In the profusion of relationships that thrive today, the good old platonic one is still a viable option. One that needs a bit of work…

Young, single, people in urban India have never had it so good when it comes to relationships with the opposite gender. As part of the whole liberalisation scenario, there’s a virtual explosion in the incidence of man-woman relationships. Not just this, there is a wide array of relationships that young men and women can choose from. There is of course, the classic boyfriend-girlfriend sort of relationship which has a clear component of commitment and will probably end in marriage or living-in. But this is not as “cool” as man-woman friendships, which are pretty intense involvements, but without the “burdensome” element of commitment. Unfortunately, the lack of emotional connectedness in casual sexual equations leaves many people feeling unfulfilled, even those that fear commitment. But since they are not yet ready to be “tied down” to one individual, young people are using creative formulae to re-define and re-label their relationships.

Many hues

So, you have a category called “friendship with benefits”, where, aside of being good companionable friends though not “in love” with each other, a man and a woman enjoy the added “benefit” of sex every now and again. However, multiple sexual partners are possible and even encouraged in this type of relationship, and this doesn’t always work out well for everybody. So, in order to satisfy the needs of the more monogamously inclined, you have the “hooking up” sort relationship, where the friendship and sexual relationship are exclusive, but with no expectation of matrimony at the end of the road. And then there’s always, the good, old-fashioned, platonic relationship to fall back on. Although the term continues to be in use, participants in such relationships often have little clue as to who Plato was, except that he was not Indian and allegedly had several platonic relationships with women in his time.

The term platonic relationship refers to any equation between people of opposite genders that does not include a sexual component, but does include a good degree of emotional investment. In other words, when a man says a woman is his friend, though not his girlfriend, what he’s saying is that he cares for her, enjoys her company, is dependent on her for some things in his life and misses her when she is not around, but he cannot think of her as the woman in his life, for, she does not sweep him away, nor is there any sexual tension between them. It’s important to remember that a friendship a person has with someone of the opposite gender is qualitatively different from one with somebody of the same gender. In the latter, there is no underlying sexual tension between the two even when the most intimate of secrets are being shared. But, when a woman and a man engage in an intimate conversation, an underlying sexual tension is known to have made its unsolicited appearance. That neither may choose to act on this is what keeps the relationship “platonic” or at least “quasi-platonic”.

Emotional investment

However, platonic friendships are not just about asexuality. They are basically relationships that involve an emotional investment. Friends invest feelings in each other, help and support each other, spend time with each other and make a commitment to each other. In the absence of these, a “friendship” or whatever else you choose to call it, remains a fair-weather equation. Like all other relationships, a friendship also grows and requires periodic emotional investment to grow. It is this emotional investment that platonic friends need to be cautious about. For, if it comes at the expense of other relationships, the fine balance in one’s emotional life suddenly goes out of kilter. You might find that your spouse is not so understanding when it comes to your supporting your platonic friend through some life stress, when legitimate spousal needs are being compromised.

The upshot of what I am saying is this: We have to work as hard at our platonic relationships to keep them platonic as we do at our marriage and other relationships. If you find that you’re unfavourably comparing your wife’s quirks with your platonic friend’s calm, or every time you have a work-related problem you run to your platonic friend and not to your husband, then a crisis is simply waiting to happen. However, if you do define your boundaries with your platonic friend and are able to keep the relationship within these, if you keep the intensity down to manageable proportions and do not have irrational expectations of each other, you could well have a long, productive and meaningful friendship that does not take away from your other relationships and might well end up enriching you and making you the better person all of us are trying to become. And who knows, you may even end up with a blessing from the much-maligned Plato himself, even if you neither know nor care who he was or what he did.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com