Why can’t we just be friends?

If you believe in love at first sight, you’ll never stop looking.” – the tagline of the movie Closer

“Why can’t we just be friends?” Perhaps this question isn’t universal code for “I don’t want to date you,” but it certainly is here in the U.S. In high school, I was in a relationship that was going reasonably well until we began reading a book together about why dating is bad. This wasn’t my idea…and, as you may have guessed, the relationship didn’t last through the fourth chapter. What was the reason you ask? I was told that we’re better off as “just friends.”

Whether we’re scrolling, swiping, or simply looking across the room, our search for love often has little to do with friendship. In Western culture, dating is displayed in movies like The Notebook and La La Land in which the idea of mutually sacrificial friendship is a supporting role at best. Even in The Notebook, deep self-sacrificial friendship is the end, while the means is the same mixture of unbridled passion, unexpected encounters, and personal fulfillment through a romantic relationship. Am I the only one to wonder whether such fleeting and fickle things as romantic feelings can build something as solid as true friendship? Isn’t it more likely that profound romance is built upon a foundation of solid friendship?

Romance and infatuation are good, but they are no basis for a long-term relationship. The highs have corresponding lows, and we are often left disillusioned or desperate. We may think of dating and marriage as something that happens to us, but in reality, our cultures have written scripts that we knowingly or unknowingly follow. We have been prepared to pursue marriage in a certain way, even if we think we are “doing it our own way.” The stories we celebrate, the emotions we cultivate, and the media we consume all shape our imaginations about what relationships should be like.

In Western culture, our attitudes toward marriage and the path toward marriage have changed. While marriage used to be about us, it is now primarily about me. We view romantic relationships as sources of personal fulfillment in isolation from our communities and families. We are at the same time too idealistic and too pessimistic about marriage and dating. We hope to find “the one” who might fulfill our dreams, and yet we settle for less than life-long commitment out of despair that this could ever happen. Though we hope to “fall in love,” we stumble from one relationship to another, never really practicing the love we long for.

From the expansion of hookup culture to a prevalence of divorce and widespread cohabitation, these conflicted experiences of love and marriage are everywhere. We need to realize that, as the famous country song goes, “love isn’t someplace that you fall, it’s something that you do.” Great love is rooted in patience, forgiveness, long-suffering, shared life, and joy over the other’s well-being. This kind of love says “I am for you, I believe in you, and I choose to love you even when that choice feels like a sacrifice.” This kind of love is not dependent upon romance. It is much bigger than that. This kind of love is found in true friendship.

The journey of love is a journey of friendship. Through friendship, we not only know one another but we know ourselves as we see ourselves through the others’ eyes. This understanding takes place not only in romantic relationships but also in our relationships with family and friends. Really, the most significant part of romantic relationships isn’t the romance, it’s the friendship. If we want romance, we must practice friendship, as this is the soil from which true and lasting romance can grow. If we cannot practice true friendship, then we cannot experience long-term mutually satisfying romance. It’s not a bad thing to be “just friends,” in fact, it’s the best place to begin.


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