It’s February once more, which means the subject of love and romance is on everyone’s minds. One big topic that’s come up in more recent years is the debate about platonic vs romantic relationships.
What’s the difference between them? Can you actually tell them apart? And if so, what are the signs of platonic versus romantic love?
I think a lot of this hinges on semantics, so let’s dive in.
The Three Main Types of Love
In contemporary Western society, we can divide “love” relationships into three main types:
Most people are incredibly familiar with the first two. Familial love is the first love most of us experience. It’s the love between parent and child, between aunts and nephews and nieces, grandparents and grandchildren, and so on.
Most of us are also familiar with romantic love, in part because it’s depicted as the ideal form of love in our society. From the time we’re very young, we’re shown the power of “true love”—after all, it’s true love’s first kiss that wakes Snow White and Sleeping Beauty from their eternal slumbers. Countless TV shows and movies depict romance as well.
Most of us would probably say we’re less familiar with the third type, platonic love. But I’d argue a lot of TV shows and movies actually do a good job showcasing this kind of love as well, especially media aimed at younger children.
Why is that? For many children, platonic love is actually more important than romantic love. Yes, kids develop crushes all the time, and many dream of growing up, falling in love, and getting married. But between the ages of about three and ten or so, friends become vital to us.
Platonic love is love we feel for friends, rather than family members or romantic partners. And you can see it in the messaging of plenty of shows for kids—one recent My Little Pony series, for examples, is literally called “Friendship Is Magic.”
Platonic vs Familial Love
Trying to separate platonic and familial love is an exercise in futility. For the most part, they look and feel largely the same.
You may feel a deeper bond with your parents than you do with your BFF, but there’s a good chance your friend connection may be the strong of the two. The feeling itself is largely the same. You feel safe with these people, you enjoy their company, and you would go out of your way to keep them safe or do something nice for them.
If they get sick or hurt, you worry about them. In short, you care deeply about these people. You want them to be healthy and happy, and you want to spend time with them.
Now, not everyone has these warm, fuzzy feelings about their family members. And sometimes, we have friends we don’t feel that strongly about—or we have friends who aren’t as good to us as we are to them. Not every “platonic” or “familial” relationship we have is going to be a good one, and that just makes sense.
This is why it’s so difficult to tell the difference between the two: many people will say friends are a different kind of family, in a sense. Friends are not biologically related to us, but we may care about them as if they were family. Some people adopt their friends as “found” family. Some give out kinship designations—your kids might call a very close friend “auntie” or “uncle,” even if that person has no blood tie to your family at all.
If you consider all that, then, there’s really no difference between familial and platonic love. They are, in fact, one and the same.
Platonic vs Romantic Love
Some people will argue there is more of a difference between platonic and romantic loves. In some ways, this might be true.
Romantic love, as established, is the love felt between romantic partners. This could be husband and wife, two husbands, two nonbinary people in a committed long-term relationship, or the members of a polycule. These people are romantic partners, and we talk about their relationships as “romances” or “romantic relationships.”
Platonic relationships often lack a “romantic” focus. That is, as much as you care about the other person and you want to spend time with them, you don’t care to impress them by doing “the mating dance,” so to speak. Romance, by and large, is humanity’s mating dance. Think about flower bouquets, chocolates, and first dates.
You don’t really do that with your friends—although there is actually nothing stopping you from buying your friends flowers or taking them on a “friends date.”
Romantic relationships are also often assumed to have a sexual component, although this may not be true either. Not every romantic relationship is a sexual one, and not all sexual relationships are romantic. A good example is an ace person in a romantic relationship. They may have little to no interest in sex. They may even be repulsed by it.
Some ace people absolutely do have sex and enjoy it. Often, it needs to be with a partner they care about quite deeply—so the “romantic” component must be there before the sexual component can be there.
Other people, sometimes known as aromantic individuals, don’t experience romantic love. They can certainly feel love—such as platonic and familial love—and they may or may not experience sexual attraction as well. Some ace individuals are also a romantic, for example.
Platonic Love as the Foundation of Romantic Partnerships
One of the more common tropes that has come up in the last thirty or so years is the idea that married couples are “best friends.” That is, in addition to experiencing romantic love, they also experience platonic love.
This makes a lot of sense, actually. Married couples spend a lot of time together. They build entire lives and families together in some cases. They may share a house—like roommates—and they often engage in non-work activities together. Their off-time may be spent with each other, pursuing shared interests. If they’re raising kids, expect them to spend a lot of time together.
What this largely means is you’d better like this person. A lot. In some ways, you do want them to be your very best friend. You want to care deeply about them and their feelings, just as they care about you and yours. You two (or more, if you’re part of a polycule) are going to have plenty of ups and downs, so you want to be able to ride it all out and weather the storm.
Friendships may often seem more durable than romantic partnerships, perhaps because we put less pressure on those relationships. It’s easier to be a friend—or even a best friend—than it is to be a romantic partner. But a romantic partner can, and in some ways, should also be your best friend—the person you want to spend most of your time with.
Romantic relationships often have unique challenges, in part because of the pressures of family and living together. Friendships can undergo some of these challenges too, if one friend, say, moves in with the other or has children from another relationship.
Is There a Difference between the Three Types of Love?
I would argue no, there is not actually a difference in terms of the feelings involved. The depth of platonic love is the same as the depth of familial love, and both can be equal to or greater than romantic love.
Any of these can also be less than any of the others. Familial love, as we established, is not guaranteed. Platonic love, for many people, is actually deeper and more true than familial love. Romantic love may not be something everyone aspires to have, and some people may not experience it.
Romantic love is usually thought to outweigh the other two forms of love, but that’s tied deeply to ideas about nuclear family formation and “partnering up.” There’s a good reason these narratives are pushed. The state and capitalism benefit from people forming isolated units and trying to raise families in these formations. Two people are more vulnerable to the whims of capitalism than a wider network is.
But this is where we get the idea that “romantic” love is the truest, deepest, or best kind of love. Our society certainly makes it seem like it’s the be-all, end-all when it comes to love. And to achieve that, we discount other “types” of love, like platonic or familial loves.
All Three “Types” of Love Are Important
As I stated at the outset, I think the division between the “types” of love are largely linguistic conveniences. There aren’t actually any real differences between the depth of feeling at all.
Thus, romantic love can also be platonic, and platonic love can be familial. Familial love may also include an element of the romantic—if we’re talking about, say, the heads of household or married partners (who may play varied roles). Romantic love might be the “peak” incarnation, because it can be the site where all three “types” of love converge.
But platonic love is just as deep and important as the other types. That’s why it hurts when a friend doesn’t like you as much as you like them, or why you feel wounded over the “break up” of a long-term friendship. It’s why you may feel closer to friends than some of your own family members.
The only difference for any of these “types” of love is the inclusion of sexual attraction. Romantic affections are often thought to encompass sexual feelings, while the other two types of love (especially familial) should not contain a sexualized element.
Yet, as we established, the sexual element can also be absent from romantic relationships. That leaves us with a rather tangled web to unweave. What’s the difference between platonic and romantic love? One is between friends, and one is between romantic partners. What changes that elevates someone from “a friend” to “romantic partner”?
When we leave the sexual element out of the equation, it becomes obvious that there’s not actually much difference between platonic and romantic relationships at all. It’s a convenient linguistic divide that allows us to categorize deep feelings according to what we can envision for the future.
What Does It Mean When Someone Sees You “as a Friend”?
Given the linguistic meaning of these categories, there is still weight when someone says, “I see you as more of a friend” or “I think of you as a brother.”
Generally, these statements mean this person does not see you as “mate” material. That means they’re omitting the sexual component that’s often assumed to go hand in hand with the romantic element of a relationship.
What these sayings mean, in essence, is “I don’t see you as a mate.”
If we leave aside the sexual component, we can also derive another meaning. It means, “I don’t see that kind of future with you.” In short, the person in question doesn’t want to build a romantic partnership—which often leads to family formation.
This doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about you or that they don’t want you in their lives. It means they’re envisioning a different role, one predicated on our linguistic insistence on the different “types” of love. It doesn’t mean their feelings are shallower or less important.
I think that’s something we forget when we start talking about platonic vs romantic love, because we get so tangled up in where one ends and the other begins. By and large, these categories are just describing different roles based on a perceived position. They don’t truly describe feelings themselves, and they certainly don’t allow us to recognize just how important platonic love is for so many relationships and so many people.
If you can’t tell the difference between romantic and platonic love, don’t sweat it too much. The dividing lines are somewhat arbitrary. What’s important is to listen to the person you’re in relationship with and understand how they envision your role in their life—and to think about how they fit into yours.