Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a stand-up routine where he pokes fun at a study that says people are more afraid of public speaking than death.
Maybe that’s why in 2022, a study1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36240542/ asked pairs of friends to perform public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of a panel as part of the study on stress.
The study’s results showed that heart rate and stress hormones were reduced to pre-stress baselines when given a chance to spend 5 minutes with their friend afterward. Those who spoke with an experimenter rather than a friend had less effective recovery.
So, if you’re going to try handling life (which will throw you one stressful situation after another), it’s best to bring along a friend, right?
But how do you develop powerful relationships to reduce stress in a single conversation?
Let’s talk about platonic relationships—friendships that can impact your mental health and wellbeing in profound and long-term ways.
What is a Platonic Relationship?
A platonic relationship is any relationship that doesn’t include sexual intimacy. This can consist of close friendships regardless of age, gender, or sexual orientation.
There are two general camps for how to define platonic relationships. The term refers to the philosopher Plato, who wrote about different types of love before the concept was accepted. It was initially used to mock non-romantic love, but over the years, has been embraced.
Once sexual intimacy is introduced into the relationship, it leaves the realm of platonic love and moves to romantic love or possibly…
Before we go any further, let’s rule out a couple of other things that may fit into the “it’s complicated” category but not the “platonic relationship” category. These are not platonic:
- Unrequited Love: crushes or other feelings that hold out hope for romance mean it’s not platonic, even though one person in the relationship may view it that way.
- Friends with benefits: by either definition, sleeping together doesn’t count as platonic.
That said, both interpretations indicate a closer relationship than casual acquaintances or even just run-of-the-mill friendships. It tends more towards relationships with some degree of intimacy.
5 Types of Intimacy
While we often think of “intimacy” in terms of romantic relationships, the definition is far more inclusive, simply indicating any familiarity, friendship, or closeness. Outside of sexual intimacy, relationships can also be built on other types of intimacy, including:
- Emotional: which is the ability to feel understood and supported when sharing thoughts and feelings.
- Physical: such as hugging and other forms of non-sexual touch.
- Intellectual: which involves sharing philosophical ideas and deep conversations.
- Spiritual: referring to common values relating to religion and beliefs.
- Experiential: which can include shared activities like sports, hobbies, baking, or vacationing.
These forms of intimacy can be valuable and healthy ways to engage with others and develop and deepen relationships.
A healthy romantic relationship is also built on these same forms of intimacy.
Make a list of your top three to five closest non-romantic relationships. It may be friends, family members, or colleagues. Could you identify which types of intimacy are the foundation of that relationship? Do you have a friend who makes a great hiking buddy? Is there someone you meet up with when you want a deep conversation? Or there may be someone who can help you through a rough day at work.
Benefits of Platonic Relationships
As previously mentioned, there is substantial scientific evidence that a robust support system, including healthy platonic relationships, has numerous health benefits2https://time.com/5609508/social-support-health-benefits/, such as:
- Lowering stress and anxiety
- Boosting resilience in stressful situations
- Improving mood and resilience
- Encouraging healthy behaviors
- Discouraging unhealthy habits
- Improved cardiovascular activity
- Speeding up injury recovery
- Increased sense of purpose and belonging
Interestingly, one study found lower chronic inflammation3https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/11/211122135407.htm in people who reported offering support to friends and family.
How to Find and Develop Platonic Relationships
Everyone has different interests and preferences, so it’s helpful and healthy to find others who enjoy those same activities and can connect through similar experiences.
Developing a solid support system in addition to a romantic partner has been shown to affect both physical4https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-strong-relationships#:~:text=Dozens%20of%20studies%20have%20shown%20that%20people%20who,cognitive%20decline%2C%20as%20well%20as%20with%20increased%20mortality. and emotional health positively.
Valuable platonic relationships can come in many different forms. If you’re wondering where to find others who have similar interests and passions that can create the intimacy we talked about earlier, consider these:
- Hobbies and Interest Groups: Engage with others who share a passion for similar hobbies, like horseback riding or making chocolate truffles. Consider taking a class at a local community center or college.
- Mentorships: Whether you’re interested in being a mentor and improving your leadership and teaching skills or a mentee gaining valuable insights, the shared passion for your chosen field is an excellent way to build a strong relationship that can be mutually beneficial.
- Professional Networks: As you progress in your career, you may find great value and satisfaction in engaging with peers who face and overcome similar challenges. Search for local or national organizations for your chosen profession.
- Religious Groups: Shared beliefs and values can provide context for celebration and support in challenging times. Look for a spiritual community that resonates with your values.
- Community Engagement Groups: Perhaps you’re passionate about civil service or having a safe place for your kids to play in the neighborhood. Start by checking out your local government website and social media groups for projects you want to engage in.
- Workplace Interest Groups: Does your company have a Slack channel for pet owners or a lunch group for theater lovers? Ask around and see where and when the people with your interests congregate, physically or virtually.
- Volunteer Groups: Offering service is a simple way to find others with similar interests and passions. Check out websites like JustServe or reach out to local organizations to ask about needs in your community.
The proximity effect5https://www.neuroscience.org.uk/proximity-mere-exposure-effect-social-psychology/#:~:text=Proximity%20Effect%20is%20related%20to,become%20friends%20in%20a%20class. in psychology states that there is a positive correlation between the amount of time people spend around each other and their degree of attraction. Put simply; we tend to like people more when we spend more time around them.
Consistently showing up to a place with people who share your interests will increase your likelihood of developing positive, meaningful relationships. Being proactive can be uncomfortable, but it’s also an excellent way to meet other wonderful humans who may be just as nervous about talking to you!
If you’ve had an experience where you tried to be in the right place but couldn’t figure out how to talk to the people you were most interested in meeting, check out this video on [The 5 Laws of Influence] to learn more about how to engage with others authentically.
Maintaining Platonic Friendships
Like the proverbial flower, a developing relationship requires maintenance and care to grow and blossom.
Healthy relationships of all types are built on respect, trust, and mutual support. Consider these suggestions for how to strengthen your relationships:
- Communicate openly and honestly, and practice active listening when your friend talks to you.
- Show appreciation for things they do, who they are, and how they improve your life.
- Check-in with your friend so they know you are thinking of them. Try asking about important moments in their day and sharing updates from your life.
- Spend quality time doing activities you enjoy, whether a road trip to a concert or a movie night with waffles and ice cream. Spending time together in person will take advantage of the proximity effect we discussed earlier.
- Be supportive when your friend needs you and use your knowledge of them to encourage as needed and counsel as requested.
- Be understanding when disagreements arise, and consider the situation from their perspective.
- Resolve conflicts constructively by offering solutions that prioritize the relationship over being right.
- Establish healthy boundaries, such as respecting each other’s time, space, and priorities, to avoid codependency or over-investment.
For other ideas, check out 30 Days to Better Relationships.
Platonic Relationships: In-Person vs. Digital?
It’s tempting to assume the amount of technology available today means that staying connected is easier than ever. While the quantity of connections has increased dramatically, a study6https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/23/loneliness-is-rising-younger-workers-and-social-media-users-feel-it-most.html shows 61% of adults and 73% of 18-22-year-old workers report they sometimes or always feel lonely.
While using technology and social media can be a valuable option for keeping in touch with friends who are physically distant, let’s be clear — Social media is not a replacement for spending time together! One study7https://www.dhi.ac.uk/san/waysofbeing/data/economy-crone-lee-2011.pdf shows that while face-to-face interaction can predict improved quality of life, internet communication can’t.
If you’re used to interacting with friends more frequently through technology, try suggesting an in-person activity. For example, you might say, “It’s been a while since we saw each other in person. Would you like to hike this weekend and catch up?”
The activity could be any number of things. The important point is interacting face-to-face and choosing an activity that doesn’t rely on technology to entertain you. Instead of going to the movies, try attending a live theater performance. Rather than video games, play a round of mini golf.
Scripts: How to Navigate Platonic Friends and Romantic Partners
More than one Hollywood blockbuster has explored how platonic friendships can wreak havoc on romantic relationships with other people. For now, let’s imagine that they were dealing with a platonic relationship, not a meet-cute disguised as a meeting for coffee…
Suppose you are in a healthy romantic relationship, and your partner expresses jealousy or concern about one of your platonic friends. How can you use open and honest communication to put their fears to rest?
First, understand that deep down, your partner is trying to communicate a fear they might lose you. So how can you help alleviate that fear? See if any of these examples fit your situation:
- “I hope you know I love you, and I won’t do anything to betray your trust. There’s nothing romantic between my friend and me, but I do appreciate his insights when I have a problem at work that I’m trying to figure out.”
- “It sounds like you’re upset that I’m spending more time with my friend than with you. That wasn’t my intention. Can we plan to spend some time together this weekend?”
- “I made a mistake by not including you in getting to know my friend. What do you think about the three of us going out to dinner next week? I promise I won’t object if you want to ask her for embarrassing stories about me from college.”
This important conversation will require active listening, honesty, and, possibly, a sincere apology if you’ve hurt your partner’s feelings. For more, check out 7 Elements of a Sincere Apology (And How to Offer One).
Ideally, you and your romantic partner can develop deep and rewarding platonic friendships outside your relationship. Those deep bonds through love, whether platonic or romantic, give both your friend and your partner reasons to want to help and support you. When they know and trust each other, they can support you even more by working together if your needs ever exceed or befuddle one of them on their own.
The Only Constant is Change
An old college roommate can encourage you to pursue your dream career, give another perspective on your potential romantic partner, and be there to celebrate success and mourn a loss.
But it’s important to realize that platonic relationships, like any other type, can evolve or transition over time.
The same roommate who was there for the post-game analysis of every date in college probably won’t be as involved if you both get married and move to different coasts.
A long-time relationship could dissolve when you realize you no longer share the interests or beliefs that were once the foundation of your friendship.
A friend you knew socially in one city may grow to be even more treasured and trusted if you move to another town where you don’t know other people.
There could even be a friend you’ve known for years who you come to see as a potential romantic partner. One study showed that two-thirds of romantic relationships8https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/19485506211026992 began as friendships that developed over time.
A relationship that was important and good for a season can eventually disappear. It’s possible to cherish those memories while allowing for the possibility and potential of change.
We’ll Always Be Friends Because You Know Too Much
Healthy platonic relationships can be a great source of mental, emotional, and physical comfort. When developed, maintained, and nurtured, they can last for years. Developing solid friendships involves finding people who share your interests and values.
Once you’ve met someone you connect with, the best way to develop the relationship is by spending time together. Remember to use technology as a supplement to personal interaction.
If you want to develop platonic relationships while in a romantic relationship, set boundaries that make it comfortable for you, your friend, and your partner. Don’t forget there are advantages to your partner and your friend knowing each other and being willing to work together on your behalf.
As with all aspects of life, you’ll find it perfectly normal for relationships to develop and change over time.
If you’re ready to learn more about the value of friendships, check out 7 Science-Backed Reasons Why Friends are Important!