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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Bringing Sexy Mac!: On the complexities of platonic love

At a bar over J-term, one of my closest friends and I were sharing a table with a very talkative stranger. She was nice, wanted to toast with us a lot and went on tangents that were more entertaining than annoying. After moving to the topic of failed romantic relationships, she looked between us and asked me if my friend makes me happy. Obviously I knew the stranger mistook us for two people on a date, but I still found myself nodding even as my friend corrected the stranger’s underlying assumption. I wondered then, and wonder now, why both responses—a yes and a “we’re just friends”—felt so right.

When speaking about friendships and how deeply we care about them, there is a tendency to talk about platonic love. Stemming from Plato’s description of a love born out of finding an equal to dialogue and debate with, platonic love is often viewed as the chaste love we have for someone we hold dear and is unrelated to us. This definition depends on a differentiation between it and other kinds affection like what we might have for someone we are related to (familial love), for someone we are crushing on, for someone we are dating and/or are with sexually, for ourselves (self-love), etc.

While that might seem like a competent enough perspective on friendship, already we have run into one of the biggest problems with current perceptions of platonic relationships. The “chaste” love typically associated with platonic friendships assumes its opposite in a loving sexual relationship. While I might argue sex should always involve a basic element of love (this element being the loving recognition of worthiness you should award every person), that is not what this “loving sexual relationship” means. This posits that to be in not-platonic love, you are both sexual and romantic with your partner(s). Many do define their partner relationships as a combination of romance and sex, but not everyone. Asexual people can have romantic relationships without sex, and these relationships are not the same as friendships. To limit platonic to simply being the “chaste” version of a partner relationship erases the hugely varying kinds of relationships people take on.

Nola Pastor, ’14, was with me when I started thinking about this topic, and her experience with friendship speaks clearly to how frustratingly limited the scope of what counts as platonic can be. About her best friend, Nola said: “I have felt so many things for and about this girl over the last several years. She has been my friend, my love, my anchor, an obligation, a crush, a source of confusion, joy, angst, learning, wonder, hurt and strength. I have been jealous of her boyfriend, attracted to her body and part of her family. I have resented her need for me and feared my need for her.

“I think part of what made this whole trajectory so hard to navigate is that our culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for the kind of relationships that exist in the overlaps of categories. Wanting to kiss her used to scare me so badly because I was afraid my desire made our relationship somehow fundamentally tainted, different, risky. The fact that she cared about me so much embarrassed me because it seemed too intimate to have out in the open. I didn’t know other friends who loved like us, which made us special but also scary. We used to say we didn’t know how we’d ever fall in love (‘romantically’, with others) because we couldn’t imagine loving someone else as much as we loved each other.”

I interpret the “overlap of categories” Nola mentioned to be a reflection of how vague and borderless love can be. I imagine not a Venn Diagram charting expression and emotion but a spectrum working in at least seven dimensions, with axises working in ways we cannot truly envision—yet. Friendship and platonic love needs to be more than what we imagine now.

And I would be remiss if I said there haven’t been serious attempts to broaden the scope of what a platonic relationship could mean. Bromances, for me, is the most interesting recent formulation of platonic love as it has risen so quickly in popularity and in the last few years plateaued as a firm institution in American media. As any review for Judd Apatow and/or Seth Rogen’s filmography will tell you, bromance is used to describe the nonsexual bond a man has to another man that is so intense it can be read as a romance between brothers, a kindred born out of a shared masculinity. Bromances, especially those within a comedy, are meant to seem strange because they transgress certain taboos policing men through masculinity. Bromances show men as sensitive, men as needing support, men as sharing physical affection and emotional affirmations—all, for sure, are good things.

The problem with bromances as they are popularly depicted is that to build homosocial allegiance between men, these bromances need to constantly reestablish just how nonsexual and nonromantic they are. An edge of gay panic accompanies the defense of their friendships: these men are so close they appear to be gay for one another—but they really aren’t together like that! And just to be sure you know how not-together they are, the bros will spend the rest of the show or movie making gay jokes, pushing hard against any intimacy that goes too uncomfortably far from masculine expectations, and getting a sexual partner (and it is almost always a woman) to show how manly (read: straight) and not-in-a-“real”-relationship-with-my-bro they are.

In real life, I am sure there are bromances that work out wonderfully, but creating an antithesis out of their mainstream representations highlights how we can reimagine what platonic could mean for us. We have to be more earnest in allowing more slippage between our ideas of romance and close friendships. Constantly finding ways to reassert how not-together y’all are takes energy that could be better purposed than upholding the heterosexist, sexist belief that intimacy means you are dating.

Instead, use that energy to allow for more transgressions against the constricting societal norms that limit how vulnerable, honest and supportive we can be with our friends. Because redefining platonic is not about suddenly dating all your friends. It is about reevaluating and revaluing the commitment you have made to your friends in relation to the other relationships you have in your life—familial, sexual and/or romantic or otherwise. It is about being okay if your friends are the most important people in your life, or if you love your friend above your sexual and/or romantic partner(s); you don’t have to follow the narrative of centering your heart around your romantic and/or sexual partner(s). It also means things like understanding that if you recognize the warning signs for domestic violence in your friendships that your platonic love may be toxic and you might need to end that relationship. Violence from those you love is always devastating and harmful, whether or not the language of abuse or toxicity rarely extends to include the dynamics between friends.

Our new visions allow us to not only connect deeper with the people already around us (no matter their relation to us), but also let us build opportunities for ourselves to experience kinds of love that are not contained by simple definitions. The way we love need not be so fragmented. Sure, we might express it differently from person to person, but at the core of these loving partnerships is a devotion to fostering a meaningful relationship to someone else.

And because she is already in the process of redefining love and friendship, I will end by returning to Nola. “These days,” she said as she reflected on how she’s grown as a friend, “I find pride and delight in the contradictions. I like that when I describe us, people sometimes tell me that she sounds like more than a friend, that it sounds like a ‘relationship.’

“Of course it’s a relationship. It always was.”

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