In ancient Sanskrit they were the same thing: priyatam (Ro. prieten, Eng. friend) meant a life partner, a spouse. I would argue that the separations stem from the concepts or preconceptions we have of these things, which tend to be a little different across the spectrum of sexuality – but ultimately not that different.
I am currently reading a book I’d been unconsciously searching for since first grade at school, which as it turns out is called Ioläus – An Anthology of Friendship (Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1902) and was written by progressive educator Edward Carpenter. It will prove helpful as it examines how the concept of romance has changed from male couples to couples formed by a man and a woman, and why.
The concept of romantic love did not even exist between men and women before the chivalric Middle Ages. But on the other hand, men of the ancient world were taught to believe that women were inferior creatures, so the romantic warrior-companion relationship we would call “marriage” today was shameful for two free men to accept as being a marriage, because it meant that at least one of them would have had to take on the domestic, feminine role reserved for women or slaves. They were not ashamed of sexual intercourse inasmuch as it was “a necessity,” but of too strong emotions, which were often imagined as the door to “the dark side” (the feminine side). This led them to fear that they could do something very bad to their innocent special friend, should they express an “ordinary desire” to form a couple or a family with him. But when you imagine that “women cannot liberate themselves from their passions” you will make sure that you separate yourself from all your feminine aspects and, ironically, it will be this separation or denial that will harm your friend’s psyche, since the attachment is formed long before the mental superstructures in use when presenting a suitable persona to the outside world.
The book puts it this way: until we can somehow merge these romantic traditions together, and see genders as equal in society, and as a result the different “attachments” as equal too, romantic traditions will remain one-sided. (It is precisely for this reason that people will seek out the wrong attachment and become dissatisfied, eventually turning love into hate.)
So I no longer talk about “separations between friendship and love” as I did in my adolescent years (at that time I thought it was really important to highlight such differences, but in retrospect I was merely using my concept of friendship to reject the truth of love behind it), because thinking in those terms leads to a prolonged inner struggle that makes for almost endless confusion (between who you are now, who you want to be after, what people will think, and so on). Instead I talk about finding “my best friend” who inspires me with his personhood to do all the great things a mythical hero does (like the ancient Greeks thought, albeit unilaterally). Such complicity is true love for me, and has always silently inspired everything I used to put down to “true friendship” – simply because we were children; yet, somehow, I always intuited there was something more at stake.
While this thing I used to feel as hovering on the edge of everyday awareness is unique, I also express this love within other friendships – that is I love my friends like this: I show them who I am, and I let them show me who they really are, without judging whether “it will go somewhere or not” and regardless of whether it will be judged as a kind of attraction. In this way we can cultivate the inner truth that is needed to produce healthy concepts of love. Not bad for a “passionate woman,” right? (laughs…) It doesn’t mean that I now have all these numerous lovers (not at all), I’m simply discovering myself in a different way: as part of a larger human family. The meaning is they are “my friends” in the way ancient Sanskrit would have it: not because of my relationship with them, but because of their relationship with their lover-friend-companion. I now work to bring back the concept of the latter as being one’s primary responsibility.
For these reasons, I don’t think anything separates us; it’s just a diverse spectrum, where the central, most meaningful relationship to you —your companion— inspires you to be friends with so many people around the world, to understand their lives, to feel those affinities. I mentioned the word “personhood” here, because true love is about a person who directly inspires you, not the kind of “ideal up there in the castle” to which the immature aspire. These ideals are also important for a while, but after that if you don’t see them becoming your friends (at least from a distance) it’s better to let go of that aspiration.
So for the second part of the question: what makes us transform from friends into couples? The feminine side when it is accepted, of a very special, mutual relationship about which we are certain of how much it means to us.
Answer requested by Lucia Drîmba