What Does It Mean to Be In a Romantic Friendship?

Inspiring Stories

Now, more than any other time period, conventional ideas about relationships and romantic partners are being challenged. There has been a rise in ethical non-monogamy and polygamous relationships. There has also been a decline in traditional marriage. More people are rejecting the traditional marriage set-up, in order to pursue career success, or simply not settling for anything less than they feel they deserve in a romantic partner. 

Within the exploration of new dynamics, we find a growing embrace of all forms of sexuality, including homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality and others. Yet, the idea of true love persists. The notion that finding “the one” and settling down for the happily-ever-after is deeply ingrained in our culture, and in our family and relationship traditions. 

But what if romance wasn’t confined to sexual relationships? What if romance is something to be cultivated in an intense friendship? As conventional models of relationships dissolve, an increasing number of people are finding value in intimate friendships and realizing the idea of one partner to fulfill their needs is outdated. 

What if friendship – whether male or female – has the potential to offer all the benefits of a conventional romantic relationship without any of the setbacks? Welcome to the world of romantic friendships!

What is a romantic friendship?

With convention comes a host of rules and expectations. In the traditional model of romance, there are things you reserve exclusively for your partner — such as living together, going on a weekend vacation, inviting to special events as a plus one. 

Romantic friendships, however, push the boundaries of conventional friendships by cultivating deeper intimacy, without the sexual politics.

Most of us will have a lot of unconscious associations with the idea of romance. Images from fairytales, Hollywood movies, and love songs lead to expectations about what romance means. While romantic love does capture the idea of a relationship that is full of sexual attraction and excitement, the narrow definition of a romantic relationship doesn’t cover the richness of human relationships.

A romantic friendship, then, is a unique relationship that goes beyond “close friends” but doesn’t quite fit the definition of a full-blown relationship. One definition of romance by the Collins Dictionary is “the actions and feelings of people who are in love, especially behavior which is very caring or affectionate.” Close, caring and intimate acts of love don’t have to be reserved for sexual relationships only.

When you think of some examples of romance — from cooking a nice meal together, going on a long walk or a picnic, buying flowers, treating them to tickets to their favorite music artist — none of these have to be exclusive to a traditional romantic relationship. Romantic friendships, then, include elements of romance and emotional intimacy. 

There is an element of physical intimacy in these relationships too. The term itself originated in the 19th and early twentieth century, to explain relationships that went beyond conventional boundaries, including holding hands, sharing a bed, cuddling, and other acts of physical closeness. But that’s not always the case. 

The beauty of a romantic friendship is that it creates its own set of rules.

Is a romantic friendship healthy?

Many famous and respected writers have taken on the subjects, and perhaps the biggest argument for the health of a romantic friendship comes in Robert Johnson’s We, which explores romance through the lens of depth psychology. 

Johnson is critical of the typical way that romance plays out. Through his training as a Jungian analyst, Johnson highlights how much of what we call romantic love is actually a projection of an idealized image of “the one,” superimposed over another person.

Is there such a thing as “The One?”

This is what is often known as falling in love. Although we tend to label sexual or romantic relationships as “more than friends,” for Johnson, most relationships of this kind, if unable to make a successful transition from the honeymoon period, are actually less than friends. He writes:

“One of the glaring contradictions in romantic love is that so many couples treat their friends with so much more kindness, consideration, generosity, and forgiveness than they ever give to one another! When people are with their friends, they are charming, helpful, and courteous. But when they come home, they often vent their anger, resentments, moods, and frustrations on each other. Strangely, they treat their friends better than they do each other.” 

Johnson calls for an untangling of romance, to take the quality of friendship as a guide. In this sense, you could argue that a romantic friendship is more healthy than most conventional romantic relationships because they don’t include the same level of projections and entanglement as sexual relationships do. This is true of both a female romantic friendship and a male one. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean by default that a romantic friendship is healthier. It depends on the relationship itself, the quality of communication, levels of trust, and kindness. But there does seem to be an advantage with romantic friendships, in that they avoid the messiness that can occur when falling in love.

And there’s an even bigger benefit — a romantic friendship opens the door to a greater diversity of needs and expectations. The traditional model of a sexual relationship is that your partner becomes the number one source, fulfilling multiple roles in a way that is unattainable. By cultivating a romantic friendship, you allow for more freedom in other relationships, as there’s less pressure on one person to be everything, all the time.

Friendship-based intimacy vs. passionate intimacy

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

I was raised under the notion that a romantic relationship is the place for emotional and physical intimacy. I spent years expressing my most vulnerable self into my romantic relationships, while remaining stoic and reserved with my friends. Eventually, I started to realize the limitations of this approach. It places a lot of pressure on one person and can lead to codependency. I’ve since been on a mission to increase my levels of emotional intimacy outside of romance.

Part of social wellness is having a diversity of relationships that are all able to go beyond the superficial and contain a certain level of connection. Psychologists categorize intimacy into two distinct groups — friendship-based intimacy and passionate intimacy.

Friendship-based intimacy is essential for long-term bonds. It’s the cultivation of warmth, understanding, and a type of compassionate love. Passionate intimacy is related to arousal and sexual attraction. In her biobehavioral model of sexual orientation, Lisa Diamond explains how both of these types of intimacy can be bi-direction. In other words, passionate intimacy can lead to friendship-based intimacy, and vice versa.

A study of pathways to romance from 2021 discovered that two-thirds of relationships started out as a platonic relationship before developing into a romantic one. The study is significant in that it captures the overlap between friendship and romance. While the historical romantic friendship framework kept sexual aspects separate, this study shows that there is more of an overlap.

Participants shared accounts of behaviors that all qualify as romantic, from holding hands, being introduced to family, and cuddling, before the relationships were seen as romantic. “There is a huge, messy, blurry line between friendship and romance,” study author Danu Stinson said. “It emphasizes how you really cannot define for somebody else what a friendship is versus what a romance is, they define it for themselves.”

Of course, that’s not to say that a romantic friendship leads to “more than friends.” In many ways, a romantic friendship is successful because they don’t have the intention of developing beyond what feels authentic to that specific relationship. Although that doesn’t rule out them developing or evolving, as all relationships do.

Why would you want to be in a romantic friendship?

A romantic friendship is related to authenticity. When we stick to rigid concepts about what relationships mean, whether of a sexual or nonsexual nature, we invite ourselves to develop relationships in ways that fit those preconceived ideas. The relationship doesn’t become unique, but instead models a pre-existing view that has been inherited by the culture itself.

But what happens when each relationship is explored as its own thing? The desire to conform in relationships can lead to holding back in some aspects or overextending in others. You might act in ways you feel you should, or avoid expressing things that feel right but aren’t socially common — such as telling a friend “I love you” or developing close emotional intimacy.

A romantic friendship can’t be forced. Instead, it is an invitation to treat each relationship uniquely and dissolve the rigid boundaries between friendship and romance, whether between two men or two women. Understanding why you’d like to be in a romantic friendship requires honest reflection on your current relationships.

Ask yourself: what would I like to experience in this dynamic that I am avoiding due to preconceived ideas of friendship? It might be that you’d like greater emotional intimacy, which requires a certain level of vulnerability. Or it might be that you’d like to invite a specific friend for a weekend away, or just spend more time with that person than you usually would.

The benefits of a romantic friendship

With all this considered, what are the benefits of a romantic friendship? 

The impact of strong social bonds is remarkable, with studies showing that healthy relationships can increase chances of survival by 50 percent, while a lack of these relationships can be as harmful as smoking 50 cigarettes per day. Simultaneously, more and more people are reporting loneliness, Americans’ social circles are shrinking, and a third of marriages report distinctly strained relationships.

Relationships have an impact on happiness, and social wellness is a crucial factor in living a fulfilling life. Could a romantic friendship play an important role? Below are five benefits that suggest this could be the case.

1. They invite a sense of creativity in friendships

A romantic friendship is creative in nature because it defies  pre-existing models. Investing in a friendship that doesn’t fit societal norms encourages both people to be more creative, explore new territory, and find a dynamic that feels authentic for both people involved. 

This creativity can extend to the way you spend your time together, or what friendship means to both of you. What are your shared interests? What could you co-create together? What areas of yourself, or your life, would you like to share with this friend? 

These are all important questions that can lead to exciting new experiences, without the baggage of traditional romance.

2. A romantic friendship open doors across the gender spectrum

The same study that discovered two-thirds of couples start as friends also reported that many friendships contain some level of attraction, without the desire to act upon it. Romantic friendships allow for the exploration of what qualities of romance feel right, while not committing to a full-blown relationship. Yes, it could be the prelude to something more, but it doesn’t have to be.

Another aspect is related to sexuality. For example, people who are heterosexual might feel comfortable exploring what intimacy looks like in same-sex relationships. As a man, there’s a lot of cultural baggage around male friendships, in terms of how they look, and what is acceptable. Yet I’ve been fortunate to have close male friends with whom there is a lot of love and emotional intimacy, a.k.a, a bromance, that allows me to create closer bonds to other men in a way I wouldn’t have previously.

3. They can benefit your future, or present, romantic relationship

It’s no secret that if you can enter a romantic relationship from a place of wholeness, that relationship has a much greater chance of longevity, harmony, and happiness. You can’t rely on anyone else to make you happy, yet a lot of conventional views of romantic relationships come with unhealthy, or even toxic, expectations.

If you enter every romantic or sexual relationship looking at them as the only way to cultivate intimacy, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. But what if you felt fulfilled and nourished through your friendships? Then you give the relationship more room, and your partner more freedom to thrive.

4. They allow you to witness more aspects of yourself

Every relationship mirrors different aspects of yourself. I’ve found that I learn about myself more through relationships than anything else. The more depth and intimacy there is, the more likely you’ll be to expand, and grow, and learn to live from an open heart. That means that the more intimacy you invite in your relationships, the more you will feel comfortable expressing warmth and authenticity.

But it doesn’t come without challenge, and that’s the beauty of romantic friendships. There’s less of a throwaway culture when it comes to friends. As Johnson notes, friendships are more forgiving and more generous, than a lot of relationships. So why not use them as a safe space to explore what it means to be vulnerable, and loving?

5. Romantic friendships aren’t afraid of love

(Henrik Sorensen / Getty)

On that note, expressing love freely is scary. It takes courage to open your heart and truly express how you feel. Romantic friendships are beautiful in the sense that they embrace that love between two people can be impossible to define in any set way. Why can’t it be that a friend is your biggest emotional support, your confidant, or someone you feel you’ll spend the rest of your life being with, in some capacity?

You could argue that romantic friendships celebrate love and affection outside of the narrow definition of when it’s appropriate to express in this way. And I don’t know about you, but when I look around, I see a world that can benefit from as much love as it can get.

In conclusion

Our culture places romantic love on a pedestal. While that’s a nice fantasy to have, and there’s no denying the benefits of a healthy, loving relationship, it often creates unnecessary expectations and pressure. All relationships are unique, no two are alike, and more and more people are exploring what that looks like. 

Romantic friendships are a great model to explore deeper emotional intimacy and affection, away from “the one.” For that, they deserve to be applauded. And for those looking to explore new relationship dynamics, why not break a few boundaries, and see what lies beyond the conventional? 

Maybe then, one day, there will be no need for more than friends, or less than friends. But all relationships will be cultivated from a place of trust, intimacy, and deep connection.

Want to delve a little more deeply into friendships of all kinds? Check out these friendship quotes!

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