There are many different types of relationships you can have over the course of your existence. All of these unique bonds bring something different to your everyday life. Your relationships with your family members, your friends and your romantic partners can all present various layers and textures to your day to day.
Some of these people will be the ones you turn to for advice, others will be the ones who are there for you (like Phoebe and Joey from Friends) when you’re in the mood to celebrate. All of these relationships are important in your life for various reasons.
One of the more misunderstood types of relationships are platonic friendships—also called platonic relationships or platonic love. These have been largely characterized as bonds between heterosexual people who love each other as friends but are decidedly not in love with each other romantically. The defintion should be widened to include the LGBTQ community as well.
To give a more inclusive overview, these friendships are between two people who could couple up but instead they decide to clearly maintain a non-romantic bond with each other.
Does this sound a little unrealistic? Maybe to some people. But if you’re interested in what these relationships are like and what the benefits of these bonds are, you may want to keep reading.
Not every relationship that could potentially turn romantic automatically leads to love. Platonic relationships fill a gap in people’s lives for intimacy and friendship without all the drama of infatuation or having to wonder where a relationship is going.
Here’s a breakdown of platonic friendship, what it looks like and why it’s an important type of relationship to explore.
What is a platonic relationship?
The idea of platonic love has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy. You may have connected this already, but the word “platonic” comes from the famous philosopher, writer and speaker Plato, who outlined specific categories of love in his famous work “Symposium.”
Although Plato didn’t actually use the word “platonic” in his work (the word itself came later as a linguistic homage to him), he did define what we would now consider purely platonic relationships.
In “Symposium,” he said that love based on physical attraction and sexual intimacy is romantic love while love that’s more intellectually or spiritually-based—with no romantic feelings—is what we call platonic love today.
Basically, platonic love happens when two people have a special bond where they deeply care for and respect each other, lean on each other in good times and in hard times and share similar interests and values, but they don’t pursue things romantically.
With platonic love, you could even experience love at first sight if you’re drawn to someone instantly because you two share a passion for a certain activity or subject. But love in the romantic sense just isn’t part of the equation. (At least not intentionally, more on this later.)
This concept may be hard to grasp for people who don’t have this kind of relationship in their lives—and for good reason. We constantly hear about non-sexual friendships in will they or won’t they terms, like romance is inevitable between any two people who could theoretically be attracted to each other because of their sexual preferences. There’s definitely a stigma around what types of friendships are acceptable and which ones are headed for disaster (or toward the bedroom).
There’s no such thing as “platonic lovers”
Platonic love is not friends with benefits or hooking up. In fact, there can’t be a sexual aspect to the relationship or it will no longer be considered platonic. (Platonic lovers just aren’t a thing.)
Since there are no romantic feelings on either side in order for a friendship to be platonic, unrequited love or feelings from one person—or both people—would also disqualify a relationship from being platonic.
Examples of platonic love and platonic friends
To better understand the differences between platonic and romantic relationships, here are two of the most common examples of these relationships in today’s world:
Bromance or Womance:
These terms describe close, affectionate, non-sexual bonds between two men or two women. Think of bromances and womances like next-level friendships, these pairings are definitely in BFF territory. They love each other, but they aren’t in love with each other.
This term is used to describe coworkers or colleagues who are super close, to the point that they might rely on each other the way they would a romantic partner, without the romance part.
They might run errands for each other, attend events and conferences as each other’s plus one and hang out together socially outside of the office. They are also known for sticking up for each other (and covering for each other, as needed) in the office setting.
Can you have a platonic relationship and a romantic partner?
In a word, yes. However, it’s important to understand that your romantic partner may need you to set clear boundaries with your platonic friend in order to feel comfortable. (And only you know how okay you are with this.)
Some romantic partners may feel threatened by the idea of you having someone in your life who is so close to you, even if there are no romantic or sexual feelings between you and your friend.
Depending on the person you’re romantically involved with, they might believe that your relationship with them needs to come first, before your platonic love. Romantic relationships can be tricky—jealousy can be a factor even in the most secure of bonds.
The rules for a healthy platonic friendship
So what to do about this? Talk to your platonic friend and your romantic partner, separately, about their needs and fears about the other major relationship in your life.
You might be surprised about what you discover in an honest discussion with each of these important people. Remind them that your relationships with each person are not in competition—they aren’t comparable because they are completely different from each other.
Discuss how much time you expect to spend with each of them and what behaviors and activities won’t work moving forward. For instance, if you talked on the phone with your platonic friend every night until you went to sleep, your romantic partner may not feel comfortable with this, especially if you two decide to move in together down the road.
Or, if you’ve shared a bed with your platonic friend every now and then in a completely non-sexual way, your partner may not feel comfortable with this happening now that you’re in a committed relationship. Talking through these habits and scenarios when things with your romantic partner start getting serious will help you avoid tricky situations, trust issues and jealousy down the road.
Finally, you have to determine how much you need or want to pull back from your platonic relationship now that you’re in a romantic relationship. While these bonds are very different, they do have some shared qualities: typically, your romantic partner is the person you’d confide in, share good news with first, lean on when you’re having a tough day and so on.
But you may already be used to doing these things with your platonic partner. Decide how you want that relationship to shift and evolve to allow your romantic connection to grow and thrive.
Benefits of platonic relationships
Having a platonic relationship means that you have someone in your corner who you can trust, who has your back and who brings you joy, but who isn’t necessarily engaged with you in a sexual relationship. Here are just some of the benefits of fostering this kind of bond:
Feeling closeness without the pressure:
Talk about (hashtag) relationships goals. In a platonic relationship, you don’t need to worry about where things are going or if the other person is on the same page as you. You can maintain closeness with each other in a low-stakes way. You’re not thinking about the next step or where your relationship will be in a year. You’re getting the perks of a romantic relationship as far as emotional intimacy goes and none of the drawbacks.
Getting a unique perspective:
If your platonic friend is of a different sex, gender or gender identity that you are, you’re able to reap the benefits of looking at a given situation (and the world) from their point of view. This can be helpful when navigating a tough situation at work, when you’re dating and trying to pinpoint red flags or whenever you just need another set of eyes and ears on your current life circumstances.
Having someone to confide in:
A platonic relationship comes with the major benefit of being able to spill your secrets, deepest fears and unpopular opinions without worrying about judgement, retribution or word getting out. Having a confidant is one of the most significant perks of a deep, trusting friendship.
Maintaining a relationship with boundaries:
Practicing setting and respecting boundaries is an essential life skill. Luckily, a platonic relationship allows you to do this all the time. Since you and your friend are committed to remaining friends, you both uphold the boundary of no romance or sex, giving each other the freedom to just be with each other without wondering what if. This is also good practice for setting boundaries with other people, from family members to acquaintances.
Not having to keep up appearances or impress the person:
When you’re in a romantic relationship, there’s usually a tendency, especially in the beginning, to try to impress the other person. You put on your makeup, do your hair, don the cutest outfits. You might defer to them about what to do on a date or feign enthusiasm for activities they enjoy. All of this is a little exhausting, to say the least. In a platonic relationship, you can just be you because the stakes just aren’t as high. And, in just being yourself, you will eventually feel so secure that you may not even be tempted to try to impress others. By using your platonic relationship as practice for showing off the real you, you could actually find more authentic connections with potential romantic partners as a result.
Being able to have an honest connection:
Platonic love isn’t about setting your feelings aside and putting your friend’s feelings first. It’s not about putting up a facade. These friendships thrive on honesty and clear communication. While you never want to be so brutally honest that you come off as mean or thoughtless, not having to hold back your feelings can be a relief for many people.
Fighting without drama:
In a romantic relationship, conflict can be scary. (Because what if one big fight can lead to a breakup?) In a platonic relationship, you’re going to get annoyed with each other or have words about a given topic or situation. But what happens? You get mad, maybe you stop talking for a few days and then you work things out. It’s just not that big of a deal.
Never having to wonder about the status of your relationship:
With platonic love, your relationship is steady. Yes, you can get closer or drift apart here and there but your bond is not on some kind of trajectory with the end point being either marriage or breaking up. You don’t have to waste brain energy wondering where your relationship is going. It just is.
What if a platonic relationship turns romantic?
Of course, there is the potential for sexual attraction to develop, and for a platonic friendship to turn into something more. These things are bound to happen between some platonic pairs. We’re all only human, right?
Maybe something happened to make you see your friend in a new light. Maybe you were feeling lonely and decided to engage in some physical intimacy with each other. Maybe your feelings grew over time. It’s not unheard of for emotional support to turn into romantic interest from a formerly non-sexual relationship.
Here’s what to do about it: Since you know your friend so well, clearly you’re going to feel a vibe if things are getting more than friendly between you. The best thing to do is get those feelings out in the open—ASAP!—before something physical happens because it’s harder to have a conversation if you’re in the throes of lust, or if things get weird.
Having a talk about what you’re feeling may be a little scary since you may not totally know if your friend feels the same way but once you sense that the relationship is changing it’s hard to have things go back to the way they were before.
Working together to talk about your feelings and what they mean will inevitably bring you two even closer together. You may decide that you don’t want to pursue things romantically, even if you’re feeling some love-like feelings. Or you may choose to turn your friendship into a romance. Trying to get on the same page before feelings progress is the best way to avoid having one person feel in love and the other decidedly not feeling it.
What if you have one-sided romantic feelings for your platonic friend? If you’re feeling something but not saying something, this puts pressure on the other person and calls into question the integrity of your platonic love for each other. If you have feelings for your platonic friend and you’re using the relationship to test the waters for romance, you’re violating the inherent ethics of this relationship.
Either you need to cool your feelings and commit to a platonic relationship with this person or you need to come forward with your feelings and allow the other person to know what’s really going on from your perspective. This way, your relationship doesn’t become tainted with potential mistrust.
Platonic love has no expectations
Platonic relationships can still be highly misunderstood. Unless you’ve experienced these types of bonds for yourself it can be hard to grasp the idea of completely non-romantic personal relationships between two people who could theoretically be involved.
But, honestly, that’s kind of society’s problem. The narrative many of us have been taught is that men and women can’t be friends. And, to include gay and non-binary people as well, there’s an assumption that it’s not possible to be completely platonic with anyone you would potentially identify as a love match for you. If we can unlearn these lessons about love and friendship, we can open ourselves up to some pretty wonderful relationships.
Platonic bonds are super special because they don’t ask much of the people involved except to simply be themselves—and to be good friends to each other. There are no expectations of needing to check all the boxes on the other person’s wishlist, the way there is with romantic partners, and no need to show off the best version of yourself in order to impress the other person.
With platonic relationships, people can be free to love deeply without all the romantic baggage. It’s time to cherish these bonds and seek them out!