The concept of intimacy has many connotations – the intentional brush of a hand against another, an arm of comfort across a pair of shoulders, a kiss that could lead to something more. Mainstream media’s definition of intimacy has always been sexual and it has continued to reinforce the idea that intimacy stems from romantic feelings. However, what many fail to understand is that intimacy exists beyond the plane of romance, particularly on a platonic basis.
Is it the same as friendship?
Similar to the casual friendships we experience everyday, platonic intimacy also involves developing a close relationship without the attachment of romantic strings. Nevertheless, it does not encompass the full range of what this type of intimacy comprises of. Platonic intimacy enables a deep and unconditional love between people, without romantic or sexual involvement. It evokes a special emotional relationship between people due to common interests, spiritual connections or similar worldviews.
Platonic intimacy is initially derived from friendship, which later on may lead to discovering that the relationship extends beyond the things in common. According to psychologist Dr. Diana Raab, such forms of intimacy exists outside the limits of being a best friend. While being someone’s best friend may invoke the same sense of connection, it also requires having commonality in areas such as academic or professional environments. If the relationship is threatened by the loss of this commonality, it fails to stand on its own. Contrastingly, platonically intimate relationships can survive changes in the relationship dynamics such as a shift in location or circumstances.
The sexualization of cross-gender friendships
In general, platonic intimacy is understood as “the step below a friends-with-benefits relationship.” It is often perceived as a precursor to friends-with-benefits relationship, or as a losing situation to those who forgot to emphasize on the ‘friends’ aspect of such relationships.
Despite today’s progressive ideals, close friendships between varying sexes are still deemed a novelty. Platonic relationships between homogenous genders are classified as being ‘bros’ or ‘girlfriends’ but an impending sense of skepticism still lingers with regard to cross-gender friendships. Though the current social landscape promotes opportunities for opposite-sex friendships, it still enables romantic desire and intimacy as a potential impediment of maintaining these relationships.
The introduction of sex into platonic relationships also eliminate pre-determined boundaries. Studies have found that to cultivate platonic relationships, people tend to resort to flirtatious behaviour or indirect information seeking such as asking mutual friends about the romantic intentions of intended targets. While these strategies contribute to upholding such relationships, it also introduces factors such as jealousy, resentment and conflict that fracture the possibility of developing intimacy.
Expressing intimacy platonically
While our society tends to prioritize romantic affection and devalue friendships, it’s hard to determine what qualifies as being intimate on a platonic scale. For many, expressing intimacy platonically varies and is highly specific to who they are as people. Love languages such as acts of service and words of affirmation play a significant role in adding value and developing relationships. It ensures that the parties involved actively commit to maintaining the relationship and are vulnerable when communicating with each other. Some people also work towards intentionally creating social systems to foster intimacy through simply being present for the other party, without a sense of urgency.
Time and distance may often act as obstacles hindering the development of platonic relationships but it is essential to express affection regularly. Relationships require strong foundations of honesty, care, attention and understanding, which ultimately reflect in the actions taken to further improve personal connections. These acts do not necessarily need to be grand gestures or declarations; providing a shoulder to cry on, an invitation to hang out, or even a simple text, are minimal ways which go a long way in making the other party feel loved and appreciated.
Additionally, it’s also necessary to understand that just as it is valid to express intimacy through sex and physical relationships, it is also valid to feel uncomfortable with physical intimacy and seek for alternative means of affection. In her article analysing intimacy and desire as an aro-ace woman, Christina Lang discussed unpacking the internalized assumptions and expectations regarding relationships. Per her experience, previous lovers tended to use physical intimacy to measure their relationship status and while she attempted to follow the norm, she failed to recognize the spaces she was comfortable with by habitually ignoring her discomfort with physical affection.
Maintaining platonic intimacy in a pandemic
In the midst of surviving a global pandemic, many of us have forgone physical relationships for our own safety. Such forms of affection are often observed as indicators of intimacy which contribute towards reinforcing relationships. Without these relationships, people struggled in maintaining attachments to others, settling into the life of quarantine and self-isolation. It has also forced the re-assessment of certain relationships, and why we need to continue maintaining them.
In an increasingly digital world, social media has been a serious factor in maintaining platonic intimacy. Society has continuously developed means of maintaining existing relationships and building new ones via virtual spaces, popularly on Zoom. The existence of these mediums also enable the pressure of reaching out and connecting with others, thereby nurturing relationships during stressful times.
As the rapid spread of COVID-19 set off devastating consequences, many of us began to understand how viscerally dependent on intimacy we had been to sustain previous relationships. The pandemic has brought forth the realization that with our wealth of networks, we are profoundly interdependent on each other. In order to survive, it is critical for us to reprioritize our current relationship hierarchy, as well as radically reevaluate how we understand intimacy outside of sexual relationships. With the absence of touch and physical affection, platonic intimacies and keeping in touch came to replace these elements in relationships.
Ultimately in the end, as thrilling as it is to have a steamy sex life, checking in on your friends can be enough as well.