Book Summary: Platonic by Marisa Franco

Book Cover for Platonic by Marisa Franco

This summary of Platonic: How Understanding Your Attachment Style Can Help You Make and Keep Friends by Marisa Franco challenges some common assumptions about friends and explains how to form deep, rich friendships.

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Key Takeaways from Platonic

  • Platonic relationships are incredibly underrated:
    • Our culture puts romantic relationships on a pedestal and assumes single people are unfulfilled. In contrast, we talk about people being “just” friends.
    • Platonic relationships can be a source of great intimacy. But because our culture devalues friendships, we assume they should be “easy” and don’t put enough effort into them.
  • People have different attachment styles, which affect how they approach friendships (and other relationships):
    • Securely attached people assume they are worthy of love, so are not overly sensitive to rejection.
    • Anxiously attached people are afraid of being abandoned, so are too willing to please others to try and prevent this. They can end up being doormats, and their attempts may backfire and drive others away.
    • Avoidantly attached people are also afraid of being abandoned, but they respond by telling themselves they don’t need others. In doing so, they miss out on opportunities for intimacy.
  • How to be better a friend:
    • Take Initiative. We can be reluctant to take the initiative and reach out because we’re afraid of rejection. But studies show there’s usually a “liking gap” in that people like us more than we think.
    • Show Vulnerability. We often think people will like us if we come off competent and successful, but the opposite is true — we like people who show vulnerability.
    • Be Authentic. This isn’t the same as being “honest”. Being “authentic” means being your best self, not relying on any defence mechanism.
    • Deal with Conflict. Avoidants may be too ready to write off friends or ghost them in the face of conflict, while anxious people just ignore conflict.
    • Be Generous. Friendships should be give and take, but broadly equal over the long term. Boundaries are important, but there’s a difference between personal boundaries that protect one person and mutual boundaries that protect the relationship.
    • Show Affection. Affection strengthens friendships at all stages. In the early stages, it gives people the confidence to invest in a friendship.

Detailed Summary of Platonic

Friendships are underrated

Friendships have a profound impact on our mental and physical health. A study found that people tend to be happier spending time with friends than with their romantic partners or children because people have fun around friends, whereas they’re often doing mundane stuff with family.

One reason is because friendships are flexible. We can choose our friends, free from societal pressures and romantic feelings. And you can have many friends, which takes the pressure off.

Example: Harriet grows to value friendship

When Harriet was younger, she was career-driven. She moved multiple times to pursue jobs, disposing of friendships along the way. At that time, Harriet didn’t find friendships all that fulfilling. She had grown up on a farm, poor, and never felt like she fit in with the wealthy elites with whom her career surrounded her. As her friends argued over things like the colour of neighbours’ lawns, Harriet had to pretend like she cared, lest her friends figure out where she really came from.

After Harriet’s husband died, she attended counselling for the first time and learned how to be vulnerable. She then transferred this “skill” of vulnerability to her friendships. When she did, she experienced old friendships in new ways — some fell away, while others deepened.

Now, at 73, Harriet describes the way she’s come to value friendship as a sign that she’s finally “grown up”.

Friendships help us grow as people

Self-expansion theory posits that we need to constantly expand our identity to feel fulfilled. Relationships are the main ways in which we expand — when we get close to someone, we include them in our sense of “ourselves”, and things that they do feel a bit more possible.

Our friends advertise the kaleidoscope of ways we can live.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

Friendships can also help break down prejudices. Having high-quality friendships is correlated with greater empathy. Research finds that having one friend in an outgroup changes how people respond to that entire outgroup and increases their support of policies benefitting that outgroup. The benefits may extend even further—another study found that hostility decreases even if it’s just a friend of a friend in that outgroup.

A growing body of research also suggests that having quality friendships triggers oxytocin, which makes us more empathic, moral, and attentive in general.

Romantic vs Platonic relationships

We sometimes see romantic and platonic relationships as antagonistic—spending time with friends instead of with your partner (or potential partner, for single people). However, we don’t need to trade-off between the two. Research shows that people with stronger friendships also have stronger romantic relationships. Romances are healthier when people don’t feel pressure to be each other’s “everything”.

While most of us probably felt closer to a friend than to anyone else at some point, as we get older, we tend to deprioritise friendships. Our culture values romantic relationships more highly. It’s inherent in the way we speak—”just” friends vs “more than” friends. We often assume single people are not as fulfilled as they would be with if they had a partner.

Franco, too, used to see romantic relationships as superior to platonic ones. But after a promising relationship blew up in 2015, she formed a wellness group with her best friends and realised that she was surrounded by plenty of love—platonic love. So she wrote this book to change the way people think about friendship and its potential.

Friendships can be a source of great intimacy

Because our culture doesn’t value friendships, we generally don’t put much effort into them. We don’t even know how to cultivate friendships—advice on making friends tends to be shallow (e.g. join a meetup group, find a hobby). So we think of friendship as being happy hours and occasional lunch dates.

We see romantic relationships as the appropriate relationship to hitch a flight to see each other, toil through tension, or nurse each other back to health. We see family as appropriate relationships to move across the country for or to stay committed to.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

But even though most friendships aren’t as close as romantic or sibling relationships, they can be. Franco refers to the friendship between Rachel and Gabby as an example. They love each other deeply and display a level of affection on par with that normally seen in romantic relationships—they held “friendship ceremonies” complete with rings and cuddle with each other. Gabby admits she’d previously questioned if she felt physical attraction to Rachel, but she didn’t. They each have their own romantic partners. [Another example is Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s intense (and highly productive) friendship in The Undoing Project.]

It’s easy to neglect our friends. Friendship takes energy that we don’t feel like we have when we’re already juggling work, family and health. But it’s worth the effort. Many studies show how beneficial friendships can be. Franco also describes how, when she felt lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic, her sporadic “walking dates” with friends filled her with life and energy to get through all the work and chores she had to do.

We used to value friendships more highly

The Ancient Greeks saw friendship as the key to flourishing. The term “platonic love” is based on Plato’s vision of a love more powerful and superior to romantic love. It was a love that transcended the physical — a love of someone’s soul, not their body.

People used to expect friendships would be closer than marriages because men and women were “too different” to truly understand each other. (Even today, both genders report having more in common with best friends than with their lovers. One study also found that women tend to experience more intimacy with their same-sex best friend than with their lover.)

In Abraham Lincoln’s era, intimate friendships were not uncommon. Lincoln himself was extremely close friends with a man named Joshua Speed—they slept in the same bed, cared for each other when one got sick, and wrote loving letters to each other. Their relationship was so intimate that many have speculated it was sexual, but attitudes towards friendship and homosexuality were very different back then. (See Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln by Charles Strozier for more.)

Though sex between men was strictly forbidden, intimacy (including sleeping together) was fully accepted and even encouraged. Straight men would start letters to each other with “Dearly Beloved”. Because homosexuality wasn’t an ‘identity’ back then, people felt free to show affection without worrying about seeming gay. After sexual orientation became an identity in the 19th century, friendships grew far less intimate. Male friendships particularly suffered from homohysteria (the fear of coming off as gay).

Loneliness has grown, but admitting it is still taboo

Before 1800, the word “lonely” described the state of being alone, rather than the pain involved. It acquired its present meaning as industrialisation grew and people left their homes, communities and friends to work in factories.

Our community bonds have continued to weaken. A 2013 meta-analysis of 277 studies found that friendship networks had been shrinking for the previous 35 years. Four times as many people reported having no friends in 2021 compared to in 1990. We don’t need people as much anymore — we can keep ourselves entertained by watching TV and we can call an Uber to pick us up from the airport instead of relying on friends.

Around 60% of Americans now confess to feeling lonely. But admitting it in public is still taboo.

Different Attachment Styles

The first step to developing rich friendships is understanding what might be getting in the way. This requires us to understand our attachment style. [The book contains a quiz to help you find your attachment style.]

There are three major attachment styles:

  • Securely attached people assume they are worthy of love.
  • Anxiously attached people fear being abandoned, and respond by being clingy people-pleasers.
  • Avoidantly attached people also fear being abandoned, and respond by distancing from others.

It’s like a spectrum. Most people have a primary attachment style but still show patterns of other styes. For example, when we’re stressed we’re more likely to show insecure patterns. Even if we never reach full security, we can grow more secure.

We initially form our attachment styles according to our early relationships with our caregivers. Genes also play a role. The extent to which attachment styles can change throughout our lives is unclear — one study found 72% of people had the same attachment style throughout their lives, but another study found only 26% did (both were small studies). Franco believes that our expectations about people can evolve over time. Each new relationship can change our attachment style, depending on how we perceive it.

It’s important to remember that our perceptions are shaped by our existing attachment styles. The same statement or action can be perceived in very different ways by a securely attached vs an insecurely attached person.

Attachment is what we project onto ambiguity in relationships, and our relationships are rife with ambiguity.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

Our assumptions are often self-fulfilling prophecies. There’s evidence to suggest that people are not inherently trustworthy or untrustworthy, but that they become trustworthy if we treat them as such.

Secure attachment

The default assumption of secure people is that they are worthy of love and others can be trusted to give it to them. This unconscious belief affects all of their relationships. While secure people are optimistic, they aren’t delusional—they’ll update their beliefs when the evidence shows otherwise.

Occasionally, a secure person’s trust will get breached. However, they’ll likely be less impacted by the harm than an insecurely attached person, as securely attached people tend to be more resilient and better able to deal with stress.

As a result of their optimism and resilience, secure people are more willing to take risks that are vital for successful friendships—initiating, raising issues, and being vulnerable (discussed further below). They’re also better at dealing with conflict when it arises.

Consider how your response would differ if someone stole your lunch and you had a refrigerator stocked with food at home versus if that was all the food you had.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

In short — when people feel secure, they show many positive qualities that strengthen relationships.

Anxious attachment

Anxiously attached people assume others will abandon them. To try and prevent this, anxious people can be clingy, to the point they lose their own sense of self. They are more likely to become ‘martyrs’ as they fear that voicing their own needs will drive others way. This leads to co-dependent relationships.

However, the anxious person’s needs don’t magically disappear—their feelings are more likely to leak out passive-aggressively. Sometimes they’ll erupt in a temper tantrum if the pressure builds too much.

Anxious people try to build intimacy quickly—too quickly. Secure people modulate their disclosures depending on the relationship and the other party’s reaction. Anxious people on the other hand disclose indiscriminately, and are prone to oversharing. They can grow close bonds just as easily as secure people, but their relationships tend to be more fragile and volatile.

Anxiously attached people are hypersensitive to rejection. They’re more likely to see rejection when it doesn’t exist, assume negative intent and take things personally. When rejection does happen, they’re more affected by it. Brain scans shows that anxious people experience the same events fundamentally differently and more painfully.

Avoidant attachment

The avoidantly attached are also afraid others will abandon them. Most avoidants learn from an early age that other people will let them down. So instead of being clingy, avoidants keep people at a distance. They leave relationships before others have the chance to abandon them. Avoidants are less likely to stay in touch with friends who move or change jobs.

Avoidants also put up rigid boundaries in their friendships—they are less likely to mix friends from different circles or contexts, such as inviting a work friend home. This is a self-protective mechanism—if each friend only plays a small role in an avoidant’s life, they’re less dependent on any particular friend.

Our individualistic society can encourage avoidant behaviour. Thick-skinned, nonchalant, unfeeling people are “cool”. One former avoidant confessed he used to see friendships as being about power—the person who cares the least “wins”, and rejecting others made him feel powerful. Avoidants are also more likely than other types to bury themselves in their work and find happiness there—an attitude that is similarly vaunted by society.

When we allow people to see only our strong side, our “jolly” side, or our sarcastic side, attachment is at play.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

Many avoidant behaviours hurt others. Not only do avoidants feel the need to look strong and avoid feelings, they expect it from others, too. They may find others’ need for support “weak” or “pathetic”. When an avoidant feels emotionally overwhelmed, they withdraw, frustrating those close to them.

An avoidant’s behaviours also hurts themselves. They might feel safer keeping others at a distance, but they experience less intimacy as a result. Avoidants also tend to repress emotions, which impacts their physical health. Studies find that avoidant attachment is correlated to poorer immune functioning, severe headaches and chronic pain.

How to have better friendships

Initiative

Friendships as an adult don’t happen organically

Many of us mistakenly assume that friendships happen organically and effortlessly. It may have in the past—high school and college provide physical proximity and shared vulnerability, which are conducive to friendships. Physical proximity lowers the costs of seeing someone, which helps friendships get past the early stages. However, most people find it much harder to make friends as an adult, especially if they move to a new city where people already have established friendship groups.

To make friends as an adult, one person has to take the initiative and ask the other person to hang out. Believing that friendships happen organically keeps us from making friends, because we’ll be less intentional about it.

Taking initiative is risky, as it opens us up to rejection. We may have to try repeatedly. It feels much safer to build friends via “magnetism”—being so likeable that other people initiate friendship with you— but this is far less effective. It’s not really fair, either, as you’re just shifting the burden onto the other person. But you don’t have to wait around hoping someone will choose you. You can take initiative and do the choosing.

Assume people like you

Studies show we systematically underestimate how much others like us. This liking gap becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—if we expect rejection and respond by withdrawing, it makes others more likely to reject us.

Secure people are less likely to make this error. They generally assume people like them, because they feel positively about themselves and believe they are worthy of love.

So you should simply assume people like you. It may not always be true but if you can’t pinpoint any particular behaviours that suggests someone doesn’t like you, you’re probably being overly cynical.

How to initiate friendships

One way to initiate is by going to meetups and networking events. This doesn’t mean just showing up—you have to engage with people when you get there.

Continuous social events (e.g. a book club, language class) tend to be more fruitful than one-off events because of the mere exposure effect. You can also benefit from mere exposure by becoming a regular at your local coffee shop, bar or gym, or getting involved in an organisation you care about. Mere exposure goes both ways—people will unconsciously like you more as exposure increases, and you’ll like them more too.

But mere exposure doesn’t build relationships—you still have to initiate. A simple way to do this is the “insight and question method”: just share a statement or insight and ask a question to follow up. For example, “This drink tastes so good. How is yours?”

You can also initiate with people you already know—reach out to old friends, ask a co-worker for a coffee, or say “hello” to your neighbour.

Initiating can be truly scary, especially if you don’t get results right away. However, even if you initiate many times without making any friends, don’t write yourself off. Reward yourself for the process/attempt instead of the outcome. You’re still building up a new skill. Over time, your anxiety should diminish as you repeatedly expose yourselves to your fears. [See also Behaviour Change is a skill.]

Vulnerability

Friendships help us recover from shame

Vulnerability involves sharing the true parts of ourselves that we feel shame over. Shame is the sense that our secrets make us unworthy of human connection and cause others to reject us. It feels excruciating because it cuts us off from humanity.

The things that trigger shame will be different for each person. Examples include:

  • Getting fired. We may feel shame not because we screwed up but because, in screwing up, we alienated ourselves from everyone who hasn’t.
  • Being gay. Franco describes a gay man who only started feeling like his “true self” after coming out.
  • Obsessing over a guy. One woman felt shame for obsessing over a guy, because she liked thinking of herself as a strong independent woman.

We might suppress negative feelings in the hopes that they will disappear, but the opposite is usually true. We become more preoccupied by the thoughts we try to suppress, which ends up magnifying the shame. This is true even for avoidants—avoidants are more shame-prone and tend to be really good at suppression. But even avoidants have a breaking point. And when they finally crack, their self-esteem is suffers more than for the other types (possibly because they’re beating themselves up for not suppressing enough).

The only way to feel human again is by confiding in another person. If our friends still accept us, we learn our disappointments don’t make us unhuman, and we come to accept our flaws as just a part of who we are.

Vulnerability is risky and scary

Showing vulnerability is risky. Brené Brown points out it take courage and strength to reveal secrets. Secure people find it easier to show vulnerability because they know they matter. Franco admits vulnerability hasn’t always been easy for her. Even when she intellectually understood the importance of vulnerability, it’s still scary.

Sometimes we share our vulnerability in a flippant, unemotional way to try and reduce the risk of a hurtful response. [I am totally guilty of this.] However, this tends to increase the chance of a dismissive response. It’s not that people don’t care—they simply may not sense that they need to be sensitive in that moment. When what we’re saying doesn’t match our non-verbal cues, it heightens the risk of misunderstanding.

A healthier way to mitigate the risks of showing vulnerability is by practising self-compassion. When we accept ourselves, others’ acceptance matters less. Many of our fears around vulnerability are caused by inaccurate assumptions of how others will view us. But it turns out that people don’t judge us for our flaws as much as we think. Much of what we assume others will think of us is really a projection of how we judge ourselves.

Vulnerability can strengthen friendships

Vulnerability may be scary, but it’s worth the risk. Without vulnerability, there’s a ceiling in friendships you can’t really exceed. Your friends’ love and support is not based on knowing all of you, so their acceptance does not have as strong an impact.

People often like us more when we show vulnerability because they see us as authentic and honest. Vulnerability also conveys that we like and trust the person we’re interacting with.

[W]hen you come to know someone deeply, you understand how their unlikable parts are hurt parts, and then these parts endear you rather than repel you.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic
Be vulnerable with the right people—don’t overshare

Healthy vulnerability is contextual. We only share with people that we like and trust, and we do so gradually as we build trust. Oversharing, by contrast, is indiscriminate. We just want to get something off our chest, and any listener will do. Or we may overshare to try and draw a person closer to us and fend off rejection.

But oversharing in this way is a defence mechanism—and can backfire. If we overshare with people who don’t have the broader context of who we are, their view of us is reduced to whatever we share. And if we share with people who hurt us, it can lead to a toxic cycle where we keep going back to them because we value validation from them more than from anyone else.

It can be hard to know who to trust, since research shows we frequently misjudge others’ responses. The author recommends “scaffold vulnerability”— first, share with a trusted person you know will respond with empathy. Then, once you’re feeling more secure, share that same secret with a friend you’re less sure about. If you don’t have a trusted friend you know will respond well, start with a therapist or mental health hotline. Every time your vulnerability is met with love and acceptance, you’ll grow slightly more secure.

Men and vulnerability

One reason men struggle to form close friendships is because they struggle with vulnerability. Men often include a third object or activity in their friendships to avoid having to face each other and show vulnerability.

When men get upset, they’re more likely to express it through anger or dominance than vulnerability. But Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, explains that demanding, critical, and angry people suffer from intense loneliness. Dominance and vulnerability can’t co-exist, because vulnerability requires acknowledging the other person’s power. One study found that people who dominate others aren’t as happy in their relationships as those who build equal relationships. [This reminded me of the distinction between vertical and horizontal relationships in The Courage to Be Disliked.]

Vulnerability says explicitly, “I acknowledge you have power over me, and I’m hoping you’ll use it kindly.” Dominance says, “You have no power over me. I have power over you.”
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

The stigma against men showing vulnerability seems to be perpetuated by other men. A 2013 study found that men negatively viewed other men expressing vulnerability, but women did not. So vulnerability is more risky for men, because other men can respond with bullying and teasing.

However, as men get older some realise that suppressing emotions doesn’t work. Supportive spaces where men can be vulnerable do exist, but finding them can be hard. If you want to bring more vulnerability to your male friendship, you’ll probably have to go first.

Example: A life-changing men’s retreat

Lucas Krump was a “masculine” guy. By all appearances, he had a good life so it took a long time for him to realise he felt lonely and sad. When his grandparents, who he’d been close to, died, he didn’t go to their funerals because he was living abroad. Instead, he suppressed his grief.

At some point, the grief caught up to Lucas and he was admitted to a mental hospital. A therapist told him that he needed to build up a community of men to support him, as he didn’t have anyone in his life with whom he could be truly vulnerable. So Lucas tried various men’s organisations, but nothing really fit. They all had some religious or spiritual aspect that he disliked.

Eventually, Lucas stumbled across a weekend retreat for men, which turned out to be life-changing. He saw other men tear up and share their feelings. In an “anger ceremony”, everybody spread out across the forest and screamed. Lucas realised that it was normal for men to have feelings, and that staying silent took a large toll.

The retreat Lucas went on has grown, and is now called EVRYMAN. It includes online groups as well as in-person retreats, programs and activities.

Authenticity

What is authenticity

Authenticity is not the same as “rawness” —doing whatever we want or saying whatever we think. Franco uses the definition of “authenticity” as “acting in accord with the true self”. This means acting from a place of safety, when our defence mechanisms are not triggered.

Defence mechanisms may feel authentic because they happen reflexively, but they’re really just our attempt to escape a threatening feeling. For example, to escape a feeling of insignificance, we may try to dominate others. To escape guilt, we may overextend ourselves. To escape tension, we may withdraw.

Authenticity is acting intentionally and mindfully, rather than primally or reactively. Our authentic self is not our “everyday” self, but our “highest” self.

Authenticity protects the relationship

Some behaviours protect ourselves, while others protect the relationship. When we feel insecure or fearful, we narrow our focus and protect ourselves. When we feel secure, we can act to protect the relationship and accommodate the other person’s needs, even if it means leaving ourselves defenceless. We can be more present, talk more openly, and be more engaged.

For example, say a friend’s joke hurts you. An insecure, defensive response might involve devaluing the relationship, telling yourself you’re being too sensitive or firing back an insult. An authentic response, on the other hand, recognises the hurt without acting out in defence.

Authenticity doesn’t mean ignoring your own needs and deferring to your friend entirely (that can be its own sort of a defence mechanism). Instead, authenticity involves mutuality—considering the other person’s needs alongside our own, to see the bigger picture.

Inauthenticity takes a toll

Many of us believe we need to be someone else to be liked. The bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, for example, advises us to ingratiate ourselves to others—smiling at other people, using their names, and getting them to talk about themselves. This can be manipulative. Inauthenticity exacts a psychological toll—it’s linked to depression and lower self-esteem.

Rather, Franco argues we should build security so that warm behaviours flow naturally. Some rejection is inevitable—being inauthentic can’t change that. But focusing instead on being authentic and secure helps us better deal with rejection.

Friendships across different levels of privilege

Unfortunately, when people from disadvantaged groups act as their true selves, their behaviours can be misinterpreted. Studies have shown that Black people’s expressions are more likely to be misinterpreted as anger compared to a White person’s. Similarly, women who assert their ideas and advocate for themselves are liked less than men who do the same.

People from disadvantaged groups can therefore feel great pressure to act inauthentically (e.g. code-switching). Franco confesses that when she’s befriended White people, she’s often downplayed her experiences as a person of colour.

Building healthy and intimate friendships across privilege involves three Vs:

  • Vetting. Choosing friends who believe in the worth and dignity of the group you identify with.
  • Vulnerability. Bringing your full self to the friendship, including your experiences as a member of a disadvantaged group.
  • Voice. Expressing concerns related to your group as they arise in friendship. This can be really hard, but is necessary for people from disadvantaged groups to be fully authentic in their friendships with more privileged people.
Example: Franco’s friendship with Paula, a White woman

Franco vetted and practised vulnerability around Paula. She talked about experiences she would ordinarily censor around White people. Paula seemed like a generally enlightened individual who understood some of the racial issues Franco faced.

But in other moments, Franco realised there were unbridgeable gaps in interracial friendships. One involved Paula making a passing comment that triggered past instances of prejudice. Franco debated whether the comment was worth addressing with Paula. She felt tempted to just swallow it and avoid the difficult conversation.

In the end, Franco did address the comment. She did so in service of the friendship— to create space for healing and, hopefully, stop it coming up again. Issues that aren’t brought up will fester and weaken the friendship. It’s why voice is so important.

The power dynamic in a friendship across different privilege levels is inherently tilted through no fault of either party. Since disadvantaged groups consistently have to take the perspective of the privileged group to function, but not vice versa, mutuality in the friendship should correct for the inherent power dynamics. This means the more privileged friend should make more of an effort to listen and empathise with the other party when they express issues, particularly in disagreements related to race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any identity group divided on axes of privilege.

Some people from disadvantaged groups decide it’s not worth the effort to be friends with people from more privileged groups, especially after they’ve said something problematic. Franco suggests stepping back and weighing up whether the friendship is doing more good than harm overall. For some, having to be inauthentic in the friendship may be too great a price. But for others, the friendship may be worth it. Sometimes one person may just need a break from the friendship in moments they feel particularly triggered, and “hibernate” amongst members of their own group until they feel safe.

As noted above, research shows that friendships across different groups is one of the best ways to break down prejudice. While Franco would love to see more friendships across privilege groups, she acknowledges that some will be in a better position to do this than others. It’s okay if some people from disadvantaged groups choose to befriend only those in their own group because they can’t bear the pain of inauthenticity.

Conflict

Conflict in relationships is healthy

Neither lashing out (“anger out”) or suppressing anger (“anger in”) are great long-term strategies. Both strategies increase resentment and harm our relationships— they are correlated with hostility, depression and anxiety.

Virginia Goldner explains there are two types of safety in relationship:

  • Flaccid safety arises when we ignore anger and conflict, pretending problems don’t exist. It may feel comfortable in the moment, but doesn’t incite positive change.
  • Dynamic safety arises when conflict gets addressed. There may be an ongoing cycle of breakdown and repair. This type of safety fosters true intimacy.

Expressing anger can therefore benefit relationships. It signals that we’re invested enough in the relationship to raise an uncomfortable issue, and addressing conflicts can prompt positive changes.

Conflict is one of the only times we get honest feedback about ourselves. Either we bat that away with defensiveness, or we use it to grow as a person.

We are more likely to avoid conflict with friends than romantic partners

We tend to view friendship as light-hearted and trivial—it’s just a friend, it doesn’t matter. Studies show we are more likely to avoid problems and hold in anger and other negative emotions with friends than with romantic partners. Most of us expect marriage to be hard and full of conflict, but we don’t expect the same for friendship. So when an issue arises, we tell ourselves to get over it or we express our anger indirectly by demoting our friend.

The only test for whether an issue is worth addressing is if it continues to bother you. You can let things go if it’s just a fleeting annoyance, but even small, offhand comments can be worth addressing if they bother you. There’s no objective criteria.

[W]hatever hurts you hurts your friendship because you’re a participant in it.
—Marisa Franco in Platonic
How to address conflict

People who are good at conflict tend to be more popular and less depressed or lonely. Being “good at conflict” doesn’t mean being good at debating or winning arguments—it means listening, admitting fault (where appropriate), de-escalating, and taking the other person’s perspective.

Secure people approach conflict as a way to get both parties’ needs met. Not only do they soothe their own feelings and defensive triggers, they soothe the other party’s, too. Anxiously attached people, on the other hand, will feel tempted to avoid the conflict by downplaying their needs and apologising for things they shouldn’t.

Avoidantly attached people also have difficulty with conflict due to their discomfort with emotions. They’re more likely to end friendships, especially indirectly (e.g. ghosting). While some friendships truly are not worth maintaining, Franco recommends zooming out past the immediate conflict and looking at whether the friendship on the whole is more harmful than helpful. You can also look at whether there are aspects worth salvaging—perhaps you still want that friend in your life, but at a lower dose.

[I’ve omitted a lot of practical advice here because it overlapped with Difficult Conversations, which deals with conflict resolution more thoroughly.]

Generosity

Generosity involves giving to others (objects, time, or attention) without expecting anything in return.

A common misconception is that popular people are selfish or mean. Being mean might bring status, it doesn’t lead to friendship. Studies find that it’s the generous kids that are more liked by their peers. Generous people have closer relationships, more friends, and more support during difficult times.

Community involves responsibilities to others

Historically, a defining characteristic of community has been a sense of responsibility to others. This has been diminishing over time, and the Internet has exacerbated it. We can build online relationships based on shared interests without accountability to one another.

You can join the seltzer Facebook group, geek out on your shared love of carbon dioxide, but no one has to drive you to the hospital when the Soda-Stream rolls off the counter and clubs your foot.
— Marisa Franco in Platonic

[Interesting point. I think it depends on how you approach the Internet, as I’ve known people who have built online friendships that do involve obligations—maybe not driving each other to the hospital, but providing emotional support. Yet I also believe Franco is right to point out that Internet communities can provide a faux sense of community that is not the same as true community.]

Communal vs individual boundaries

A popular Instagram post said you should feel comfortable saying, “I’m not available. Please find someone else for support.” in response to a friend’s request. These kinds of boundaries are appropriate with someone we don’t know well but the rules change depending on the closeness of the relationship.

The deepest and most significant relationships in our lives are communal relationships. In such relationships, we show up and give in times of need, even if it costs us.

Individualistic boundaries destroy communal relationships because they say you’ll always prioritise yourself. For a friendship to flourish, we need to know that when really we need them, our friend won’t text back, “I am currently unavailable.” It can’t be an opt-in situation, where our friend only offers support when they feel fully rested and comfortable.

Communal boundaries are less binary. They take into account both parties’ needs and the context—they protect the relationship, not the individual. Communal boundaries ask, “considering both our needs, whose are more urgent?” Communal boundaries should be mutual. We shouldn’t extend ourselves for friends who use individualistic boundaries on us.

Generosity is not the same as self-sacrifice or fawning

The more we give, the less we have left. Generosity is not the same as self-sacrifice —giving until there’s nothing left. One study found that unmitigated givers were more likely to be depressed because they struggled to assert their own needs.

Self-sacrifice is not great for relationships, or for ourselves. It leads to burnout, resentment and bitterness. The recipients of our excessive giving may also feel uncomfortable if we resent them for something they didn’t ask for. While a meta-analysis found higher well-being in romantic relationships where people were motivated to give, self-sacrifice was correlated with slightly worse well-being, especially if they self-sacrificed in particularly costly ways.

Generosity is also different from fawning. You’ve probably heard of fight, flight, or freeze in response to trauma. Fawning is an additional one—trying to get others to like you so they’ll stop hurting you (aka “people-pleasing”). It’s a survival strategy the anxiously attached favour.

The problem with fawning is that it muddles our reasons for giving. We should give because we love, not because we’re trying to earn love. When giving is done out of fear or insecurity, our generosity backfires. We give to the wrong people—who may not even like us—and might end up giving until there’s nothing left. If someone withholds love, it’s healthier to just walk away. It’s not your fault they don’t love you and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.

Ask as well as give

We must ask for things from our friends as well as give. Asking for what we need strengthens relationships because it wards off resentment and protects us from burnout. If one person in a relationship is comfortable asking for help and the other is not, the friendship will become unbalanced. Our goal in a relationship should be aligning own interests with the other person’s so that both are benefiting from the relationship.

Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments.
— Neil Strauss as quoted in Marisa Franco in Platonic

Avoidants are less prone to excessive giving than the anxiously attached, but they struggle to ask for and receive support. Instead of turning toward others in times of need, they withdraw.

Mutuality means that generosity should equal out in the long run. Sometimes one person will be prioritised when they have more urgent needs, but in the larger scheme of things it should equal out. You can assess whether or not a relationship is one-sided by asking yourself if you’re always the one reaching out, seeking support, or being vulnerable. If so, bring up the issue and adjust expectations.

We cannot offer mutuality to everyone

Mutuality is built up gradually, in the course of a strong and stable friendship. Our expectations should be gradual, too. Putting too much pressure on a budding friendship may drive others away. You can’t force love.

Generosity isn’t binary—I should always give, or I have nothing to give—but should be in proportion to the depth of our friendships. You shouldn’t feel guilty for saying “no” when a friendship isn’t that important to you.

That said, knowing who our friends are can be hard. Research finds that half our friends don’t consider us friends. [Wow. If true, that’s sad.] Technology and social media have made things more confusing by creating a loose-tie culture. We have more “friends” than ever, but we let algorithms decide who we follow—i.e. whoever happens to be most active on our preferred platform.

Affection

Affection makes another person feel valued and loved. It can take the form of compliments, encouragement, appreciation, etc.

Studies show that affectionate people do better on a range of health and social outcomes—they’re less depressed, happier, more self-assured, have fuller social calendars, and lower cholesterol, cortisol, and blood pressure. [I wonder how much of this comes down to being more secure in general, though.]

We don’t always feel comfortable expressing affection

Even when we feel deep love for friends, we might not feel comfortable expressing it because we don’t always know if our friends are as invested as we are. Friendship is naturally more informal and flexible than romantic relationships. As such, it’s riskier to show affection.

We also worry that affection comes off as weird. When Franco taught a class that helped students become therapists, she made students practise expressing things they liked about each other. Inevitably, students would worry that they’d freak others out or come off as desperate or clingy. However, these fears never came to pass. The exercise transformed the class dynamic for the better—it brought students closer.

The avoidantly attached are more reluctant to express affection. Dana, an attorney, explains that she’s always tried to surpass others with her intelligence and be seen as special. This made it harder for her to compliment others, because acknowledging that they were special might mean she’s less special herself.

We can feel romantic love in friendships

Another reason we hesitate to express affection is because our culture finds it hard to separate non-familial love from sexual love. If we express love for our friends, we might be accused of being sexually attracted to them.

There are different forms of love:

  • Platonic. Appreciating and liking someone.
  • Romantic. Heady passion and idealising someone.
  • Sexual. Wanting to have sex with someone.

We can feel these types of love separately. It’s therefore possible to feel romantic love in a friendship (“romantic friendship”) without any sexual desire. In writing Platonic, Franco interviewed various best friends who appeared to share some degree of romantic love for each other. They’d be excited about and territorial of each other, idealise each other, or want to spend all their time together.

Our culture today conflates romantic and sexual love. This can leave people feeling ashamed and confused by the love they feel for friends. Instead of expressing their love, they bury it. This was not always the case. Throughout history, romance arguably played a stronger role in friendship than in marriages.

As noted above, people used to think that men and women were too different to truly connect, and sexual behaviours weren’t considered part of one’s identity before the 19th century. But when psychiatrists started classifying same-sex love as a sexual disorder, it led to the rise of homophobia as we know it today. Affection in friendship fell, especially for straight men. Today, some men feel compelled to clarify “no homo” when hugging or appreciating their friends.

Friendships at all stages benefit from affection

Affection brings people closer at all stages of a friendship. Expressing affection can help us make new friends and get closer with them existing ones. A study by Robert Hays in the 1980s tracked potential friendship duos and found that the key difference between successful and unsuccessful pairs was in the level of expressed affection. When we don’t express affection, we risk losing our friendships.

Affection seems to make friendships stronger because people like those who like them. As noted above in the “Initiative” section, we might try to make friends through magnetism, wowing others with our irresistible personalities. But people report that being entertaining or persuasive was the least important quality in a friend. The most important quality was that a friend made them feel good about themselves.

Affection makes our friends feel safe

Making friends is about making people feel safe, often by expressing affection. Affection signals that you love and value your friend. Sandra Murray, a professor of psychology, developed risk regulation theory which is the idea that before investing in a relationship, people want proof we won’t reject them. We give them this proof by showing affection. So instead of asking why others don’t want to invest in us, we should consider whether we’re making them feel safe enough to.

Affection strengthens friendships even when we’re upset with our friend. Showing affection while bringing up a concern makes the other person more receptive to it. They’re less likely to go into self-protective mode if they feel safe and secure.

People receive affection in different ways

Franco lists various ways we can express affection, such as complimenting, smiling, or telling friends what you appreciate about them. A noteworthy way to show affection is by sharing excitement at your friends’ good news. One study finds that being responsive to the other person’s joy is a better predictor of the quality of the relationship than being responsive to their suffering.

Sometimes the other person may not receive your affection very well. For example, you may have told a friend you appreciate them, and then it got awkward. This isn’t necessarily a rejection of you—people prefer to receive affection in different ways, and your behaviour may not match their view of “affection”. [It’s like the whole “love languages” thing.] You may therefore need to meet your friend where they’re at, and express affection in a way they’re comfortable with. (The anxiously attached often struggle with this and respond to a perceived rejection by doubling down, which then backfires.) A conversation can help, though it may feel unnatural.

Having to dial down your affection may clash with your authenticity and affect the level of closeness you can reach. One woman in the book, Gabby, thinks her friendships with men aren’t as deep partly because it seems impossible to express affection in a way authentic to herself without sending the wrong message.

You may also need to expand the number of ways in which you receive affection. In this way, it’s more of a negotiation or compromise. Each person should be willing to modify their behaviours to better match the other’s preferences and comfort level.

Some people struggle with receiving affection

The avoidantly attached struggle with receiving affection. Since they don’t trust others, they are more likely to assume the affection comes with ulterior motives. They do this to protect themselves, but this cynicism harms their relationships.

People with low self-esteem may also struggle with receiving affection, especially in the form of compliments. The gap between the compliment and how they view themselves triggers an identity crisis. The compliment may backfire, making them feel misunderstood or creating pressure to live up to the compliment. For them, rejecting the compliment may feel easier than accepting it.

Franco suggests that to get better at receiving compliments, we should pause and think about the other person’s intentions in affirming us instead of focusing on our own interpretation of the compliment. Therapy can also help in opening us up to receiving love.

Other Interesting Points

  • While the advice in Platonic is based on scientific studies, Franco makes clear that the studies tend to be older, conducted in the US, and primarily based on samples of White, heterosexual college students.
  • Meta-analyses have shown that while exercise reduces our risk of death by up to 30% and diet by up to 24%, a large social network reduces that risk by up to 45%.
  • Shame is highest when we’re teenagers. It then declines steadily, but increases again to similarly high rates in old age.
  • “Pronoia” is the opposite of paranoia. Pronoids irrationally believe the universe is scheming for their success.
  • The relationship between social media use and loneliness is complicated. One large study found that heavy social media users were either the least lonely or the most people, depending on how they used it. The least lonely used it to schedule in-person interactions, while the most lonely used social media as a replacement for such interaction.
  • Research has found that people who live at the ends of the hallway in college dorm develop fewer friendships than those who live in the centre—such is the importance of physical proximity.
  • When we’re self-conscious, we focus too much on ourselves and can come off awkward as a result. One tip that psychologist and author Ellen Hendriksen gives to people with social anxiety is to focus on the person in front of them.

My Review of Platonic

I loved this book. It felt like it came at an appropriate time for me. Though part of me wishes it had existed (and I’d read it) years ago, I’m not sure if I would’ve been as receptive to it earlier.

I am definitely in the “recovering avoidantly attached” camp. Much of what Franco wrote about avoidants resonated, even some of the minor points. One example was how avoidants are reluctant to mix up friends from different contexts—I never even thought of this as a “thing” but it was certainly true for me. That said, I also think there are good reasons to hesitate in mixing work and friends, which I might write about in another post.

I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about attachment theory before this. I think that’s because most people discuss it in the context of romantic relationships or parenting (e.g. Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller) and I wasn’t so interested in these areas. But our attachment styles seem to have a much greater impact beyond this, affecting all our relationships as well as our general worldviews—I suspect they even impact our political beliefs.

I agree with Franco’s points about how our culture undervalues friendships and tends to assume it should all be “easy”. It’s surprising we don’t seem to have more books about friendships. The most famous one I’ve heard of is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I haven’t read it, but the focus appears to be different—it seems more about popularity and even career success than about finding fulfilling friendships. So Platonic is sorely needed as a relationship book focused on friendships, and I hope it succeeds in shifting the way our culture values and thinks about friendship.

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6 thoughts on “Book Summary: Platonic by Marisa Franco

  1. This was very interesting.

    Seems right that platonic relationships are undervalued. I tend to deprioritise them when I’ve got lots of other things going on, but I always enjoy myself when I spend quality time with my friends.

    have read others say that “authentic” self is a bit of a myth, in that it implies that there is one true you, whereas the true you might actually act differently with different people, and that’s not inherently a problem or duplicitous. One other interesting thing is that apparently “Regardless of how introverted or extraverted people usually are, research shows that they feel more authentic when they act more extraverted.” (https://spsp.org/news/character-and-context-blog/wilt-sun-jacques-hamilton-smillie-introverts-acting-extraverted#:~:text=You%20might%20think%20that%20you,when%20they%20act%20more%20extraverted.)
    Whether that’s true or not, it supports the general thrust of your summary, which is that you should put yourself out there more.

    I think I’ve been all 3 (securely, anxiously, and avoidantly) attached types in my life so far!

    I just finished Rob Henderson’s memoir: *Troubled* (https://www.amazon.com/Troubled-Memoir-Foster-Family-Social/dp/1982168536), about growing up in foster homes after his solo mother abandoned him/couldn’t look after him (drug addiction) (his father was not in a relationship with his mother when he was born). He talks a lot in there about the relationship and life issues he developed in his late teens/young adult years as a result of failing to develop attachment at a young age. I enjoyed the book but it’s a very sad read at times.

    1. I think it’s natural to deprioritise platonic relationships at various points of your life, particularly if you have young kids. Especially in our society with the nuclear family ideal, where the parents are pretty much the sole caregivers for children, it can seem almost irresponsible to prioritise friends. But I also think she’s right in that having strong friendships can actually make you a better partner/parent, because it makes you happier and more well-rounded in general.

      Re: authenticity. It seems to come down to a matter of definition – e.g. some people say our “true selves” emerge when the going gets tough (and they often have a cynical view of humans as a result because most people are pretty selfish/mean when threatened). I liked Franco’s more optimistic take, which is that we are “authentic” when we don’t feel threatened and don’t rely on a defence mechanism. Of course, you’re right in that we act differently depending on the context. But I also like the idea that we are not our defence mechanisms, and that we should aim for a state where both we, and those around us, feel safe.

      The introversion study was interesting. I am an introvert myself, but I think sometimes people (including myself) use it as an excuse/defence mechanism. Keeping to yourself is just much easier and it’s the default in our current society, so I expect that even introverts tend to “overconsume” alone time relative to what is actually optimal for them.

      1. I also think we undervalue friendships in just the way we think about them, compared to other relationships. Her point about us indirectly demoting friends instead of addressing conflicts because we assuming friendships are easy/trivial resonated with me – and that’s one that applies even where we aren’t time constrained.

        1. Yeah. Also I identified with her point about the common assumption being that the way to make friends was to be more personally charismatic.

          You’re right about the parenting point. My wife and I went on a parenting course for parents with children with development disorders and the point they emphasised a lot was “put your own oxygen mask on first”. They usually linked it to doing something like exercise or reading by yourself, but the point they were making was that if it takes 1 hour away from your children to make yourself a better parent for the the other x hours in the day, then it’s worth it. And I think the same would be true of an investment in time with friends.

  2. I’ve always been confused as to why we make a binary distinction between romantic and platonic relationships, as if your romantic partner should not also be considered a close friend.

    I personally do not agree with the cultural notion of love in America, which fixates on romance. I’ve defined love on my own terms, closely linking it to the idea of reciprocal sacrifice; subsequently, I feel like I have love for lots of people. It was nice to read this summary which offers its own unique perspective on the concept of love and relationships .

    1. Yeah. One difficulty is that even if you don’t agree with the dominant cultural notion of love, most people do – and it’s so widespread that many never even question it. This can make it hard to find others who give platonic love the respect it deserves. I’m glad to hear that you’ve managed to do it, though

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