What's the difference between strong friendship and romantic love?
August 20, 2007 10:03 AM   Subscribe

What's the difference between strong friendship and romantic love?

When I have strong feelings for people, I have a very difficult time determining whether I am interested in them as a romantic partner or not. I feel drawn to spending as much time with them as possible, I think about them a lot, their happiness is extremely important to me and their emotions have a strong impact on mine, I want to us to be extremely important in eachothers' lives, I hope to have them in my life permanently. This feeling of being drawn to the person happens both in the context of crushes on new acquaintances as well as with long-standing friends (and with both men and women)-- obviously in a more substantial way with friends.

Becoming a romantic couple with these people seems appealing to me because I like the idea of having a beloved partner at my side and promising to center our lives around eachother-- but for me, this desire does not seem qualitatively different from the feelings towards other good friends, only quantitatively, a matter of degree and intensity. In other words, I would want to marry my best friend because they're my best friend.

I think part of the challenge for me is that, while I wouldn't say I'm completely asexual, I am definitely towards that end of the spectrum. I don't really feel sexual attraction or pull towards anyone. The idea of holding hands, cuddling, kissing, etc with people I am emotionally attracted to is very appealing, but more because of intimacy than lust. I am sexually active with partners, but mostly because that's important to them and I want them to be happy. (I'm female and in my mid-20s, by the way.)

As a result, I find myself with a lot of confusion. The kind of love I feel for my boyfriend of 2 years does not seem very different from the way I feel towards a couple of my other very dear friends-- I ask myself, am I romantically drawn to all of them? None of them? Is there a different kind of love feeling out that will feel very different but I won't know until I find it?

So what I'm asking you is, other than the sexual aspect, is there a difference between intense, intimate friendships and romantic relationships? If so, how would you describe it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
Although this is only partially an answer to your question, I think it might be more fruitful to ask yourself why the distinction even matters. While society has categories for varying levels of emotional/physical intimacy, they are just that- categories. The walls of those categories are static definitions of abstractions, else they cease to function as such.
Another piece of this puzzle is the lumping together of love and sex- historically, this was not always the case. I think the fact that we are expected to love the people we have sex with (and conversely not have sex with people we don't love) muddies the waters to a degree that the question you are asking exists. In my experience, the best strategy in terms of maximizing fulfillment/answering this question on some level is to interact with and enjoy each relationship on its own merits relative only to itself. Obviously be mindful of how those relationships interact with your others (i.e. if one person requires monogamy be mindful of it, etc.).
Also, I'm not one of those free love advocates, but I think its important to challenge our assumptions that the things society hands us are necessarily the way the world is.
posted by zennoshinjou at 10:23 AM on August 20, 2007 [7 favorites]

Other than the sexual aspect, I don't think there necessarily has to be a big difference between intimate friendships and romantic relationships. Some people approach these categories in a way that creates a difference, but this is a personal choice. You might choose to share certain things (discussing certain topics, watching sports, finances, a house) with only friends or only romantic interests, or you might not.

To a certain extent, the labels of "friendship" and "romantic" are shorthand markers for other people to understand your life. Don't feel that you must define your relationships with people according to labels, but use them if they are useful to you.
posted by yohko at 10:35 AM on August 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'd say the dividing line of these two things can be determined by asking yourself whether you want to kiss someone you're close to, like on the mouth. Answering no means platonic friend. Answering yes means romantic friend.
posted by poppo at 11:00 AM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

well, in many ways the distinctions are artificial, but with romantic love, there is generally a strong friendship plus sexual intimacy as well as (eventually) a lifelong commitment to sharing a home and life, and often parenting.

it's not uncommon for couples to face imbalances of libido. although i don't think it's "unnatural" not to have a libido, it might be worth checking with your doctor to make sure everything's working the way it's supposed to. if so, do a head check and see if there isn't any unaddressed depression or anxiety. you might examine your sexuality in greater depth, and make sure you are not suppressing an attraction to the other gender.

assuming none of these are issues, then you probably just have a low sex drive. i wouldn't worry about it unless you find yourself really compromising yourself or feeling violated when you agree to sexual activity. you may wish to experiment with your sweetie and find things you are comfortable with that will satisfy him. and don't be afraid to see a couples counselor, either.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:15 AM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe there's a difference. I'd say that most people I know behave as if those two states are quite different. But I think I agree with the previous comments as to why this is the case.

My situation is strikingly similar to yours, emotionally (though I'm not dating, am far from asexual, and have always been one variant or another of bisexual). I love a certain group of people deeply, but I don't think I've really had the emotional experiences my friends describe, when they talk about being in love. Instead, they've been largely similar to your feelings toward your boyfriend and close friends.

Some people form different types of relationships in line with labelling conventions (which is fine by me), and some people don't or can't. Either seems acceptable.

Many of my close friends have these types of feelings regarding love vs. friendship, I've noticed. Several of the relationships between people in my friends group fall into very gray areas when viewed from the outside, and people describe the participants as "confused" or whatever, but the confusion level is typically very low.

This is the first comment I've made here, and I had to because your situation resonated with me bigtime. If you ever feel like thought-exchanging on this sort of thing, get my email from my profile.
posted by Coatlicue at 11:16 AM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


While love between friends is a mutual, self-sacrificing arrangement, agape, romantic love includes an element of self-serving love as well, eros. Romantic love includes the desire to receive love back from the other in a way that does not involve a mutual arrangement or sacrifice of the self.

In other words friendship would be a "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine." Romantic love would be more like "I'll scratch your back, if you blow me."
posted by Pollomacho at 11:46 AM on August 20, 2007 [15 favorites]

The grey areas in relationships tend to make people uncomfortable from an outside perspective--categories allow folks to understand situations neatly and not have to think too hard.

Saturday night, I was at a concert with a good friend of the opposite sex. People did not seem to understand--despite assurances from both of us--that we were not a couple. That we were openly affectionate with each other only confounded them more. But that is the nature of our friendship--both of us fully aware that the things that draw us together ultimately make us completely incompatible romantically. We're okay with that.

My point here is that your relationships are yours to define, no one else's. If you want to explore different avenues of intimacy with someone, all you need do is ask and try. If it works, swell. If not, life goes on. The details and distinctions do not really matter.
posted by gsh at 12:03 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't expect non-romantic friends to ever identify as part of a unit with me. When I'm involved in a serious romantic relationship, I do.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:03 PM on August 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

I ask myself this question all the time, mostly in the context of why I want to have a "romantic" relationship with some people and a "friends" / "friends with benefits" relationship with others. I have no idea, despite frequent heart- and soul-searching, what happens when my feelings change from non-romantic to romantic, nor why it happens in some circumstances and not in others.

For example: I have a "friends" relationship with J. I love him dearly and can't imagine my life without him. He's incredibly important to me and I would be devastated if something were to separate us emotionally. Although he's a very attractive man, at no point in our friendship have I ever wanted to have sex with him, nor have I ever wanted to create a romantic relationship with him. We are and have always been "just" friends.

I have had a "friends-with-benefits" relationship with R. I feel emotionally for him the same way I feel for J., with the added feeling of being very sexually attracted to him. Even so, I have never wanted to create a romantic relationship with him. We are and have always been "just" friends who (used to, before he met his girlfriend) have sex from time to time.

I had a "romantic" relationship with my ex-husband. Everything I feel for R., I felt with him: deep emotional intimacy, sexual attraction, and a desire to spend as much time as possible with him. But there was something else, too, that made me classify my feelings for him as "romantic" rather than "friends" or "friends with benefits." To this day, I can't explain why that feeling occured with him and not with J. or R. It just existed that way, incredibly and wonderfully different from the way I felt for any of the other important people in my life.

It drives my analytical mind absolutely batshit crazy to think that the difference between these feelings is something that will always be inexplicable, and I hate the idea that I will live the rest of my life never being able to explain what it is. But maybe that's the whole point: maybe being "in love" is an uncategorizeable, inexplicable maelstrom of feelings, and maybe the difference of it from other forms of emotional intimacy really is something that you'll know only when you encounter it.
posted by jesourie at 12:38 PM on August 20, 2007 [5 favorites]

My partner is, without question, my best and most intimate friend, totally outside of my romantic love for him. While I have other very warm, very emotionally intimate friendships, this one is deeper than those by leaps and bounds, probably because of the other kinds of intimacy we also share.

We have attraction and sexual intimacy on top of that too, sure, but there's another aspect as well. I'm with solipsophistocracy with that "part of a unit" thing. For me, that feeling started for form after that initial rush of love/lust faded. It's the feeling of a real commitment to not just my life, but our life, and the unit that we are together. I've never felt that to any friend, no matter how intimate.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:38 PM on August 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

Exclusivity is the defining feature of romantic love. The feelings you share for each other are not shared for anyone else. The vulnerability you have with each other is unmatched in any of your other relationships. It's a more wrenchingly involved experience than platonic love -- more wonderful, less fun.

When you friends go away for a week do you die a little inside?
posted by bluenausea at 12:40 PM on August 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

There may not be that much difference between how you feel about your friends and how you feel about your romantic partners. Maybe the difference is in your actions. With romantic partners, there is an element of exclusivity - even if you're not strictly monogamous. There is a continued need to compromise. You pool your resources. If it's serious, you have joint finances, you live in a house together, you maybe get married, have kids. These actions greatly affect your life. And maybe the actions, if you take them, if you care enough about the person you're romantically involved with to take them, are what makes the relationship different. And when you realize that you have someone who is there for you, who has committed his/her life to you, even if only through the hard-to-disentangle actions of living together and creating a family, well, maybe then you will feel how a romantic relationship is different. I'm just saying - that might be how it works, rather than blinding passion first, creating a life together second.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 12:56 PM on August 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

For a long time, I thought there wasn't any difference. There were people that I loved, to varying degrees, and some of them I also felt sexually attracted to.

Then I met my soulmate. With him, it's different. There's an 'us' in a way there isn't with any other relationship in my life. If either of us were unable to have sex, we'd still spend the rest of our lives together. We understand each other. We mirror each other. I can't find the words to explain it. But it's different.
posted by happyturtle at 1:08 PM on August 20, 2007 [7 favorites]

You might find this old MetaFilter discussion of Boston marriages interesting.
posted by paduasoy at 2:07 PM on August 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I've wondered about some of these questions before, too. I managed to fall in love with my best friend some years back, but the transition to thinking about it that way was both unexpected and confusing. I spent a long time telling myself that it was just a really intense friendship before I managed to admit to myself that my feelings for him were something more. How I knew that is really tough to put into words, but I'd agree with what a lot of people here have said; it's a sense of wanting there to be an "us," as such, as distinct from any of the other relationships in either of our lives. And while I don't generally think of jealosy as been a positive thing, some small element of jealousy seems to be one of the differences between romantic and platonic love. It always hurts when a friendship changes, but if the idea of that person having a romantic relationship with anyone else absolutely crushes you beyond what seems reasonable, maybe that's a good indicator that you feel something for them beyond just friendship.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:32 PM on August 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

Friends last. Romantic love, not so much.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:02 PM on August 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

the only difference to me is that he's my best friend and he makes me all tingly when i think of him/see him/get a note or a voicemail from him. i have always, not intentionally but inevitably, wound up romantically involved with people i enjoyed being friendly with first. i can't imagine being serious with someone and not being able to talk with them as a close friend. i know that's not everyone's cup of tea or approach, which is fine by me, but you did ask for individual, idiosyncratic responses...for what it's worth, all of my buddies are the same way about it. having a hot affair with some strange distant person is unrealistic and best left to absurd (but maybe fun in its absurdity) fantasy for us.

on the other hand, i have friends i could not in a million years imagine being sexually attracted to, and would thus never become romantically involved with. the close friendship is a necessary but not sufficient on its own criteria for a romantic partner. sexual chemistry is important to me, very very important, which took me way too long to figure out. but now that i understand it and have both requisites i am a happy woman indeed. seriously, sometimes i feel like swooning just thinking about hot my boyfriend is. it's totally unfair and vague and enduring, that physical chemistry aspect, but it shouldn't be ignored, methinks. (shrug)

and sometimes all i want to do is stay up til 4 talking to him about books and places to travel to and the silly details of our work day. i need both to be happy in a romantic relationship, and i bet a lot of people are the same way.
posted by ifjuly at 7:53 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

For me there is no, and I mean no difference. However, for my friends, there is, and that has affected how I act towards them. In other words, I am not willing to put more commitment into relationships than the other person is willing to put in, at least not anymore, not in my thirties.

Like you, one of the active differences is sex (but possibly for slightly different reasons). I have sex with the person who commits to me, to being there for me every day, to moving cross-country with me, to compromising and making joint decisions, to sharing finances. I do not have sex with my friends, partially because the commitment is more important to me than the sex.

I've had a hard time learning to live with the fact that my friends will always feel different levels of love and commitment than I do towards them. It took me all through my twenties to realize that I have *never* met anyone who felt the way I did about my friends. There are people in the polyamory community who insist that it's possible and that *they!*, really *they!* are different. But in the end I've never seen it happen--in the end it's all about the sex and the new shinies.
posted by digitalis at 1:54 AM on August 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I can't say I have an answer to your question, but I can certainly say it's something that I've long pondered - you're not the only one! (Also, by the looks of the number of favourites, we're not the only two.)

That article about Boston Marriages was fascinating. Even as a straight eighteen year old male, I sympathised with much of the sentiment contained within.

I will be following this thread eagerly.
posted by PuGZ at 3:41 AM on August 21, 2007

romantic love includes an element of self-serving love as well, eros. Romantic love includes the desire to receive love back from the other in a way that does not involve a mutual arrangement or sacrifice of the self. In other words friendship would be a "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine." Romantic love would be more like "I'll scratch your back, if you blow me."

This is one of the more bizarre statements I've read here. To me, it's exactly the reverse; romantic love invariably involves sacrifice of the self (or at least the willingness for such sacrifice). Romantic love is "I'll scratch your back or blow you or fix you dinner, whatever will make you happy, because your happiness is the most important thing in the world to me." I'm pretty sure my definition is more common.
posted by languagehat at 6:45 AM on August 21, 2007 [7 favorites]

I find myself with a lot of confusion. The kind of love I feel for my boyfriend of 2 years does not seem very different from the way I feel towards a couple of my other very dear friends-- I ask myself, am I romantically drawn to all of them? None of them? Is there a different kind of love feeling out that will feel very different but I won't know until I find it?

My take, as someone who saw a lot of myself in what you wrote, is that there are people who will tell you "just wait til you find it!" but that has not been my personal experience so far, which is not at all a bad thing. I have a good number of friends and some super-close friends, both men and women. At various times in my life many of these super-close friends have been partner-types of one sort or another. We'd go on vacation together, visit family together, plan some of our futures together, etc. However, we weren't sleeping together (I'm sort of low on the libido scale, as you seem to be, though I do get pulled towards some people from time to time I'm often pretty take it or leave it about sex otherwise) and, as time went on, most of those people went on to form close pair-bonds with other people to do the vacation, family visiting, kid-having stuff. I'm still fairly close with most of them, but it's over more of a distance now. I occupy some oddish place in their past and sometimes present, not really an ex-girlfriend, not really "just" a friend, but it seems that since we mostly all agree on it, it doesn't need any more definition than that.

I had a long term boyfriend for many years and experienced the same feeling. I loved him and had definitely "chosen" him to be my partner, but I didn't feel that I loved him more or differently than other very close people in my life. The romantic love notion for me is more about the specialness that you invest in a chosen person as the one who you belong with, and not any particular mental state you have when you're with them that you just don't get with other people. So, to your question...

other than the sexual aspect, is there a difference between intense, intimate friendships and romantic relationships?

For me, the answer is "not really" except that in this culture the way that people are used to associating with each other (for partners) tends to prioritize one sex-based pair bond which can make people similar to you, and me, outliers of a sort. However, nothing is stopping you from defining your loves and desires however you wnt to, you just may have a hard time finding the right words to explain it to others.
posted by jessamyn at 6:52 PM on August 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

The difference is which movie the woman thinks they're in.
posted by eritain at 3:31 PM on September 12, 2007

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