What distinguishes a friendship from a romance?
August 13, 2013 11:01 PM   Subscribe

Somebody I've known for a year rather suddenly told me that she "felt attracted" to me. We've agreed to have dinner when she gets back into town. New as I am to dating, I'm confused as to how I should proceed.

I've got my act together in many areas, but not dating. Notable incidents include somebody approaching me in a grocery store to invite me back to her apartment for lunch (we became close friends for several years until she moved across the country), somebody offering me her phone number so we could meet up at an upcoming dance (I said I wasn't very good and offered to introduce her to some more experienced partners), etc. Actually, despite how many women I've been friends with, I'm pretty clueless about relating to them in any way where the gender is actually relevant.

I would like to make this work. I like talking with her, I like dancing with her, and I like arguing with her. (We seem to have a sweet spot of enough values in common to have a basis for argument, yet also enough differences that we don't just agree all the time.) In the last year, I've reliably enjoyed her company as a friend. I'm a little confused how to make the transition to a romantic relationship, though. At a high level, I imagine it's more of the same, but with an eye toward marriage someday. At a low level, in the everyday course of things, I don't know what distinguishes good friends from girlfriends.

Please don't tell me everybody is different. Everybody talks a little differently too, but that hasn't stopped linguists from publishing. I am explicitly asking for generalities. What are some things people commonly look for? What are some behaviors seen between couples more often than friends? Or, if it makes you feel more comfortable, tell stories about your own relationships and I'll do the meta-analysis myself.

As I write this question, I realize I've passed up a great opportunity. When she first told me she felt attracted to me, I expressed some surprise because she is very religious and I expected that she would be looking for someone of her own faith. She said this was an important consideration, but her feelings were unchanged nonetheless, because I "have a lot going for [me]." I could have asked what, exactly. I didn't because it seemed too self-indulgent, and also because I didn't want to ask her to commit herself so explicitly before I was ready to offer something similar. But in retrospect, the answer would be useful now.
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Kiss her, you fool.
posted by kelseyq at 11:11 PM on August 13, 2013 [35 favorites]

I suggest that if the feelings are mutual, you plan to do something romantic during the dinner that will give her the signal "let's try this more-than-just-friends-thing now..." and you might get lucky.

This sounds quite similar to how I got together with my now-husband. I told him I was attracted to him, he told me he felt the same, and we made a date to go to his house for the next night. When I showed up, we made some small talk for a little while and acted like our usual friend-selves, but then he got out his bass guitar and told me he wanted to play something for me, and it turned out he had been practicing one of my favorite songs (which incidentally is a bit of a romantic tune). It was about ten years ago so the details are a little fuzzy now, but shortly after that smooth move, some hot making out ensued. If you don't have a good specific idea you could use like this, wait til you're sitting on the couch together and gazing into each other's eyes, and "I really want to kiss you right now" ought to suffice.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:16 PM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Romance = friendship/affection + physical attraction/activity

It sounds like your friendship/affection for this woman is established. So I guess the question is: do you feel, at some level, a physical attraction for her as well?
posted by scody at 11:17 PM on August 13, 2013 [12 favorites]

If she is just straight up telling you she is attracted to you, then you are 90% of the way there, man. Just take her on a date and give her a good night kiss when you get to her place, and maybe she'll even invite you back in.
posted by empath at 11:25 PM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

Ok, my story (and where you do the meta-analysis).

Exclusivity: I don't need to have an exclusive dynamic with a friend but need that with a partner. This is not necessarily sexual exclusivity but it is linked to sexual intimacy.

Intensity:I can go without talking to a friend for weeks/months; I need daily contact with a partner. Can take irregularity more from a friend, less from a partner. More love; love in the specific sense of their pain and joys becoming mine too.

Hierarchy: If I have to choose between attending to a friend's need and a partner's need, I'll attend to my partner's.

I hope this helps at the "high-level". At the low level, in the concrete, get into the 'gender relevant' stuff. I like how you phrase that, I've thought that the best dates for me are when the guy or gal I'm going out with brings out the feminine in me. Playfulness, care and affection, gallantry and light touching are things that never go wrong with me. Connect to your attraction for her and let her know that being mindful of what she is responsive to; it's like tango. If she's said she's attracted to you, makes things easier. Kiss her at the door.
posted by drummergirl80 at 11:42 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

What are some things people commonly look for? What are some behaviors seen between couples more often than friends?

Do you wish to please her in a sexual capacity?

Do you feel she has a lot going for her?

Could you see her in your life in the future, taking into specific account the answers of those two questions?
posted by heyjude at 12:26 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The difference between friendship and romantic relationship is hard to define precisely, but is generally recognisable when you feel it. Butterflies in your tummy; sparking energy, perhaps of a sexual kind; that lift in your heart when you think you see them on the street; feeling let down if it turns out to be someone else. If you have to reason yourself in love with someone, you quite possibly aren't.

In love is not an ongoing romantic relationship, however; there the recipe differs. It should generally include a component of sex/physical attraction, though. There's also degrees of entanglement - how intertwined your lives are in practical and emotional aspects. Do you live together, have children together, feel that she is the person you have to share most things with from the mundane to the sublime to the horrific to the tragic? Would she be the first person you rang to say goodbye to if you were on a hijacked plane? Would she be the person who would console you when one of your parents dies? Would she be the person you take on a second job for so that she can go back to study and fulfill one of her dreams? Do you want to have children with her specifically, not just in general?

Apart from the sexy thing (well, for many people; there are some people who have sexytimes with friends; I'm not one of them so I can't really explain the difference in that scenario) it's not so much a difference in kind as it is of degree. You are more entangled, you love more, you communicate more, you expect more, you would sacrifice more and vice versa. You mean more to each other.

But don't go in with all that expectation, it's unfair to the person you haven't even been on a single date with! Just take her for who she is and see how it goes, see how you both feel. You'll figure it out.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:48 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Things will be exactly the same as they were before with the added dynamic of you both gradually moving towards what you (individually) think a relationship looks like, and you'll meet in the middle somewhere. There will probably be more sex and fights. You might end up living together, with a cat.

What I'm saying is don't sweat it. The topic is on the table now, you'll do something with it together, and you've got a good foundation. Enjoy!
posted by analoguezen at 2:40 AM on August 14, 2013

I can only repeat kelseyq's excellent, spot on, (and right off the bat) advice:

Kiss her, you fool.

*Leads d. z. wang to water.*

*Points to water.*

"There. Drink."
posted by three blind mice at 3:01 AM on August 14, 2013


I'm sexually attracted to romantic partners and want to have sex with them. I'd say that's a pretty good indicator for most people.
posted by nerdfish at 4:38 AM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm echoing Scody. Do YOU feel any attraction to HER? You never mentioned it in your post, which I found very surprising. You want to make it work, but never did you say whether you feel romantically about her. You never said whether you found her sexually attractive.

If you do, then yeah, you're golden.

As for what a friendship-turned-romance looks like, I was friends with my fiance for something like four or five years before we became romantic, and yeah, our relationship is mostly the same as our friendship, only with more touching and sex. We discuss and argue and joke all the same ways, only now we do it holding hands. We also say "I love you" a lot, which we obviously didn't do when we were just friends. But seriously, that's it. We both find each other pretty stupendous people, we both just love spending time together, we both never want to be without the other, and we both get turned on by the other and seriously enjoy the sexy times. My feelings for him have always been "I really like this guy, he is cool" but one day it turned to "I really like this guy, he is cool, and I would like to engage in coitus with him." If your inner dialogue includes the "and I would like to engage in coitus with [her]" then you're on your way.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:50 AM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

For me, a partner differs from a good friend in the following ways:

-- we're sexually compatible: we want to have sex and we enjoy the same kinds of sex (or close enough that it works). We also cuddle and are affectionate, though mostly in private.

-- I expect to communicate with my partner daily, except on special occasions such as one of us traveling.

-- we're top priority with one another. I expect my partner to make himself available if I need him -- e.g. a practical or emotional crisis -- whereas I expect my friends to be supportive but potentially have other priorities. Once my partner came home early from a vacation because there was a family crisis involving an alcoholic relative and he wanted to be there to support me. (This was his choice, not my demand, but it's an example of what I mean.) I reciprocate this and try to make sure I am there for my partner whenever he needs me.

-- certain incompatibilities I could tolerate in a friend, even a good friend, are not present in my partner. We have similar values and compatible communication styles. We can work in the same room for multiple hours without annoying one another.

-- we are a social unit and attend events together. (Not ALL events -- we're not joined at the hip and we do have separate hobbies and professional obligations -- but most parties, dinners, weddings, etc., involve both of us.) He gets along with the people I hang out with socially and does not behave in public in a way that makes me embarrassed to be associated with him.

-- we deal with practical concerns as a team. We plan together for vacations, budgeting, housing decisions, chores and meal plans. We see ourselves as being on the same side and pick up slack for one another. (This is not necessarily a romance thing, more a household-sharing thing; I've had some of these same interactions with roommates or family in the past. But he is especially good at being on my team, which is another thing that makes him a good partner.)

-- we're open with one another and can discuss most things that cross our minds. My partner knows my concerns and anxieties and always has a clear picture of what is going on in my emotional life. Exceptions are: if a friend tells me a secret in strict confidence, I do not share it with my partner unless I have permission; I also do not feel the need to mention passing attractions to other people. (I don't plan to act on the latter and see no point in bringing them up. Different couples handle this differently.) I share a lot with my close friends, but they don't necessarily have this high-level view of the terrain, as it were.

Now, all that said, we didn't go straight from friends to that level of partnership with no intervening stops. Especially if she's very religious (but possibly for other reasons also), your friend might not want to have sex immediately. Even if she does, you may take a bit of time to get comfortable with one another sexually. You probably won't speak every day at first if you don't already. You may take some time to open up about more intimate things. Etc. It's a progression.

The question at this point is not "are you going to marry this person and do you have a list of all the reasons why you would?" but "do you see some potential in those areas, and do you want to explore them?"
posted by shattersock at 5:02 AM on August 14, 2013 [11 favorites]

For me the point where things cross over from "very close friendship" to "romantic relationship" really boils down to just two extra ingredients: a shared assumption of exclusivity, and some degree of mutually desired sexual activity*.

That's pretty much it. Other than those ingredients they're the same thing, ideally.

*For the purposes of this answer, "sexual activity" may include anything from intercourse to kissing to just sitting real close and hoping her leg might brush against yours for a moment
posted by ook at 6:02 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

My sweeping generalization is that all good relationships start as good friendships. You just get to add sex into it.

Marriage requires common values and goals.

That's it.

Don't make it too hard.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:32 AM on August 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

My relationship with my wife is much like that of the McSockersons, as described above. My wife and I were good friends for several years before dating. The one special condition I'd like to point out for established friendships turning romantic is that they can get serious in a hurry, because, while you still have to do the work and spend the time to sort out how you will relate to each other romantically and sexually, so much of the work to establish the friendship is already done.

It's a grand thing when it works. At the point where just-met-each-other relationships are doing the "Wow, you have X siblings?" and "You like ________, too?" parts, my experience was more like, "Wow, best friend, you sure are good at the sex!"
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:35 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, here's the question: what have you been doing for sex so far? The answer to that will surely indicate a lot about how to proceed.

Be honest with yourself if you think about the answer to this; and if you have fantasies, what do they consist of?

Btw, your cluelessness as explained above - I said I wasn't very good and offered to introduce her to some more experienced partners - is entirely charming and beguiling. I can see why you'd have women chasing you. But, if you were to do the chasing, who would you be chasing after?

I like talking with her, I like dancing with her, and I like arguing with her. You haven't said you'd like to get down and dirty with her, or that you like the way she smells, or that you daydream sometimes about the turn of her neck. You haven't said you're physically attracted to her, as opposed to just liking her company. Physical attraction is what you need to get into romance with a person.
posted by glasseyes at 7:36 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you have "the butterflies?" It doesn't seem like you do. Never fear, they can develop! I'm with the people who say to just kiss her. Who knows, you may fall for her as a result.

(As a shy person, I can imagine that it might have taken her A LOT of courage to declare her feelings for you--so I bet her feelings are pretty strong. ;-))
posted by Rainflower at 8:21 AM on August 14, 2013

Like nerdfish said, I was also ready to come in here and post just "sex". It's also pretty much what everyone else has already said except with more delicate language.

Do you want to hold this woman's hips close to yours, caress the small of her back, put your cheek against hers and whisper into her ear, take her clothes off, and well, etc.? Then there you go, that's a romantic relationship.

Want to debate the death penalty? Fine, but not really relevant to the romantic part of the relationship. And if you want to get married one day, then it's helpful to have similar views on children, religion, etc. But that doesn't matter either until the romance is established.

As for how to get from here to there, kelseyq already gave you the correct advice.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:50 AM on August 14, 2013

What distinguishes a friendship from a romance?

Fucking and practical compatibility.
posted by cmoj at 12:55 PM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Too many folks are answering about sex and assuming that you want it. Could you be an asexual romantic? I think it will be important to determine where your boundaries are before you experiment further.

Are you aware of how her religious faith plays into her decision to approach you? I wondered about that when I read the post, because I worry about preserving the friendship you have been nurturing. Do you think she sees you as an equal, or forbidden fruit because of your cultural/religious differences? How would you feel if it were the latter?

Although I advise caution, it is also great to prolong the discovery phase of romances! Good luck!
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 4:31 PM on August 14, 2013

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