Friends With (Other) Benefits

Its intimate, its radical and its full of love… could a platonic life partner be what you need?

By Kate Wills

8 February 2023

nna Stephens, 38, a fashion merchandising manager from Surrey, says it was “love at first sight” when she met Lucy at Sussex University. After graduating in 2006, they started renting a flat together, then they saved up and bought a house in Crystal Palace together, and now they are the proud parents of two grey Burmese cats. But Anna and Lucy aren’t a couple, they’re best friends.

“I refer to Lucy as my ‘life partner’ and quite a few people have presumed we’re gay but it’s purely platonic,” says Anna. “I feel like we need another word for what we have because ‘just friends’ doesn’t really do us justice. Katie is my soulmate, my confidante, my family, my next of kin. It’s been the defining relationship of my life.”

Anna and Lucy are part of a growing number of people prioritising platonic relationships and choosing to buy homes or co-parent with friends, or live communally. On TikTok, the ‘platonic life partner’ hashtag has amassed over 15 million views.

“I’m noticing in recent years a real shift in attitudes among my clients towards ‘relationships’ and ‘friendships’,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. “Previously, these were viewed as two very different aspects of a person’s emotional life, but things are changing.

A client recently summed it up beautifully when she said – “I used to think that because I’ve been single a long time, I must have a problem with relationships. But I’ve realised friendships are relationships and when I think of it in those terms, I realise that I build strong, healthy and enduring relationships even if I’m single.’”

I think we’ll start seeing more rituals celebrating friendship such as commitment ceremonies between friends or ‘friendiversaries’, as we start to broaden our idea of what a family can be.”

The isolation that many single people felt during lockdown has contributed to the rising popularity of communal living. At the co-living space Norn in Shoreditch, people of many ages and walks of life cook together, eat together and share a co-working space. But if you still think of communes as hippy cults involving sex and lentils, think again. Norn feels more like a private members’ club-slash-house share, and it is expanding to more than 50 cities around the world.

“Over half of Brits aged 25-44 are now single, and the rise of the single positivity movement along with various other factors has meant that more and more people are settling down later, if at all,” says Burke.

“In this context, friends are replacing the traditional support system of spouse and nuclear family as a source of love, support and commitment. With the elevation of friendship to a role more akin in previous generations to a romantic partnership, people are expecting more from their friendships than may previously have been the case.

I think we’ll start seeing more rituals celebrating friendship such as commitment ceremonies between friends or ‘friendiversaries’, as we start to broaden our idea of what a family can be.”

Sophie Radden, 46, a chef in Hackney, had her son Lorcan in 2017 with her childhood best friend Roman. “Roman and I had always said that if we both got to 40 and hadn’t met anyone to have kids with then we’d do it together. A few weeks before my 40th birthday we turned what had been quite a hypothetical ‘what if?’ joke into a serious plan,’” she explains.

After two rounds of IVF she conceived Lorcan, and although friends and family suggested they draw up a legal arrangement, they kept things informal. “I trust Roman completely and I knew we would always see eye to eye, which is more than you can say for boyfriends and husbands,” says Sophie.

“We split everything 50/50 so there’s no arguments. Lorcan spends a week living with me and a week living with his father, and it works really well because we both love being with our son, but we also get a break from parenting to do our own thing.”

Strong platonic bonds can also blossom after romantic love dies away. Penny Wincer, a photographer from south London, shares a home with her ex-partner, even though they split up six years ago.

“Having two family homes in London was prohibitively expensive for us and our son is autistic so we wanted to keep his life as unchanged as possible,” she says. “At the beginning we thought it would just be an interim solution, but it worked so well that we’ve been doing it ever since. It’s been amazing for the children to have that consistency and it’s really nice to maintain a close relationship with my ex. There’s still love there, we just don’t sleep together any more.”

Study after study has shown that it’s the quality of our friendships, not our sexual relationships, that are the critical predictor of our wellbeing, so it makes sense that we invest in them.

The Short Stack

It's intimate, it's radical, and it's redefining relationships… could a platonic life partner be what you need?

By Kate Wills

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