Maintaining a platonic relationship
until you’re ready for romance

For six months I swore that we had a strictly platonic relationship. Everyone thought we were an item but I promised we were “just friends!” Why would they even think that?

Was it because we ate together in the cafeteria at every meal?

Was it how we saved each other a seat at chapel?

Or did they think that because we went surfing, swing dancing and sunset watching together whenever we got the chance?

I giggled at all his humor, his eyes lit up when he saw me coming and we had quite a few inside jokes. But seriously…we were just friends!   

I tried to stay in denial because I had recently made a commitment that I wouldn’t date anyone until I felt certain they were “The One”. I tried to believe my own lie until I was gluing together a hand-made Valentine card for him and felt the urge to write “I love you.”

That’s when I had to admit to myself and to him that I did not want a platonic relationship.  I wanted him to be my boyfriend. And so it was. That night we admitted our attraction towards each other and made it “official.”  

Many psychologists, sociologists and communication experts have done studies and books have been written to answer the question of whether or not a guy and a girl can maintain a platonic relationship.

Platonic, by the way, comes from a view held by the Greek philosopher Plato who advocated “pure, spiritual affection, subsisting between persons of the opposite sex, unmixed with carnal desires, and regarding the mind only and its excellences.” Or, more simply put, a "just friends" status with no romantic feelings.

There is mixed evidence out there as to whether or not two people can maintain a platonic relationship or whether eventually one or both will begin developing more than friendship feelings. Watch this little video to see what I mean. It's hilarious.

Despite the debate, it happens enough that if you want to avoid the often irrecoverable impact it has on the friendship and the awkwardness that accompanies it, here are some steps you can take to stay in the platonic relationship zone and guard yourself from the drama of a premature romantic relationship.

1. Don't cultivate intimacy without commitment: Keep emotional boundaries

If you know you're not ready for a serious relationship, or if your friend is definitely not someone you would want to marry, be wise—don’t invest yourself.

To bare your heart in an intimate friendship with someone of the opposite sex without an understanding that you are moving toward a lifelong commitment is to intentionally steer your friendship toward the edge of a cliff—it will be a miracle if you do not reap bitter heartache. Platonic relationships can work, but just not at a deep intimate level.

So how much intimacy is too much? This is a difficult question. How much can you give of yourself without risking your heart or theirs? Every person’s heart is different, but this diagram may prove helpful.

There are four levels of communication.

  1. Casual greetings = “Hi, how are you?” This type of communication is very general.

  2. Information = "Hey, do you know when our project for English class is due?" 

  3. Opinions = “Have you heard such-n-such a song? It's my favorite!”

  4. Feelings = “Sometimes I feel like I have no friends” and “I feel like taking a nap!” could both qualify. Communicating on this level, however, is much more bond-building than any previous level. But this level is where things start to get closer to our hearts because it represents our needs and fears.

When we communicate on this level, we build intimate bonds in a short amount of time and risk moving from a friendship to a romantic relationship.

So, how do we apply this to everyday life? It’s simple. If you want to build bonds, communicate on deeper levels, either in sharing yourself or in listening to someone else share themselves.

On the other hand, if you DON’T want to build bonds, or if you recognize that you are already closer than is wise, simply don’t communicate on those levels.

As Nicole Parker, a biblical counselor and friend of mine puts it, "If you cultivate those bonds, it is like watering a tree. Don’t be shocked if it puts down roots and begins to dominate your life. If you are doing this knowing that it is not wise for you to become more than friends, you are playing with matches beside a gasoline can. Often when an apparently innocent friendship suddenly bursts into lustful flames, the responsible parties are stunned and bewildered. All they did was light a match and boom, look what happened! But the warning signs were there all along."

2. Don't give mixed signals - be self aware

Flirtation has become a favorite pastime, a fun way to surf the hormonal waves for a stolen emotional high. This method of relating can become so automatic that a person can literally lose their ability to build non-flirtatious friendships.

But it gives totally mixed signals.

Have genuine conversations instead of teasing, touching and joking; measure your value by Christ’s sacrifice for you instead of your attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Sending mixed signals can also happen when you're just trying to be nice.

When I worked at a boarding school I saw often Bobby walking Julie back to her dorm. A nice gesture, sure, but I never noticed him doing that with other girls. He meant nothing by it but she started to wonder if he liked her because he was showing her special attention.

Joshua Harris encourages boys to practice being a man by being courteous to women, showing that you care, respect, and desire to protect them. He makes a comment to the women saying: “If you’re just friends with a man, and he’s trying to treat you like a lady, don’t assume he has romantic interest in you. One of the fastest ways to derail a man’s attempts to practice servant leadership is to interpret his actions as romantic overtures.”

This is great advice, however, I do caution girls to have their eyes open to see how they are treating other ladies. Are they doing these things for God’s glory, to serve their sisters in Christ and honor them as women, or are they doing it to merely impress you and win your heart? Of course you can’t read motives, but be on guard.

Using a platonic relationship to practice respect and courtesy are good, but do it for the right reasons.

3. Don't foster exclusiveness - stay in group settings

Leah and Elijah were close friends. They enjoyed hanging out together, and each had expressed to the other that they knew they could trust one another with secrets. So when Leah called Elijah and asked if they could get together to talk, he said yes without a moment’s hesitation. However, he was unprepared for Leah’s sobbing out the story of being sexually abused. “Please don’t tell anyone,” she begged. “I don’t think I could tell another soul.”

Aaron and Laina enjoy their youth group camp-outs, but one of the highlights is always the canoe trip. Both of them love to canoe, and it is sort of an unspoken agreement between them that they will always be canoe partners.

Whenever you share secrets, traditions, or regular alone times together, you're platonic relationship will develop into something more. If you don't want that to happen, don't foster exclusiveness. Stay in group settings, but don't do it just for the sake of appearance.

Inclusion must stem from a sincere desire to involve as many people as possible in fellowship and service. Don't think, "I really want to hang out with so-n-so, but that will look bad so let me think of some other people to invite!"

"Start with the final goal in mind – such as fellowship, service, prayer, or study of God’s word – then seek to involve others. When we find ourselves balking at including others, we need to ask ourselves whether friendship is the real motive of our relationship. (Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, p. 130)

4. Don’t shrug off warning signs - Practice Discretion

Fiona was definitely not Quentin’s type, so he was puzzled one day when he received a cryptic note from her. “So, are you interested or not?” Interested in what? True, he had gotten in the habit of giving her a friendly squeeze around the shoulders and a “So how’s it going, Fiona?” whenever he saw her, which had been rather frequently lately. It was nice of her to bring him strawberries—his favorite—the other day at church. And he had ended up walking with her for most of the bird-watching hike last week. She had been talking about her recent struggle with depression, and he had tried to encourage her. What was it she had said? “You’re so easy to talk to about everything. I bet you have tons of girls after you.” He had wondered what in the world she was talking about. But hey, girls were hard to understand sometimes. Now he was really confused. What could she mean by “interested”?

Sometimes avoiding relational trouble requires the gift of mind-reading. However, usually when realization suddenly dawns, suspicions have been brewing for some time. Not eager to face a delicate, uncomfortable situation, we prefer to scoff at our own inklings and go on about our business until—too late—a once-simple situation becomes complex.

Intuition may warn us that a person is trying to share deep feelings or build bonds with us. Simply reducing the intimacy of our interaction with someone (remember the circles of intimacy!) may be sufficient to avoid an otherwise-hurtful situation. If you see warning signs that a friend wants more than a platonic relationship take those warning signs seriously and practice more discretion in how you relate to them.

5. Don’t fall in love, crawl in- Pace yourself

Take time to build bonds with someone. Savor your platonic relationship; romance can build from there.

If you're not ready to find a husband or wife, you risk sacrificing your friendship on the altar of attraction or lust. Because that's what happens. As you may observe in high school (an ideal time to observe this kind of thing), lots of people go from being just friends to being boyfriend and girlfriend. But nobody goes from being boyfriend and girlfriend to being just friends.

They may break up, but they are never just friends again. The once platonic relationship can never go back to how it was. There's always this undertone of feelings and stuff.

Like pouring dye into a glass of water, romance is easy to add, but it can't be subtracted. Often a whole friendship is thrown away.  Some times people try to work through the awkwardness to become just friends again. But you never forget. You never truly can be "just friends" after you date somebody. And that's why you don't want to waste all those good friendships.

Also, when you rush, you may be blinded and miss important aspects of their character or lose perspective of what God’s will is.

We don’t need to live in fear of romance, on the contrary, we want to keep ourselves free from entanglements while we enjoy serving God without distractions during His “gift of singleness” and be ready for the day when He does give the green light for being swept or sweeping someone off their feet toward marriage.Until then, I hope these 6 guidelines will help you maintain healthy platonic relationships.

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