In our conversations about norms, standards, desires, and expectations for relationships, such as in the conversations around queerplatonic and alterous, I’ve seen a lot of comparison against friendship as a familiar point of reference; it’s a term you’re supposed to be already familiar with, as groundwork for the mapping of other terms in relation to it. A lot of the times, when invoking it in this way, people will talk about “friendship” in ways that bother me with their implications. So, because I’ve gotten to thinking about that some more, I’ve returned to asking: what is friendship? We–
Wait– Hold on, wait– No, come back–
Darn. I think I just lost a reader.
Well, for those of you who are still here: in thinking about this, I’ve so far come up with about five (some potentially intersecting, some not) different models for what someone might mean by friendship — and I’m not even sure exactly which one I prefer out of the bunch.
Here are those five and how I understand them.
Friendship as a relationship component. This lends itself to your classic “my wife is my best friend” sort of talk. Under this model, friendship describes a bond and a way of relating, which can be mixed with other relationship components. Rather than being exclusive from other relationships, it has the potential to serve as a base layer or intersect and overlap with other relationship forms, including your traditional romance. Using this definition is how some people are able to say that “the best romantic relationships are also friendships.”
Friendship as any nonromantic relationship with sustained interaction (low threshold). Under this definition, a friend can be just about anyone that you know, especially if you have talked more than once (on purpose) and are about the same age (or are peers in some other way), as long as your relationship isn’t romantic. I’m including this one not just because people have friends they’re not very close with, but also because I’ve encountered some uses of “friend” where the speaker didn’t even like spending time with the person they were talking about. Friendship, here, would just mean “someone I interact with” or “someone in my social circle.” Accordingly, it would not necessarily preclude disinterest or distaste for the person. The specifics of where the friendship threshold lies here may vary, but for instance, it may range from “someone I’m willing to hang out with” down to “I prefer to avoid this person if possible, but because of other circumstances we still talk.”
Friendship as any nonromantic relationship with a positive bond (high threshold). If you’re using this definition, friendship exists as a distinct range of relationships, generally separate from traditional romance, which has its own components and requirements. These requirements may be idiosyncratic and may or may not be “high” in a more absolute sense. What I mean by calling this definition “high threshold” is relative to the previous definition — so that, for instance, under this model, when someone refers to you as a “friend,” it probably at the very least means that they like something about you as a person. That, or they could name something that they value about spending time with you socially. Naturally, there may be a range within this definition that distinguishes some friends from others as closer or more valued than others.
Friendship as a specific and limited status. This definition of friendship sets an upper ceiling on how “high” or “close” it can go, allowing for the distinction of “just friends” versus “more than friends.” Instead of modeling friendship as something underlying all positive/bonded relationships (or comprising that bond), friendship becomes an object against which to contrast more important or more central kinds of relationships. Ergo, affirming that status can involve saying “this is NOT a friendship, this is [blank].” This view generally accepts that “friend” means something casual and small, with a limited amount of emotional or logistical connection. By logistical connection, I’m talking about things which may include moving in together, coordinating legal or financial choices, and otherwise making joint decisions in those ways that we associate with the word “partnership” — that “integrating into the same domestic unit” sorts of stuff. And on that note, although this would be veering off course for this post, I’m wondering why people associate romance with necessarily involving all that — why people would just take for granted that pursuing “a romantic relationship” would entail logistical partnership (not just the other way around). But I digress. It could also be that this model could be separated into two different models — friendship as a limited amount of emotional closeness and friendship as a limited amount of logistical coordination — but I’m not sure to what extent anyone has already discussed separating the two.
Friendship as determined by interior attraction. Under this definition, a relationship is a friendship when it meets certain affective criteria, not in terms of the relationship itself (in terms of what you do or how close you are bonded) but in terms of what you feel attraction-wise. This differs from the above, friendship as an emotionally-limited status, because (for instance) romantic attraction or limerence is not necessarily the same as being emotionally close with someone or having an established, actual, mutual bond. So that means that in the limited-status definition, a relationship leaves “friendship” territory through “getting closer” (or becoming more logistically intertwined), whereas in the attraction-based model, a relationship leaves “friendship” territory by introducing a different set of feelings, i.e. some (other) type of attraction. This seems to sometimes be the idea behind discussions of “queerplatonic attraction” and “fluitic attraction” as a basis for naming relationship types. Presumably, under this model, if two people are friends, but they both(?) start feeling another form of attraction, then that (itself) changes the nature of the relationship (as opposed to a change in bonds, behaviors, commitments, etc.). It is unclear to what degree this attraction needs to be mutual or needs to be openly acknowledged in order for this change to take place.
So that’s five different mix-and-match approaches to defining “friendship,” some of them compatible with each other and some not. When people talk about relationships using “friendship” as a point of reference or basis of contrast, it’s not always clear to me which definition they’re using, especially since it’s not often that people even think to answer that question explicitly. Consequently, as people in the ace and aro communities continue to discuss personal relationships and feelings, my wish is that people would more frequently say exactly what they mean, if not return to what I consider to be a core message behind the development of queerplatonic: that friendship doesn’t have to be “just.”