Why more people are choosing platonic life partners
Romantic singledom doesn't have to mean living alone. Meet the platonic love pioneers who are sharing their lives with their chosen family
A few months after moving in with her friend Susie, Tracey Emerson knew that she’d found the life she wanted.
“It just kept feeling like it was a better situation than any alternative,” she says. “I always kept feeling like, ‘This is where I want to be,’ and that it does make sense.”
That was over 20 years ago, and the pair have lived together ever since as platonic life partners—a relationship where the person you build your life with is a friend.
Just like a spouse, platonic partners may share a home, finances, and even co-parent, but aren’t romantic or sexual with each other.
These sorts of partnerships are nothing new—the concept of chosen family is well-ingrained in LGBTQAI+ culture, while 19th-century “Boston marriages” allowed unmarried women to live together—but a surge of interest driven by social media has thrust them into a new spotlight.
Now, we have the terms “platonic life partnership” and “platonic soulmate”, plus posts clocking millions of views that represent and legitimise these relationships.
And yet, because having a friend as the person we go through life with looks different to what we’re taught to expect, there’s still a lack of understanding around platonic partnerships and how they can work.
“There’s this idea that you’ll have friends, but a life partner—or what might be deemed a romantic partner—will become primary over that. The idea with a platonic life partner is that, actually, that’s not the case,” says sex and relationships psychotherapist, Miranda Christophers.
“You’re making a commitment to prioritise that relationship in your life. It’s just another way of experiencing a fulfilling relationship.”
More than “just friends”
Tracey and Susie have rejected a traditional marriage based on romantic love and found fulfillment in their friendship instead
“There’s no hierarchy of love,” says psychologist and friendship expert, Dr Marisa G Franco, who is currently writing a book about the power of platonic friendship.
“True compatibility is: ‘You make me feel like myself, you make me feel seen, you make me feel understood’. A lot of the time, people access that through friendship. For a lot of people, their friends are their safest relationships.”
The building blocks of any relationship are feeling loved, secure, and being able to be vulnerable with each other—and these have nothing to do with sex, adds Dr Franco.
A close friendship can be as good a base as any for a healthy partnership.
For Chiderah Sunny, who ceremonially married her platonic partner, Deidre Olsen in their Berlin flat around a year ago, it was the refuge and solace she found in their friendship that made her realise they could build a life together.
“We both immigrated to Berlin and we were at the height of chaos in our lives,” she says. “And in that moment, I felt completely defeated and disparaged. And there Deidre was.” Chiderah proposed a few weeks before Deidre’s birthday.
While the two now identify as platonic soulmates rather than as married, they both intend to honour their lifelong commitment—supporting each other through thick and thin.
“We’ve really been there for each other, through sickness and health and through good and bad. I think those are the central tenets of a marriage,” says Deidre.
"For a lot of people, their friends are their safest relationships"
There is no reason why a friend can’t be a life partner—it’s just that there’s no social script for how this is supposed to look, says journalist Rhaina Cohen, who is writing a book about platonic life partnerships. So far, she has spoken with about 60 people in these relationships.
“People are confused by the idea of having a friend as the most important person to you,” she says. “In childhood, I think most people have had some experience of a very intense connection to a friend, and by the time you’re an adult that is not considered an appropriate way of organising your life.”
But the people Cohen has spoken to are raising children, buying properties together, and assigning each other as their emergency contacts—all decidedly grown-up pursuits. Tracey and Susie are written into each other’s wills.
These life commitments build and require intimacy just as in any other relationship, says Christophers. “It’s very much [a relationship] of mutual respect and love and care, but not in a romantic or sexual way.”
Connection without expectation
By deciding to share their lives with each other, Tracey, Susie, and Mary can take the pressure off their romantic lives and enjoy more healthy relationships
For Tracey, making platonic love her primary relationship has helped her to become her healthiest self.
Without the pressures that can come with seeking romance—namely, that we need to give all of ourselves to a romantic partner in order to feel whole—Tracey has been able to live as her own person while being supported emotionally by her platonic family unit.
“When I was in a relationship with the kind of men I used to go out with, I always felt like I'd lost my independence somehow, my identity,” she says.
“Whereas with this kind of situation that we have, it’s really about: who does everyone want to be as an individual, as part of the collective thing, and how can we support each other to do that?”
"When I was in a relationship with the kind of men I used to go out with, I always felt like I'd lost my independence"
Tracey and Susie have recently been joined by their friend Mary, who now lives with them too. They are each free to pursue romantic and sexual relationships with other people if they’d like to, which Tracey says is “nice if it happens” but not something that she actively seeks out or needs.
This type of love can be defined as “being love”, says Dr Franco. “Being love is: I have a full self, and I’m loving you because you add something more to my life above and beyond that, and I don’t have to need you. You don’t have to fulfil something in me.”
Deficit-based love, on the other hand, makes us feel that a love compensates for something we lack in ourselves.
Feeling pressured to find fulfilment via sex and romance could fall under the umbrella of deficit-based love—and this can feel so intense and urgent because your sense of self is literally on the line, Dr Franco adds.
“You’re always trying to be chosen. You’re always side-lining yourself,” says Deidre. “I thought that was the only way I could be fulfilled, that I needed to latch onto a romantic partner to have any sense of self-worth.”
When she met Chiderah, Deidre realised how much strength and beauty she could find in a love that existed outside these expectations.
Breaking from tradition
Chiderah proposed to Deirdre after the two found a platonic soulmate in each other
Tracey, Deidre, and Chiderah all agree that their relationships have helped them to move away from restrictive ideas of what life is supposed to look like.
Being aware that there are other options is probably why so many people are now interested in platonic partnerships, adds Tracey.
For example, the idea that we should seek out “the one” who must be everything to us—lover, best friend, partner—can draw our focus away from what we actually want from our relationships.
“There aren't a huge amount of relationships where everything works,” says Tracey. “If we’re more open-minded, we can separate the different strands of who we are and what we might want from people.”
This might look like several close platonic friendships alongside a primary romantic one, vice versa, or not wanting sex or romance at all—the key is that we each get to choose based on works best for us.
“It’s literally the bedrock of society: white, Christian, two and a half kids, white picket fence house. It’s so socially ingrained, and you’re jailed to this idea,” says Deidre. “I think we should all construct the communities and households that make us happy. Everybody can have the chosen family of their dreams.”
"There aren't a huge amount of relationships where everything works"
And because women no longer need to rely on men or marriage for things like money or a bank account, they may well turn to relationships that suit them better.
“Now that women don’t need [marriage] to get their basic needs met, they’re able to ask for needs that are higher up on the list, like true emotional connection,” says Dr Franco.
“So now, we can reconfigure all of these other ways that we were told there’s a template for how we can live our lives. And we can ask ourselves: ‘What actually fits?’”
It seems that, in the UK at least, more people are deciding that the path of traditional marriage isn’t for them. Marriage between opposite-sex couples is now on a general decline, with 2018 noting the lowest rates on record.
Growing awareness of non-traditional relationships in a more inclusive and accepting society may well be a contributing factor.
Part of this is finally having the language to recognise what platonic life partners are to each other: not just friends, not lovers, but a distinct connection in themselves.
"It’s amazing to see younger people having this language and these narratives from a more formative age,” says Tracey. “What would it have been to be us, but at a different time? How would we have expressed ourselves? How much stuff could we have cut out in the middle?”
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