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The Eros of Friendship: What to Do With Platonic Passion?

Friendships are affairs of the heart. How can we learn to treat them that way?

Every friend is a lover, too. Not a sexual lover, necessarily, unless friends are playing it fast and loose, which usually spells the end of the friendship. Lovers in the sense of a shared bond related to passion, or life’s work, or secrets. Sometimes, the shared bond is a wound or a common enemy, and other times it’s a strange mutuality bordering on romantic attraction yet aimed at something beyond one another. Many close friendships begin with romantic feelings, although we don’t like to admit it. We’re confused by intense emotions that feel, sporadically, more than platonic and may or may not include physical attraction.

Witness the rise of the bromance. Or try getting between the gals on Sex and the City, who worship their cosmopolitan coven. Dishonest with ourselves about erotic feelings (erotic does not mean sexual), we often hide the truth from our friends. We deny the cravings we feel for them, how we pine for them like Tristan and Iseult, the inordinate, contradictory feelings that friendship should not prompt, say our minds, but often does. We feel deep attraction toward our best friends. We long for each other’s company. We crave specific things from one another. This explains the variety of close friends a person can know at any one time. All of us have a myriad of internal chambers, and each has its own taste for company.

We cleave to our friends for a sense of completeness, affirmation, belonging, and love; for memories to honor and promises to keep; for intimacy in its numerous colors, stopping short of the bedroom door. Friendship has fewer conditions than erotic love. With lovers, we may be nipping and tucking, behaving, fitting to play a role of desirability. We are often more comfortable with our friends, more able to be ourselves, than with our lovers, and this is how it’s meant to be. The roles we play with our lovers have very specific parameters. We make trade-offs for physical intimacy that are not required with our friends, any more than we require friends to tell us we’re attractive, crave our bodies, or gaze at us in wonder across the glow of candlelight.

Friends differ from erotic lovers in key ways, but in others they are identical. Take jealousy, one of Eros’s worst demons. The possessiveness that corrals our lovers is the same one that tries to lasso our friends. In romantic love, jealousy may lead to sex, giving it some added value and meaning. In friendship, jealousy has no outlet aside from withdrawal and licking of wounds, the humiliating awareness (in the jealous friend) of having wandered into the wrong movie. I’ve loved many friends in my life, sometimes disproportionately, even passionately, and with every single one of them, I’ve had to learn a degree of restraint.

Agnes and I fell in love the day we met. She was wearing a beret because her hair was dirty, and sat hunched across from me at a coffee shop for an interview set up by her boyfriend, whom I had met at a conference. Agnes and I bonded over our shared artistic ambitions, as well as over traumas from our past, with the rapid, wall-dropping fervor of people falling in romantic love. Our attraction was palpable, gleeful, intense, and circumscribed by our commitments to other people. The absence of sex only made the heat stronger. We were free to flirt without any danger, infusing our marathon “mind melds” with gobs of seduction, the pure delight of platonic friends who can heap unabashed adoration on each other’s head without risk (“I love you more!” “No, I love you more!”), satisfying the need for devotion without the comedown of having to make it work.

I loved Agnes ferociously, more than any romantic partner I’d known till that time, and she claimed to feel the same about me. We wrote love notes and talked on the phone every morning. We saved special clippings and books for each other, shared Thanksgivings, vacations, a shrink. I obsessed about her when she was away and was thrilled—too happy probably—each time I saw her. During a transatlantic flight scare, when her plane fell thousands of feet in the air and Agnes thought (she told me later) that this might be it, her life flashed in front of her eyes. She sat there doing an inventory of all the things she was grateful for in her life, and being my friend, having me in her life, was actually on her shortlist. This convinced me that we were sweethearts of the soul—married in spirit—and plunged me yet further into a welter of feeling too complicated for friendship but somehow uncontrollable. Of course, I did not want to control it.

There’s a reason that Eros, that mischievous god, was believed by the Greeks to be the brother of Chaos. The ancients understood the chaotic power of all forms of love to leave us disheveled, unbalanced, and broken. Erotic desire is fierce and wild; the love of friends is more familial (as in healthy families), contained, unconditional, balanced, and tame. But when friendship becomes both familial and wild, we have a dangerous animal on our hands. It is not all that different with friends, except that the object of desire should not be each other. Friends stand side by side, not looking into each other’s eyes as lovers do, but outward and upward to common interests. This is the boundary that Agnes and I had been crossing, blurring our purpose, confusing our passion. We didn’t want to sleep together. We wanted to have a vision together, to work together, change the world together, encourage each other in art and romance. Like many friends who are smitten, we mistook these signals and fell into erotic patterns that nearly ended the friendship.

When we focus our love craving at our friends (even when we have romantic partners), we threaten the integrity of friendship and enter into a dangerous liaison.

This is not to say that sex between friends never works. A friend of the family, whom I will call Martha, sleeps with her best friend and ex-college roommate every time she visits Portland, Oregon. Russell, the ex, is single and a womanizer, but a charming one whose company and body Martha enjoys. When they are not having decadent getaways at Russell’s house on Crater Lake, he is taking care of the IT for Martha’s flower business in Toronto. They are on the phone five times a week (more than many boyfriends and girlfriends I know) but are not in love with one another. They share an intense, common interest—escape—and erotic compatibility. Martha has never had “a scintilla of angst” over her triannual sleepovers with rough-and-tumble Russell. Now and then, grownups can handle arrangements that beggar belief for less evolved people, like those of us with jealousy issues. But this is the rare exception.

Luckily, Agnes and I are still close. After a period of relative distance (mutually agreed upon due to my infantile jealousy), we rebooted our bond and put our deep friendship back on its proper footing. Now, when Agnes tells me about her men, I feel happy, not jealous, and truly hope she will find happiness with someone who’s worthy of her, someone who can bridge the chaos of Eros and be a true friend to her as well—a man who’ll look into her eyes but who also stands at her side, taking in the world together. A lover can do that. A friend cannot.

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