Beyond Platonic and Romantic Love: Toward Organic, Complex, Diverse, and Liberatory Love Relations
Love is without a doubt one of the single most powerful and enduring feelings ever experienced by the people of the world. In one form or another, it exists in every human society and arguably plays a role — either through its presence or its absence — in the development and flourishing of every human life from cradle to grave.
But what is love? There are as many definitions of love as there are lovers, and each one is at least to some degree unique. Which “love” are we talking about? What role does this love play in our lives, and how can we cultivate more fulfilling and liberatory love relations?
In order to answer these questions, let’s examine and deconstruct the primary division that has defined love, especially in Western culture, for generations — namely, the distinction between “platonic” and “romantic” love. Once we’ve taken a good look at both sides of the duality, we can use our newfound understanding of love to articulate a reconstructive vision for more fulfilling and liberatory love relations. Our intention in deconstructing and reconstructing love is not to develop a science or technology of love, but rather to explore our strongest feelings and most intimate relations from the inside out so that we can become artists of the heart rather than the unquestioning followers of cultural scripts and traditional roles that most of us are today.
The term “platonic love” refers to a love in which someone appreciates and cares for another based on purely emotional or spiritual traits such as a good sense of humor, shared interests in life, participation in the same work, play, or community, and so on. It is completely and expressly non-erotic, meaning that none of the desire to spend time together is rooted in the thrill of physical or sexual attraction. “Romantic love,” on the other hand, is an expressly erotic relation in which the lover desires to hold, touch, make love with, and generally remain in close physical and emotional contact with the object of their affections. Like platonic love, it is based on a certain cherishing and idealization of the other, but unlike platonic love this passion for the other is rooted in exoticism, mystery, and an often painful and uncritical desire to cling to the other and to define one’s self-esteem and identity according to the love relation.
From the very start, these concepts of platonic and romantic love have fundamental flaws that call the dubious benefits of their very existence into question. Platonic love sounds beautiful in theory, but in practice the idealism and blind universality involved in such love often leaves it as empty as it is abstract. Romantic love is even worse, relying on the cheap thrills of mystery and sexual excitement to fuel a consuming relation that is usually codependent in that romantics generally rely on their lover for their primary sense of self-worth and direction in life. Perhaps worst of all is the division itself, a line in the sand that pits camaraderie and intimacy against one another as opposite poles in the platonic versus romantic duality. With these problems springing forth from our society’s most fundamental assumptions about love, clearly there is need for change.
But change will not be easy. Having been born and raised in a society with very mechanical and scripted love relations, it is often difficult for us even to recognize the many effects that our concepts of love have had on our lives, much less seek to challenge those concepts and alter our beliefs and behavior for the better. Robust, healthy love relations are virtually impossible to initiate in contemporary society, at least in the short term, because we have not been socialized into them and have little or no understanding of them. Our emotional and mental habits and patterns are not accustomed to the spontaneity and complexity that have long been weeded out of our lives by rigid societal guidelines as to what constitutes which kind of love relation. It’s like trying to teach someone to swim who has never even seen a body of water before — yes, the capacity is there, but it is so underutilized that it will take time and effort to train ourselves in this new way of living and moving in the world.
However, all is not lost. Even in this society, there are many examples of moderately successful love relations that we can draw upon in developing our understanding and practice of new and improved love relations.
But what form will these love relations take? If we are to discard the platonic versus romantic duality, how can we understand what love is? Along those lines, I propose an entirely new understanding of love based on an elaboration of the following two interrelated concepts: simple love and deep love.
“Simple love” is the most basic type of care for another that is at the core of all love relations. It is characterized by a sincere interest in the life of another and a willingness to share in the joys and sorrows of another regardless of whether or not there is any direct personal gain involved in such sharing. This doesn’t mean that simple love is selfless — it just means that simple love recognizes that it really is in our nature and self-interest as social and spiritual beings to participate in the ups and downs of everyone else’s existence, just as they may participate in our own life and self-development.
Simple love is similar to platonic love in that it recognizes and cherishes the inherent meaning and value that defines all life. It involves a compassionate interest in the lives of others, and it focuses on and respects what is most beautiful in life — our uniqueness, our many forms of shared experience, our potential for great love and creativity, and so on.
Unlike platonic love, simple love does not reach this state of cherishing by relying on abstract ideals nor by ignoring the many flaws and weaknesses that are just as much a part of us as our potential for greatness. Some platonic lovers would say that such shortcomings detract from our pure experience of love, but to the simple lover these particularities of life are central to our ability to come to know and love all beings as unique and special individuals.
Platonic love also tends to have a very strict limit on intimacy. It defines love as purely non-erotic, generating a disdainful and almost unloving attitude about eroticism and even some non-erotic forms of physical and emotional intimacy. Simple love overcomes this obsession with the need for a purely spiritual bond by recognizing that physical and emotional intimacy are just as much a manifestation of love as the more spiritual attention to another that is desired by platonic love.
In the platonic versus romantic duality, the question of intimacy often leads to the problem of one person wanting a different sort or level of intimacy than another. This problem may always arise, but in the case of simple love, it is much easier to deal with. Since all forms of intimacy are seen as equally valid expressions of love, people who have different desires as to what form of intimacy is most appropriate between them can simply discuss the matter openly and come to a happy medium that is comfortable for all people involved. This ease of resolving potential heartaches is one of the most promising characteristics of simple love, and it is made possible by the fact that the love itself is seen as more important than the particular details of how exactly that love is manifested.
Once the concept of simple love is firmly established, it becomes necessary to move beyond it while still retaining the core characteristics of such love in all deeper relations. This is where we begin to develop a complimentary concept of love — not another pole in a duality like the platonic versus romantic division, but a deeper development of the very same sort of love, allowing various levels and depths of love all based on the same basic loving relation with others. This more complex and intimate form of relation is what I will call deep love.
On one hand, it is good and healthy to love everyone the same on some basic level. A minimum of simple love is the healthy relation to have toward all others; anything less indicates an inability to cope with strains on the love relation, whether such strains emanate from the other or from outside the relation. In other words, love is healthy, and hatred, apathy, etc. are defense mechanisms erected to protect oneself from the potential drain of loving others who are hurting.
On the other hand, the world is so full of variety and complexity in its life and love that it would be impossible and not in the least bit desirable to feel exactly the same way about everyone and everything. There are some people who we may never see at all, and yet feel a very basic and simple love for them on an almost abstract level, while there are other people who we may come to be in close contact with on a daily basis and make a commitment to stay close with them for the foreseeable future.
This is where the concept of deep love comes into play. As we spend more time with associates, friends, family, and lovers, we come to know them better than all other people and find ourselves experiencing a stronger, more complex, and more enduring sense of connection. It’s not that we love other people less, and it’s not even necessarily true that we love these people more, but we love them in a different, special way that is unlike our love for anyone else in the world.
Unfortunately, this most special form of love is often the most misunderstood. In a society where love is not abundant and people are haunted by violence and apathy, deepening feelings of love often lead to disastrous consequences. The fear, self-doubt, jealousy, anger, and hatred that have been spawned by the mutilation of deep love have been sources of everything from romantic suicide to entire wars of conquest. This is the dual role that romantic love has played in our lives; it is seen as both the only true source of deep love, and yet also the source of all of these desperate and very unloving torments. In order for us to understand and live a truly deep love that is free of all of these insane consequences, we must once and for all abandon the notion of romantic love and seek out a depth and complexity in love that is free of all of these bitter and violent attachments. We must develop an understanding of love that rejects the codependency of romance and allows us to develop through our love relations not as half-people waiting to find wholeness through romantic union, but as whole and complete individuals seeking to find self-actualization both within and without our deep spiritual relations with those around us.
What, then, is deep love? In the division between platonic and romantic love, romantic love could only be understood in opposition to platonic love. This opposing duality is completely alien to our new understanding of love. In the continuum of simple and deep love, deep love can only be understood as a deepening and a continuing of simple love. It is a simple love in which continued shared experience and a growing recognition of shared interests and paths in life lead to a deepened sense of connection and a growing sense of intimacy.
We can develop our understanding of deep love by exploring this continuum of growing intimacy. Romantic and platonic love’s shared understanding of intimacy is perhaps the greatest source of their downfall; in the case of simple and deep love, the understanding of intimacy must become the greatest triumph of our efforts to find fulfillment, depth, peace, and joy in love.
The most crucial aspect of our newfound understand of intimacy is also the way in which it most differs from our prior understanding — namely, the view that intimacy is a smooth, complex, organic continuum rather than a stark and dualistic chasm between platonic and romantic love. Not only are there many degrees of intimacy, there are also many types. Fully exploring and defining such degrees and types of intimacy is beyond the scope of this essay, but for the sake of initiating discussion on the topic I will briefly explain several types of intimacy that I have identified — physical, emotional, and mental — and focus in some detail on two of the most problematic and misunderstood intimacies — physical and emotional.
Physical intimacy is not that difficult of a concept to grasp, but understanding its exact role in human relations is a far more daunting task. Comforting physical touch is an essential part of the health and sanity of mammals, especially social mammals such as human beings. Infants will grow sick and fail to develop properly if they are not caressed and touched lovingly on an almost continuous basis, and even adults experience symptoms of sensory deprivation if they are not held and touched, at least a little, on a regular basis. Erotic and sexual intimacy are also incredibly important for adolescents and adults. This is the most animal and material form of intimacy, but that doesn’t prevent it from also being the most emotional, mental, and spiritual expression of love that we may ever encounter.
Emotional intimacy is also a fairly simple concept to grasp, but again it is often misunderstood. To varying degrees, it includes the communication and sharing of emotion, the desire for social and personal contact, and the intention to stay connected to the other in a very personal and enduring way. It does not necessarily entail any relation to eros or the erotic; it sometimes contains an erotic dimension, but there are many love relations in which emotions are shared at the deepest levels possible without any real desire for the sexual intimacy or emotional excitement that are generally associated with eroticism.
Mental intimacy is a little known form of intimacy in our largely anti-intellectual society. There are some love relations in which physical and emotional closeness run deep, but there is no great desire for intellectual stimulation. Conversely, there are some relations in which physical closeness is not really desired, and there may not be much emotional sharing, but a deep level of intellectual and philosophical communication and understanding takes place. This is what I would call mental intimacy — and while it is a deeply important topic that is of great interest to me, I will leave the exploration of mental intimacy for another day.
Now, back to physical intimacy. How does our newfound understanding of simple and deep love answer the question of physical intimacy in a way that is both true to lived experience and yet resolves our past difficulties on the subject?
Unlike in the currently prevalent view, physical intimacy is a continuum, not a duality between the erotic and non-erotic. This does not mean by any means that all physical intimacy contains an erotic component, nor does it mean that erotic physical touch is merely another form of comforting touch no different than shaking hands or hugging. What it does mean is that the tension between erotic and non-erotic touch is eliminated, and the concern presented over whether touch is platonic or romantic is therefore replaced with the direct experience and enjoyment of touch for its own sake without seeking to classify or constrain it beyond the organic feelings of all people involved in the touching.
This being said, there is still a distinction between certain types and degrees of touch. You would shake hands with a business associate, but shaking hands with a close relative instead of hugging or kissing them would seem rather odd. Similarly, having sexual intercourse with a life-long companion may seem perfectly natural, but erotic touch with a relative or a child would be inappropriate. Once physical intimacy is understood as a continuum, how do we understand such differences in light of the newfound unity and flexibility among different kinds of physical encounters?
There is no exact science to understanding any sort of intimacy, including physical intimacy. However, degrees of physical touch can be understood in an approximate continuum of increasing intimacy, with a simple pat or handshake being the least intimate while an ongoing relation of frequent erotic and sexual touch constitutes the deepest of physical intimacies. In between, we find hugging, cuddling, non-erotic kissing, erotic kissing, stroking and caressing, mutual masturbation, “casual” sexual intercourse, and every other form of physical contact in between. Where exactly all of these forms of contact are placed on the intimacy scale depends on both the culture and the personal feelings and preferences of the individuals involved.
Regardless of the particular details of which forms of touch you view as more intimate, the progression from simple to deep love is not reduced to the progression from the non-erotic to the erotic, nor the progression toward physical intimacy. For example, some of the deepest and most emotional love that you ever feel may be love for close friends or family members which will surely not progress into the realm of deeply erotic physical intimacy. This is a part of the welcome organic complexity and open-endedness of simple and deep love; rather than dividing the world into platonic and romantic relationships, this love allows us to share varying levels and types of intimacies with various individuals and groups without trying to force these feelings, experiences, and relations into two or several rigid categories.
This view on love also serves to shatter preconceived notions of the relations that gender, sex, and sexuality have to physical intimacy and to each other. When the barrier between the erotic and non-erotic is not so stark and dangerous, physical intimacy between people of the same and different sexes becomes more comfortable and safe. For example, someone can give a friendly kiss to a member of the same sex, hold hands with them, cuddle with them, and share other forms of physical intimacy without any worry that they will be seen as engaging in a homosexual relation. Beyond that, even if people did misunderstand the level of intimacy shared between two people in such a situation, thankfully the very nature of a love that rejects platonic and romantic distinctions makes the very notion of homophobia nonsensical! People of the same or opposite sexes can have any degree of physical intimacy that they desire without worrying that others will reject them for it or assume that they only share physical intimacy with the same or opposite sexes. As the work of Dr. Kinsey and countless others since indicates, sexuality is a continuum, not a rigid two- or three-pronged system of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. Through the combination of a contemporary understanding of sexuality and our new conception of simple and deep love, the currently rigid associations between sex and sexuality fade away — as do the ties between gender and sex, allowing all people to have whatever non-dualistic gender identity they choose regardless of the genitalia they may possess. Of course, if anyone desires to have stark gender identities or maintain a very clear barrier between erotic and non-erotic touch, they are more than welcome to do so! The difference with this new form of love is that such distinctions and boundaries will be a matter of conscious choice that are communicated, examined, and respected rather than a mishmash of unconscious and unreflective patterns that are not fully understood or accepted by anyone.
Emotional intimacy plays another crucial role in the formation of complex and unique relations. The most simple and low-level form of emotional intimacy is that of acquaintances — people who may know each others’ name, say hello to each other, see each other occasionally, but have no deep knowledge of or relationship to each other. A healthy person will have a simple love for all such people, and while they may not be very close to you, you will still tend to feel a little closer to such people than you do to total strangers. From here, the emotional intimacy deepens with people you see on a regular basis, people who you share enough in common with to call friends, people who you communicate with about your feelings and relations on a regular basis, and ultimately people who you feel the closest to, who you commit to remain close to, and who you share your deepest, darkest secrets with — not that deep love leaves you feeling compelled to keep many secrets!
One point to stress is that just as physical intimacy does not split itself into the stark duality of erotic and non-erotic touch, emotional intimacy cannot easily be classified in terms of friend versus lover. Some people will share the deepest emotional intimacy with their sexual partners, while others may share it with their family or friends. It doesn’t seem to be widely recognized or understood in this society, but even in absence of such understanding you can recognize many cases of “soul mates” or “partners” who clearly share the deepest of lifelong emotional bonds yet do not share sexual intimacy and do not call each other partners or lovers. With this attitude toward emotional intimacy, many people would be saved the heartache of being in a monogamous sexual relation with someone who they are primarily involved with for emotional intimacy, or the frustration of always having to share everything deep and personal with someone who they have a primarily physical involvement with. If these imbalances exist in relations, the flexibility of the many forms of simple and deep love will make them easier to recognize, discuss, and resolve with those involved.
Once again, this emotional intimacy illustrates the many ways in which deep love takes such a simple feeling of empathy and closeness and develops it into a rich variety of complex relations that all retain the beauty and care of simple love. In platonic and romantic love, there are really only two primary categories of emotional intimacy — the friend or family member, and the lover. With deep love, there are countless combinations: physically intimate friends who don’t communicate much about feelings, emotionally intimate friends who don’t engage in erotic or sexual touch, close friends or lovers who engage in both physical and emotional intimacy, and everything in between. This organic complexity and free-flowing differentiation allows love to become an art, just as a palette of many colors and an array of many materials make for better art than two simple black and white paints cans with a single brush on a single cloth canvas.
Now that we have discussed two of the most widely confused and debated forms of intimacy, a more complex and robust picture of this newly forming conception of love becomes clear. The relationship between physical and emotional intimacy leads us to not one, not two, but countless organically different and unique varieties of deep love. There is arguably a tendency for physical and emotional intimacy to increase roughly in unison. Once they become closer emotionally with someone, most people tend to hug, play, or cuddle with them more often, and once people become very close to each other, they often reach the deepest levels of physical and emotional intimacy at the same time through the act of love-making (as different from purely sexual relationships with little or no emotional intimacy). However, even this general tendency should never be allowed to strangle the development of unique and complex relations; some people may reach the deepest levels of emotional intimacy possible without even hugging very much, while others may have incredibly satisfying and frequent sexual relations without ever wanting or needing a deeply emotional relation. This illustrates once again that in the new understanding of love, it is the simple presence of love itself that is primary, with the varying levels and types of intimacy serving as a beautiful flowerbed with many blossoms of love rather than thick and thorny hedges to divide our experience of love into separate artificial categories.
In conclusion, I would like to stress that all of this discussion and questioning, even when these introductory thoughts and concepts are developed to their fullest some day, can only serve at best as a step in the right direction. After aeons of confusion and suffering surrounding the role of love in our lives, the only way that we can resolve our problems in this area fully is through direct experience. We must become the change that we seek by dismantling the categories that our society has enforced on us and working together with those who we love the most to clean up the catastrophic mess that has been left behind by these binding chains of culturally induced preconception. Only then, once the dust has settled and we have thrown off the shackles of a confused and oppressive society, can we begin to heal ourselves and walk arm in arm into a new world of love.
Treesong is a father, husband, author, talk radio host, and Real-Life Superhero. If you liked this post, check out Treesong’s books (fiction), Treesong’s Medium Page (mostly nonfiction), and Treesong’s Newsletter (updates, sales, new releases).