What is the difference between friendship and love?

There is a common and firm belief that something separates friends from lovers. You love your significant other, but you don’t quite love a friend. Rather, a friend is a friend, and that’s all there is to it. Philosophers have been concerned with the difference between these two categories ever since Plato and Aristotle, and I too wonder what mark these important categories off from each other.

Plato thought that love was a kind of madness, and he had all sorts of theses to go along with his more extravagant claims, such as a story about how women and men used to be joined together but got split apart so that we are perpetually seeking to unite with our other half.

But back to the point, which is that there are real differences between love and friendship. First, there is an exclusivity to love; most people cannot share their lover with other people, whereas friendship readily admits of sharing. Someone can have many friends, but its hard to keep many lovers. Also, there is an element of sex that is present in love. Sure, some people love without needing to express it sexually, but there is a powerful impulse to someone kind of physical expression of love, though it can take many forms. The reason things get tricky though is that love and friendship are SO CLOSE in so many ways. You care about your friends, but you also care about your lover. You turn to friends when times get hard, but you also expect support from a spouse or partner. Lovers and friends share time together and work together for common goals, etc. etc.

So, what are we trying to say when we mark a very sharp distinction that is implicit in daily life by saying “he’s in the friend zone now” or “let’s just be friends.” The latter phrase indicates a kind of hierarchy; being lovers is being more than just being friends. But again, what is the difference?

Well let me hit you with my going theory. First, there is a lot of relationship research that says that loving relationships have a life cycle: first there is passion, but as it cools, companionship follows (think of old couples where one couple dies as soon as the other one does). My claim is that the passionate part of a relationship is a necessary (but not sufficient) component to a paradigm love relationship (and that passion does not govern friendship relations), but my more interesting and provocative claim is that this love is a profoundly anti-liberal sentiment and that its passion comes from a very tyrannical and lustful desire to control one’s lover (and I mean this equally for both sexes).

There are several ways to get at what I mean here. One thing to note is that lovers quarrel in ways that friends do not. When someone says that two people are acting “like an old married couple” they mean that they are squabbling, and I think this squabbling is a more benign holdover from the passionate younger days when fights were with raised voices, and much more hurtful and emotional stakes. Further, there is the element of possession. One can’t cheat on a friend, but its possible to cheat on a lover, and that hurts more than almost any other social crime. Why? I think its because the passion of a paradigm love relationship grows out of a seed of violent competition (why is all fair in love and war? could it be that love and war have more in common than we think?). Think of a couple who comes to a marriage counselor and says that there sex life has become boring. I think only a cynic would say that they are just lustful creatures who need sensual stimulation. Rather, a dull sex life is often seen as a precursor to a dull relationship: one without love.

So, more explicitly, I want to suggest that a lover is a worthy challenger; a sympathetic and perfectly matched competitor. If you’re going to spend your whole life with someone, they have to challenge you, bait you, and draw out the best in you, otherwise, boredom cannot be far off. Thus, the spark of love, and its unique value, is that it creates through opposition, guarded advances, sudden reconciliations, and passionate possession and control. This is why love has access to such boundless energy. Friendship on the other hand works on the more liberal value of solidarity, mutual aid, humor, and relaxation.

Still, I’ve told this theory to some people, and they think I’m insane. I may well be, but in fairness to these critics, I wanted to mention one rival hypothesis that has been suggested. One friend of mine has suggested that love is dependence where friendship is independence. In other words, friends meet each other as competent equals who could go their own separate ways, but choose to hang out for humor and support. Lovers on the other hand could not live without each other (as I said earlier, couples who die at the same time?), and so must come to trust the other with their respective positions of vulnerability. I have things to say against this interpretation as well, but before I make this post too long, I want to see if anyone finds this topic worth discussing.


3 Responses to “What is the difference between friendship and love?”

  1. 1 beyondthedepths
    August 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    I always enjoy your blog but this one was very interesting in that a comparison/contrast between you and http://gooddump.wordpress.com/ came immediately to mind. I read your blog a couple of times and your views on friendship and love are well thought out and beautifully expressed.


  2. 2 Art
    June 27, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    It’s a real shame that this post is so old because it really is worth further discussion, mainly selfishly because its a recent interest of mine hence how I found this blog. Firstly regarding the greek philosophy I think you are referring to one of the symposiums on Love and it was Aristophanes whose theory was on soul mates being split apart and thus constantly trying to find one another. If it were true would make life so much easier. As for the lovers who die at the same time there is actually a medical/physiological reason for that – broken heart syndrome or takutsubo cardiomyopathy.

    Personally I think between you and your friend you have hit the nail on the head, although would be great if you could elaborate what you think the shortfalls are. There is certainly a distinction between friends and lovers; for example it is possible to have attractive friends of the opposite sex but not be attracted to them if that makes sense (if you’re heterosexual).

    But you know what’s interesting is there are individuals who will only date their friends or ‘friends’ who sleep with each other. I find that concept completely alien and when you mentioned there’s a fine line between the two maybe you have an insight. Surely when you’re romantically interested in someone then there’s that passion, sexuality, chemistry and magic a little je ne sais quoi you can’t explain. I don’t understand how you can develop that from a friendship suddenly?
    Perhaps it is a semantic difference between what a ‘friend’ is, it’s a term that’s used loosely these days and half the time covers what it means to be an acquaintance. I really don’t know.

    • 3 questionbeggar
      June 28, 2013 at 2:41 am

      Thanks for your thoughts. Did not know about takutsubo. I will have to get up on that.

      As for the point about friendship developing sexually, it’s certainly uncommon but it does happen. I think its most common when people have a mental block about why someone cannot be in there life like “he lives in Boston,” but then for some reason the block is lifted suddenly and there is no obstacles to pursuing the relationship. Either that or people get drunk and their unconscious speaks out for them.

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