The Case For Platonic Intimacy
Ride-or-die relationships don’t have to be romantic.
With Valentine’s Day upon us, it might be worth reassessing which relationships we value over others, and why that is. We’ve been repeatedly told, by our families, society, and the monolith of romcoms, that finding and keeping our romantic partners should be prioritized above all our other relationships. This has unnecessarily sexualized intimacy — hugging, snuggling, holding hands, and sharing emotional vulnerability with people with whom you aren’t involved is usually suspect, thought to be either a sign of infidelity or (in the case of same-sex friendships) homosexuality.
But the case for valuing ‘platonic intimacy’ — deep, meaningful friendships where two people share an intimate connection that has nothing to do with sexual tension — is one that’s finding footing in today’s zeitgeist. While millennials are the loneliest generation, and are postponing marriages until they’re financially stable, their relationships with their friends and chosen family are starting to gain more prominence and value in their lives.
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The rise of the ‘bromance’ and the idea of the ‘ride or die’ friend counters the traditional ideas of where a friendship’s place is, in the hierarchy of relationships. Meanwhile, TV is increasingly portraying friendships that are incredibly intimate and mimic the way we’ve traditionally viewed romantic relationships, like Abbi and Ilana on Broad City or Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins on Parks and Recreation (seriously, that show came up with ‘Galentines Day’).
And the thing is, platonic intimacy should be important to people. Even the most stable, healthy, passionate romantic relationship with a partner might not be able to satisfy all your needs. In fact, it’s unfair to expect all of your emotional, intellectual, and physical fulfillment to come from one person. Instead, building strong bonds with friends has been shown to help people’s mental and physical wellbeing. In a study published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology, women who were diagnosed with breast cancer, who didn’t have close friends were four times more likely to die from the cancer than those who did have those friendships. A review of research in 2010 proved that friendships and social ties had twice as strong a link to increasing life span compared to exercising or healthy eating. And having platonic emotional support systems and a network of intimate friends can help with stress, anxiety, depression, and other self-esteem.
For men, a societal acceptance of platonic intimacy is especially crucial. Toxic masculinity has resulted in any kind of intimacy or touch between men to be considered unmanly. The phrase ‘no homo’ is used to challenge any interaction that even vaguely implies affection towards another man. And this failure to express intimacy affects men’s relationships with women as well as with each other. The idea of ‘touch isolation,’ where men are so starved for any kind of non-sexual physical affection, is a real problem. Even in India, where it’s not uncommon to see men holding hands, this is limited to certain socio-economic classes, as homophobic ideas of what kinds of touch are acceptable is starting to pervade. And any kind of public affection between men and women is deemed incredibly unacceptable, whether their relationship is platonic or not.
In an article for Uplift, Mark Greene writes, “How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through lasting platonic touch? […] Not a handshake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal, but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. And if you are a man, imagine five minutes of contact with another man. How quickly does that idea raise the ugly specter of homophobia? And why?”
We need to start questioning and breaking down these ideas of who we can touch and who we can’t, who we can express affection towards and who is off limits. Rather than sexualizing all kinds of touch and intimacy,and policing the manifestation of affection in relationships, we should be working towards a point when platonic intimacy (that is consensual of course) is given as much importance as romantic intimacy.
There’s nothing wrong with telling your friends that you love them, snuggling with them, holding their hands, or being emotionally vulnerable in a way you don’t with others. There’s nothing particularly feminine about it, either. Subvert the idea that we have to be physically intimate or attracted to someone to want to share affection and intimacy with them. It’s the close, platonic relationships, borne out of love, and trust, and vulnerability, that are as meaningful as a romantic ones — and we should recognize their importance in our lives.
Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle's culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She's also working on a memoir about her family's journey from Iran to India.