Just friends: This author wants us to rethink the way we view platonic love

Author and friendship expert Marisa Franco shares how expressions of platonic love went from sacred to salacious, why we should rethink the conventional hierarchy of love, and the value of adult friendship.

‘In the past, the fact that friendships weren't sexual was a sign of how deep and how sacred they are.’

Swedish people celebrate Midsummer celebration in Stockholm in June 2020. They are picnicking in a park.
People picnic during the annual Midsummer celebrations in Stockholm on June 19, 2020. Instead of large crowds dancing around the maypole, people have been encouraged to remain with family and close friends, picnicking and playing games. (Andres Kudacki/Associated Press)

The phrase "just friends" carries an unspoken message: romantic relationships trump platonic ones.

Author Marisa Franco wants to flip that relationship and put friendship on top. She examined this hierarchy of love in her book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — And Keep — Friends.

"Now often we see friendship as like romance but with something subtracted," Franco told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"That's why we say things like, 'You can become more than friends' or 'We're just friends.' Whereas in the past, the fact that friendships weren't sexual was a sign of how deep and how sacred they are."

Franco, a psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, shared what she's learned through her extensive research on friendship, and its role in our lives.

Here is part of her conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

If you can take us back quite a few ages here, quite a few eons — how has the value people put on friendship, platonic friendship, evolved over time?

Earlier in the 1700s and before, in the Western world, people did not get married for love. They got married because it was practical, because another family would give them resources, which would look good, 'cause it would look good combining their last names together. It was sort of almost like a business decision and your family often chose for you. You might have a vote, but it was definitely not based on love. And at the time, the genders were considered to be so distinct that the idea was that you could only truly connect with people that shared your gender, which tended to be your friends. So around then, friends would do things like carve their names into trees, hold hands, share beds, cuddle, write love letters to each other — all this stuff was super normal at the time.

Why did friendship begin to take such a backseat to romantic love?

So around 1867 the way that we perceive sexual orientation really changed. Before then it was taboo to have sex with someone of the same sex but it wasn't taboo to show love to people of the same sex, right? So anything that wasn't sex was okay. You could write the love letters. You could hold hands. You could cuddle with each other. It was taboo only to have sex, not all of these other constellation of behaviors. But then we had two psychiatrists, Richard von Krafft-Ebing [and] Sigmund Freud, and they started to argue that your sexual orientation is an entire identity. It's not just who you're having sex with. It says something about who you are as a person. It says you are a disordered person.

After that, now all of these behaviors that were so normal in friendships started to become stigmatized. We can't love each other too deeply. Or it may indicate that we have this shameful sexual orientation. We can't hold hands, we can't cuddle. And so after that change in how we view sexual orientation, I would say homophobia, and specifically homohysteria — it's a term that's been used to describe straight men's fears of being perceived as gay — really limit people's ability to have that same depth of same-sex intimacy through friendship.

If we go even further back, platonic love was really put on a pedestal in the 15th century. Tell me a bit about the view back then, when the term was first coined.

It was interesting that platonic love was almost like a threat in the church because it could threaten people's love for God, the deep love that they could have for friends. And there's an Italian philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, and he defined the term platonic love from Plato's understanding of friendship. And it was really a term that described a relationship that's so deep and so profound that it transcends the physical.

I think now often we see friendship as like romance but with something subtracted, right? And that's why we say things like, "You can become more than friends" or "We're just friends." Whereas in the past, the fact that friendships weren't sexual was a sign of how deep and how sacred they are.

Author Marisa Franco poses on the right next to her book on the left.
Marisa Franco is the author of Platonic, which examines the science of friendship. (Submitted by Marisa Franco)

Do you ever have a moment when you wish the world would get back to those days? This return to platonic love being so profound, it verges on dangerous?

I am very interested in queer communities because I think queer communities, from all the research that I've done, have really led the way in pushing us to envision a world that's different. There's this term "relationship anarchy," which is not seeing any of your relationships on a hierarchy. So my romantic partner is equal to my best friend, for example. Queer communities have also, you know, it's more normal to choose a friend as a life partner. There's even terms for it like "zucchini," for your platonic life partner. So I will say I think there are communities that are envisioning a different world than the sort of stilted, very nuclear, very fetishized way of looking at romantic love that tends to make us all a little bit disappointed.

I want to quote you here, "Friendship, in releasing the relationship pressure valve, infuses us with joy like no other relationship." Tell me about that pressure valve, what's being released?

When you have a spouse, it's like you have 10 different relationships in one. You're a friend. You're a sex partner. You're a travel companion. You're a meal companion. We have to do chores together. We have to work out all of the practicalities of life together. There's just so many things. And I think sometimes these different roles that we play can feel very conflicting towards each other. And with friends, sometimes I think distance can create intimacy, and that's okay.

Sometimes when people are around their friends, they just feel freer. They feel less stressed. There's research that finds that even for older people, hanging out with friends improves their mental health even more than hanging out with their spouse, for example. Or other research that finds that people are the happiest when around friends and their spouse versus just being around their spouse. So there's this way that because friendship has, in the way that it's typically defined and seen, has way less pressure and obligation and responsibility. That it can feel like a relationship where there's just more room for joy, and happiness, and lightness, and love.

Interview written and produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Q&A edited for length and clarity.



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