Platonic Vs. Romantic Relationships: Is One More Beneficial For Your Mental Health?

As the jazz standard "Nature Boy" reminds us, "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return." And while it's aggressively cheesy, science shows it's not wrong. But we're not just talking about romantic love. This includes platonic love as well. Platonic love is similar to romantic; all that it lacks is intense, passionate emotions. "Platonic love is what we feel when there is trust, safety, and validation in a close relationship," Nikki Coleman, a licensed psychologist, told Insider.

While the media likes to portray romantic love as the star of the show, studies show that platonic love is also well-being. In fact, The Cut reports that many people today are opting out of romantic partnerships altogether and are instead choosing platonic relationships for their life partners.

Both platonic and romantic relationships offer mental health benefits. But is one more beneficial than the other?

Platonic relationships can reduce stress levels

Life is full of stressors. It's easy to let them pile up and crowd our mental space. But, research shows that having solid friendships can make life a little easier. 

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (via PubMed) found that being accompanied by friends can significantly reduce stress levels. The experiment tested a person's perception of a hill while alone versus standing beside a friend. Those standing beside a friend estimated that the hill was less challenging than those on their own. We tend to worry less when going through life with someone we trust.

Stress induces a load of mental and physical issues. According to WebMD, 50% of all long-term emotional disorders are due to stress. PsychCentral goes further to say that it impairs the part of our brain responsible for memories and concentration. That said, it's no surprise a study published by PloS One reported that people over 80 with exceptional brain health all share one life factor — high-quality social relationships. So platonic relationships could be the way forward if you want to go through life more relaxed and keep your brain in good health.

Platonic relationships are good for your self-esteem

If you've neglected your platonic relationships for romantic ones, you might want to think again. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (via PubMed), healthy friendships can increase your levels of self-esteem. High levels of self-esteem can also lead to healthier friendships.

Having self-respect and admiration can kickstart a plethora of positive outcomes. According to Verwell Mind, self-esteem is crucial to coping with and overcoming life challenges. It gives you the confidence that you can handle difficult times as well as the hope that your situation will improve.

Per a study published by Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, higher levels of self-esteem can prevent experiences of anxiety and depression, improving your overall state of mental health. So, if you lack self-esteem, creating a social circle you trust can start a life-changing positive feedback loop of self-love.

Romantic relationships can alleviate anxiety

Poets and philosophers have been trying to put romantic love into words forever. But that more-than-friends feeling is pretty obvious when you encounter it. It's entirely different than platonic love and, for the most part, so are the effects it has on your mental health.

According to the University of Texas at Austin's blog, long-term romantic relationships can decrease one's levels of anxiety. UT Austin reports that in a study conducted using MRI technology, stable couples had higher levels of activity in the part of their brain that causes feelings of reward/pleasure and lower levels of activity in the region that causes symptoms of anxiety.

Reduced anxiety can lead to a plethora of mental and physical benefits. A study conducted by Brigham Young University (via Science Daily) found married couples in happy relationships have the best blood pressure levels. Interestingly, this is true even when comparing married couples to single people with a healthy circle of friends. It sounds like a factoid right out of a bad rom-com, but romantic relationships benefit the heart more than platonic ones.

Romantic affection offers unique benefits

Another difference between most platonic and romantic relationships is the level of intimate affection. It's not impossible to be physical with someone you don't have feelings for. Still, more often than not, physical intimacy is kept out of long-term friendships and saved for romantic relationships. It's no secret that sex positively impacts your health, but it turns out that various forms of romantic intimacy have mental health benefits.

There are a number of studies that suggest this. A study published by Communication Monographs (via the American Psychological Association's PsychNet) found that words of affection between romantic spouses can lower partners' stress hormone levels. Similarly,  a study published by Psychological Science (via SAGE Journals) found that couples in loving marriages report the most stress relief from hand-holding compared to other pairs of people with varying relationship dynamics. 

These expressions of love are daily occurrences in most healthy romantic relationships. If you are constantly experiencing these moments of stress relief, your mental health could experience improvements while in a romantic relationship.

Supportive friendships are critical

"We've always had this hierarchy of love with romantic love at the top and friendship seen as second class," Marisa G. Franco, author of "Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends," told The Washington Post. "We are constantly fed the message that the romantic relationship is the only one that matters."

Both platonic and romantic relationships have immense benefits, but research suggests that strong friendships are a key factor in health, both mental and physical. In an interview with Medical News Today, Dr. Scott Kaiser, director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center, revealed that poor social connections and isolation can be as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and could increase your chances of dementia by 50%. Overall, to preserve and enhance your mental health, strengthening your bonds should be your main priority.

As Kaiser puts it, "Connection matters, but it's not just about sheer numbers — amassing the most possible friends on your favorite social media platform or in the real world — but about the quality of those connections and enjoying the invaluable benefits of meaningful, supportive relationships."