Not too long ago, someone asked me, “What’s the difference between friendship and [romantic] love?” Hard to say sometimes, especially when everything seems right between two people who hang out together.
Many people still believe that men and women cannot be friends with each other without sex entering the equation sooner or later. While this may be true, I know from personal experience that it may manifest itself as nothing more than perfectly harmless “behind thinking” - acknowledgment that you “could” get together (assuming you’re both heterosexual), but never would in a million years. (If there is more tension and attraction than that, well, things need to be discussed.)
I have felt respect and affection for many male friends, and they for me. The word “love” eventually crept into letters and even declarations after especially good visits. Some of the men involved were attached at the time, others not. But we all knew what the word meant. It made us feel good to hear it. Connected.
That kind of love has plenty in common with the common use (i.e., in a romantic context). Both imply loyalty, emotional intimacy (lots of stories and advice exchanged), affection, delight, and commiseration in times of strife. But in friendship, a line is drawn somehow. There may be physical affection – even without considering the new spin on this called “friends with benefits” – but there is no sense of belonging to each other, of being a self-contained unit, a couple.In neurological terms (can't resist), in friendship there is a brake on the release of oxytocin - and that limits the amount of intense attachment. (Adding "benefits" pushes the envelope.)
Romantic love itself is complex, as most people know by the age of, say, 15. Since it pivots on the couple, the “universe of us,” it is all-enveloping and all-consuming … until it shifts into something else. It either burns itself out, shatters on impact with undeniable and unworkable difficulties, or settles into a quieter but far stronger version of its fiery debut.
People who enter long-term relationships often bewail the settling-down stage, saying “the romance has died.” If they still really enjoy being with each other and have a friendship plus a sense of being a unit, then they are likely uninformed about the nature of human emotions (fireworks don’t last indefinitely!), and should realize how lucky they are. (A total lack of togetherness and pizzazz is another matter altogether, and indicates true trouble.)
The all-consuming stage is the exciting part: exciting like a roller coaster, a combination of near-death terror and out-of-body delight! It is probably nature’s way to get us to mate – always a dangerous enterprise, especially for women – by giving us temporary brain damage. (This may be less a joke than it sounds.) By the time we recover, we are either hip to Sweetie’s faults, or we are bound to him or her for the long haul.
In any case, the bond is what counts, not the brain damage that preceded it (as amazing as that can be).
In some ways, what happens is that a kind of friendship settles in – the best kind of friendship imaginable. You have someone there with whom you can be your truest self, and vice versa. You have shared the most intimate aspects of your mind and body. You look to the same future. You make each other grow through pruning and TLC.The ancient Greeks saw love as eros, phileo, agape, and storge. Eros is not just sexual love, but the need to see Beauty in another another person. It is a manifestation of the life force. Phileo is love of humanity, generalized or individualized (as in love of a friend). Agape is most interesting: it is proven through selfless action rather than feeling - so is closer to the word "respect." Finally storge is the long-lasting love within a family.
Clearly, romantic love combines or should combine all of these aspects of human emotion. Is the answer to the question: friendship is everything but eros?