The return of the romantic friendship?

I’ve been reading a lot about women’s history – lesbians, flappers, the odd renegade – including romantic friendships, which were a trend in centuries past when gender was binary in a way that we are slowly evolving out of today. A romantic friendship prior to the late 1800s was usually a relationship between two young unmarried girls or women; anyone who has studied literature has seen the romantic friendship trope. In many time periods, such friendships were seen as harmless, even healthy.

That morphed into romantic relationships replacing traditional marriage in the late 1800s, going into the 1900s, as women filtered into colleges and the workplace.

 Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman & Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper by Linda Simon.

Because women couldn’t have a career and a marriage/family, they were faced with a choice. Those who chose careers and a life of more freedom than they would have within a traditional marriage began to pair off and cohabitate in arrangements that mimicked marriage – they shared a household and finances. Some of those relationships were sexual, some not, but the main core of the relationship was a partnership of equals for career, financial, and general life support. 

Eventually that became highly stigmatized – deep cultural homophobia, and the repercussions of that homophobia, is part of what led to these arrangements falling out of style. Why? Mainly because it was a deep threat to the patriarchal order. Women, choosing to partner with each other and enter the workplace, traditionally the man’s realm? That’s terrifying. That changes things in ways that even now, deeply frighten people because it means having to reimagine your role in the world.

Then, seemingly, the need for romantic friendships/platonic partnerships dissipated, as women gained more rights and began to break down traditional expectations. Now we can (theoretically) have a career and marriage/family, though studies show over and over that women in heterosexual relationships tend to still do the heavy lifting on emotional work, childcare, and household management.

This, of course, is all tangled up with lesbian history. Women who preferred other women were able to find, for a brief time, a space within society where they were able to comfortably exist. Not without challenges, certainly, but there was a brief window where they could live together openly, and at the very least be tolerated. That window tightened in the mid-20th century, and expanded again in recent decades, though the LGBTQIA+ community is very much still fighting for true cultural acceptance.

But I’m more intrigued by the partnerships that were either truly platonic, or didn’t center the sexual relationship. As I’ve been swimming through these histories, reading about these pairs, and further embracing my own asexuality, I realize that we’ve been sold a lie. We don’t need sexual intimacy to act as a cornerstone to a committed, intimate partnership.

This recent article in the New York Times exactly echoes a lot of what I’ve been studying and thinking about for the past few months – the idea that in some situations, it may be better to marry/partner with a close friend, and keep romantic/sexual relationships outside of the marriage. Or even eschew it entirely – we may only make up a small percentage of the population, but there are people out there who are repulsed by or ambivalent about sex. We are no less capable of forming intimate bonds than our allosexual counterparts.

What if we began to flip the idea of marriage on its head, and opened up a space for people to consider partnering up in life with a friend? It doesn’t have to mean forsaking romantic and sexual bonds – it just means de-centering them, and/or keeping them in a separate space from that main partnership. Maybe your partnership does include some level of physical touch. Maybe it’s something in between purely platonic and a full sexual relationship.

There’s also no reason why platonic partners sharing a household couldn’t also raise children together. Your sexual relationships or lack thereof have no bearing on your ability to parent; your biological relationship to a child has no bearing on your ability to love and bond with that child.

Relationships can be negotiated; there are things that are more than friendship but less than romantic, or are romantic without being sexual, or are sexual without being monogamous. There are families of only adults, families that include adults and children, families in which people are biologically related, and families that we choose. What if we allowed ourselves to explore what would work best for us?

And for those who do choose monogamous sexual partners as life partners, what if we normalize the idea that their partner/spouse shouldn’t be expected to fulfill multiple roles without any gaps or disappointments? What if romantic friendships weren’t seen as a threat to a marriage, but a complement to it? What if we normalized not just intense friendships between women, but also intense emotional attachments between men, between a man and a woman who aren’t married, between any gender identity at all, and we saw this as a healthy addition to our lives? There’s no reason why seeking emotional, intellectual, and even sexual fulfillment outside of your primary partnership bond needs to devalue or weaken that bond. If anything, it can strengthen a bond, if it takes away the pressure for you to be friend, lover, co-parent, life partner, financial/economic partner, caretaker, etc., all rolled into one, and acknowledges that some roles can be delegated. Some desires can be fulfilled elsewhere.

What if we imagined a world in which a system designed to work in a highly binary, gendered world wasn’t seen as the default, and what if we stopped drawing such hard boundaries between platonic and sexual?

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