Romantic friendship

A romantic friendship or passionate friendship is a very close but typically non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that which is common in the contemporary Western societies. It may include for example holding hands, cuddling, hugging, kissing, giving massages, and sharing a bed, or co-sleeping, without sexual intercourse.

In historical scholarship, the term may be used to describe a very close relationship between people of the same sex during a period of history when homosexuality did not exist as a social category. In this regard, the term was coined in the later 20th century in order to retrospectively describe a type of relationship which until the mid 19th century had been considered unremarkable but since the second half of the 19th century had become more rare as physical intimacy between non-sexual partners came to be regarded with anxiety.[1] Romantic friendship between women in Europe and North America became especially prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the simultaneous emergence of female education and a new rhetoric of sexual difference.[2]

Shimer College founders Cindarella Gregory and Frances Shimer in 1869; their extremely close relationship has been characterized as a "passionate friendship".[3]

Historical examples

The study of historical romantic friendship is difficult because the primary source material consists of writing about love relationships, which typically took the form of love letters, poems, or philosophical essays rather than objective studies.[4] Most of these do not explicitly state the sexual or nonsexual nature of relationships; the fact that homosexuality was taboo in Western European cultures at the time means that some sexual relationships may be hidden, but at the same time the rareness of romantic friendship in modern times means that references to nonsexual relationships may be misinterpreted, as alleged by Faderman, Coontz, Anthony Rotundo, Douglas Bush, and others.

Shakespeare and Fair Youth

The content of Shakespeare's works has raised the question of whether he may have been bisexual. Although twenty-six of Shakespeare's sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the "Dark Lady"), one hundred and twenty-six are addressed to an adolescent boy (known as the "Fair Youth"). The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the boy's beauty, has been interpreted as evidence for Shakespeare's bisexuality, although others interpret them as referring to intense friendship or fatherly affection, not sexual love.

Among those of the latter interpretation, in the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush writes:

Since modern readers are unused to such ardor in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality… we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was conspicuous in Renaissance literature.[5]

Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from "that other, licentious Greek love",[6] as evidence of a platonic interpretation.

Montaigne and Etienne de La Boétie

The French philosopher Montaigne described the concept of romantic friendship (without using this English term) in his essay "On Friendship." In addition to distinguishing this type of love from homosexuality ("this other Greek licence"), another way in which Montaigne differed from the modern view[7] was that he felt that friendship and platonic emotion were a primarily masculine capacity (apparently unaware of the custom of female romantic friendship which also existed):

Seeing (to speake truly) that the ordinary sufficiency of women cannot answer this conference and communication, the nurse of this sacred bond: nor seem their minds strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable.[8]

Lesbian-feminist historian Lillian Faderman cites Montaigne, using "On Friendship" as evidence that romantic friendship was distinct from homosexuality, since the former could be extolled by famous and respected writers, who simultaneously disparaged homosexuality. (The quotation also furthers Faderman's beliefs that gender and sexuality are socially constructed, since they indicate that each sex has been thought of as "better" at intense friendship in one or another period of history.)

Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

Some historians have used the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed as another example of a relationship that modern people see as ambiguous or possibly gay, but which was most likely to have been a romantic friendship. Lincoln and Speed lived together, shared a bed in their youth and maintained a lifelong friendship. David Herbert Donald pointed out that men at that time often shared beds for financial reasons; men were accustomed to same-sex nonsexual intimacy, since most parents could not afford separate beds or rooms for male siblings. Anthony Rotundo notes that the custom of romantic friendship for men in America in the early 19th century was different from that of Renaissance France, and it was expected that men would distance themselves emotionally and physically somewhat after marriage; he claims that letters between Lincoln and Speed show this distancing after Lincoln married Mary Todd.[9] Such distancing is still practiced today.[10]

Biblical and religious evidence

Proponents of the romantic friendship hypothesis also make reference to the Bible. Historians like Faderman and Robert Brain[11] believe that the descriptions of relationships such as David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi in this religious text establish that the customs of romantic friendship existed and were thought of as virtuous in the ancient Near East, despite the simultaneous taboo on homosexuality.

The relationship between King David and Jonathan, son of King Saul, is often cited as an example of male romantic friendship; for example, Faderman uses 2 Samuel 1:26 on the title page of her book: "Your love was wonderful to me, passing the love of women."[12]

Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are the female Biblical pair most often cited as a possible romantic friendship, as in the following verse commonly used in same-sex wedding ceremonies:

Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.[13]

Faderman writes that women in Renaissance and Victorian times made reference to both Ruth and Naomi and "Davidean" friendship as the basis for their romantic friendships.[14]

While some authors, notably John Boswell, have claimed that ecclesiastical practice in earlier ages blessed "same sex unions", the accurate interpretation of these relationships rests on a proper understanding of the mores and values of the participants, including both the parties receiving the rite in question and the clergy officiating at it. Boswell himself concedes that past relationships are ambiguous; when describing Greek and Roman attitudes, Boswell states that "[A] consensual physical aspect would have been utterly irrelevant to placing the relationship in a meaningful taxonomy."[15] Boswell's own interpretation has been thoroughly critiqued, notably by Brent D. Shaw, himself a homosexual, in a review written for the New Republic:

Given the centrality of Boswell's "new" evidence, therefore, it is best to begin by describing his documents and their import. These documents are liturgies for an ecclesiastical ritual called adelphopoiesis or, in simple English, the "creation of a brother." Whatever these texts are, they are not texts for marriage ceremonies. Boswell's translation of their titles (akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin and parallels) as "The Order of Celebrating the Union of Two Men" or "Office for Same-Sex Union" is inaccurate. In the original, the titles say no such thing. And this sort of tendentious translation of the documents is found, alas, throughout the book. Thus the Greek words that Boswell translates as "be united together" in the third section of the document quoted above are, in fact, rather ordinary words that mean "become brothers" (adelphoi genesthai); and when they are translated in this more straightforward manner, they impart a quite different sense to the reader.

Such agreements and rituals are "same-sex" in the sense that it is two men who are involved; and they are "unions" in the sense that the two men involved are co-joined as "brothers." But that is it. There is no indication in the texts themselves that these are marriages in any sense that the word would mean to readers now, nor in any sense that the word would have meant to persons then: the formation of a common household, the sharing of everything in a permanent co-residential unit, the formation of a family unit wherein the two partners were committed, ideally, to each other, with the intent to raise children, and so on.

Although it is difficult to state precisely what these ritualised relationships were, most historians who have studied them are fairly certain that they deal with a species of "ritualised kinship" that is covered by the term "brotherhood." (This type of "brotherhood" is similar to the ritualised agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other "men of honour" in our own society.) That explains why the texts on adelphopoiesis in the prayerbooks are embedded within sections dealing with other kinship-forming rituals, such as marriage and adoption. Giovanni Tomassia in the 1880s and Paul Koschaker in the 1930s, whose works Boswell knows and cites, had already reached this conclusion.[16]

It should be noted that historian Robert Brain has also traced these ceremonies from Pagan "blood brotherhood" ceremonies through medieval Catholic ceremonies called "gossipry" or "siblings before God," on to modern ceremonies in some Latin American countries referred to as "compadrazgo"; Brain considers the ceremonies to refer to romantic friendship.[17]

Reception in 1990s American gay and lesbian subculture

Several small groups of advocates and researchers have advocated for the renewed use of the term, or the related term Boston marriage, today. Several lesbian, gay, and feminist authors (such as Lillian Faderman, Stephanie Coontz, Jaclyn Geller and Esther Rothblum) have done academic research on the topic;[18] these authors typically favor the social constructionist view that sexual orientation is a modern, culturally constructed concept.[19]

See also


  1. Faderman 1998, pp. 231-313.
  2. Rupp 2009, p. 127.
  3. Malkmus, Doris (2003). "Frances Wood Shimer, Cindarella Gregory, and the 1853 founding of Shimer College". Journal of Illinois History. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. 6: 200. ISSN 1522-0532.
  4. Faderman 1998 passim.
  5. Crompton 2003, p. 379.
  6. Rollins 1:55; Bush cited Montaigne's 1580 work "On Friendship," in which the exact quote was: "And this other Greeke licence is justly abhorred by our customes." Montaigne 1580, p. 4.
  7. John Ruskin's 1865 essay "On Queen's Gardens" is a good example of the later view that emotionality was a female province; Kate Millet analyzes this essay in Sexual Politics (1969, 1970, 1990, 2000), University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-06889-0. Many modern books such as Carmen Renee Berry's Girlfriends: Invisible Ties (1998), Wildcat Canyon Press, ISBN 1-885171-20-X, argue that intensity in friendship is a female capacity.
  8. Montaigne 1580, p. 4.
  9. Rotundo, Anthony (1985). "Romantic Friendship". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 23: 1–25.
  10. Geller 2001, pp. 320–23.
  11. Brain 1976.
  12. 2 Samuel 1:26.
  13. Ruth to Naomi, Ruth 1:15-17.
  14. Faderman 1981, pp. 67, 121.
  15. Boswell 1995, p. 76.
  16. Shaw, Brent D. (July 18, 1994). "A Groom of One's Own?". The New Republic: 33–41. Archived from the original on September 10, 2015.
  17. Brain 1976, p. 75–107.
  18. Rothblum 1993.
  19. See Faderman's introduction in the 1998 edition of Surpassing the Love of Men; Coontz's The Way We Never Were has as its thesis the social construction of a variety of family and relationship traditions, whereas Geller advocates for the abolition of marriage and a renewed focus on friendship for feminist reasons (Geller 2001).


  • Boswell, John (1995). Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Vintage Press. ISBN 0-679-75164-5. 
  • Brain, Robert (1976). Friends and Lovers. Great Britain: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd. ISBN 0-465-02571-4. 
  • Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and Civilization. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01197-X. 
  • Faderman, Lillian (1998) [Originally published 1981]. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0688133304. 
  • Geller, Jaclyn (2001). Here Comes the Bride. New York City: Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-193-9. 
  • Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1580). "On Friendship". Harvard Classics. 32 (Literary and Philosophical Essays). Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. 
  • Rothblum, Esther (1993). Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships among Contemporary Lesbians. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-87023-876-0. 
  • Rupp, Leila J. (2009). Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women. New York University Press. ISBN 9780814777268. 
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