A love that’s never bedded just can’t be bested

My heart is a generous vessel. Maybe even a tad slutty, according to my beloved, who notes how readily I say “I love you” to family members, friends, colleagues, cats, dogs, random writers, drunk artists, actors on the telly and the bookkeeper (female) who helped me get a tax rebate.

But then, as Plato noted, there are many forms of love, with fancy Greek names like agape and philia, and I see no reason why you shouldn’t run the full gamut in a lifetime. The love Plato called eros feels unsurpassable at its brightest flame, but it also defies reason, gives you insomnia, and can send you to the lunatic asylum.

So, this Valentine’s Day I’d like to put in a word for the joy of platonic love, even if it does seem hard that Plato’s name has been yoked to sexless passion for all eternity. There’s something flawless about an ardour that’s never been bedded and won’t disappoint or fade away like dying embers.

Just look at the three noblest examples of intense, romp-less relationships; by which I mean the office spouse, the reserve-bench lover and the best-friend pash. You may be unfamiliar with these terms, but I bet my last sixpence you’ll have enjoyed at least one form of such intimacy in your lifetime.

Let me start with workplace husbands, wives, or gender-fluid hot-desking other halves. The fact I have an actual husband at home in Cambridge has never stopped me developing a similar type of everyday intimacy with certain colleagues (just a couple, you understand, over the course of a long career).

These tendresses generally started with a long appraising look that could be translated as, “You look like the type who will sneak off to the fire escape for ciggies, hip flasks and gossip.” Followed by teasing banter, leading to the sense that if Howard Hawks was still around he could direct us in a tolerable remake of His Girl Friday.

The sense of being entwined would strengthen as we found we both loathed Sandra in HR and could therefore while away happy hours plotting her downfall. Ditto the powerful sense of shared ennui that descended during Monday’s planning meetings – where we’d doodle rude cartoons on the agenda to make the office wage-slave corpse. Finally, the long deadline nights under corporate strip lighting, where budding love was cemented with wine and mutual confessions.

I sometimes told a work spouse something I wouldn’t divulge to my real one – because when you share exacting tasks, you feel you can confide burdensome secrets. In fact, office marriages are very like domestic ones: you celebrate differences, tolerate shortcomings, indulge in black humour, squabble like wild dogs but swing round in nanoseconds to face mutual enemies. (NB: when you invite your work spouse back to your home, your actual spouse invariably gangs up with them to mock your foibles.)

The reserve-bench paramour plays a not dissimilar role. These are the small number of mesmerising people you’ve met when happily partnered, and have both registered the sense that, “in another life, we’d have been glorious together.” The jury will divide here, but I’ve never thought it utterly immoral to say, “If, god forbid, my best beloved should perish on the high seas, will you marry me?” Of course, these glittering souls generally go off and marry someone more suitable instead – but it’s a delicious daydream while it lasts. Right now, the future Mr Pelling is a gregarious Somerset-based adventurer, with a string of admirers and a playful tabby cat.

Of all the great platonic loves, the kind that’s most reliable and lasts a lifetime is love for your best friend – or a whole clutch of BFs

We envisage ourselves tottering down the aisle on Zimmer frames and having a clause in the vows where flirtations and cocktails are encouraged with carers. He’s one of the few people I accept phone calls from, when in bed with my actual beloved, and the pair of them get on so well that the bachelor stays with my chap when I’m not there. Who knows, perhaps they have their own diverting boy pash. 

Of all the great platonic loves, the kind that’s most reliable and lasts a lifetime is love for your best friend – or a whole clutch of BFs. Contrary to popular opinion, no one has to limit themselves to a single bestie. Many of us have a best friend from school, another from college days, a couple we met at work, one from parent days (if that applies), and others from random encounters. I must confess I’ve squeezed three of my women loves into this very issue, because there’s no sin as easy as favouritism. And at this late stage in life, I have just infiltrated one more intoxicating woman into my coven: the witty, gutsy, generous Joanna.

Like any love affair, it started with our eyes meeting across a crowded room at a posh literary festival, and the faint crackle of electricity. Then I sent my male beloved as envoy, to forge an introduction. Before long, Joanna and I were climbing library ladders together and working out how to wangle extra champagne.

After a weekend in her company, I felt I’d gladly follow her through fire and across mountains to the ends of the earth. Profound friendships like these give you all the pleasure of a tryst, without the considerable energy needed to please another human in bed.  Although to be honest, if Joanna and I were banged-up in Litchfield Penitentiary together, I might beg to jump her bones because she’s gorgeous. 

If this sounds greedy and needy, I can only say you’re right. What mortal doesn’t desire to have their cake and eat it, then buy another cake? Why should there be limits on platonic love? When the Zombie Apocalypse arrives, I aim to retreat to a Scottish castle with my husband, my London husband, my work husband, my adventurer and my ten best friends, their partners and twenty crossbows. Because, as Plato knew, the best way to fight to the death is alongside those you love.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review

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