What Is Romance, Anyway?

What does the word “romance” mean to you? It’s one of those ideas that is culturally omnipresent, but is actually pretty nebulous once you try to pin it down. Here’s what first pops into my head: falling in love, courtship, partnership. These are associated ideas, but not true definitions. I wondered what the dictionary had to say about it.  


dictionary definition of "romance."

I was kind of relieved to see that even the almighty dictionary doesn’t seem to have a straight answer. A novel, a movie, narrative prose… yes, we understand the ways in which the concept is demonstrated in the media. But what is it actually? There are more definitions, but almost all of them use the word romantic in them, so… not very useful. Okay then, so what does the word “romantic” mean?

dictionary definition of "romantic."

Another unhelpful definition. It was interesting to see negative connotations of the word (“fanciful”, “unrealistic”, “imbued with idealism”, etc.) that I’d previously understood as being colloquial listed as primary definitions. But it still didn’t bring me any closer to understanding the meaning of romance. Perhaps it’s something we have to define for ourselves.

Usually, in romantic relationships, we’ve fallen “in love” with the other person, feeling a strong attraction to them. It’s the ultimate emotional je ne sais quoi. We often can’t explain why we’ve fallen for someone, especially if the pairing doesn’t completely make sense on paper. We just know that we have. Our bodies tell us through our fluttery hearts and sweaty palms. Our minds tell us by refusing to focus on anything or anyone else. We miss the person as soon as they leave the room.

But “romance” is a verb as well as a noun. What if we chose to act romantically toward people with whom we aren’t “in love”? What if we made more intentional, extended eye contact with our friends? Bought them sweet gifts unprompted because we knew it would make them happy? Would our friendships be stronger? Would we be happier?  

Romance and Touch

two Black men in love.

Personally, I’m happiest when there isn’t such a hard line between platonic friendship and romance. I prefer my friendships to have the depth and fullness that come when physical, emotional, spiritual, and even sexual intimacy are freely exchanged. This isn’t possible, or even desirable, for everyone. We’re all much too diverse in terms of our sexual identities and relationship structures for that to be the case. But for some of us, it could be worth exploring.

For me, touch is my primary love language. Regardless of how or why I love you, my instinct is to express it with my body. I want to link arms while we’re walking down the street together. I want to sit on your lap while I tell you about a funny thing that happened that day. When I’m in a relationship of any nature that isn’t conducive to such behavior, I’ll feel a distance between us that can’t really be bridged another way.

If it was up to me, I’d kiss all my friends on the lips when I greeted them. The guest bedroom would never get used, as I’d insist on some pre-sleep cuddles. Unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan of friends with benefits arrangements (provided there is a true friendship. “Fuck buddy” situations are much less appealing to me). Most folks reserve such intimate contact for romantic relationships, and I completely understand that. But for me, it just makes sense.

I’m a deeply introverted person who is rarely in committed relationships, and has precious few close friends. Especially now, as I adjust to a new city. These days, I spend the vast majority of my time alone. If I didn’t try to bring intimate touch into the limited face time I have with friends and family, I wouldn’t get any at all. Luckily, I tend to attract people who function like I do.

Rewriting Our Relationships

two flamingoes with their beaks crossed.

There are as many different ways to conduct relationships as there are human beings on Earth. All too often, we try to force our relationships to follow a script we’ve inherited and never questioned. I still catch myself doing this with relationships I formed before becoming educated about sexuality and relationships from less mainstream viewpoints. There’s always room to grow.

It all comes down to determining our own needs, learning to communicate them, and surrounding ourselves with those who honor them. This is how we can reach our personal definition of “romance,” and bring more of it into our lives if we desire it. This is how we can better support all of our relationships, romantic and not.