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How platonic relationships differ from romantic relationships — and why you need both

two friends hanging out, playing ping pong bumping elbows

Summary List Placement

The word "love" often evokes an image of a happy couple. But, in reality, romantic love is only one type of loving relationship you'll experience throughout your life. 

Yes, there's your bond with a significant other, but there are also connections with friends, siblings, and neighbors, to name a few. These relationships center on platonic love and offer additional support outside of a romantic partner.

Here's what you need to know about navigating and growing platonic relationships in your life. 

What is a platonic relationship?

Platonic quite literally means the absence of romance. You may have a platonic relationship with your best friend, a coworker, a cousin, a workout buddy, or any person you value in your life. 

According to Emily Guarnotta, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of The Mindful Mommy, characteristics of platonic relationships include:

  • Respect
  • Love
  • Admiration 
  • Loyalty
  • Honesty
  • Bonding over shared interests and beliefs

"Platonic love is what we feel when there is trust, safety, and validation in a close relationship. It's the sense of feeling good and cared for in a relationship," says Nikki Coleman, a licensed psychologist with her own practice Dr. Nikki Knows

Platonic relationship vs. romantic relationship 

There are many benefits of platonic relationships that romantic ones don't always offer. For example, a platonic relationship may entail fewer expectations and pressures, less stress about your physical experience, and possibly a more stable connection as there isn't a fear of breakup, says Guarnotta. Most notably, platonic relationships are not passionate, which often means they don't include overt sexuality. 

Platonic relationships also provide an opportunity to explore different parts of yourself and build unique experiences and memories with friends, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. 

Cultivating platonic relationships can also help your health. In a large 2010 review, researchers found people with strong social relationships had a 50% higher likelihood of living longer than those without them. 

Platonic relationships and intimacy 

A platonic relationship can involve intimacy, such as sex and cuddling, if romantic feelings (aka passion) are not involved.

"All romantic relationships are not sexual, and all sexual relationships are not romantic. You could very well have an important someone in your life who creates all of those feelings of intimacy and closeness associated with platonic love but not romantic love," says Coleman. 

Before bringing sexual intimacy into the equation, it's important to ask yourself what the end goal for the relationship is: In a 2020 study of friends with benefits relationships, people who wanted to transition to a friendship were successful 59% of the time. In contrast, those who sought a romantic relationship only achieved it 15% of the time. 

Intimacy in a platonic relationship only works when both people are on the same page. If one person starts developing romantic feelings and the other doesn't reciprocate, then it could lead to negative feelings like rejection or resentment, says Coleman. 

Communicating boundaries is critical for ensuring no one receives or sends mixed signals in a platonic, but sexually intimate, relationship. "Taking the time to have an uncomfortable conversation upfront will save all parties so much time, confusion, and frustration," says Romanoff.

According to Guarnotta, potential boundaries to consider in a platonic relationship are:

  • Incorporating or limiting physical intimacy
  • Consistent respect for each other
  • Avoiding topics of disagreement or discomfort 
  • Not letting conflict fester without discussion

Insider's takeaway 

Platonic relationships differ from romantic relationships but are no less loving or important. In fact, platonic relationships can provide additional support, respect, and loyalty outside of a romantic partner. 

Unlike romantic love, platonic relationships usually have less pressure surrounding physical appearance, expectations, and commitments. 

While platonic relationships can be sexually intimate, parties involved should always establish boundaries and consent before doing so.

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