Friends or Lovers?

We have a friend who, shortly after getting married, realized it was a mistake. She felt like she had married a very dear friend, and was trying to force a physically intimate relationship where it just did not fit. Both realized their mistake, ended the marriage, and have continued their beautiful friendship for many years.

Over the years we have seen many people make this same mistake. Two people connect as friends and develop a wonderful relationship based on friendship. There is honesty, respect, caring, all the ingredients of true friendship. Yet, because of social pressures, these two assume the logical next step is sex, marriage, or living together with a monogamous commitment. This is true with same-gendered as well as heterosexual partners. This assumption is often incorrect.

It sometimes happens that two friends have little or no sexual desire for each other. This fact can help make more clear a relationship based on friendship. I knew a man whose involvement with a woman friend was based on a very high level of mutual support and honest communication of feelings. They truly loved one another. Although the man had a desire for physical connection, he never fantasized about sex with his friend. It was a desire to hold her and be held by her. Is there anything wrong with this? No.

On the other hand, sometimes there is a sexual attraction between friends. Here it gets trickier. We’re taught all our lives that sexual attraction needs to be acted upon. But this is not necessarily so. Our hearts, not our genitals, and not our minds, must ultimately decide the highest course of action. Yes, it can be quite OK to have a sexual attraction to someone and not act on it. This doesn’t mean suppressing the feelings, or making them wrong. No. It means allowing them to be there, acknowledging sexual desire, but listening more deeply to what feels like the right course of action.

Sometimes the only way to find out whether the two of you are friends or lovers is to experience the physical sexual connection. Many people find out this way. They make love and discover the true nature of their relationship. Sexual expression may initiate them into the next level of relationship, be it friends or lovers. If the discovery is friends, not lovers, there needs to be complete honesty about this. Often, our sexual shame causes us to be silent about our feelings. We feel we have made some horrible mistake, and have ruined the friendship. But this is not so. Friendships cannot be ruined by having sex. Friendships are only ruined by not sharing our feelings. When we have the courage to be truthful about what we feel, the friendship can progress to the next level. We have seen the best of friends have sex, realize something was lost from the relationship, share openly and honestly their feelings, make a new commitment based on what they learned, and have even more love and respect for one another. Sometimes this process needs to be repeated several times during the course of a relationship. Sometimes lovemaking can happen too soon in a relationship and, after enough time has passed and the relationship has evolved to a new level of closeness, sexual activity can have a whole new feeling.

It’s also perfectly OK to be both friends and lovers. In fact, to truly be lovers is to include the friendship. If lovers are not friends, then it’s casual sex, and there’s no real connection or fulfillment.

Joyce and I, and many couples, realize our friendship is the most important ingredient of our relationship. Our sexual relationship is a source of enormous fulfillment, but our friendship is the foundation of our connection, and is what we keep returning to.

I’ll end with one of my favorite stories. Said Mrs. Browning, the poet, to Charles Kingsley, the novelist, “What is the secret of your life? Tell me, that I may make mine beautiful also.” Thinking a moment, the beloved old author replied, “I had a friend.”

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