends come and go. Make those friendships a higher priority than romance until you remarry. Once you are married (or in some other form of committed partnership) then your husband (partner) should be your highest priority, but make sure that you continue to carve out enough time and energy to maintain lifelong friendships outside of your marriage.

So there's your basic life plan for developing and maintaining relationships with people.

If you get stuck on the first step of how to meet potential friends, just start showing up at Meetups, various organizational meetings, and volunteer opportunities related to your hobbies, interests, and causes. Spend a couple of months sampling a bunch of different groups (this will probably entail going out almost every evening and weekend, so clear your schedule) before choosing a couple of groups that seem to offer the most prospective platonic friendships. You want to target groups that a) have few or no straight men as members, b) aren't dominated by a well-established clique, and c) get together at least once a week. If you find yourself putting in a few months of solid effort as a friendly and contributing member of the group without any budding close friendships to show for it, cut your losses and move on to another prospect-rich group.

This may seem like a cold and calculating approach to making new friends, but consider this: What percentage of the population do you think you're compatible enough with to form close, lifelong friendships with? Maybe 1%? That means statistically you gotta meet a few HUNDRED people just to find a COUPLE of good friends. Don't settle for spending most of your time with people you're only "friends" with because you don't know anybody else. Keep actively meeting new people until you find the ones who share your values, are fun to be with, and make maintaining their friendship with you a high priority in their lives.

And even after you've successfully acquired a couple of close friends, continue to prospect for potential new friends (albeit at a much lower intensity of time and effort than your initial friend-making campaign) because people die, people move away, people get overwhelmed with family responsibilities, people sometimes even get so worked up over stupid drama fights that they stop speaking to you. So keep your friend-making skills sharp. Although most people realistically can only sustain a couple of close friendships at a time (and even this becomes difficult once you have a family competing for your time and attention), try to maintain a "farm team" of friendly acquaintances who seem like they could potentially be good friends if/when you find yourself with enough extra time and emotional energy to form another close friendship.

(Note: Based on your profile and question, I've assumed that you are a straight woman. If I'm wrong, please forgive my heteronormativity and mentally switch my gender references around as necessary.)
posted by Jacqueline at 5:36 AM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Oh, and here are a few shows that you could watch to help you develop a model of what close, lifelong friendships look like:
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Community
- Psych
- Sex and the City
- Sherlock
- Star Trek (The Original Series + first 6 movies)
posted by Jacqueline at 5:54 AM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

On second thought, Psych and Sherlock might specifically be models for how to be best friends with a sociopath, so maybe you should skip those.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:05 AM on December 18, 2012 [10 favorites]

In romantic love (as in the "whirlwind romances" you fall into), you look to the lover as a kind of emotional savior, as you form that closed private world, that feeling that you *need* to be together as much as possible, that the other "completes" you; you "fall" in love, suggesting a loss of rationality; you become "infatuated" (fatuous = stupid) --

It's a kind of adult-version of infantile attachment to the mother.

There is some of that with close friends too (I would think of the difference as more on a continuum than as a binary function), but if you stop seeing a close friend you might feel terrible, but you don't generally feel as if you'd *die* if it ended -- this is why you are equating whirlwind romance with codependency.

You could certainly get into this pattern with friends. Just calling somebody a friend and not having sex with that person does not mean that you would not become as "co"dependent as you were with your ex-spouse.

It sounds as if you're looking for a "safe" way to become close to people, and you're hoping that removing sex from the equation is going to make it easier. And maybe it will. But the answer really lies within YOU. It seems that continuing to work on your own insecurities -- the "holes" that you keep trying to fill with these romances -- would constitute more of a stable, permanent solution to the problem of how to *fill* the

(1)metaphorically, of course
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:09 AM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

As far as friends vs lovers, besides the physical intimacy, I'd say it comes down to the level of compatibility required for the relationship to be successful. With friends you do not need to worry about whether you spend money the same way, whether you both want children, whether you have close enough religious views, whether they are going to drive you insane with their housekeeping habits, etc etc etc. You can accept each other warts and all and kind of just benefit from the strengths of your friends without having to confront the points where you may not be as closely aligned.

If it is codependency you struggle with, then these would be my recommendations for friends/life:

-People need to earn access to the parts of you that are vulnerable or personal over a long period of time (months to years). I'm not talking about sex stuff, do whatever you want with that if that is not a stress point for you, but more the stuff where you give people insight on how you really tick, what your fears are, what you feel strongly about.

-Fake social balance until you have it. Do not let yourself spend all of your time on any one thing or person. Sometimes this would mean forcing yourself to say no or not act on something you want even if it is available.

-Recognize that part of your brain is always going to seek external validation. When you feel this happening, try not to act on it and try to redirect that energy towards becoming more self reliant and confident with your own set of hobbies, decisions, etc.
posted by skrozidile at 7:19 AM on December 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

This is somewhat tangential, but: making friends and being a friend in a healthy way takes practice. You might be a bit rusty after years of not doing the friend-thing. But that's OK. You can't get better at it unless you go ahead and possibly make mistakes. Be easy on yourself as you refine your social skills. Your first few new friendships might not end up being the perfect, awesome, healthy friendships that last for 20 years. But start those friendships anyway because you can't learn this stuff in a vacuum.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:31 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Friends are people you welcome into your life, that fit into your pre-existing mold like puzzle pieces, and who might have a lasting impact on you.

Lovers are people you shape your life around, you find yourself moving your schedule around to accommodate them without resentment, and they leave their mark on you in a million tiny ways.

It's very easy for a friend to become a lover or a lover to fade into a friend. I find the distinction a little arbitrary - you may have friendships that are more intense than your relationships, or vice versa - but that's as close as I can nail it down.
posted by buteo at 8:46 PM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding DMelanogaster. The thing to focus on is not so much whether someone is a friend or a lover (thought friends can sometimes be easier to keep at bay; sometimes not!)

The thing to focus on is living a life that you're proud of in terms that do not involve someone else's presence in your life, or relationship to you. People will come and go. You cannot control them and they will, in any case, resent being made to bear the weight of your needs.

Picture yourself sitting on a train in a foreign country. A stranger gets into a conversation with you. They don't know any of the people you know, and don't really care. They ask about you. You explain your life at the moment. Is it something you are, if not happy about, at least something you feel is yours?

Is your life a set of actions initiated from your own heart and mind, encoded in your own meanings? Or is it a set of reactions (and wished-reactions) to other people you've invested with all the meaning in your life?

(It may be worth noting though: all this zany autonomy doctrine -- received askme wisdom -- is a very modern and very western phenomenon. Many contexts believe that a healthy individual does the exact opposite. Who can say?)
posted by ead at 7:55 AM on December 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

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