Love is love: navigating the blurry line between friendship and romance

Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List recently popped up on my Netflix page. I clicked, expecting little more than an hour and a half’s distraction, but I find I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel, Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is a light rom-com exploring the fuzzy divide between friendship and romance. It’s not a academy award winning movie – far from it – but it’s worth watching nonetheless.

Naomi and Ely have an intense but officially non-romantic relationship. He is homosexual, she, heterosexual. To keep boyfriends from coming between them, they set up a ‘No Kiss List’: a list of off-limit guys. Things go well until the inevitable happens and Ely falls for a guy Naomi is dating. There is much heartache and their relationship looks like being in ruins, until Naomi realises that she too has been in love with an off-limits guy – Ely himself.nokisslist01

This is a fascinating film because it is clearly trying to shift our thinking on the topic of friendship. It attempts to upgrade friendship and make it not seem like a poor second-best to romance. One wonders about the writers’ motivation in doing this, but promoting chaste friendship in our sex-saturated world is surely a good thing. We live in a culture where long term, deep friendships are hard to sustain. We are geographically mobile, we’re time poor and we idolise romance and family. As a result of this, many of us are lonely – especially those who have missed out on the happily ever after that romantic love is meant to bring. Upgrading our view of friendship, learning to seek it out, invest in it, and value it would certainly be good.

But Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List goes further than this. It doesn’t just want to argue that friendship is as good as romance, it says that friendship and romance are nearly indistinguishable. Naomi and Ely look very much like a couple. They hold hands, touch each other pretty constantly, say ‘I love you’ and often share a bed. The film finishes with Naomi reflecting: “It’s bullshit to think of friendship and romance as being different. They’re not. They’re just variations of the same love, variations of the same desire to be close. And like any love, it’s difficult, awesome, treacherous, exhilarating, confusing, and … precious.”

Now of course, the movie is a bit silly. But is it correct to say that friendship and romantic love are more similar than we think? Is friendship just erotic love minus the eros? Or is there more to it than that? C.S. Lewis argues that the two are not the same. In his famous work, the Four Loves, he notes several differences: First, the romantic couple marvel at each other, staring face to face, whereas friends are comrades in an enjoyed topic or task, side by side. Second, lovers are always talking of their relationship whereas friends almost never do. And third, erotic love is an exclusive thing, while friends are apparently happy to admit another.

Lewis’ distinguishing marks of friendship, however, are not quite my own experience (and there is some evidence that they were not exactly Lewis’ experience, either!) I don’t see such a clear divide between friendship and romance along these lines. I have had many chaste relationships – with both men and women – that were more face to face than side by side, emotional rather than task oriented, and where a third person has been something of an intrusion. And intensity can’t be the difference either, since it is more a function of the personalities of the two people than the genders. One can have an intense friendship and one could possibly have a not so absorbing erotic relationship.

So a no-kiss list may not be a bad way of looking at it. Certain people are off limits to us, erotically, and must be. My own no-kiss list is quite extensive: it includes every person in the world, bar one! I may not engage romantically with any of them. But some will have the potential to become much loved friends and if circumstances are right, I will get to enjoy them in that way.

But of course, none of this is simple in real life. As Naomi and Ely found, simply having someone on your no-kiss list does not stop you falling for them. The similarities between friendship and romantic love, the function that they both share in allowing us to experience closeness to others, means that they can easily become confused. I found that the movie’s descriptors of love and friendship as “difficult, awesome, treacherous, exhilarating, confusing, and precious” reflect my own experiences. My non-erotic relationships (with both same and opposite sex friends) have not always been risk free. They have, at times, been as wonderful and complicated as the movie describes them. But this complexity should come as no surprise to the Christian. In this world, all good things will be complicated by our fallenness. Love that ought to be non-erotic – as Naomi found – can still push towards eros. As Ely found, a no-kiss list will not stop a friendship destroying, treacherous desire.

Over the years, I have heard much advice about how to keep friendship distinct from romantic love. Much of it has been good and helpful, but some of it, though well meaning, has felt soul stiflingly legalistic. Inherent in any relationship is risk. While we are in this world, there will be confusion. But if we are married, we have already chosen the one person who is to be our life-long romantic partner. We say of all others, “that is not what this is” and firmly discipline our minds to not go there, while throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into the romantic relationship to which we have committed. For singles there is more room for romantic thought experiments, but the pleasure and self-giving beauty of friendship ought to be considered a worthy end in itself – which is the point that Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List makes.