“Platonic friendship” might seem a little redundant at first glance. After all, friendships are platonic by definition, right?
Platonic friendship specifically refers to friendship between two people who could, in theory, feel attracted to each other.
At some point, one or both people might experience some passing sexual tension or briefly wonder, “What if we did try dating?” It may seem like the relationship could go either way — continue as friendship or turn toward romance.
If you experience these feelings and decide to keep what you have, your friendship remains platonic.
People often assume platonic friendships never succeed, especially if one of you “catches feelings” or misreads certain signals as signs of attraction.
This assumption stems from a collection of false ideas, including:
- everyone’s end goal is romance
- people of different genders don’t have enough in common to maintain friendships
- you’ll eventually desire a sexual relationship with any friend you could be attracted to
The truth is, it’s entirely possible to be friends and only friends with anyone, regardless of gender.
Friendships fulfill an important social need, and they can look different for everyone. In general, there’s nothing wrong with any healthy situation that works for you.
But a friendship that involves the desire to pursue romance or sexual intimacy, whether you share those feelings or not, isn’t platonic.
Friends with benefits
Say you’ve got a really good friend. You go to concerts, have similar taste in movies, and enjoy cooking and hiking together.
You also have sex on occasion. Neither one of you wants a relationship, and romantic feelings have never come up. But sometimes, when the moment feels right, you go for it.
This friendship wouldn’t be platonic, even if neither of you has a romantic interest.
If you have a crush (or something stronger) on one of your friends, maintaining a friendship is still possible. You couldn’t consider that friendship platonic if you’re holding on to romantic hopes.
This gets a little tricky if you’re on the other end of this. You might think you have a platonic friendship when in reality, you just don’t know how they feel.
It’s not unusual to develop romantic feelings for a friend, especially if you spend a lot of time together. Taking care to set boundaries (and respect theirs) going forward can help you maintain your friendship.
Friendship with an ulterior motive
Becoming friends with someone with hopes of eventually dating them isn’t platonic friendship. It’s also somewhat dishonest.
Opening up about your feelings will usually serve you best. You can’t make someone fall for you through proximity and patience alone (though pop culture might lead you to believe otherwise).
Also consider this: If they eventually come to feel the same way about you, they may not be happy to realize you misled them about your feelings and intentions. Even if they never find out, a relationship founded on deceit doesn’t have the best start.
It’s pretty normal to end a relationship, especially a lengthy one, with some lingering sexual or romantic feelings. Even if you both fell out of love, decided you were better off as friends, or both, it’s usually tough to go from deep intimacy to something strictly platonic.
These feelings can confuse you and make you wonder whether you shouldn’t try again. You might break up and get back together, or have an on-again, off-again situation.
Some people do go on to become good friends after breakup or divorce, though the specific circumstances of the breakup could affect this outcome. Setting clear boundaries and putting effort into the friendship you desire can make a healthy friendship more likely.
Boundaries are one of the most important — if not the most important — elements of maintaining a healthy platonic friendship. They help protect your emotional well-being, and by honoring another person’s boundaries, you demonstrate respect for their needs.
Everyone has different needs, so boundaries are something to determine for yourself. That said, considering the possibilities below can give you some guidance on boundaries for your friendship.
Keep the lines of friendship clear
Generally speaking, friendship behaviors look a little different from relationship behaviors.
For example, you might spend the night with a friend occasionally but sleep in separate beds. And while you probably send friends plenty of photos of your pet, something funny you saw on the way to work, or even your new look, you probably wouldn’t send photos that border on sexual, or expect a sexual response.
To check in about a specific behavior that seems questionable, just ask yourself if you’d feel comfortable doing the same thing with any other close friend. If not, you might want to reconsider.
Discuss how you want to talk about sexual relationships
Plenty of friends feel comfortable discussing sex, masturbation, and aspects of their romantic relationships with each other. Others may avoid detailed conversations but share general information. Some friends may avoid the topic entirely.
When it comes to talking about sex, there’s no right or wrong answer. It depends on what works for both of you. It’s always best to ask your friend if they mind before you launch into a detailed description of what you got up to last night. If one of you feels uncomfortable, your friendship could suffer.
Checking in can also help you avoid miscommunications about what the conversation means — for example, that you’re bringing up sex because you want to have sex with them.
Check your flirting
Casual flirting happens in a lot of relationships. There’s generally nothing wrong with flirting that doesn’t cross boundaries, as long as you watch for body language signals that suggest the other person would prefer you to stop.
In friendships where there’s some potential for attraction, though, flirting sometimes creates confusion. Even if you’re pretty sure it’s all in fun, you might harbor some doubts, deep down, about just what that flirting means.
Around your platonic friends, at least, it can help to keep your banter innuendo-free. If your friend is a persistent flirter and you’d prefer they stop, try talking to them about it.
Any friendship can face challenges from time to time. Being mindful of issues common to platonic friendships can help you avoid them. If you can’t prevent them entirely, you’ll at least be better equipped to handle them productively.
Avoid getting too comfortable around each other
Most friends generally avoid things like:
- sleeping in the same bed regularly
- casually hugging or touching beyond greetings
- cuddling while watching TV
Again, friendship styles can vary, so some friendships can seem very intimate to outsiders. If you’ve known your best friend since you were 2, it might feel completely natural to change clothes in front of them.
Context can also matter. A group of friends stripping down together to go skinny dipping may not lead to any confusion or mixed signals. Two people alone together doing the same thing could potentially open the doors to some sexual tension.
Keep it honest
If you eventually do realize you have a more romantic interest, consider sharing your feelings.
You might worry about losing the friendship. Unfortunately, that can happen. However, plenty of adults are capable of handling romantic disclosures in a healthy way. Talking about your feelings could even bring you closer together.
If you bury them instead, you might experience jealousy and resentment when your friend dates someone else.
If you don’t feel up to telling them immediately, here’s an alternative approach: Create some temporary distance and see if the feelings fade naturally.
Don’t skimp on communication
Strong communication characterizes most good friendships. You don’t have to talk about every aspect of your life but having meaningful discussions beyond day-to-day chitchat can strengthen your friendship and help you air out any misunderstandings before they get complicated.
Again, if your feelings toward your friend change, talking through those feelings early on generally yields better results than avoiding them.
Similarly, if you start to have an inkling your friend might have romantic feelings for you, asking them outright can help them feel comfortable opening up.
If they deny it, explain what led to that impression — but then take them at their word, unless they give you reason not to. Unnecessary doubt can also harm your friendship.
In a perfect world, every romantic relationship would be characterized by a strong sense of trust. But people aren’t perfect, and even partners who trust each other can still experience occasional jealousy and doubt.
Sometimes platonic friendships do shift into romance. So while your partner’s worries might seem needless to you, they’re pretty normal, especially if your platonic friendship predates their relationship with you.
These tips can help you keep both relationships going strong.
Don’t diminish your friendship
If you share a tight bond with your friend, you might feel tempted to downplay your closeness to your partner. This can backfire, though.
For one, if they find out you were less than honest with them, they might have a hard time trusting you again.
They might also wonder else would you keep hanging out with someone you say you “don’t even like all that much.”
Pretending your friend isn’t that important does them an injustice. Own your bond and talk your friend up! Tell your partner how much your friend means to you and how lucky you feel to have not one but two valuable relationships.
Keep your partner informed
If you don’t want your partner to think your friendship is too close, fudging the truth about your hangouts might seem like a good option.
Avoid the temptation to twist the truth or lie. Dishonesty destroys trust. Even if they don’t catch you in a lie, you might feel guilty later. Guilt can affect your relationship in other, more subtle ways.
Open communication, on the other hand, shows you have nothing to hide. A partner who continues to doubt you when you’ve always offered total honesty may have underlying trust issues to work through themselves.
Spend time in a group
Next time you hang out with your friend, invite your partner to join.
This can help them:
- feel less excluded
- get to know your friend
- see the nature of your friendship for themselves
So, consider watching a movie you all enjoy or enjoying a group dinner together.
Maintain a balance
Sometimes, you really need to be present for a friend. At other times, your partner may need support when dealing with something difficult. You’ll probably have to prioritize one relationship over the other occasionally.
The key is to avoid consistently neglecting one bond. Friendships and romantic relationships have different roles in your life, but they’re both important.
It’s not always possible to be there whenever someone needs you but strive for balance instead of devoting most of your free time to one or the other.
Watch out for red flags in this area, too, like a partner trying to guilt-trip or otherwise manipulate you into spending time with them instead of your friend, or vice-versa.
If your platonic friend has a partner, the tips above can still apply. Keeping these additional considerations in mind can also help.
Support their needs
Your partner might understand and accept your friendship, but their partner may feel differently.
If your friend mentions their partner has some concerns, they may want to cut back on hanging out. This might bother you since you know your friendship isn’t anything more. Try to remember that everyone’s situation is different and you don’t know the specific details.
You could also offer to meet their partner or hang out as a group.
Don’t engage in bad-mouthing
You might feel frustrated if your friend’s partner seems jealous or doesn’t want you to spend time together. Still, you’ll want to avoid the temptation to vent your own feelings, even if your friend complains about their partner to you. You might agree, but it’s best to stay polite and respectful.
It’s normal to want to support your friend but expressing negativity yourself generally doesn’t help. Instead, try neutral, validating remarks like, “That sounds so difficult,” and “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that.”
You can offer advice when asked (“Have you considered talking to a relationship counselor?”) but try to keep personal opinions out of it.
Platonic friendships really can work, even though it might get exhausting to keep saying, “Yes, we’re just friends.”
Just remember, good boundaries and open communication are key to the health and success of your friendship — and any other relationship, really.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.