Romantic Friendship

Introduction

“The term romantic friendship refers to a very close but non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that common in modern Western societies, for example holding hands, cuddling, and sharing a bed.

Up until the second half of the 19th century, same-sex romantic friendships were considered common and unremarkable in the West, and were distinguished from the then-taboo homosexual relationships. [1] But in the second half of the 19th century, expression of this nature became more rare as physical intimacy between non-sexual partners came to be regarded with anxiety.[2]

Several small groups of advocates and researchers have advocated for the renewed use of the term, or the related term Boston marriage, today. Several lesbian, gay, and feminist authors (such as Lillian Faderman, Stephanie Coontz, Jaclyn Geller and Esther Rothblum[3]) have done academic research on the topic; these authors typically favor the social constructionist view that sexual orientation is a modern, culturally constructed concept.[4]

Historian Stephanie Coontz writes of pre-modern customs in the United States:

Perfectly respectable Victorian women wrote to each other in terms such as these: ‘I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.’ They recorded the ‘furnace blast’ of their ‘passionate attachments’ to each other… They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights… Today if a woman died and her son or husband found such diaries or letters in her effects, he would probably destroy them in rage or humiliation. In the nineteenth century, these sentiments were so respectable that surviving relatives often published them in elegies….[In the 1920s] people’s interpretation of physical contact became extraordinarily ‘privatized and sexualized,’ so that all types of touching, kissing, and holding were seen as sexual foreplay rather than accepted as ordinary means of communication that carried different meanings in different contexts… It is not that homosexuality was acceptable before; but now a wider range of behavior opened a person up to being branded as a homosexual… The romantic friendships that had existed among many unmarried men in the nineteenth century were no longer compatible with heterosexual identity.[5]” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_friendship)

Examples in History

Shakespeare and Fair Lord

The content of Shakespeare’s works has raised the question of whether he may have been bisexual. The question of whether an Elizabethan was “gay” in a modern sense is anachronistic, as the concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality as identities did not emerge until the 19th century; while sodomy was a crime in the period, there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity (see History of homosexuality). Elizabethans also frequently wrote about friendship in more intense language than is common today.

Although twenty-six of the Shakespeare’s sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the “Dark Lady“), one hundred and twenty-six are addressed to a young man (known as the “Fair Lord“). The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the young man’s beauty, has been interpreted as evidence for Shakespeare’s bisexuality, although others interpret them as referring to intense friendship or fatherly affection, not sexual love.

Among those of the latter interpretation, in the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush writes:

“Since modern readers are unused to such ardor in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality… we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was conspicuous in Renaissance literature“. [7]

Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from “that other, licentious Greek love[8], as evidence of a platonic interpretation.

Montaigne and Estienne de La Boétie

The French philosopher Montaigne described the concept of romantic friendship (without using this English term) in his essay “On Friendship.” In addition to distinguishing this type of love from homosexuality (“this other Greek licence” sp.), another way in which Montaigne differed from the modern view[9] was that he felt that friendship and platonic emotion were a primarily masculine capacity (apparently unaware of the custom of female romantic friendship which also existed):

Seeing (to speake truly) that the ordinary sufficiency of women cannot answer this conference and communication, the nurse of this sacred bond: nor seeme their mindes strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable. (sp.)[10]

Lesbian-feminist historian Lillian Faderman cites Montaigne, using “On Friendship” as evidence that romantic friendship was distinct from homosexuality, since the former could be extolled by famous and respected writers, who simultaneously disparaged homosexuality. (The quotation also further’s Faderman’s beliefs that gender and sexuality are socially constructed, since they indicate that each sex has been thought of as “better” at intense friendship in one or another period of history.)

Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

Some historians have used the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed as another example of a relationship that modern people see as ambiguous or possibly gay, but which was most likely to have been a romantic friendship. Lincoln and Speed lived together and shared a bed in their youth and maintained a lifelong friendship. David Herbert Donald pointed out that men at that time often shared beds for financial reasons; men were used to same-sex nonsexual intimacy since most parents could not afford separate beds or rooms for male siblings. Anthony Rotundo notes[11] that the custom of romantic friendship for men in America in the early 1800s was different from that of Renaissance France, and it was expected that men will distance themselves emotionally and physically somewhat after marriage; he claims that letters between Lincoln and Speed show this distancing after Lincoln married Mary Todd. Such distancing, which is still practiced today,[12] could indicate that Lincoln was following the social customs of his day, rather than rebelling against the taboo on homosexuality.

Emily Dickinson and Sue Gilbert

Faderman uses the letters between poet Emily Dickinson and her friend and later sister-in-law Sue Gilbert to show how love between women, understood as nonsexual romantic friendship, was accepted as normal at the time, and only later thought of as deviant:

Emily’s love letters to Sue were written in the early 1850s. Bianchi’s [Martha Dickinson Bianchi, her niece] editions appeared in 1924 and 1932. Because Bianchi was Sue’s daughter, she wished to show that Emily relied on Sue, that Sue influenced her poetry, and that the two were the best of friends. But working during the height of the popularization of Sigmund Freud, she must have known to what extent intense friendship had fallen into disrepute. She therefore edited out all indications of Emily’s truly powerful involvement with her mother.

Following is an excerpt of the examples of censorship that Faderman cites: The 1924/1932 editions of Dickinson’s letters include a letter dated June 11, 1852, from Emily, saying:

…Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. I try to bring you nearer…

The original letter reads:

…Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. If you were here– and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine we would not ask for language… I try to bring you nearer…

Those who favor the homosexual interpretation might argue that Dickinson would feel no need to censor any sort of relationship in a private love letter, even if the relationship was taboo at the time. Faderman’s position is that the originals were not destroyed because they were not taboo at the time.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_friendship)

The History


Not Just a Code Word for Gay  By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

“I did not then entreat to have her stay;
It was your pleasure and your own remorse.
I was too young that time to value her,
But now I know her. If she be a traitor,
Why, so am I. We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together;
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.”
—Celia in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1600)

A number of writers of homoerotic fiction have remarked to me that they write about romantic love because they believe it has been the most intimate form of love throughout history. The above passage from Shakespeare would seem to be proof of that statement.

Yet in fact the passage is evidence of a belief that was once widely held in English-speaking countries but has now been largely forgotten: that romantic love need not be accompanied by erotic love.

Passages about friends offering romantic statements and gestures toward one another abound in historical literature and documents. A look at historical literature will turn up plenty of tales in which two friends send each other love letters, kiss each other on the lips, and cuddle together. Other activities, such as sleeping together or professing undying love, are also common. Modern readers tend to assume that these “romantic friendships,” as they are often called, must have their origins in sexual attraction.

Romantic friendships cause problems for historians as well. When friends in history act romantically toward one another, is hidden sexual activity taking place? Are the friends sexually attracted to one another but not acting on their desires? Or are they (in the contemptuous phrase of a world that has devalued friendship) “just friends”?

The most historically honest answer seems to be, “All three.” We know that same-sex lovers have sometimes hidden their erotic activities under the guise of friendship. We also have evidence that some of the friends who acted romantically toward one another throughout history were sexually attracted but did not realize this.

This second statement is as far as most historians are prepared to go. The fact is that romantic friendship has mainly been studied by scholars of gay and lesbian history. Living in a world where romantic friendship is no longer a living tradition, and seeking the roots of gay and lesbian history, many of these scholars have assumed that people who have romantic feelings for each other must be sexually attracted toward one another, even if they do not act on that attraction.

Yet in recent years a handful of people who are in romantic friendships have come forward and flatly denied this to be the case. Certainly one can argue that the division between sexual and nonsexual desires is hard to pinpoint. But in practice, we recognize that some relationships involve so little sexual desire that it is proper to refer to these relationships as non-erotic. Some participants in romantic friendships claim that their relationships are non-erotic.

If we deny this assertion, we must face the fact that modern-day romantic friends have the weight of history on their side. Only in relatively recent times has it been assumed that romantic feelings can only exist where erotic feelings are present. The very term romantic friendship was coined at the point in history (the nineteenth century) when this assertion began to be made. Until then, everyone assumed that, while not all friendships were romantic, romance was compatible with friendship.

For many centuries, in fact, romantic same-sex friendships played a much larger role in society than romantic erotic love between men and women.

“I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long.”
—Cara in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1944)

In classical times, the boundary between romantic friendship and erotic love was often blurred because nearly everyone, including people opposed to homosexuality, assumed that male/male sexual attraction was ubiquitous. Greek and Roman writers used the word “friend” interchangeably to describe men with same-sex feelings that were clearly erotic, men with same-sex feelings that were clearly platonic, and men who may or may not have held erotic same-sex feelings. Many classical writers saw personal relationships as being located somewhere on a continuum between sexual love and platonic love. Activities that we would now regard as romantic could fall on either end of the spectrum.

In the Middle Ages, Christians built a strong wall between erotic and platonic feelings, declaring that friendship was something entirely different from sexual attraction. One of the side benefits of this is that friendships between males and females flourished as they never had before, since it was somewhat easier now for men and women to declare their love for one another without being assumed to be lovers in the sexual sense.

The immediate question arose as to whether romantic activities, such as writing love letters, fell into the sphere of friendship or sexuality. Given how much distrust many medieval Christians had of sexuality and how highly they exalted spiritual friendships, it is perhaps not surprising that they declared such activities to be legitimate forms of friendship. Clerics wrote love letters to Jesus and to each other, apparently believing, in most cases, that their feelings were entirely platonic. As a result, the classical continuum between friendship and romance was preserved, although the continuum between romance and sexuality had been sharply broken.

By the time the late Middle Ages arrived, male romantic friendship, while still important, had begun to be eclipsed by male/female romantic love. Courtly love, as it was called, was something of a headache for church officials. Officially, the church view had been, since earliest Christian times, that friendships between men and women were legitimate forms of love. Courtly love, though, went beyond this, declaring that male/female erotic love that was not consummated could also play a legitimate role in society. Not surprisingly, some courtly lovers wanted to go further than this. The wall between romance and sexuality was breaking down in a manner that made church officials more suspicious of romantic feelings. Increasingly, the ideal of male/female friendship would come under attack, until such friendships went into decline as a societal institution until the late twentieth century.

In the midst of all this, the Renaissance arrived, and Europeans received new access to classical writings on friendship. Male romantic friendship, which had looked for a while as though it would not survive as a strong societal institution, unexpectedly rebounded. Even more surprisingly, female romantic friendships became popular also.

Romantic friendships did not yet have a special name, for Renaissance people, like medieval people, assumed that romantic activities could legitimately occur within friendships. This made it easy for writers such as Shakespeare to insert romantic friendships into their tales. Regardless as to what their own views on such matters might be, Renaissance authors could assume that their audiences believed that romantic feelings can exist where erotic love is not present.

Thus far in European history, romantic friendship had a relatively untroubled history. So what happened?

This is a question historians continue to delve into, and no doubt the causes of the decline of romantic friendship were complex. But one important factor seems to have helped to kill the idea that romantic feelings can exist alongside platonic feelings: the rise of the belief in sexual orientation.

Until this time, Europeans had continued to hold to the belief popular in classical times, that any ordinary person might have homosexual feelings. Most medieval and Renaissance Christians would have regarded such feelings as sinful, but they would be no more inclined to regard these people as entirely different than they would regard a person who was tempted to hit a friend as being entirely different from the rest of humankind.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, though, a notion was popularized that people with homoerotic feelings were a “third sex,” very different from the ordinary person. This idea varied in the impact that it had on Europeans; in some parts of Europe, such as the Mediterranean, traditionally romantic activities continued to be practiced by same-sex friends up until the present day.” (http://www.androphile.org/preview/Library/Debate/Romantic_Friendship/code_gay.html)

Biblical and Religious Evidence for Romantic Friendship

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_friendship

Acceptability of Romantic Friendships

“Lillian Faderman’s study of Romantic Friendship, mentioned earlier, is the most exhaustive and influential to date. She suggests that Romantic Friendship was celebrated, even fashionable, until the twentieth century. Although cross-dressing and other signs of usurping male power and privilege were often met with punitive measures, intimacy and erotic expressions between women rarely were.

She contends that women were often innocent of the sexual implications of their exclusive and passionate bonds with one another, having internalized the view that women were sexually passionless. Only in a post-Freudian era, she claims, were women generally aware of their sexual potential. “(http://www.glbtq.com/literature/romantic_friendship_f.html)

Questions and Answers

“Romantic friendships cause problems for historians as well. When friends in history act romantically toward one another, is hidden sexual activity taking place? Are the friends sexually attracted to one another but not acting on their desires? Or are they (in the contemptuous phrase of a world that has devalued friendship) “just friends”?

The most historically honest answer seems to be, “All three.” We know that same-sex lovers have sometimes hidden their erotic activities under the guise of friendship. We also have evidence that some of the friends who acted romantically toward one another throughout history were sexually attracted but did not realize this.

This second statement is as far as most historians are prepared to go. The fact is that romantic friendship has mainly been studied by scholars of gay and lesbian history. Living in a world where romantic friendship is no longer a living tradition, and seeking the roots of gay and lesbian history, many of these scholars have assumed that people who have romantic feelings for each other must be sexually attracted toward one another, even if they do not act on that attraction.

Yet in recent years a handful of people who are in romantic friendships have come forward and flatly denied this to be the case. Certainly one can argue that the division between sexual and nonsexual desires is hard to pinpoint. But in practice, we recognize that some relationships involve so little sexual desire that it is proper to refer to these relationships as non-erotic. Some participants in romantic friendships claim that their relationships are non-erotic.

If we deny this assertion, we must face the fact that modern-day romantic friends have the weight of history on their side. Only in relatively recent times has it been assumed that romantic feelings can only exist where erotic feelings are present. The very term romantic friendship was coined at the point in history (the nineteenth century) when this assertion began to be made. Until then, everyone assumed that, while not all friendships were romantic, romance was compatible with friendship.

For many centuries, in fact, romantic same-sex friendships played a much larger role in society than romantic erotic love between men and women. ” (http://www.androphile.org/preview/Library/Debate/Romantic_Friendship/code_gay.html)

Further Resources and Reading

http://books.google.com/books?q=romantic+friendship&source=web

See Emotional Affair: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_affair

Conclusion

Romantic relationships between people of the same perceived sex, who now would be perceived as homosexual (or not), and the rhetoric surrounding it, has been a large object of study in the queer community because of the understanding of same gender or sex relations over time:

The idea of Romantic Friendship thus remains a contested category in the history of same-sex relations, a category that ultimately represents the tricky relationship between history and the historian’s own contemporary moment.

Despite the quibbles over the meaning of intimate and erotic relationships between women prior to the emergence of modern lesbian identity, the Romantic Friendship concept has deepened our understanding of women’s relationships in distant and not so distant history. As a part of the idiom of our gay and lesbian literary heritage, Romantic Friendship continues to raise issues about the place of sexuality in lesbian identity and in lesbian literary and social history.

Faderman locates the great transformation in public perception of same-sex intimacy at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, when sexologists began to define such relations as both “lesbian” and “perverse.” Until then, they were innocently, and ambiguously, defined as Romantic Friendships and held a socially acceptable position in Anglo-European culture.” (http://www.glbtq.com/literature/romantic_friendship_f.html)

A take on it today, would be that the behaviors between two friends that were intimate, equals eroticism. In India, men hold hands and homosexuality is something taboo. Romantic Friendship exists mostly in other cultures and since America has an emerging homophobia, Romantic Friendships are not as common as they were in years past.

“a belief that was once widely held in English-speaking countries but has now been largely forgotten: that romantic love need not be accompanied by erotic love.” (http://www.androphile.org/preview/Library/Debate/Romantic_Friendship/code_gay.html)

The debate and confusion around romantic friendship has been the recent equation with love=erotic, or that love for a friend can mean hidden erotic feelings. However true or false the repression of erotic love for a friend may be, the concept of romantic friendships can change how people view sexuality, love, and intimate friendships and how sexuality is never as simple as the labels and what it is claimed to be.

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1 Comment

Filed under Education, history, Sexuality

One response to “Romantic Friendship

  1. Great post, it was very informative. I think its a must read.
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