Is it ever possible to have healthy platonic friendships, without feelings or sexual attractions getting in the way?
In the iconic scene from the 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally, Billy Cristol’s character Harry, tells Sally (Meg Ryan), ‘…men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Of course, Harry was describing a heterosexual relationship here, but we can assume his assumptions about platonic friends would hold no matter the gender or sexualities involved.
If you remember your days in high school, the lines between crushes, friendships, and relationships were usually blurry. You might agree with Harry’s hypothesis that men and women can’t be friends (or women and women; men and men). It’s almost as if popular culture tries to convince us platonic friendship is impossible.
But platonic friendship is not only possible, but it’s also extremely healthy in every way you choose to measure it.
The benefits of close friendships, which have no physical or romantic element, go far beyond what you might initially imagine. As you’ll see, sincere, loving friendships are a resource for mental health, a community connection, a support network, and may even help you live longer.
The Essential Definition of a Platonic Friendship
What is a platonic friendship? It’s not sex; it’s not physical attraction; it’s not unrequited love. It’s a friendship based on emotional, spiritual, or activity-based connections. There are no ulterior motives and no long term plan to move past the ‘friend-zone.’
If you flipped through the pages of a dictionary, you’d find the definition of a platonic friendship as follows:
Platonic characterizes a close but non-sexual relationship between two people. These two people, based on their sexual preferences, could have a sexual relationship but currently only have a powerful, deep friendship.
The term “platonic” comes from the ancient philosophical ponderings of Plato, who described the evolution of love: from the attraction to beautiful bodies to the appeal to beauty itself.
Plato didn’t name the idea “platonic” after himself. This was a later descriptor added by a 15th-century Florentine scholar named Marsilio Ficino. He was the first to describe this phenomenon as “amor platonicus” or platonic love.
Although the idea of platonic love has been around for centuries, it has only been in recent decades that it has become culturally appropriate. Now people of different sexes can have friendly relations, even outside of marriage.
The outdated belief that men cannot have genuine platonic relationships because “the sex part gets in the way” has long since been disproven and tossed aside as sexist (and offensive). People of all genders and sexualities can, and do, have deep connections with friends, and these relationships don’t have any basis in sexual attraction.
How to Build and Maintain a Platonic Friendship
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
To build a platonic friendship, you’ve got to start with a solid basis and work your way up. Sometimes this is a natural process of getting to know someone, and sometimes it takes a bit of additional work
Don’t be afraid to put in the effort; the benefits of friends without benefits are proven. Here are a few suggestions for finding and growing a strong non-physical connection with someone.
Find a Connection
Just like in a romantic relationship, a platonic friendship starts with a connection. An emotional, spiritual, or activity-based connection is a great place to start. From this common ground of interest, you can build it up into more.
How to Find a Connection?
- Download a friendship app (Ex: Bumble BFF).
- Join a workshop, an art class, a boot camp, or a social sports league.
- Host a dinner and make it “plus-one” but with friends.
Put in the Time
Friendships need time to develop. Commit to hanging out with your new-found friend regularly – monthly at the very least. If the distance is an issue, pick up the phone or Skype. You can’t get to know someone without spending time with them.
How to Put in the Time?
- Call your friends on route to work, while walking the dog, etc.
- Make a standing date to watch your favorite television show or sports team together every week.
- Take a class in a mutually shared interest, like a cooking class or painting workshop.
Keep up the Effort
Meaningful relationships take work. You cannot just “Set it and forget it.” The same rules apply to platonic friendships as romantic ones. You’ve got to overcome challenges and stay in it through thick and thin.
How to Keep Up the Effort?
- Practice forgiveness during challenging times
- Offer support during times of need
- Ask for help when the tables turned.
The (Many) Benefits of Having Friends…Without Benefits
“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Platonic friendships aren’t just a way to friends with benefits. Platonic friends are essential in-and-of themselves. Having a big circle of close platonic friends is proven to improve your physical health, mental health, and even longevity.
Don’t believe this? Here are a few benefits to having platonic friendships:
1. There are Big Health Benefits
Lonely people have more health problems than those with active social circles. Time and time again, the research tells us this. It’s why rates of rising loneliness are such a concern worldwide.
One study determined that long term social isolation was just as detrimental to your physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That is not a statistic to take lightly.
2. A Wider Social Circle, Presents More Opportunities
The more close friendships you build, the more comprehensive your circle of support. Even at the most selfish level, the more people you know, the more resources are within easy reach. Just be sure to return the favor!
Maybe you need help moving, and you know two strong people with a Saturday afternoon off. Or you need a partner for ballroom dance lessons and know just the person who may be interested. Platonic friends are new opportunities. They can become a vast resource network.
3. Improve Your Romantic Relationships With Platonic Ones
By learning healthy relationship skills outside of romance, you gain experience for romantic ones. The unconditional love, compassion, and patience required in long term friendships are just as applicable (if not more) with a romantic partner.
Learn to work through problems, to feel compassion, and to support someone in times of need. Bring these essential skills with you into your romantic relationships. This can be especially important because you are practicing with the gender of attraction. When sex isn’t a part of the equation, it makes practicing easier.
4. Good Conversation and Improve Communication Skills
Communication skills are about healthy emotional intelligence. Which is to say, learning to recognize your own emotions helps you also recognize them in others. With practice, you can learn to control your feelings and to manage the emotions of those around you. If you can do these two steps, you have profound emotional intelligence.
How do you build these emotional and communication skills? You build friendships and practice in this small circle. Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations, and learn to overcome challenging times in your friendships. These are just practice sessions that can be applied well beyond your platonic friendships.
5. Create A Support Network For Times of Hardship
When you have a tough day at work, need help moving a heavy piece of furniture, or need a drive to the emergency room – who can you call? Platonic friendships mean you have a circle of friends deeply concerned with your wellbeing. They will drop what they are doing to show their support. Whether that means a shoulder to cry on or urgent care.
6. A Source of Inspiration
Friends can give you that little push you need to overcome your fears and try something new. By looking up to those you platonically love, you might get a little inspiration for your next move.
As said by Thomas J. Watson, an American businessman and CEO of IBM until 1956, “Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.” Platonic friends should be a never-ending resource of inspiration.
7. Live Longer (Yes, Really)
Over ten years, scientists assessed the social support network of 90,000 postmenopausal women. They determined that the better the support network, the lower the risk of mortality. They took particular note of cardiovascular disease and mortality rates and controlled for race, income, and education levels.
Again and again, researchers have applied this same theory to numerous demographics, from many regions around the world. It’s by now virtually fact, that support networks boost longevity.
As it Turns Out, Friends without Benefits are More Beneficial
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
The benefits to your health and wellbeing are now firmly established in scientific research. Platonic friendship is a crucial way to build a social support network, which in turn improves your physical and mental health, which then contributes to a longer, happier life.
Although it may be tempting in certain friendships to shift into “friends with benefits,” you might want to weigh each option carefully. Friends with benefits is likely a short term solution with only short term benefits. A deep platonic friendship has long term benefits for long term gains. Who doesn’t want better health outcomes and a longer lifespan?