Most people divide relationships with people who do not belong to their family in only two categories: friends and romantic partners. A specific set of expectations and “normal behavior” is associated with each category, and transgressions are frowned upon: One is not supposed to kiss one’s friends, or hold hands with them, for instance, but on the other hand, it is not considered “normal” not to kiss or have sex with one’s romantic partner.
Interestingly, the strong limit between friendship and romantic relationship has been bent a little – and by sex.
I am talking, of course, of the so-called “friends with benefits”. True, that kind of relationship has not entered the norm and is not exactly widely accepted (most references I have found to it in the mainstream culture were negative), but at least it is known.
So that got me thinking: if it is possible to have a kind of friendship which includes one element from romantic relationship (sex), why not try to make up other kinds? What about friendship with the same kind of emotional involvement, support, and care for the other person as is expected in romantic relationships?
Ever since I got over the whole friends/lovers view of relationships, I have been interested in exploring new kinds of friendship further. I think there are so many possibilities there – that if the people involved care to build a relationship based on their specific connection and needs, there could be as many different friendships as there are people.
I am involved in two non-typical friendships, and they are very different – but then again, my two friends are very different. They are both guys, and that is about the only thing they have in common. One is someone I have known for a bit less than five years, and have had a strong bond with nearly from the moment we met; the other is someone I met more recently, and the connection took longer to build and, in fact, took me completely by surprise when it did.
My relationship with the first guy actually confused me for a long time, and it is because of it that I eventually understood the need to get over narrow relationship definitions such as “either friends or lovers”. I felt comfortable with him from the start; I enjoyed our long and easy conversations, his warm affection and generous understanding, and very much admired the way he could dedicate himself so completely to things he really cared about. When I met him, I knew no other way to be close to someone than to be romantically involved with them, so of course I wanted to date him. I also loved him – something I had never experienced for anyone until then, and assumed to be romantic love because I did not believe that there was any higher kind of love.
We ended up not dating (we considered it, but I eventually called it off when I realized that he wanted more than I was ready for), but becoming close friends instead. For years afterwards, that closeness, and the love I still felt, confused me greatly. How could I love him so much but not be in love with him? But, if I was in love with him, then why had I – twice – refused to consider dating him? Eventually, I realized that love did not always mean romantic love, and that love did not always require a romantic relationship to be expressed.
For a while, I tried to find a word to describe him better than “friend” – because I have other friends, and what I feel for them is nowhere close to what I feel for him. I finally realized that what I felt for him was close to what I feel for a female cousin who is about my age and with whom I grew up and am still close to. So I decided to refer to him as my cousin (he had once jokingly introduced me as his sister, probably in order to deflect possible assumptions that we were dating). I am not yet fully comfortable talking about him in those terms with people who do not know about our special friendship, but with people who know the whole story, it is very easy to say “my male cousin” and refer to my childhood companion as “my female cousin” (I do have a male cousin, but he is much older and I do not know him well enough to ever talk about him with people who do not know him).
My second non-typical friendship began as a typical one, and when it moved into new territories I had already replaced the traditional views of love and relationships with my own understanding of them. As a consequence, it was much easier to adjust to my growing love for this guy, without ever misunderstanding it for romantic love. I never wanted to date him, but only hoped to build a non-typical friendship with him; as he is an aromantic asexual, he is very open to non-typical friendships, and the fact that I am also an aromantic asexual reassured him that we did want the same things and mean the same things when the word “love” was mentioned (meaning non-romantic love). At some point, I also began feeling that “friend” did not describe him accurately anymore, and I eventually asked his permission to describe him as my non-romantic significant other (as “significant other”, before meaning “romantic partner”, simply refered to a person who was very influential in someone’s life, and he certainly has been that for me).
Both of those friendships are long-distance relationships, although one is way more long-distance than the other, as my “cousin” lives in another country, and actually on another continent (but for a year, we lived in the same town and attended the same university, and our friendship grew during that time). I do wish sometimes that one or both of my special friends lived near Paris like me, and that I could take a walk with one of them sometimes, or invite him to my place for dinner and a long evening of discussion on every possible topic. But the Internet makes it easy for me to communicate with them, so I only miss them when they are not online for a while.
Although, as I said, these two non-typical friendships are very different, there are some common points between the two relationships. First, I love those guys, I do not merely like them very much (which is how I describe my feelings for my closest other friends); I could not tell how I make the difference between the two, but it is obvious to me – I could never mistake one feeling for the other. Both are people I trust and can confide in; I have told each of them things I have never told anyone else (if the two of them ever met and exchanged information about me, what they would put together would represent nearly exactly everything there is to know about me). I value their opinions more than anyone else’s, mostly because they know me better than anyone else. I know that I can tell them anything, and they will understand it right away, which is not the case with other people, not even my parents, even though I am quite close to them.
I also value my friendships with them more than my other friendships, simply because I am much more emotionally involved in them than in my other friendships. It often seems to me that with those two guys’ support, I could do anything. They both bring so much to my life, and in turn I want to give more to them than I am usually willing to give anyone.
Often, when I describe this to other people, they tell me that I am in love, that this is what a romantic relationship is like at heart. It always greatly annoys me, because I do not think this is the same at all. If I described the same relationships as romantic relationships, I am quite certain that most people would tell me that they are not romantic relationships at all, but friendships! I would say that they are neither, but since they have both grown out of friendships, I prefer describing them as special friendships; I do not think that “romantic friendship” would be appropriate here, as I tend to understand it to mean a friendship including behavior usually associated with romantic relationships, like kissing or holding hands, and there is none of that in my two special friendships. They are not “committed friendships” either, as no formal commitments have been made, and indeed those friendships are not exclusive; my “cousin” will certainly get married and have children some day, while my non-romantic significant other has other friends who mean as much to him as I do (and of course, I am involved in two special friendships at once!).
As my “cousin” is not asexual or aromantic, and tends to understand relationships in the traditional way, I do not think that I am likely to explore non-typical relationships further with him. But with my non-romantic significant other, and maybe some day (I hope) with other open-minded people, I do have a chance of defining new kinds of friendships. It is quite exciting, and now that I am aware of such possibilities, I confess that I cannot see the appeal of a typical romantic relationship anymore.