Friendship and Romantic Love
Is the difference worth the effort?
Posted Aug 26, 2019
“Strong-ties make the world smaller, weak-ties make it bigger.” —Mark Granovetter
“Love degrades the world from significant people, while friendship can fill it with such people.” —Avinoam Ben-Ze’ev
No two ways about it: Enduring romantic love is hard to achieve. This fact has resulted in the suggestion that friendship is more valuable than romantic love since (a) romantic love is more costly and risky than friendship, and (b) friendship is more profound than romantic love.
Do we really want to “waste” our time and energy on uncertain and risky romantic love when we can more easily aim for profound friendship? In my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019), I discuss the relationship between friendship and love.
“My mother never breastfed me, she told me she only liked me as a friend.” —Rodney Dangerfield
Friendship is not an emotion but a personal relation that is essential in enduring, romantic flourishing. Friendship, which is based on shared history, often increases over time—unlike sexual desire, whose intensity diminishes over time. The basic features of friendship, such as mutual support, intimacy, and shared activity, all develop over time.
Friends care about each other and consider the other to have intrinsic value, though friendship can also have instrumental value. The intimacy of friendship means that friends will feel closer to each other than colleagues will. Colleagues can meet more often than friends, but it is in a friendship that we reveal ourselves and express commitment.
We are willing to do more for those within our circle of friends and family than we are willing to do for others outside of it. Love and friendship develop through time spent together and through shared experiences and interactions.
Friendship in romantic love
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
Romantic love, as well as its basics, friendship, and sexual interaction, contribute to our flourishing and happiness. Achieving friendship or sexual satisfaction is obviously easier than achieving lasting, profound love, which depends upon a subtle balance between these relations and so much more. We might, indeed, have a greater chance of being happy if we seek merely friendship or sexual satisfaction rather than lasting romantic love. This would also allow us to avoid the frequent failures and unhappiness associated with attaining enduring romantic love.
It can also be argued that the major elements responsible for long-term love are those related to friendship and not to romantic love. Moreover, exclusivity, which is central in romantic love (mainly because of its sexual aspect), but not in friendship, is a superficial demand, limiting our diversity and complexity.
There is a grain of truth in these ideas. Sometimes, we need to minimize losses and maximize sure gains. It is important to remember, though, that romantic love is one of the most sublime of human experiences. Moreover, others’ success in achieving romantic love can create in us a yearning for it and sadness about lacking it. It is very difficult to exclude ourselves from the romantic realm, as the desire to achieve such love is built into the human system.
Sometimes, we are forced to give up certain precious experiences. However, we should not make our second-best our first choice. We should think hard before making such a surrender permanent policy.
Indeed, people who have given up romantic love would gladly embrace it if it walked through their door. While they have given up hope of achieving it, they have not abandoned it as an ideal. Nonetheless, these individuals may not actively search for this love, as such a search has a price and risks they are not willing to take.
There is also some truth to the idea that exclusivity is superficial in nature, as it prevents diversity and decreases the level of complexity. Once again, the dilemma boils down to the issue of optimal balance.
No doubt, romantic profundity requires a certain preferential attitude. Like other emotions, romantic love is by nature discriminative; hence, we need to restrict our flexibility. This is also the case in friendship—we cannot have, as people claim concerning Facebook, thousands of close friends. Some sense of restriction applies here as well. Since romantic love is a more comprehensive and complex attitude than friendship, involving a greater investment of effort, time, and other resources, exclusiveness should be even more restricted.
“Love is a friendship set to music.” —Joseph Campbell
We do not have to choose between love and friendship. Rather, we should choose between the experience of friendship and an experience that includes both friendship and romance. Love is indeed the music or the dance added to profound friendship.
Is achieving profound love worth the heartache? Well, since it can make life more meaningful, and often more blissful, the answer is yes. Giving up music is a too painful surrender. As Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” So, I believe, with love.
This post is part of my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019).
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