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File:Germany Tübingen Statues.jpg

Two women share a close Neoclassical moment in Tübingen.

The term romantic friendship, passionate friendship or affectionate friendship refers to a very close but non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that common in modern Western societies, for example holding hands, cuddling, sharing a bed, as well as open expressions of love for one another.

Same-sex romantic friendship was considered common and unremarkable in the West, and was distinguished from then-taboo homosexual relationships, up until the second half of the 19th century,[1] but after that time its open expression generally became much rarer as physical intimacy between non-sexual partners came to be regarded with anxiety.[2]

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[3]) have done academic research on the topic; these authors typically favor the social constructionist view that sexual orientation is a modern, culturally constructed concept.[4]

Historian Stephanie Coontz writes of pre-modern customs in the United States:

Perfectly respectable Victorian women wrote to each other in terms such as these: ‘I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.’ They recorded the ‘furnace blast’ of their ‘passionate attachments’ to each other... They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights... Today if a woman died and her son or husband found such diaries or letters in her effects, he would probably destroy them in rage or humiliation. In the nineteenth century, these sentiments were so respectable that surviving relatives often published them in elegies....

In the 1920s people’s interpretation of physical contact became extraordinarily ‘privatized and sexualized,’ so that all types of touching, kissing, and holding were seen as sexual foreplay rather than accepted as ordinary means of communication that carried different meanings in different contexts... It is not that homosexuality was acceptable before; but now a wider range of behavior opened a person up to being branded as a homosexual... The romantic friendships that had existed among many unmarried men in the nineteenth century were no longer compatible with heterosexual identity.[5]

Examples of historical romantic friendship

Close Relationships

Bride price
Ground rules
Open marriage
Platonic love

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.[6] 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 Lord

Main article: Sexuality of William Shakespeare

The content of Shakespeare's works has raised the question of whether he may have been bisexual. The question of whether an Elizabethan was "gay" in a modern sense is anachronistic, as the concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality as identities did not emerge until the 19th century; while sodomy was a crime in the period, there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity (see History of homosexuality). Elizabethans also frequently wrote about friendship in more intense language than is common today.

Although twenty-six of the Shakespeare's sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the "Dark Lady"), one hundred and twenty-six are addressed to a young man (known as the "Fair Lord"). The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the young man'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". [7]

Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from "that other, licentious Greek love" [8], as evidence of a platonic interpretation.

Montaigne and Estienne 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" sp.), another way in which Montaigne differed from the modern view[9] 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 seeme their mindes strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable. (sp.)[10]

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 further's 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

Main article: Sexuality of Abraham Lincoln

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 and 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 used to same-sex nonsexual intimacy since most parents could not afford separate beds or rooms for male siblings. Anthony Rotundo notes[11] that the custom of romantic friendship for men in America in the early 1800s was different from that of Renaissance France, and it was expected that men will distance themselves emotionally and physically somewhat after marriage; he claims that letters between Lincoln and Speed show this distancing after Lincoln married Mary Todd. Such distancing, which is still practiced today,[12] could indicate that Lincoln was following the social customs of his day, rather than rebelling against the taboo on homosexuality.

Emily Dickinson and Sue Gilbert

Faderman uses the letters between poet Emily Dickinson and her friend and later sister-in-law Sue Gilbert to show how love between women, understood as nonsexual romantic friendship, was accepted as normal at the time, and only later thought of as deviant:

Emily's love letters to Sue were written in the early 1850s. Bianchi's [Martha Dickinson Bianchi, her niece] editions appeared in 1924 and 1932. Because Bianchi was Sue's daughter, she wished to show that Emily relied on Sue, that Sue influenced her poetry, and that the two were the best of friends. But working during the height of the popularization of Sigmund Freud, she must have known to what extent intense friendship had fallen into disrepute. She therefore edited out all indications of Emily's truly powerful involvement with her mother.

Following is an excerpt of the examples of censorship that Faderman cites: The 1924/1932 editions of Dickinson's letters include a letter dated June 11, 1852, from Emily, saying:

...Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. I try to bring you nearer...

The original letter reads:

...Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. If you were here-- and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine we would not ask for language... I try to bring you nearer...

Those who favor the homosexual interpretation might argue that Dickinson would feel no need to censor any sort of relationship in a private love letter, even if the relationship was taboo at the time. Faderman's position is that the originals were not destroyed because they were not taboo at the time.


  1. Faderman, L. (1998, 1981). Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, New York, Harper Collins. ISBN 0-688-13330-4. No page reference; the prior commonness of romantic friendship is the thesis of the entire book.
  2. Faderman, L. (1998, 1981). Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, New York, Harper Collins. ISBN 0-688-13330-4, pp. 231-313.
  3. Rothblum, E. (1993). Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships among Contemporary Lesbians, University of Massachusetts Press, ISBN 0-870-23876-0
  4. 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 (Here Comes the Bride, 2001, New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, ISBN 1-56858-193-9) advocates for the abolition of marriage and a renewed focus on friendship for feminist reasons.
  5. Coontz, S. (1992). The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-09097-4
  6. Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men; Faderman's book uses a variety of these types of primary sources.
  7. Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and Civilization, page 379, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674011-97-X
  8. 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"; cited from The Harvard Classics, 1909-1914 reprinted at
  9. 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 0252068890. Many modern books such as Carmen Renee Berry's Girlfriends: Invisible Ties (1998), Wildcat Canyon Press, ISBN 188517120X, argue that intensity in friendship is a female capacity.
  10. Montaigne, "On Friendship", 1580, from The Harvard Classics, 1909-1914 reprinted at
  11. Anthony Rotundo, "Romantic Friendship," Journal of the History of Sexuality 23 [1985] 1-25.
  12. Geller, Jaclyn. (2001). Here Comes the Bride (New York, Four Walls Eight Windows), ISBN 1-56858-193-9, pp. 320-323.

See also

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