By Sophie Mackintosh
International Women's Day (IWD) is usually a blur of statistics and 'Top Tens' of influential people - 'and there's nothing wrong with that - we need to highlight gender inequality after all. But this IWD, I'd like to celebrate the phenomenon that is platonic intimacy.
I met some of my oldest friends in school, while I was still figuring friendship out. Painfully shy, navigating the world of other people felt like a big and terrifying ask. But when I met my best friend, it was instant love. Lunchtimes huddled on the radiators swapping deepest secrets, evenings listening to CDs and doing homework, weekends evolving from watching films in our pyjamas to sneaking plastic bottles full of combinations of schnapps and port to drink outside. Uniting it all was that burning, dizzying sense of intimacy and connection.
I still feel lucky to have known that feeling of rightness and connection with my friends, and especially so to still feel it. The sense of joy when you find those people who switch something on inside you can be as happy and intoxicating as any romantic feeling – better even, perhaps, for the feeling of unconditionality. Our friends love us for who we are, accept us for who we are, in ways that can feel easier to believe than with sexual or romantic connections. Perhaps we can be too wary when it comes to other kinds of intimacy and let friends in where we keep others at arm's length.
That's not to say that there’s no give and take, or that these relationships, too, can’t become toxic. It's easy to idealise them. However, right now, platonic intimacy is the driving intimacy of my life. It might not always be, but to have it centred there right now does not feel like any kind of consolation prize, but a gift. It has given me the strength to do the right thing, to reinforce that I deserve love and helped me to feel safe and whole and connected.
Platonic intimacy holds a strange place in our culture – prized, but quickly devalued. We understand friendships are important and necessary, while also often holding the engrained belief that romantic intimacy is the one true, ‘real’ intimacy, and all else is a substitute. If we had romantic hopes for someone that were only reciprocated friendlily we might likely feel it a disappointment. It's worth interrogating why we feel this way, as well as why we can be so quick to let even old friendships fall by the wayside when we're enamoured by a relationship or why people can feel threatened by the platonic closeness of their partner and their friends. It can be a useful litmus test – does this person find the fact that I have a very close friendship group a positive or a negative? In a world where ‘owning’ someone romantically is what we see all the time, what we’ve grown used to internalising, the idea that somebody is able to have a lot of their emotional needs met elsewhere, and the independence and self-sufficiency this gives them, might be hard to accept – even though, in principle, it seems like exactly what we're told to seek from a partner, or what to become.
The way I feel about my friendships does border on the romantic, to be fair. I want to sing love songs for them. Ones about long evenings together, waking up together, cooking for them, long phone calls, expressiveness. I wake up at my friends’ house and put on their clothes to go home, take baths with them, get a late-night taxi over to them after an emergency, no questions asked. I love the easiness with which we can tell a close friend I love you, without the weight it can put on a relationship that is still finding its feet. I love that I feel accepted and cared for, that it is often easier to talk honestly with friends about our emotional needs and things within the relationship that are not working for us, and what we can learn from that. I want acknowledgement and acceptance that the intimacy I share with them might well be the greatest love story of my life. It’s not a prerequisite to adore the people I adore as much as I do or to have to try incredibly hard to become one of the group, but it is becoming increasingly important to me to acknowledge the importance of these friendships, to give them the space they deserve.
My friends and I are a tactile bunch, and their touch is important to me too, something I missed deeply during the lockdowns. Touch which never feels transactional or loaded and which is comfort, pleasure, expressiveness. Touch which doesn't ask anything of you, but simply is. The more time I give to platonic intimacy, the more I see how much it has to teach me about other kinds also.
Because all intimacies teach us not just about other people, but about ourselves. They make us examine what matters to us, what hurts us, where our tender parts and cold parts exist. Who we love and the ways we love are worth thinking about, wondering about, hopefully allowing us to grow. It’s tempting to think of platonic intimacy as almost a ‘safer’ version of intimacy, but then the biggest heartbreak of my life was when I lost a close friend, hurting more than any romantic break-up I had known. Platonic intimacy, then, requires us still to be vulnerable and to risk hurt, perhaps even more so because there’s not a myriad of reasons we can use in romantic situations when things don’t work out. If we don’t feel close to our friends or if a new platonic relationship fizzles out, it can feel like a rejection of ourself, another place to fall short. But at the same time, allowing ourselves to risk these things opens us up.