By Michael Boulos
“How’d you guys start dating?”
“I saw her in line for coffee. She looked cute so I asked for her number.”
“We had a group project. He looked cute so I asked for his number.”
The formula can take innumerable expressions, but the sentiment remains. I ask a friend how they met their significant other—they detail some series of inconsequential events that generated true love. At one moment, love showed no signs of life. A few coffee dates later, it blooms in full force. In another few months’ time, another miracle takes place. After trying their best to ignore each other’s worst qualities (some call such things red flags), those qualities become unbearable. Love so passionate withers as quickly as it sprouted up. Why do so many march down that path though others meet success? Are their relationships simply unlucky?
I would venture to say that they are misguided from the start. Music, poetry, literature, drama, and film have created strong expectations about romantic love. From the poetry of Sappho to the modern rom-com, there has been a persistent principle—that love is a passive experience. It is something that happens to the one who feels it. Love “sweeps” lovers off their feet. The modern audience, having learned this lesson from a thousand touching books and films, truly believes it. We approach every candidate romance with the expectation that it will work that same way—and it often does. Two people fall in love, and it proves for a short time to be just as delightful as a movie.
As we first considered, that path does not always end well. Even an inattentive observer can tell that too many poorly founded relationships resemble Russian roulette. The problem does not lie with love itself, but it is simply not enough to be in love. A rich relationship consists of more than romantic love. It cannot stand alone. Love is like a cathedral. The main structure is the most essential and beautiful part, but its buttresses add critical support and increase its beauty. Something so complex and glorious requires the help of more mundane forces. It requires another kind of love: friendship.
We have seen lovers who are not friends. They take one another, and most of all their love, with the utmost seriousness. When they are together, they hardly appear to be enjoying one another. All that show are grim faces. There is an entirely different character to romance that grows out of friendship. It is light-hearted. The lovers poke fun at each other without fear. They act out of trust, while the other pair lives in anxiety. The relationship borne out of friendship may not be as grave or impressive as that which we find in the movies, but it is better. Any who have read Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing know that Beatrice and Benedick, with all their awkwardness, are a finer pair than the picturesque Hero and Claudio.
The common opinion is that there is no worse fate than to be “in the friendzone.” But if one truly wishes to establish a firmly grounded relationship, the friendzone is the first step. I admit that it is a terrifying prospect: it takes away the security of distance. Rejection from a stranger or a mere acquaintance is far easier to bear than unrequited feelings for a friend. This approach toward dating also requires a challenging mindset. It means that one has to master the craving for love, to be content to live without any prospect of romance at all. It requires a rejection of the common categories for life: looking for love, talking to someone, and being in a relationship. So many rush into relationships simply to launch themselves into that third category, but one cannot expect a stable romance if one is not secure without any romance at all.
That change in attitude is the greatest difficulty of this entire matter. It is not hard to see the importance of friendship, but an arduous trial to act on it. When there exists mutual attraction, it only feels right to let it do its work. It only feels right to give way to intuition. However, the relationship that lasts does not sprout up in a sudden burst of growth. It takes careful maintenance—watering, feeding, pruning. The danger of giving way to passion without a foundation is evident in other pursuits. Most of us know that sudden excitement for an instrument or hobby that withers without a consistent practice schedule, that zeal for fitness that dies without a workout plan. Real greatness does not lie with rosy feelings; it is a choice. So too with romantic relationships. Romantic love is quite capable of providing that starting push, but without the stability of friendship, it will burn out quickly. And friendship takes work. It requires sacrifice and time spent together. The realest, most admirable relationships—the many-decades marriages, the relationships that survive time and distance apart, the couples who seem most content—they took action.