by Andrea M. Darcy
Have a friend you sometimes wonder if you might love? Or with a partner, and worried you should have just stayed friends? Where is the line between friendship and love, and when should you cross it?
The modern mistake when it comes to love
Part of the confusion around friendship and love is that Western media has created a many-headed monster out of the latter.
We are taught that ‘love’ should be all consuming and exciting, that it should arrive perfectly formed, and completely change us. That if you are ‘in love’ you should then do everything together, and it should always feel ‘good’. We are also taught that we should suffer for love, that it should hurt sometimes, but is ‘worth it’.
So if we don’t feel the earth shudder beneath us, or feel tortured, we think it can’t be love, and decide we are just friends.
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What is healthy love?
Looking at the above modern ideas of ‘love’ from a psychological perspective gives a very different take.
Authentic love is, yes, choosing to move through life together. But also accepting each other fully, facing challenges together, and supporting each other to be your best selves.
Doesn’t sound so sexy, does it? But it means we feel calm, supported, and able to grow as a person. Surely that is better than feeling anxious, confused, and in emotional pain.
If that’s love, what is friendship?
Friendship does have many of the same trademarks as a healthy romance. A good friendship means you both can be yourselves without fear of judgement, and that you support each other.
Of course we also have created a negative sort of friendship these days, to match our unhealthy ideas of love. Read our article on ‘Toxic Friendships’ if you aren’t sure of the difference.
Friendship and love – what is the difference?
It’s a subject that has been debated since… well, since humans could debate. And you’d likely write several encyclopaedias trying to cover all the various theories.
The ancient Greeks felt there were many kinds of love, and that love could evolve. To generalise the main three of what are quite complicated concepts (Greek philosophers weren’t known for brevity), ‘Eros’ was erotic love, based on attraction, and ‘Philia’ a sort of love between equals, friendship (which they valued more). ‘Agape’ was unconditional love of a higher nature.
Modern day science sees love as a chemical process that starts with lust. Harvard University claims the science of love is composed of three stages, of ‘lust, attraction, and attachment’, each releasing its own set of chemicals into our brains.
So if you go with philosophy, friendship is simply a different kind of love. If you go with science, a love relationship starts with being sexually attracted. Of course that lust has to evolve into attachment, or else it’s just lust. If it is only attachment, it’s friendship.
But take note – the same Harvard article also confesses that, “the scientific basis of love is often sensationalised, and as with most science, we don’t know enough to draw firm conclusions about every piece of the puzzle.”
So the truth is that love and friendship are NOT an exact science. Your own definitions might be influenced by your personality, values, beliefs, and sex drive. To understand if a certain relationship is a friendship or more means asking good questions, then coming up with the right solution for both you and the other person.
Should we break up and just be friends?
It’s a big question that depends on many factors. But we can keep in mind the three ingredients science proposed above – lust, attraction, and attachment.
- Were you once very attracted to each other, and also able to be yourselves?
- Do you share personal values between you?
- Despite conflict, do you at heart still trust each other?
- Despite everything, do you respect your partner?
Life can throw curve balls that break down communication and means love gets buried under conflict. But if the foundation is strong, it’s worth trying couples counselling before throwing in the towel – at the very least you would be helped through a healthy breakup.
On the other hand –
- do you share values, but there was never any real lust between you?
- did you not know yourself when you got involved? But now you do, you feel differently?
- have you grown in entirely different directions since you met?
You might be cut out to be friends.
But be wary of the following:
Sometimes saying ‘we should be friends’ is not honest, because we know deep down we need to walk away entirely from an unhealthy situation.
Should we go from friends to partners?
First of all, ask this when you are BOTH available. If you are obsessed with a friend and secretly ‘in love’ but they are in a relationship, make sure it’s not just your own way to avoid real intimacy with someone who is free.
Second, it’s only a question when you both feel the same way. If you are trying to push a friend into a relationship when they just want to be friends, it’s time to step back and ask if you are even a friend at all. Remember, friendship is about respect and support, not manipulation.
In a relationship that has gone wrong and not sure what to do? Or can’t stop obsessing on a friend? Harley Therapy connects you with top couples counsellors and therapists for individuals in central London. If you aren’t in London, find a therapist UK-wide on our sister site, along with online therapists you can call from any country.
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Andrea M. Darcy is the editor and lead writer of Harley Therapy Blog. She has trained in person-centred counselling and group coaching, and she is a writer known for trauma, relationships, and ADHD articles. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy.