What Is Platonic Friendship? The Benefits & Boundaries
Friendship is often overlooked in our romance-driven society, but having solid platonic relationships is a vital part of maintaining a happy and healthy life for most people. Platonic friendships, in particular, are one of the most important types of connections we can have.
What is a platonic friendship?
A platonic friendship is a meaningful relationship between two or more people without any sexual or romantic feelings or behavior involved. As couples' and sex therapist Kyle Zrenchik, Ph.D., ACS, LMFT, explains, platonic friendships have "the sole purpose of enjoying each other's company."
The word platonic references the Greek philosopher Plato, who theorized at length about the different ways that people could love each other and seek truth. Over time his name came to be associated with nonromantic, nonsexual relationships, particularly those involving a deep and special bond. Common platonic relationships include those between a parent and child, a mentor and student, professional collaborators, or a group of neighbors.
"Most friendships are platonic," Zrenchik adds, though many find the term particularly useful when talking about friendships between two people who could theoretically be attracted to each other—for example, a straight man and a straight woman. "Platonic friendships are platonic because both people desire the relationship to be without sexual or romantic experiences," he explains.
In comparison, non-platonic friendships might include friends with benefits situations, friendships with exes where feelings might still be lingering, or situations where one person feels "friend zoned" and is angling for something more.
On a broader level, having platonic friends is about having friends who you connect with in ways that go beyond sex or romance. Think a sister from another mister or a brother from another mother.
Signs of a platonic friendship:
- You both care a lot about each other without any romance involved.
- You always have their back.
- They know your secrets and vice versa.
- You'd trust them to look after your children/pets/beloved houseplants.
- You find them funny and captivating.
- Other people don't always "get" you, but they do!
- You enjoy talking to other people about them.
- You can hang out without having to "do" anything.
- You can be both very silly and very serious with them.
- You can tell how the other is feeling without having to discuss it much.
- You share sweet and meaningful moments without it being sexual or romantic.
- If someone suggests there's secretly something romantic going on between you, you both find it humorous and/or obvious how wrong they are.
- You can go a while without talking and get back into the groove easily.
- You help them with their love-life problems.
- You support their romantic relationships with other people.
- You know, love, and bond with their romantic partners, and vice versa.
- You have similar interests and values.
- When you fight, you always make up.
- You miss them when you haven't seen each other in a while.
- There is no desire for any sex or romance between you.
- If one finds the other attractive, those feelings are not the focus of the relationship and are sublimated without it being a big ordeal.
Benefits of platonic friendships
The benefits of having platonic friends are far-reaching and varied. Here are just a few:
Platonic friendships give your life a steady scaffolding to organize your life around. With friends, you can share interests and hobbies, weather the ups and downs of life together, and develop a special syntax of understanding. "Platonic friendship allows for feeling connected, discussing ideas, and feeling witnessed in general in life," says certified sex therapist Heather Shannon, LCPC, CST.
Our social connections also allow us to have unique and fulfilling experiences in life. As licensed therapist Oumou Sylla, LMFT, puts it, "Friendships are portals, and portals can lead you to some magical moments."
Platonic friendships offer you places to be "seen, witnessed, and heard," explains Sylla. That is, your friends give you the opportunity to share yourself with someone who understands and supports you, which is invaluable for your self-esteem and well-being. "Platonic friendships/relationships offer you the opportunity to grow, love, and offer care for yourself and others," they explain.
Platonic friends can also act as a sounding board and offer advice when you need it, Shannon adds, or even just be your cheerleader as you move through life's highs and lows.
Improved mental and physical health
In general, close friendships also serve as a protective factor against loneliness, depression1, anxiety, and despair, says Zrenchik. Social isolation has been linked to early mortality2 and a bevy of other health concerns3, so having a network of people who you feel close to and connected with is vital for mental and physical health.
Understanding other genders
Conventional "wisdom" holds that straight men and women can't be friends with each other, but Shannon stresses that that's a big myth. These relationships are not just possible but can be extremely beneficial for both parties, she notes.
"Straight men and women may enjoy having a platonic friend with a different gender because they're able to get a different viewpoint. They can get dating advice, help with family members who are driving them nuts, or just reminders of things they're not considering when it comes to other genders," she explains. "As a sex and relationship therapist, I see people making assumptions and thinking they know what's in someone else's head frequently. Having a sounding board who may know more than you about a man's or woman's perspective, can be a lifesaver."
Opportunities for vulnerability, especially for men
For straight men, the benefits of a mixed-gender platonic friendship might be even stronger. "Straight men often report feelings of loneliness, even when they have many male friends," explains Zrenchik. "This is due to men's tendency to avoid emotional, vulnerable conversations, whereas this is more common among female relationships. In a mixed-sex platonic relationship, men may feel more at ease to discuss vulnerable topics."
Expanding our care networks & taking the pressure off romantic relationships
When we look out for our friends and they for us, we get to experience a kind of care and concern outside the borders of biological family or the expectations of romance. This can be incredibly freeing.
"We often try to get all our needs met by one person who is our sexual, romantic, and emotional life partner. It's too much to expect from one relationship," says Shannon. "The more we can be surrounded by a community of friends and get our 'love cup' filled up, the better we feel, the longer we live, and the more realistic we can be in our sexual relationships if we have them."
Trying to think critically about what we really expect from the people in our lives can help us to have more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. Think of all the energy you've ever put into dating and sex. What if you focused some of that on nurturing and understanding the platonic bonds in your life?
Boundaries in a platonic friendship
The boundaries in a platonic friendship will often vary between different friends. "Boundaries are flexible and evolving. They are guidelines, not rules," says Sylla. So, it's all about finding what's right for you.
That said, here are a few considerations when it comes to the boundaries of platonic friendships:
Physical touch in platonic friendships
When it comes to physical touch, your mileage may vary on whether this is OK in a platonic friendship. Some people are super tactile with their friends, whereas others aren't. According to Shannon, it's most common for friends to be comfortable with hugging and some friendly touch but not kissing on the lips or other more intimate acts.
That said, it's certainly possible to hold hands with and cuddle your platonic friends, and some platonic friends may even occasionally kiss. "I know people who can approach sex in a platonic way," says Shannon. "They can enjoy someone's company and enjoy the physical act of sex without developing romantic feelings or expectations. Not everyone is wired this way or wants this, but it is possible."
As long as connecting on a nonsexual or nonphysical level continues to be the foundation of the friendship, a few kisses or cuddles here and there will not take away from the platonic nature of the bond if everyone's on the same page.
Emotional intimacy in platonic friendships
"This varies greatly! You might have a platonic friend who you do trivia night with once a month as part of a group outing. And you might have a platonic friend who you move in with and raise your children together," says Shannon. The latter is sometimes referred to as platonic life partners, platonic soul mates, or a queerplatonic relationship (more on that below).
Each person and each relationship is unique. The key is making sure that you and your friend are both comfortable with the level of emotional intimacy that you have, and that you feel able to discuss your needs and wants if any issues arise.
For more, check out mbg's full guide to the different types of friendships people might have in their lives.
Do platonic friends flirt?
This is another one where it really depends on the people involved. Some people are naturally flirtatious and use it as a way to bond with people, whereas other people only flirt if they're intending to find a spouse, house, and four kids. So, it really comes down to comfort levels. Are you able to flirt without your friendship feeling weird? What role does flirting play in your life and your friendship? Are you both on the same page about what your relationship is with each other?
Can platonic friends fall in love?
Falling in love with a friend is definitely possible, confirms Sylla. Of course, this isn't what will happen for most people and their friends, but it's certainly not unheard of for people who started out as platonic friends to realize they've fallen in love. If we have a lot in common with someone, spend pleasurable time with them, and think they're cool enough to be friends with, then sexual and romantic attraction can totally blossom from there.
Though as far as definitions go, Zrenchik notes that if you've fallen in love with a friend and are now looking to pursue something romantic with them, those feelings directly conflict with being "platonic." But that said, there's nothing wrong with deciding to trade in your platonic status to start dating.
Platonic crushes are the best. You know that feeling when you meet someone great at work or yoga or the dog park and you just feel compelled to talk to them and hang out more, even though you don't want to sleep with them? That's a platonic crush!
Also known as a friend crush, these types of crushes can feel just as fun as a regular crush because it's pleasurable to get caught up in the excitement of someone new coming into your life. Just don't neglect your existing friendships in the rush!
Spending time together
Platonic friends can spend as much or as little time together as they'd like. Shannon says there's no need to try to limit your time or how often you communicate as long as you're both enjoying it. "Like any friendship, you control how you show up. Call as often as you want, text as often as you want, meet in person as often as you want," she says. "It's OK to say no, and it's OK to say yes quite frequently."
How to nurture a platonic friendship while maintaining boundaries
Keeping a friendship strictly platonic involves communication, just like any other relationship. "It's important to know what you want, know what you don't want, and communicate that," states Zrenchik. A good friend should be willing to listen and accommodate, and they won't make you feel guilty for it.
And after stating your preferences, it is important that you also follow your own requests, explains Zrenchik. "For example, if you are a woman and you tell your male friend that you feel uncomfortable with him calling you 'babe,' but then you call him 'honey,' that will send mixed messages, and it will be more difficult for each person not to violate the established boundaries."
Shannon also recommends being honest with yourself about whether you truly see this person as a platonic friend. "We may think someone is cool and not want to lose them entirely, so we suggest being friends. But if you're fighting your romantic and sexual feelings the whole time, it can be a bit torturous," she explains. "I highly recommend choosing not to torture yourself!"
Platonic relationships and asexuality
Asexual people are people who have little to no desire to engage in sex. As such, platonic relationships can play a significant role in their lives.
"Some asexual people have romantic partners, and some still engage in sexual activities. However, there is an overall de-emphasizing of sex and a greater emphasis on emotional intimacy," explains Shannon.
Even for those who don't identify as asexual, this focus on emotional intimacy can be beneficial, she says, adding, "I believe we overemphasize sexual relationships and underemphasize platonic ones."
Some people choose to intentionally create deep, intimate life partnerships with people who are as committed as long-term romantic relationships but are still platonic in nature, sometimes referred to in LGBTQ+ communities as queerplatonic relationships.
Does platonic mean you're in the friend zone?
Platonic friendships are intentional and mutual, and both people honestly want to be friends. The concept of the "friend zone" is typically steeped in misogyny, suggesting that women should always be available to men for sex and that friendship is an unfair consolation prize. Platonic friendships aren't the friend zone; they're healthy and mutually respectful bonds between two people who actually value their friendship.
Can a friendship between a man and a woman ever be platonic?
Yes, men and women can absolutely be friends and have that friendship be strictly platonic. People of any gender can have platonic friendships, and platonic bonds between men and women can be very rewarding, as they give people an insight into another gender's perspective.
Can platonic friends fall in love?
Yes, platonic friends can fall in love. This isn't something that happens all the time, but if you're both on the same page, then a relationship that begins from a solid base of friendship can be a really beautiful and long-lasting thing.
Platonic friendships are a really important and often overlooked part of life. Making and keeping friends as an adult is just as vital as it was when we were kids, even if society tells us that adults should focus on romance, family, and careers to the detriment of everything else. Making time to prioritize and nurture our platonic relationships can be enriching for our physical and mental health and for our overall well-being.
Kesiena Boom, M.S., is a sociologist, writer, and poet. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from Lund University. Her work has been featured at Slate, Buzzfeed, Vice, Autostraddle, and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on sex, pleasure, queer experience and community, feminist theory and practice, and race and anti-racism.