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The power of platonic love and friendship

The power of platonic love and friendship

We live in a world where from novels to films, romantic love has been glorified for centuries across cultures, continents and societies. Thousands of words, verses, sonnets and fables by writers, thinkers and philosophers that have, over time, pondered the love that transcends all. From Shakespeare to Austen, from Victorian times to Bridgerton, we have read and then watched adaptations of love that can be reciprocated or unreciprocated, passionate or slow-burning, no matter what kind, these stories have made us all dream of the “one true love” that ends with a “happy ending.”

But is it possible that platonic love can sustain and nourish us?

Our Book Club Pick for July: Rhaina Cohen The Other Important Other: A New Look at Life with Friendship at Its Center offers a powerful story about platonic partnerships and how the thrill, intimacy, and commitment we seek are often found in a meaningful friendship. As we read this book, we couldn’t help but reflect on how our relationships have evolved beyond societal dictates and expectations, and what that might mean for our emotional lives.

Cohen writes:

“This is a book about friends who became something like us despite having no scripts, no ceremonies, and very few models to guide them toward long-term, platonic commitment. They are friends who have moved across states and continents together. They have been primary caregivers for their friends through organ transplants and chemotherapy. They are co-parents, co-owners of homes, and co-executors of wills. They belong to a club that has no name or membership form, often unaware that there are others like them. They are subject to what Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, calls “significant others.” By avoiding the more typical arrangements of life, these friends face threats and make discoveries they otherwise would not have made.”

This principle emphasizes the importance of community and mutual support, beyond the confines of marital or romantic love. It reminds us that our lives are enriched by a variety of relationships, each of which contributes to our overall well-being in a unique way.

The notion that a romantic partner should meet every emotional checkpoint is not only unrealistic, it is also unfair. No single person can be everything to someone else.

It is also important to remember that not everyone desires to be married, nor is everyone destined to find a spouse. We are multifaceted beings with a variety of emotional needs that can be met through different relationships. Friends, family, and community members contribute to our lives in different ways, providing a rich network of support that no single person can provide.

Take Ayesha, a 32-year-old dental hygienist whose day revolves around asking people to keep their mouths open but not to speak: “I recently moved to Canada, leaving all my friends behind, which was a very isolating experience. I’m happily married, but my husband and I both feel lonely. We try our best to support each other, but we both know we need our own friends. Trying to be everything to one person is exhausting.”

Society has flooded us with the idea that romantic love is the ultimate goal. This narrative is so pervasive that we often underestimate and overlook the importance of platonic relationships. We have all witnessed, in one way or another, friends getting married and disappearing, losing track of what experts we call it the couple bubble. We don’t mean to be cruel, we value our friends, so why is it so easy to get rid of them when we get married? Is it because of the societal mental block that marriage is the be all and end all of relationships?

It could be argued that the first few years of marriage are fragile, as you begin to try to build a new life with someone else, as you try to understand the complex dynamics involved, and as you are thrust into multiple roles that can come with their own baggage of responsibilities and obligations. Of all our individual relationships, friendships are the easiest to let dissolve. We expect our friends to understand our situations and circumstances the most, to make excuses for us, and to indulge us a little. Perhaps that is why we downplay the importance of our friends in our lives once we find our significant other, expecting them to always be there for us.

What we easily forget, in the haze of pink roses of the first years of a relationship, is that our mental and emotional well-being depends on loving and being loved not only by our spouse, but also by our chosen group of friends.

Friends who provide support, understanding, and a sense of belonging. They are often the ones who help us through the different phases of life, offering a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board for ideas, and being cheerleaders for our accomplishments. These are the relationships that carry us forward when our other relationships fall apart. The ones who quietly give us strength in ways that may not always be tangible.

But as people get older, they often drift apart and grow apart. Adulthood pulls us in different directions, and a childhood friend you talked to every day may now only send you a simple birthday message once a year. This change can be quite painful, underscoring the challenge of making friends as an adult. Unlike the effortless connections of childhood, building meaningful relationships later in life takes more effort and intention. That’s why it’s important to recognize and appreciate the value of platonic love wherever we find it.

Fatima, a 40-year-old mother of three, shared that it wasn’t until she found two friends at her local mosque that Canada began to feel like home: “All you need is one or two good friends that you can count on, that you know will have your back. No matter how busy or hectic our lives are, my friends and I always meet for dinner every other week. We rant, we vent, we let off steam, but we also celebrate. We do both the little things and the big things with an enthusiasm that makes others feel appreciated and loved. Don’t get me wrong, I love my husband and my kids, but they can’t fill the corners of my soul the way my friends do.”

Yet the love that unites us with our tribe is not widely celebrated or proclaimed in the same way. As many people marry later in life, questions arise about what this change means for our relationships. If you don’t get married or have children, will you ever receive the same level of celebration?

There are no fanfares or endless songs sung when a platonic friend shows up for us time and time again. No friendship anniversary celebrations or well wishes, other than a Facebook notification that usually gets ignored and only appears if you’re a millennial or boomer.

Humans are social animals, we are not designed to live alone. Consider the concept of “ukhuwah” in Islam, which emphasizes brotherhood and collective care, emphasizing the importance of a tightly knit village. The first Muslim society was founded on a foundation of brotherhood, with the Ansaar of Medina welcoming the Muhajireen of Mecca with open arms and hearts, a bond rooted in faith and platonic love.

It is true that true friendship is irreplaceable. But it is also true that true friendship cannot be taken for granted. It requires nurturing, time, and effort—elements that cannot be replicated or rushed. It is important to remember that love comes in many forms, and while romantic love is beautiful and meaningful, it is not the only kind of love that deserves our attention. Perhaps it is time to redefine love and embrace all forms of love as equals.

So the ultimate question remains: Will we disregard the socially imposed parameters of relationships and finally show our “other” partners the respect and time they deserve?

If you are interested in discussing the impact of platonic love and friendship on our lives, join us on our July Book Club for a thought-provoking evening of discussion of Rhaina Cohen’s The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center. The discussion will be led by Sudanese-Australian writer, engineer, and award-winning social activist, Yassmin Abdel-Magied.


Bibliography

1. Why do some spouses neglect their friends?

2. Neglecting friends and family: Do couples become less close over time?