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The Power of Platonic Love and Friendships

We live in a world where from novels to movies, romantic love has been glorified through the ages across cultures, continents and communities. Thousands of words, verses, sonnets and fairytales by writers, thinkers and philosophers, waxing lyricals over time on a love that transcends all. From Shakespeare to Austen, Victorian to Bridgerton, we have read and then watched adaptations of love that may be requited or unrequited, passionate or slow burn, no matter what kind, these stories have resulted in all of us dreaming of a “one true love” that ends in a “happily ever after.”

But could it be that we could be sustained and nourished by platonic love?

Our book club pick for July, Rhaina Cohen’s The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center offers a powerful narrative on platonic partnerships and how the thrill, intimacy, and commitment we seek is often found through meaningful friendship. As we read this book, we couldn’t help but reflect on how our relationships have evolved beyond societal dictation and expectations, and what that may mean for our emotional lives. 

Cohen writes:

“This is a book about friends who have become a we, despite having no scripts, no ceremonies, and precious few models to guide them toward long-term platonic commitment. These are friends who have moved together across states and continents. They’ve been their friend’s primary caregiver through organ transplants and chemotherapy. They’re co-parents, co-homeowners, and executors of each other’s wills. They belong to a club that has no name or membership form, often unaware that there are others like them. They fall under the umbrella of what Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, calls “other significant others.” Having eschewed a more typical life setup, these friends confront hazards and make discoveries they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

This principle highlights the importance of community and mutual support, extending beyond the confines of marital or romantic love. It reminds us that our lives are enriched by a variety of relationships, each contributing uniquely to our overall wellbeing.

The notion that one’s romantic partner should fulfil every emotional checkpoint is not only unrealistic, but also unfair. No single person can be everything to someone else.

It is also essential to remember that not everyone desires to be married, nor is destined to find a spouse. We are multifaceted beings with diverse emotional needs that can be met through various relationships. Friends, family, and community members each contribute differently to our lives, providing a rich support network that a single individual simply cannot.

Take Ayesha, a 32 year old dental hygienist, whose entire day revolves around asking people to keep their mouths open but not talk, “I recently moved to Canada, leaving all my friends behind which has been such an isolating experience. I am happily married and yet my husband and I both experience loneliness individually. We are trying our best to support each other but we both realise that we need some friends of our own. It is exhausting trying to be everyone for one person.”

Society has inundated us with the notion that romantic love is the ultimate goal. This narrative is so pervasive that we often undervalue and overlook the significance of platonic relationships. We have all witnessed some way or another, friends getting married and disappearing, lost in what experts call a couple-bubble. We don’t mean to be cruel, we do value our friends, so why is it so easy to dispose of them when we enter  marriage ? Is it because of the societal mental block that a marriage is the be all and end all of all relationships? 

You can argue that the first few years of marriage are fragile, where you start trying to build a new life with someone else, trying to understand tricky dynamics, and where we are thrust into multiple roles that may carry the baggage of duty and obligations. Amongst all our individual relationships, it is easiest to let friendships slide. We expect our friends to understand our situations and circumstances the most, to make excuses for us and to cut us some slack. Perhaps this is why we underplay the importance of our friends in our lives as soon as we find a significant other, expecting them to always be there. 

What we easily forget, in the rose tinted haze of the early years of coupledom, is that our mental and emotional wellbeing relies on loving and being loved not only by our spouse, but also by our chosen community of friends.

Friends who provide support, understanding, and a sense of belonging. They are often the ones that see us through various phases of life, offering a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board for ideas and being a cheerleader for our achievements. These are the relationships that carry us forward when our other relationships fall through. The ones that quietly provide us with strength in ways that may not always be tangible. 

However, as people grow older, they often move on and drift apart. Adulthood pulls us in different directions, and that childhood friend you spoke to every day may now only send you a customary birthday message once a year. This shift can be quite painful, highlighting the challenge of making friends as an adult. Unlike the effortless connections of childhood, building meaningful relationships later in life requires more effort and intention. This is why it’s important to recognise and appreciate the value of platonic love wherever we may find it. 

Fatima, a 40 year old mum of three, shared that it was only after she made two friends at her local mosque that Canada started feeling like a home, “All you need is one to two good friends whom you can rely on, who you know will have your back. No matter how busy or hectic our lives get, my friends and I always meet up for dinner every two weeks. We rant, we vent, we unload, but we also celebrate. The little stuff as well as the big stuff with an enthusiasm that makes the others feel cherished and loved. Don’t get me wrong, I love my husband and kids, but they cannot fill up the nooks and crannies of my soul like my friends do.”

Despite all this, the love that binds us with our tribe is not celebrated widely nor proclaimed in a similar manner. With many getting married later in life, it raises questions about what that shift means for our relationships. If you aren’t getting married or having a baby, will you ever receive the same level of celebration?

There is no fanfare attached nor endless songs sung when a platonic friend shows up for us time and time again. No friend anniversary celebrations and wishes, except for a Facebook notification that usually goes ignored and only happens if you are a Millennial or Boomer.

Humans are social animals, we are not meant to do life alone. Consider the concept of “ukhuwah” in Islam, which emphasises brotherhood and collective care, highlighting the importance of a close knit village. The first Muslim society was established on the basis of brotherhood, where the Ansaar of Madinah welcomed the Muhajireen of Makkah with open arms and hearts, a bond rooted in faith and platonic love.

It is true that true friendship is irreplaceable. But it is also true that true friendship cannot be taken for granted. It requires nurturing, time, and effort – elements that cannot be replicated or rushed. It is important to remember that love comes in many forms, and while romantic love is beautiful and significant, it is not the only kind of love that merits our attention. Perhaps it is time to redefine love and embrace all forms of it equally.

So the ultimate question remains— are we going to defy the societal constructed parameters of relationships and finally give our “other” significant others the respect and time they deserve?

If you are interested in discussing the impact of platonic love and friendships in our lives, join us at our July Book club for a thought-provoking evening as we discuss Rhaina Cohen’s ‘The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center’. The discussion will be led by Sudanese-Australian writer, engineer and award-winning social advocate, Yassmin Abdel-Magied.


References

1. Why Do Some Married People Neglect Their Friends?

2. Slighting Friends and Family: Do Couples Become Less Couple-y Over Time?

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