Neither family, nor privilege, nor wealth, nor anything but Love can light that beacon which a man must steer by when he sets out to live the better life. – Plato
Is love the guiding light to a better life? Many people believe it is, and that little is possible without love as a motivator.
Love is multi-faceted and comes in many forms: parental, filial, romantic, and platonic.
But what do we mean when we say “platonic friends” or talk about “platonic love”?
What does a modern, healthy platonic relationship look like, and how do we keep it that way?
What Is Platonic Love?
Platonic love takes its name from famous Classical Greek philosopher, Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC).
Plato wrote about love in his work, the Symposium, a dialogue where the guests of a banquet each gave speeches in honor of the god Eros and debated the true meaning of love.
Initially, Plato’s dialogue was directed toward same-sex relationships, sexual, and otherwise, but by the Renaissance, platonic love had come to encompass the non-sexual, heterosexual relationships we know today.
Originally, Platonic love was love that was not vulgar, meaning it wasn’t centered on lust or fulfilling carnal needs. Instead, it was a love that inspired nobler pursuits, and brought one closer to the divine. It brought about the best in both people.
Clearly, today this is no longer completely the case. In our secular world, a platonic relationship has basically become code for “we’re just friends” (minus the benefits).
In many cases, that person can end up being someone you’d go to the moon and back for, but just have no romantic interest in, or attraction to, in a sexual way.
However, modern notions of platonic companionship are not completely devoid of its original meaning; just like the original idea, platonic love, like romantic love, can be deep and intense, and form some of life’s best, and longest friendships.
And like its ancient origins, the expectation of a platonic relationship today is relatively the same: that you would treat that person the way you treat a close friend of the same sex.
It is a space where jealousy doesn’t rear its ugly head, and hidden agendas and unrequited love are left at the door.
3 Characteristics Of Platonic Love
A simple way to sum it up would be: be a good friend, full stop.
However, this isn’t the answer people are looking for; especially at a time when relationships, and power structures, are changing and are in dire need of boundaries.
The following three characteristics of platonic love will help you recognize it, manage your expectations of it, and keep that relationship happy, and healthy, and thriving for years to come.
1. Platonic Loves Encourages Unfiltered Honesty
There is little need for deceit in a purely platonic relationship.
Unlike in a romantic relationship, there is no fear that the person will leave you because they were never with you in the first place.
You aren’t an item, so the stakes aren’t as high. There isn’t the same caution, or need to check in with the other person emotionally.
You can have a fight, not speak for a month, then patch things up, and things will pretty much go back to normal.
Platonic love doesn’t have to spare anyone’s feelings. There is no need to maintain a facade.
In some sense, this brutal honesty is great; in fact, it is often a relief.
You can get insights and perspectives you wouldn’t be able to get from your romantic partner.
You can ask the unaskable questions, and not have to worry too much about the status of your relationship.
You can talk openly about your dating troubles, and share your personal gaffes without worrying about how it makes you look.
Platonic love can tell it like it is, and can take the lumps a romantic relationship cannot because it’s not as complicated when you’re not busy trying to keep up appearances and impress someone.
You aren’t putting them first, in the way you would if you were romantically involved.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t consider other people’s feelings outside of your own or your romantic partner’s, but there is a different level of consideration we go to when we have a romantic end game in mind.
A romantic relationship is less like a rock, and more like a flower. It has to be carefully cultivated, and taken care of; it is fragile and liable (like a flower) to die without the proper attention.
This is especially true once the first flush of love has faded, the butterflies are gone, and you’ve settled into a comfortable pattern together.
This is when the real work begins. Platonic love is much less delicate and can weather these ups and downs.
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2. Platonic Love Respects Boundaries
While purely platonic relationships may have a no-holds barred aspect to them (because we don’t hold our friends to the same standards as we do our lovers), this doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries.
Platonic relationships require (especially in the beginning) strong boundaries. These are not normally discussed or negotiated the way steps are in romantic relationships, but they hover in the background nonetheless.
As time passes, you will know how far you can push those boundaries, and when you have to pull back.
For example, when you travel together – do you share a room? If you do, will that change if one or both of you gets involved with someone romantically?
Platonic love requires a lot of trust. This is especially true when you (or your platonic bestie) are in a romantic relationship.
You have to take care to build trust to ensure that your partners understand the nature of your relationship, and that it doesn’t pose any potential threats.
If your significant other has a platonic BFF, how would that play out for you? What would be considered OK? What wouldn’t?
Ask yourself these questions, and listen to those feelings. Your gut is often the best indicator of what constitutes crossing the line, and what is acceptable.
3. Platonic Love Has No Expectations
Although friendship is a give and take partnership, when it comes to platonic love, you have to be careful not to expect or demand more of that person than you would of a regular friendship.
Part of what differentiates platonic from romantic love is expectation. We expect a lot from our romantic partners because with every person you date, you’re potentially interviewing them for the role of life partner, or spouse.
If someone wants to spend their life with you, they need to be of the highest caliber, and up to scratch.
We are less forgiving of mistakes in romantic relationships, and in a sense, that’s a good thing; we need to be picky when it comes to investing that kind of time in a lifelong companion.
Platonic love doesn’t get held to the same high standard. You’re not sharing a home, children, pets, bank accounts, etc. – you’re close, (and potentially) lifelong friends.
You get to go home at the end of the night and not worry about what that person is doing, who they’re with, whether they paid the electric bill, ate the dinner you left in the fridge, or hung the laundry to dry.
You may worry about them if they’ve been going through a difficult time, as naturally good friends do, but you’re not as invested in their day-to-day meanderings and external relationships. They simply don’t come first.
If you start to notice that they are coming first, or that you’re often disappointed by their behavior because they aren’t living up to your expectations, you may need to step back and ask yourself: are romantic feelings creeping in?
Are boundaries being crossed? Why am I demanding this from this person? You may be expecting too much.
4. Platonic Love Is Selfless
Romantic love is, in part, selfish. It wants what is best for the partnership as a whole.
Marriages or other committed relationships sometimes require us to act in ways that we might not otherwise act.
These acts might appear selfless on the surface because you may do something for the benefit of your partner.
But look closer and you’ll realize that they are selfish in the sense that you do them in order to maintain harmony and to keep the relationship going.
The continuation of a happy relationship is as much for your benefit as it is for theirs.
The relationship comes first and the needs of the individual sometimes have to be sacrificed.
In a platonic friendship, each party wants whatever is best for the other, regardless of what that might mean for the relationship.
Perhaps you give the other person space and time when they enter a new relationship.
You may want to spend time with them, but you accept that what is best for them might not be what you want.
So you let them go, in the hope that once their new relationship is established, you can reconnect with each other.
Or perhaps you realize that your presence is having a detrimental effect on the other person.
Maybe you are acting as a crutch for them to lean on so that they don’t have to address their issues.
For example, you might have helped them out with money a few times, but you know that they are still not being frugal.
So you say no the next time they ask and you stand firm even if it causes an argument.
In the end, you know it’s in their best interest to learn how to budget and take responsibility for their finances.
If it drives a wedge between you temporarily – or even permanently – you still do it because you want what is best for them.
That act is selfless in the sense that you will not gain anything from it, but you do it in the hope that your platonic friend will get some benefit.
Summary: It’s Not Complicated…
Platonic love will always be a part of the human condition – we award different values to every person we meet, and we love each one in a unique way.
Recognizing and respecting those differences will bring us closer to Plato’s initial ideal of platonic love – one that raises us up and anchors us throughout life.
While love might be fraught with complexities, two-way platonic affection is the one place where you can definitively say: it’s not complicated.
Platonic relationships provide an important piece to how we love, and are loved, through life.
They can provide fulfilling, lifelong friendships, offer us refreshing perspectives, and a much needed outlet to let off steam, and let it all hang out.
These are the people who love us minus the baggage, the “rock” friends who inspire the best in us, and tell us what we need to hear when we’ve gone astray.
Keep your relationship honest, respect each other’s boundaries, let go of expectations, and do what’s best for them.
Remembering these three key things will go a long way to a healthy, and happy relationship.