What separates friendship from romance?

Check the third box on your way to ‘defining the relationship’


As a crotchety 80-year-old man stuck in the body of a college student, I am often far behind the times when it comes to new phrases and acronyms. When I landed back in the U.S. this past May after a year abroad, my friend’s little sister gave me a crash course in everything I had missed while I was gone. This ranged from “bet,” a pointless term that taught me just how much confusion could be packed into one syllable, to “extra,” a useless phrase running rampant all over the country. 

I have yet to use either word, owing primarily to my general resistance to unnecessary change, exemplified by both my wardrobe and my eating habits. But sometimes — in rare cases — I actually really enjoy the linguistic innovations of our country’s youths. After all, they gave us the “DTR.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this phrase, DTR stands for “define/determine the relationship.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, it’s this generally abhorred — or adored — activity in which two people sit down and talk about what they want moving forward from a connection that up to that point has been vague, unclear, tenuous and/or, well, undefined. Sounds fun and easy, right? Right ... if you are someone who has your life goals and path clearly defined and know exactly who and what you are looking for. 

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you look at it — that does not describe the average college student. Accordingly, the DTR is often procrastinated longer than that reading you were supposed to do seven weeks ago, especially since there is no relationship syllabus telling you what you should do and when you should do it. But just as one cannot escape a final (I would know, I’ve missed one before), that day of defining cannot be pushed off forever — no matter how hard one may try.

But before we reach that point of no return, let’s step back for a moment and think about relationships more broadly. Specifically, what exactly is it that separates a friendship — especially a close one — from being a romantic relationship? I’ve toyed with this topic a lot over the past few weeks, and to be honest, I haven’t reached any sort of climactic conclusion. While every romantic relationship is unique, generally speaking, the main surface-level difference between regular rapport and romance is physical attraction and intimacy. 

But if attraction and action are all that delineate between the two types of relationships, it is logical to wonder whether the age-old trope that men and women can’t be friends actually has seeds of truth to it. People are attracted to their friends all the time, so following this train of thought would lead you to the conclusion that crossing the line between friendship and romance is almost inevitable.

But hold up for a second — even if attraction exists between two people on top of a very close connection, the action piece is still vital to changing the dynamic of the relationship. So, therefore, what it all comes down to is a choice. If you are very close with a friend to whom you are attracted, you still have to actively decide to pursue a romantic relationship with them. And this, finally, leads us to the crux of the issue — what causes us to pull that trigger? What motivates us to pursue that relationship with one person but not with another, even if we are close with and attracted to both of them?

To be honest, it’s a feeling or sense that is impossible to describe. One of my friends calls it the third box — even if the first two, friendship and physical attraction, are checked off, there is some inexplicable quality that still may not be present in the potential relationship, ultimately leading you to not pursue it. 

Another friend, on the other hand, refers to this indescribable sensation as “the tingles” — the butterflies-like feeling you get whenever you hear their name or see their face, the ever-so-cheesy fireworks that accompany any accidental touch. It’s unquantifiable and its description is frustratingly elusive, but perhaps that’s what the rom-coms mean when they say, “When you know, you know.” After all, how are you supposed to explain something when the clearest descriptor you can come up with is “the tingles?”

So yes, even though entering into any romantic relationship — especially when it involves a transition from platonicness (platonicity? platonicality? I like platonicity) — requires an active choice, there is something about these tingles that makes that decision as easy and natural as can be. Sure, you might still overthink it. Yeah, you might analyze it time and time again. But when it comes down to it, you won’t be able to shake that feeling that there is still something else there — almost as if there is a third box yet to be checked. Almost as if you have the tingles.

So the next time you too are lamenting social constructs and unnecessary vocabulary changes as you stare a DTR in the face, pause for a moment and think. If you’re not sure about the specific context you’re in or the logistics of the potential relationship, that’s one thing. But on the other hand, if you’re on the fence or having doubts about your feelings... well, maybe that’s really all the answer you need.

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