My Friendships Mean Everything to Me. Why Do I Still Long for Romantic Love?

It’s hard to defy the couple norm.

by Sophie K Rosa

14 February 2024

Two women with their heads affectionately close together
Photo: Adobe Stock

This is the sixth instalment of Red Flags, Novara Media’s advice column for anti-capitalists (read the others here). Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags explores how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it.

Dear Sophie,

Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time reading about radical forms of intimacy, family abolition, and relationship anarchy, and have invested a significant amount of energy in trying to nourish my friendships and relate to people in a way that aligns with my values. I have deeply satisfying, profound, and meaningful relationships, to the extent that friends often comment on how rich this area of my life is. Some of these friendships also have a wealth of romantic and sexual feeling in them, too – one friend in particular has expressed that they feel like I’m their life partner, and I feel the same. Yet we’re not in a traditional romantic relationship, nor do we have sex.

Yet even though I know that these relationships are just as significant as a romantic relationship, whenever I feel sad or lonely the thing I find myself yearning for is a romantic partner, as if that will be a cure-all. I imagine myself making breakfast with them, going to galleries, or doing other things that in reality I do with my housemate or friends anyway. There doesn’t seem to be any particularly special quality to these activities in my fantasies that make them distinct from how they are in reality – it’s purely that I’m doing them with a committed romantic partner.

How do I start to feel some of the things I already know about the importance of friendship and other forms of intimacy?

– Yearning for Romance

Dear Yearning for Romance,

Your question brought to mind the love life of Emma Goldman. An anarchist perhaps most well-known for a quote she never actually said – “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” – Goldman was vehemently against marriage and a proponent of “free love”. In her 1914 essay Marriage and Love, she called marriage a “poor little state and church-begotten weed,” the antithesis of love, which she called “the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny.” 

Goldman advocated passionately against the social mores she saw as “an imposition, a shallow, empty mockery” of love as liberation. Then she fell madly for Ben Reitman, a fellow anarchist and doctor to the poor. During their long romance, she continued delivering her celebrated lectures on “open” love, but privately, she was tormented by Reitman’s involvement with other women. Her love for him, she wrote to Reitman, had become “the most domineering factor in my life […] beating me, wounded and sore, robbing me of my [well-ordered] ideas and ideals.” 

I find this historical gossip comforting and wonder if you might, too (though I do wonder how Goldman would have felt if she knew her private travails would become public knowledge). Goldman’s public, intellectual positions tell one story of her life, her suffering tells another. I don’t believe either realm of experience – either part of herself – was necessarily ‘truer’. Both the political and the personal are home to different kinds of knowledge. 

I imagine it is frustrating to have put so much intention into doing relationships differently, only to find yourself yearning for a romantic partner – something that you know, on some level at least, should not be necessary for a complete and satisfying relational life. I can see how you might say: “This doesn’t make sense!” 

It isn’t always possible to make our feelings make sense. Sometimes they’re so mysterious we’ll never get to the bottom of them; sometimes it might help us to try, sometimes we’re better off accepting unknowability. Either way, I don’t think there’s a cure for longing, especially not for love. And if there is, I don’t think it lies in what we “know”. Our feelings can betray our beliefs – in both senses. Goldman put it dramatically: “I shall stand condemned before the bar of my own reason.”

What would it mean to “feel some of the things you already know”? Yearning for things we don’t have can be agony, but I’m not sure the rich life you speak of would be possible without experiencing ardent desires. I do not doubt that cultural norms have helped create your desire for a romantic partner, perhaps to a very significant extent. It seems important and helpful that you are able to recognise this. But understanding this isn’t the end of the story: your feelings won’t allow it to be. 

I know it might be painful, but rather than treating your yearning with chagrin, can you welcome it with curiosity? Other than the social primacy of the romantic couple form, what else might be at play?

You have clearly put a lot of effort into deconstructing traditional relational forms, but I don’t think this will necessarily immunise you against the pull of romantic love. Do you want it to, really? I don’t say this because I believe that life with a romantic partner is more worth living. Like being ‘single’, being coupled might feel pleasurable and enlivening, it might feel agonising and deadening – most likely, it is both. I say it because your capacity to understand and reimagine society suggests you might be able to understand and reimagine yourself, too. I recommend Arrangements In Blue by Amy Key for meditations on all this. 

You may not be able to educate your emotions, but you can study them. How could you interpret your yearning for coupledom, beyond it being a hangover of social conditioning? You write of activities you fantasise about doing with a romantic partner, but don’t see “any particularly special quality to these activities” that distinguishes them from what you do already with friends. 

But is there more to explore in these relational fantasies, emotionally? How do they differ from your emotional life as it stands? If you spend some time with them, do these fantasies shed any light on the kinds of relational experiences you might want and aren’t yet getting? Perhaps you will find that these relational experiences can exist within your already rich relational life. It could be as simple as spending more quality time with certain people, having more emotionally open conversations, or making stronger commitments to your friends. Or perhaps you will keep yearning.

In Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, biographer Candace Falk writes that Goldman “laboured under the illusion that she could live and love freely in an unfree society”. Although she critiqued traditional coupledom, Goldman found herself “bruised from all the wounds of the lack of stability”. Goldman found living out her ideals about love brutal at times, whilst living in the patriarchal world she was fighting to change. Similarly, it makes sense that, even as you truly believe in your approach to relationships, you might find yourself bereft at times about being single in a society that idolises and privileges the couple. In neither case do I think this operates only on the level of ideas: it is difficult, by definition, to exist in ways that defy the frameworks that have been handed down to us. 

None of this is to say that Goldman or you (or me) have been misguided or naive in our ideas and experiments in how we relate to people. It sounds like you are living in vital, beautiful, loving ways, and I imagine many readers will be inspired by how you describe your relationships. It’s just that, in doing things differently, I believe we need to make space for our humanity – which, whether we like it or not, has been shaped by the world as we know it. Please be gentle with yourself. Who knows how things will feel after the revolution. 

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.

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