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Friends and Lovers?

Can friends become lovers without risking their friendship?

A number of patients have told me that they were spending a lot of time with a close friend of the opposite sex who was attractive and interesting; but whom, nevertheless, they were not inclined to date. “It would put the friendship at risk,” they said. I think most of the time it was a man speaking, but, often enough, it was a woman. I think what they meant was that the romantic relationship, if they entered into it, would end up at some point badly—as sometimes happens—with one of them bitter and neither one speaking to the other.

Such things do happen, but not always. Whether it is wise to risk a friendship this way or not depends to some extent on the nature of the friendship and to a considerable extent on the romantic relationship that is likely to grow out of it.

There is a lot to say about the variety of friendships that people develop—too much to say in this small space. Friendships can exist between people of different generations and across cultural divides, and can last, sometimes, over the course of a lifetime. Two people can be friends to the exclusion of everyone else, although most people are part of a circle of friends. I have seen enemies turn into friends, and friends into enemies. Some people make friends readily, and others do not. I don’t think anyone could describe to me a friendship that was so odd, between people that were so different, that I would not believe it. And friendships can vary, as everyone knows, in intensity. Some friends have grown not to like each other very much, but they have become like family, like siblings. Love can last even when everything else shared in a friendship has fallen away.

For purposes of this discussion, a few aspects of friendship are important:

  1. Close friendships tend to grow up over long periods of time when people are thrown together, as in school, or college, at work, or in the army.
  2. They tend to fall away, sometimes because of a crisis in which one person disappoints the other, but more commonly, when friends have moved away from each other. Under those circumstances, friends who had been very close may communicate and visit each other, sometimes for years, but will in the end become distant.
  3. Throughout adulthood there are not very many friends who are so close that one will turn to the other when things go wrong and be able to count on the other to respond.

Friends can be critically important to someone’s happiness—and they are not readily replaced when lost. One would not sensibly endanger a really good, really close, friendship.

Romantic relationships are also varied and unpredictable. There is surely the phenomenon of “love at first sight.” Someone falls in love with someone else without becoming friends first—even without knowing very much about the other person. One would think that such impulsive involvements would be doomed to break apart, but that seems not to be true. On the other hand, there are some emotional involvements in which a couple dwells endlessly on the prospect of being together forever, and yet these relationships may end suddenly for no obvious reason.

Love is an imponderable. Romantic stories underlie many of the greatest novels. They are love stories. They tug at us emotionally. And there are love songs that speak of longing and disappointment. The longing for love is universal. And the worries about love lasting—and not lasting-- are universal also.

For purposes of this discussion, some aspects of a romantic relationship are important:

  1. Nowadays, when young people marry at a later age than they used to, it is more likely they will fall in love a number of times before marrying. These imply a committed sexual relationship. If casual sexual relationships are included, the number is much higher.
  2. “Friends with benefits,” which is the current euphemism for couples who sleep together without much emotional involvement, are not likely to end with the couple becoming very good friends—although there are exceptions—and not likely to last very long—although there are exceptions. These relationships are not likely to cause much distress when they come to an end—although there are exceptions.
  3. As far as I can tell, whether or not a couple has sex very early in their relationship will not determine the success of that relationship.
  4. The intensity of a relationship cannot be relied on to measure how long that relationship will last. The fact that it has lasted a given period of time is an indication—but not a reliable indicator—of it lasting into the future for a similar period of time. Someone who has been married for twenty years can feel relatively secure about the marriage lasting many more years—but there are certainly exceptions.
  5. When marriages do break up, they usually cause bitterness on the part of one and possibly both partners. That bitterness tends to subside with time; and most former marital partners become indifferent to the actions, and even the welfare, of their former spouses. Some, however, end up friends. Those who have had the most optimistic expectations going into the marriage are those who are likely to react to the divorce with bitterness. (Everyone, presumably is optimistic, but some have an absolute confidence of things working out—which is not justified by the frequency of divorce.)

When someone hesitates to formally date a good friend for the reasons mentioned above, that person is contemplating specifically entering into a sexual relationship. Does that change in the way they will see each other make more likely the possibility of that friendship breaking up?

There are those who say every romantic relationship should start with a couple becoming friends first. Whether that is so or not, the fact is, romantic entanglements—falling in love—have a kind of head-long character to them; and often people find themselves in love without knowing exactly how they got there. It is too late to wonder about what they should have done. What happens from then on will depend on very many factors, including whether or not the couple is actually compatible. Can they become friends?

Friendships can break apart whether or not they include sex. Like romantic relationships, whether or not they end bitterly will depend on the expectations of the friends—on how central that relationship is to their lives. Adding sex does, indeed, make people feel more intensely about each other and will lead to heightened expectations. There is more of a potential for bitterness if the relationship breaks up, but it is hard to say whether sex, per se, makes that relationship more fragile. Some couples become closer. Their relationship becomes deeper and more satisfying than it was previously and can lead to marriage, or to some sort of partnership that looks like marriage. Others break apart.

I have posed this question in a way that suggests that there is advice one can give that might influence someone who finds himself/herself in this position. That fact is, however, no one has ever asked me what to do. Usually, when the subject comes up, patients tell me that they have made up their mind not to go further. I think it is often a matter of one person not finding the other attractive. Considering that possibility, someone might reasonably hesitate to venture further. There is the possibility of an awkward rejection. Any talk of altering the friendship then is moot. It is not possible to go further-- although it is plainly true that someone who finds another unattractive can very well feel differently later on.

I offer no advice because advice is not welcome. The patient—or friend—has already made up his/her mind what to do. And the truth is, I do not know what they should do. I do not know how a particular relationship will end. A significant prior friendship will not prevent or guarantee a successful romantic relationship. People are responding to things out of their ken, and, consequently, unknown to me or to any other therapist.

In general, I do not, for that reason, give advice about whether or not someone should enter into, or continue, any relationship—except to say what is obvious. I may ask, “Do you really think it is a good idea to keep seeing someone who:

Is married, or, who hits you, or, is unemployed, or, is an alcoholic, or, is a philanderer?” This is a kind of advice, of course, but not much different than what friends or family might say. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at