Inside the curious rise of the platonic life partner – Women's Health UK
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The term is doing the rounds to define those who are choosing a friend over a romantic partner as their most significant other. So what could a platonic life partnership mean for your long-term wellbeing?
Aime Mason Eden isn’t drawn to many people. But the first time she noticed Aluna Conrad at the gym, she was spellbound.
Aluna emanated something both subtle and special: a nurturing, feminine energy that Aime felt compelled to cloak herself in. After finishing up their separate workouts one day, they got to chatting (Aluna insists it was her who first struck up the conversation). Their connection – instant and intense – crackled bright and they wound up breezing through several hours of fluidly moving patter, while sitting in Aime’s car.
It was an encounter that marked the beginning of an ‘effortlessly close’ relationship. So close that, two years later, just before March 2020, Aluna moved into Aime’s three-bedroom house in Sedona, Arizona, the smallish town steeped in New Age spiritual culture in which they lived.
‘Theirs is a joining of worlds that feels like it was fated’
Before long, they’d fused their experience as a web designer (Aluna) and a project manager (Aime) to create an apparel brand; a shared business account came next. During the long locked-down evenings that followed, they whiled away the time shooting the shit, just as they had on that first encounter.
They describe their pairing as having a yin and yang quality. Aime, 31, is analytical, while Aluna, 35, is emotional; Aime dresses in black, Aluna prefers beige. Theirs is a joining of worlds that feels like it was fated. There’s only one way in which this relationship differs from your typical storybook narrative.
Aime and Aluna aren’t involved romantically. They sleep in separate bedrooms. They don’t have sex – at least, not with one another. Rather, they’re engaged in a radical, intimate friendship known as a ‘platonic life partnership’ (PLP), and they’re part of a growing movement.
More and more people are pausing to wonder if the western ideal of the nuclear family is the best thing for them. Multi-family households are the fastest growing household type over the two decades up to 2019, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The decline of the heterosexual marriage can be traced back even further; rates are currently at their lowest since records began in 1862.
Alongside this demographic trend – or perhaps because of it – is the erosion of the assumption that a woman will become a mother: 18% of those who turned 45 last year were child-free, compared with 13% of their mother’s generation. In a 2020 survey from the sex-toy brand Lelo, meanwhile, 28% of respondents said they would consider a polyamorous relationship.
Such statistics paint a picture of a culture of curiosity; one in which millennials and Gen Z women are questioning the received wisdom that they need to ‘settle down’ and, if they do, what that should look like.
Into this reimagined cultural landscape lands the concept of platonic life partnerships. A friendship being a person’s core relationship is nothing new; ‘Boston marriages’, the 19th century practice of two wealthy women living together, are just one example from the history books.
But PLPs entered internet parlance in a big way in October 2021, when a video of a woman called April Lee rushing to meet her best friend Renee at the airport went viral on TikTok. The pair self-described as being in a PLP, sharing that their relationship could be understood as a ‘friendship with a commitment akin to marriage’.
Since that moment of virality – which resulted in abundant coverage in the national media – posts bearing the hashtag #platoniclifepartners have garnered upwards of 11.7 million views on TikTok. April and Renee, it seems, shot this piece of vocabulary into modern digital culture, with a swelling number of people using the term to describe their own situations.
‘Posts bearing the hashtag #platoniclifepartners have garnered upwards of 11.7 million views on TikTok’
Often between two women, sometimes with at least one partner who’s queer (Aime identifies as such; Aluna as bi-romantic, referring to someone who’s romantically attracted to multiple genders), PLPs can manifest in endless ways.
Some pairs cohabit, some wish to raise kids together, others may choose to live close to each other but not in the same home. Typically, romantic relationships are still pursued by each person. What unites them is this: a rejection that the latter takes a de facto place at the top of your relationship ranking – and a positive embrace of a profound friendship in its place.
‘Typically, romantic relationships are still pursued by each person’
Melding your life with a friend’s and enjoying sex and romance (if that’s what you want) via other relationships, then, is one way of redefining what it means to live a contented, connected life – and it might just be one that speaks to you.
So, WH wants to know: what could this choice mean for your health and happiness?
A lifelong romantic partnership is held up in western culture as the North Star of human wellbeing; the stuff of fairy tales and blockbusters. But the science isn’t so sure. Dr Bella DePaulo is a psychologist and the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, And Ignored, And Still Live Happily Ever After.
Through her research, she’s spent years chipping away at the idea that ‘forever’ romantic relationships are the sole route to happiness. ‘If our traditional understanding was correct, you might expect married couples to be doing the best, psychologically speaking, with cohabiting couples next, followed by single people who are dating and single people who aren’t dating at the bottom of the pack,’ she explains.
This, emphatically, isn’t the case. Instead, what mattered more when researchers tested this idea was the existence of reliable social connection; whether you have a community you can count on. ‘Women and men who had that kind of social support were most likely to be protected from feeling depressed or stressed,’ she adds.
This marries with the current research on the health value of strong social connections – shown to be more significant than maintaining a healthy weight and about the same as quitting smoking for your wellbeing.
Pull at the thread of the outcomes enjoyed by those who choose to legalise their romantic union and the plot thickens. While some studies suggest that the institution of marriage confers some health benefits for women, those seem to hinge on how happy the union is.
One 2014 study, from the University of Oxford, which crunched data from over 700,000 women, found that married women had a 28% lower chance of dying from heart disease than those who weren’t legally bound. Another piece of research undertaken in that same year at Michigan State University, though, found that older couples in unhappy unions, especially women, have a higher risk of heart disease than those in a good one.
‘Older couples in unhappy unions, especially women, have a higher risk of heart disease than those in a good one’
In fact, these academics found that a bad marriage is more harmful to your health than a good one is beneficial. One explanation for this finding is that our idea of what marriage should give us is a tad… ambitious. ‘Married couples sometimes have very high expectations: that their partner is going to complete them, or be their everything,’ says Dr DePaulo, who coins such couples the ‘sex and everything else’ unions.
Not only are you setting yourself up to fail when an impossible ideal isn’t actualised, she notes, but unions with such utopian aspirations can lead to reduced wellbeing as a result.
Add to this the expectation of an even distribution of emotional and domestic labour between the two partners and you begin to understand why marriage – at least, the heterosexual kind – isn’t the wellbeing solution for women that society thinks it is.
‘Even in supposedly progressive marriages, women often end up doing more than their share of childcare, elder care and domestic chores,’ adds Dr DePaulo. This long-held suspicion became a statistical reality during the pandemic; by the second lockdown, ONS data showed that 67% of women were taking charge of their children’s home education, compared with 52% of men.
‘Even in supposedly progressive marriages, women often end up doing more than their share of childcare, elder care and domestic chores’
As Dr DePaulo sees it, if it calls to you, figuring out an alternative arrangement is brimming with benefits. ‘Pairs of friends are going to be free of these kinds of expectations, to the likely benefit of their personal health and happiness and the quality of their relationship.’
An explanation of the myriad ways in which a PLP might support your quest for optimum wellbeing begins with the science of friendship: an area that has only recently – during the past decade or so – begun to benefit from academic attention.
‘When you interact with your friends, you get a wonderful flood of neurochemistry, including dopamine and beta-endorphins,’ says Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of Why We Love: The New Science Behind Our Closest Relationships.
The former is your body’s reward chemical, and you’ll be familiar with its sweet rush from a nourishing cuddle with a pet or watching a convoy of little red hearts stack up when you post acute pic to Instagram. The latter is your body’s opiate. As such, it can make you feel euphoric, warm, content and deeply bonded – in fact, addicted – to a friend.
The body benefits of a rooted, intense friendship, such as those that are defined as PLPs, extend beyond that buzz, though. ‘In a very bonded relationship, such as parents and children, a pair of lovers or – yes– close friends, you also experience an amazing thing called biobehavioural synchrony,’ says Dr Machin.
‘When you’re with someone you deeply love, you come into sync in terms of your behaviour – copying one another’s gestures, emulating one another’s turns of phrase.’ A more subtle phenomenon, though, is that you also come into tandem on a physiological level; your heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure come into line with each other’s.
Look inside your brains and you’d even see synchrony there, in the gamma waves: produced when you feel highly alert and conscious. Taken together, explains Dr Machin, this means that every fibre of your being comes into synchrony with the other person. This enables feelings of heavy, heady attachment – the sensation of it seeming as though you could slip into someone’s skin.
Such bonds are not only life-affirming, but health-giving, thanks to the aforementioned neurobiological release and the psychological sensation of feeling close to and protected by a loved one.
‘There are two things that diverge in romantic love and friendship love’
This science certainly supports the rationale for choosing to spend your life with someone you wholeheartedly adore, platonic or otherwise; both forms of love are underpinned by the same neurochemistry and biobehavioural synchrony. And yet, they’re not identical.
‘There are two things that diverge in romantic love and friendship love,’ she continues. ‘With the former, there’s the sexual angle. Here, the brain activity is slightly different, involving the hypothalamus, because that’s where your sex hormones are released. The only other difference is how they’re viewed culturally.’
In the west, she explains, we have a hierarchy, in which romantic love is placed on a pedestal; the result of an evolutionary need to procreate. ‘But women don’t need men to financially support them, as they did 100 years ago,’ she adds. And, because we have control over our contraception, we can also choose not to have children.
‘In the west we have a hierarchy, in which romantic love is placed on a pedestal’
So it follows that the driver to be with someone in this fashion might be diminishing, from an evolutionary perspective if not a cultural one. (It’s doubtful that your nosy aunt is going to stop asking after the occupancy status of your uterus any time soon…)
As such, Dr Machin posits that we shift from a pyramid view of relationships – one with romantic love at the top – towards a spectrum. ‘All of these relationships are underpinned by the same neurobiology. No relationship is more powerful, and they all have the same health benefits.’
If you’re in the market for a graph in which the health outcomes of platonic life partners are plotted against those of married parents on a graph, so are we. But we’re not quite there yet. ‘There isn’t enough data on PLPs to compare them directly,’ Dr Machin confirms. We can, however, hypothesise.
She describes a study she worked on when she was a student at the University
of Oxford. In it, she compared the benefits of a romantic relationship with those of a best friendship. ‘What we found with women is that we’re more emotionally intimate with our female best friends than we are with our lovers,’ she says.
Since PLPs tend to be formed between two women, this intimacy sweetener could be significant. While we don’t yet know if intimacy correlates with the health gains of a relationship, we do know that the closer the relationship, the more happy neurochemicals are released.
‘The closer the relationship, the more happy neurochemicals are released’
In this way, PLPs might just have the edge over long-term romance: a pair can enjoy the cocktail of neurochemicals and biobehavioural synchronicity that creates a heady feeling of being cared for and supported, as well as enhanced emotional connection and less stress. Sex and romance, with all their benefits, meanwhile, can be enjoyed elsewhere.
This idea of a PLP as a place of emotional safety rings true for Aime. She notes that in romantic partnerships with men, she’s been told that she’s ‘too much’ when it comes to resolving conflict, with the partner often unwilling to unpick the problem. With Aluna, things are different. ‘If I get triggered by something that she says or does, we can take a moment and assess what we really need to say; what we’re really doing. We get into the deep wounds.’
Their dual commitment to personal growth (‘we’ve both taken the time to dive into what a relationship is and what our needs are’) leads to a thorough mining of what is fuelling any discord between them.
She also buys Aluna flowers when she’s had a bad day and takes her out for her favourite breakfast of coffee and eggs, even though eating first thing isn’t Aime’s vibe. They’re set to make a move to the city of Phoenix, Arizona, together.
The phenomenon of the platonic life partner is unlikely to have the UK’s registrars concerned for their jobs any time soon. Cultural ideals as ingrained as that of romantic monogamy can take generations to erode.
But for a blossoming group of non-conforming folk – largely female and often queer – PLPs present an opportunity to scoop up the resplendent health and happiness benefits of deep love, without signing up to a normcore dream that doesn’t work for them.
Ever wondered what’s going on, physiologically, when you laugh until you cry with your best pal? This is your body on friendship.
Take a seat on your BFF’s sofa and, soon, a neurochemical firework display lights up. You’re familiar with the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for the high
you feel when you nail a work presentation or revel in the pleasure of biting into a soft cookie, but there’s also beta-endorphin. It’s an opiate that triggers feelings of contentedness and euphoria.
Spend time with someone you share a deep bond with and your behaviour starts to fuse. You’ll mirror one another’s body language, sure, but your heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure all fall into unison, too.
Even cooler than these bodily reactions is this one: were you and your pal to be placed in a brain scanner, there would be unison in your grey matter, too. Academics aren’t sure if you have synchronous brain activity because you’ve become more alike the closer you’ve grown or if you were drawn together because of a similar worldview.