Platonic Relationships (Definition + Examples)

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Practical Psychology

Have you ever had a friend who meant the world to you but there was never any romantic involvement? Most of us have, and these friendships can be just as meaningful as romantic relationships.

Platonic relationships are friendships that have a deep emotional connection but are not romantic or sexual in nature. Understanding these relationships is crucial because they form the backbone of our social lives, providing emotional support, happiness, and even improving our mental health.

In this article, we'll delve into the fascinating world of platonic friendships—exploring their historical roots, diving into psychological theories, and offering tips for nurturing these valuable connections.

What are Platonic Relationships?

friends talking at a cafe

Origin of the Term "Platonic" from Plato

When we think of the term "platonic," we often think of a friendship that is close but not romantic.

But did you know this term actually comes from an ancient Greek philosopher named Plato? Born around 427–347 B.C.E., Plato was a student of Socrates and a teacher to Aristotle, forming a trio of thinkers who laid the foundations for Western philosophy.

Plato's contributions to the realm of thought are numerous, but one of his most famous works is a dialogue called "The Symposium." In this conversation among different characters, the topic is love, or "Eros" in Greek.

While some of the characters discuss love in a romantic and physical sense, Plato introduces a higher form of love: one that transcends physical attraction and elevates into the realm of the intellectual and spiritual.

This kind of love focuses on the beauty of a person's character and the beauty of truth and wisdom. According to Plato, this higher form of love could be shared between friends, regardless of gender, and didn't need to involve any romantic or sexual aspects.

So, when we talk about platonic love or platonic relationships today, we're actually referring back to this ancient concept that values emotional and intellectual connection over physical or romantic attraction.

Isn't it fascinating how an idea that is thousands of years old still plays a big role in how we understand friendships today? Understanding the historical roots can give us a deeper insight into why these types of friendships are not only possible but also essential for our emotional and intellectual well-being.

Evolution of the Concept Over Time

While the concept of platonic love can be traced back to ancient times, it has evolved considerably over the centuries.

For much of history, friendships between men and women were uncommon or viewed with suspicion due to cultural norms and societal structures. In many societies, men and women lived in separate spheres and had distinct roles, which limited the opportunities for platonic relationships to form.

Fast forward to the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, and you'll find philosophers and scholars revisiting and debating the notion of platonic relationships.

By the 19th and 20th centuries, with the rise of the feminist movement and changes in social norms, the possibilities for friendships between men and women began to expand.

Co-ed schools, mixed-gender workplaces, and the overall loosening of social constraints allowed for a different kind of platonic relationship to blossom—one based on mutual interests, respect, and emotional support, transcending the barriers of gender, age, and sometimes, social status.

However, the concept of platonic love hasn't just evolved in the context of gender. Today, platonic relationships can exist between people of the same gender, different races, different religions, and even different generations. The focus has shifted more toward mutual support, shared values, and common interests as the foundation of these relationships.

As we move further into the 21st century, technology is also playing a role in shaping platonic friendships. Social media and communication apps make it easier than ever to form and maintain connections, though we'll later discuss how this convenience might have its downsides.

All in all, the idea of what constitutes a platonic relationship has grown more inclusive and complex, mirroring the diverse and interconnected world we live in today.

Transition to Modern Psychology

The concept of platonic relationships may have ancient origins, but its relevance has never been more contemporary.

You might be asking yourself, "Why should we care what some philosopher from ancient Greece thought about friendship?" The answer lies in the enduring insights provided by Plato's ideas, which serve as the groundwork for modern psychological theories.

The journey from Plato to today involves many stops, from philosophers discussing friendship and love, to the modern psychologists who study how and why we form bonds with other people.

While the language has evolved, and the methods have become more scientific, the core questions remain: What makes a friendship deep and meaningful? How do we form these bonds? What role do these connections play in our overall well-being?

Psychology, as a scientific study of the mind and behavior, brings empirical methods to these questions. Researchers run experiments, surveys, and long-term studies to examine the nature of platonic relationships in various settings: from childhood friendships to bonds formed in the workplace or even online.

As we're about to see in the following sections, psychology offers us a rich tapestry of theories and frameworks to understand the complexities of platonic relationships.

Whether it's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs explaining why friendships are essential for our emotional health, or Attachment Theory offering insights into how our early relationships shape our adult friendships, modern psychology builds upon the philosophical foundations laid thousands of years ago.

So as we step into the realm of psychology, remember that we're not just exploring modern thoughts. We're part of a long, rich history of people trying to understand the basic human need for meaningful connections, a quest that started with Plato and continues today in psychology labs around the world.

The Psychology of Platonic Relationships

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs

Have you ever felt lonely and thought, "I wish I had someone to talk to"? Well, you're not alone. Feeling connected to others is a basic human need.

A psychologist named Abraham Maslow pointed this out back in 1943 when he came up with something called the "Hierarchy of Needs."

Imagine a pyramid. At the bottom are the most basic needs like food, water, and shelter. But as you go up the pyramid, you come across a level dedicated to "Belonging and Love." This is where platonic relationships find their spot.

Maslow argued that after we have met our basic physical needs, we start to crave emotional things like friendships, family, and a sense of belonging. Without these emotional bonds, we can feel isolated, unhappy, and stressed.

And guess what? Science backs this up! Studies have shown that people who have strong platonic relationships are generally happier, less stressed, and live longer lives compared to those who don't.

The reason for this is simple yet powerful: platonic friendships offer emotional support, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of being valued and understood. These are critical factors in boosting our self-esteem, which is another level higher up in Maslow's pyramid.

Essentially, platonic relationships don't just make us feel good; they contribute to our overall well-being, helping us become the best versions of ourselves.

In today's fast-paced world where everyone is busy, maintaining strong platonic relationships becomes even more crucial. Whether it's a shoulder to cry on, someone to share a laugh with, or a friend to give you honest advice, platonic relationships enrich our lives in ways that even we might not fully understand, fulfilling our human needs for connection and belonging.

Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth

When you were a baby, you probably didn't think much about friendship—you were too busy figuring out the world around you.

But according to psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the bonds we form early in life can have a lasting impact on our friendships as adults due to how it contributes to our development. This idea is at the heart of what's known as "Attachment Theory."

John Bowlby was a British psychologist who first developed the theory in the mid-20th century. He believed that as babies, we all have a built-in system that makes us want to stay close to our caregivers. This is because being close to someone who can protect and nurture us increases our chances of survival. Pretty smart, right?

Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian psychologist, took Bowlby's ideas a step further. She conducted an experiment called the "Strange Situation" to study how babies react when separated from their caregivers.

What she found was eye-opening. Babies showed different styles of attachment—secure, anxious, and avoidant—based on how responsive their caregivers were to their needs.

Now, you might be thinking, "What does this have to do with platonic friendships?" Well, a lot, actually. The attachment style we develop as kids often carries into our adult relationships, including friendships.

If you had caregivers who were consistently supportive and responsive, you're more likely to form secure attachments with your friends. This means trusting them easily, feeling comfortable being emotionally open, and not fretting too much about the friendship ending.

On the other hand, if your caregivers were inconsistent or neglectful, you might find it harder to trust friends and may be more anxious or avoidant in platonic relationships.

Understanding your attachment style can give you deep insights into why you behave a certain way in friendships and help you form stronger, more secure platonic bonds as an adult.

Emotional Intelligence: Daniel Goleman

You've probably heard of IQ, which measures how smart you are in subjects like math and science. But what about EQ? EQ stands for Emotional Intelligence, a term that became widely known thanks to Daniel Goleman's 1995 book "Emotional Intelligence."

In this groundbreaking work, Goleman argues that being smart isn't just about acing tests; it's also about understanding emotions—yours and others'. Emotional intelligence is divided into four main skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

So, why is emotional intelligence so important in platonic relationships? Think about your friendships for a moment. Have you ever had a friend who always knows when something's bothering you, even if you haven't said a word? Or a friend who can handle tough situations without losing their cool? Chances are, these friends score high on emotional intelligence.

Emotionally intelligent people are good at picking up emotional cues from others, which makes them great listeners and empathetic friends. They're also good at managing their own emotions, which means they're less likely to lash out when they're upset.

This emotional stability can be a cornerstone in platonic relationships. It enables deeper conversations, builds trust, and fosters a non-judgmental space where both friends can be their authentic selves.

The beauty of emotional intelligence is that it's not set in stone; it can be improved with practice. So, if you want to strengthen your platonic relationships, working on your emotional intelligence can be a good place to start.

Techniques like mindfulness, active listening, and practicing empathy can go a long way in enhancing not just your friendships but also your overall well-being.

Understanding and implementing emotional intelligence in your friendships can make them not just enjoyable but truly enriching. It adds a layer of depth that transforms casual friendships into meaningful platonic relationships that stand the test of time.

Interpersonal Attraction: Robert J. Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love

When you think of attraction, you might immediately think of romantic relationships. But attraction isn't just about romance; it's also a crucial element in platonic friendships.

One psychologist who has delved deep into understanding the complexities of attraction is Robert J. Sternberg. In the 1980s, Sternberg proposed the "Triangular Theory of Love," which breaks down love into three main components: intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Now, you might be wondering how a theory about love relates to platonic friendships. The answer is in the "intimacy" component. According to Sternberg, intimacy is the emotional closeness and connectedness that defines loving relationships.

In platonic relationships, intimacy can manifest as deep conversations, a sense of mutual understanding, and emotional support. This component is what separates a mere acquaintance from a true friend.

Interestingly, platonic friendships can also have the "commitment" component, which is the decision to maintain the relationship over time.

Since passion, the third component, is usually associated with romantic and sexual relationships, platonic friendships don't typically involve this element.

So, why does this matter? Understanding these components helps us recognize the ingredients that make a platonic friendship strong and lasting. It highlights that being a good friend isn't just about spending time together; it's about building emotional closeness and committing to each other's well-being. These two aspects—intimacy and commitment—can elevate a friendship from good to great.

By dissecting Sternberg's Triangular Theory, we gain an appreciation for the nuanced ways in which platonic relationships function. It tells us that just like romantic relationships, friendships also require emotional investment, mutual respect, and a willingness to stick by each other through thick and thin.

Importance of Platonic Relationships in Different Life Stages

friends relaxing on the couch

Friendships are not static; they evolve as we navigate through various stages of life. From childhood to old age, the role and importance of platonic relationships change, adapting to our changing needs, lifestyles, and emotional landscapes. Let's take a closer look at how friendships impact us throughout our lives.

Childhood and Adolescence

In childhood and adolescence, friendships are often about shared activities and interests. Whether it's playing together on the playground or joining the same sports team, friendships help kids and teens learn social skills, including cooperation and conflict resolution.

They also provide a sense of belonging and acceptance, vital for self-esteem during these formative years.

Early Adulthood

In our early adult years, friendships often revolve around self-discovery and mutual growth. As we venture out into the world of higher education or start our careers, friendships offer emotional support and act as a sounding board for ideas and dreams.

These relationships can also extend our social networks, opening doors to new opportunities and experiences.


Midlife is a stage often characterized by familial and career obligations, which can result in less time for friendships. However, the platonic relationships that do survive this busy life stage are often deeper and more emotionally rewarding. They provide a much-needed respite from the pressures of work and family life, helping to balance our emotional well-being.

Senior Years

As people enter their senior years, friendships take on a renewed importance. With family often spread out and possibly fewer day-to-day obligations, platonic relationships can offer emotional support, companionship, and a sense of community.

Studies, such as one published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" in 2019, have shown a strong correlation between social connections and both cognitive and physical well-being among seniors.

Other research in journals like "Aging & Mental Health" suggests that a robust social network can reduce rates of depression and may even lower the risk of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease.

Platonic relationships play a pivotal role in our emotional and psychological well-being at every stage of life. They evolve to meet our changing needs, offering everything from shared activities and emotional support to life advice and companionship as we age.

Types of Platonic Relationships

When we say "friends," the term can mean different things to different people. Not all friendships are created equal, and understanding the types of platonic relationships can help us appreciate the unique value each one brings to our lives. So, let's break it down.

Best Friends: Best friends are like the family we choose. This type of friendship usually involves a deep emotional bond, loyalty, and an investment of time and energy. Best friends are often our go-to people for advice, emotional support, and life's big events. The relationship is usually long-lasting and can withstand the ups and downs that come with life's challenges.

Casual Friends: These are the friends you might hang out with occasionally but aren't your heart-to-heart conversation buddies. You might grab lunch together, share some laughs, but the relationship doesn't have the emotional depth that a best friendship has. Casual friendships are still important; they add a light-hearted flavor to our social lives.

Work Friends: Work friends make the 9-to-5 grind a bit more bearable. You share a common environment and similar challenges, which make for easy conversation and mutual understanding. However, these friendships may or may not extend beyond the office.

Activity Partners: Whether it's a gym buddy, a fellow book club member, or a friend from your painting class, activity partners share a specific interest with you. The friendship may not be emotionally intense, but it adds a layer of enjoyment to the activities you love.

Long-Distance Friends: Thanks to technology, maintaining friendships across miles and even continents has become easier. These friendships might have started in person but have continued through texts, calls, and video chats. Even if you don't talk every day, you pick up right where you left off when you do connect.

Online Friends: In the digital age, it's entirely possible to have friends you've never met in person. These friendships form based on shared interests or online communities and can be just as meaningful as in-person relationships.

Gender Differences

When it comes to platonic friendships, you may have heard some stereotypes like, "Men and women can't just be friends," or "Friendships between men are less emotionally open." But what does research actually say about these gender-based assumptions? Let's break it down.

Firstly, the idea that men and women can't be platonic friends is largely debunked by modern research. Studies show that men and women can, indeed, maintain non-romantic relationships, and these friendships often offer unique benefits.

For example, men report that having female friends can help them gain emotional insights, while women say that their male friends provide them with a different perspective on issues. These friendships can be particularly enriching because they allow both genders to learn from each other in ways that same-gender friendships might not offer.

However, research also shows that friendships between different genders do face some unique challenges.

One common issue is the "platonic tension," where at least one party feels some level of romantic or sexual attraction but decides to keep it under wraps for the sake of the friendship. This situation is more commonly reported by men than women.

When it comes to same-gender friendships, studies suggest that women's friendships often involve more emotional sharing and verbal communication. Women are more likely to discuss personal issues, such as relationships and feelings, in their friendships.

On the other hand, men's friendships are often based on shared activities like sports or hobbies. This doesn't mean men don't experience emotional closeness; rather, they often express it through actions rather than words.

While gender does play a role in shaping our friendships, it doesn't define them. Friendships across different genders can be just as strong, enriching, and emotionally supportive as same-gender friendships. It's the quality of the bond, not the gender of the friends, that truly matters.

The "Friend Zone"

Ah, the "Friend Zone"—a term you've likely heard thrown around in movies, TV shows, and perhaps even in your own conversations. In popular culture, the Friend Zone is often depicted as a sort of emotional purgatory where one person hopes for a romantic relationship while the other sees things as purely platonic. While it's usually played for laughs or drama in media, the psychological implications of this dynamic are far more complex and nuanced.

In pop culture, the Friend Zone is often presented as a one-sided experience, and let's be honest, it's usually the guy who's depicted as being 'stuck' pining for a female friend. This portrayal reinforces certain gender stereotypes, like the notion that men are primarily interested in romantic or sexual relationships while women are the gatekeepers of such connections. But real-life friendships are seldom so black-and-white.

From a psychological perspective, the Friend Zone can be seen as an imbalance in the level of emotional or romantic investment between two people. It's not exclusive to any gender and isn't necessarily a 'bad' place to be. In fact, psychologists argue that a friendship where one person has romantic feelings can sometimes evolve into a balanced platonic or romantic relationship, depending on how both parties navigate their feelings and expectations. Importantly, clear communication and emotional intelligence—remember Daniel Goleman?—play crucial roles in resolving the tension and deciding the course of the relationship.

The Friend Zone is also a reflection of unmet expectations and may involve complex emotional states such as rejection, hope, and vulnerability. Rather than being a 'trap,' as it's often labeled in popular culture, it can be a phase in the friendship journey that tests the resilience and adaptability of both parties involved.

In summary, while the Friend Zone is a popular trope in movies and TV shows, its psychological underpinnings show it to be a complex emotional space that can have different outcomes based on communication, emotional intelligence, and the willingness of both parties to adapt.

Friends with Benefits

When you hear the term "Friends with Benefits," your mind might immediately jump to romantic or sexual relationships outside the bounds of commitment. But what if we looked at this term through a strictly platonic lens? In such cases, "benefits" could refer to the specific, practical advantages that come from a friendship without any romantic involvement.

Emotional Support

One of the primary "benefits" of a platonic friendship is emotional support. These friends are often our go-to confidantes when we're dealing with personal issues, and we provide the same support in return. It's a mutual exchange of emotional labor that enhances our well-being.

Skill Exchange

Some friendships come with the perk of skill exchange. Perhaps one of you is an excellent cook while the other is tech-savvy. These friendships provide a platform for learning and personal growth, as you share unique skills and knowledge with each other. It's a win-win situation for both parties involved.

Network Expansion

Friendships can also expand your social and professional network. Your friend might introduce you to new people or opportunities that you wouldn't have encountered otherwise. This benefit can be particularly valuable in work-related contexts, where a friend might refer you to a job opening or collaborate with you on a project.

Companionship in Activities

Another advantage is having someone to join you in activities you both enjoy. Whether it's hiking, watching movies, or attending events, doing activities together makes them more enjoyable and enriches your experiences.

Roommates and Cohabitation

Some platonic friendships involve living together as roommates. In such arrangements, the "benefits" may include shared living expenses, chores, and the constant presence of a friend in your daily life. Though this living situation can come with its challenges, it can also be incredibly rewarding.

Social Media and Virtual Friendships

children on a playground

Think about your daily life for a moment. How many times do you check your phone, scroll through social media, or send a text message to a friend? Technology has become an inseparable part of our lives, and it's also reshaping the way we form and maintain platonic relationships.

While Plato could never have foreseen the internet, he'd likely be fascinated by how technology has made it easier—and sometimes more complicated—to connect with others.

Let's start with the positives. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter allow us to stay in touch with friends, no matter where they are in the world. You can send a quick message, share photos, and even have video calls, bridging the gap that physical distance creates.

Online communities also offer the opportunity to form new friendships based on shared interests, something that might be difficult to achieve in the physical world.

However, technology is a double-edged sword. While it makes communication more accessible, it can also create a sense of isolation. Ever heard of "FOMO," which stands for "Fear of Missing Out"?

Scrolling through pictures of friends hanging out without you can sometimes make you feel left out and anxious. Additionally, the ease of texting and messaging can sometimes make friendships feel superficial. After all, a heart emoji can never fully replace a heartfelt hug.

Experts are still studying the long-term effects of technology on platonic relationships, but what's clear is that it's both a tool and a challenge. On one hand, it facilitates new connections and maintains old ones. On the other, it poses the risk of diminishing the quality of these relationships.

As we navigate friendships in this digital age, it's crucial to find a balance—using technology as a tool for connection, not as a replacement for genuine, face-to-face interaction.

Challenges in Platonic Relationships

While platonic relationships offer countless benefits, like any form of human interaction, they are not without their challenges. Maintaining a friendship requires effort, and sometimes misunderstandings, life changes, or emotional imbalances can create hurdles. Here are some common challenges that can arise in platonic relationships.

Emotional Imbalance: Sometimes one friend may invest more emotionally in the friendship than the other. This imbalance can create tension and may lead to one person feeling underappreciated or overwhelmed. Navigating this emotional landscape requires open communication and perhaps even a reevaluation of the friendship’s boundaries.

Geographical Distance: With job relocations, educational opportunities, or other life changes, geographical distance can become a challenge. While technology helps maintain connections, it's not the same as face-to-face interaction. The lack of physical presence can sometimes cause friendships to drift apart over time.

Time Constraints: Busy lifestyles, especially in adulthood, can make it challenging to find the time to maintain friendships. Work responsibilities, family obligations, or new relationships can all consume the time usually reserved for friends. The lack of regular interaction can lead to distance and sometimes even an eventual end to the friendship.

Jealousy and Envy: Even in the best of friendships, feelings of jealousy or envy can occasionally arise. Whether it's professional success, personal relationships, or life circumstances, being envious of a friend's life can create underlying tension.

Changing Interests and Life Stages: As we go through different phases in life, our interests and priorities change, and so can our friendships. What once was a strong connection based on shared interests can wane if those interests or life circumstances change dramatically.

Miscommunication: A simple misunderstanding can sometimes escalate into a full-blown issue if not addressed promptly and openly. Clear communication is crucial in any relationship, but especially in friendships where emotional investments are high.

Boundaries: Boundaries act like emotional fences, safeguarding your well-being while allowing you to maintain a respectful and caring relationship. They help avoid misunderstandings and ensure that neither friend feels taken for granted, overwhelmed, or disrespected. Without boundaries, even the closest friendships can become stressful or toxic over time.

How to Nurture a Platonic Relationship

A strong platonic relationship doesn't just happen overnight; it requires consistent nurturing to flourish. This involves time, emotional investment, and the application of some simple but effective strategies. Here are some suggestions on how to nurture your platonic friendships.

Regular Check-Ins: Life can get busy, but taking the time to regularly check in with your friend can make all the difference. A simple text asking how they are or a quick call can keep the friendship alive and show that you care.

Quality Time: Spend quality time together, doing activities you both enjoy. This strengthens your bond and creates shared memories that can deepen your friendship. Whether it's a regular movie night or a yearly trip, quality time is essential for a lasting friendship.

Mutual Support: A friendship is a two-way street. Both parties should feel supported emotionally, mentally, and sometimes even physically. Whether it's being there during tough times, celebrating successes together, or offering a listening ear, mutual support is crucial for nurturing the friendship.

Honesty and Transparency: In any relationship, honesty is key. If something bothers you, it's crucial to be open about it rather than letting it fester. Transparency can help you navigate challenges and deepen your trust in each other.

Celebrate Milestones: Whether it's a birthday, a new job, or any significant life event, celebrating milestones together can make your friendship stronger. It not only shows that you care but also that you're invested in each other's happiness and successes.

Understand Each Other's Boundaries: As mentioned in the previous section, understanding and respecting each other's boundaries is crucial. Revisit these boundaries periodically to make sure they still align with your friendship’s dynamics and individual needs.

Stay Adaptable: Friends grow and change, just like any individual. Being adaptable and open to the ebbs and flows of each other's lives will help your friendship stand the test of time.

Respect and Trust: At the core of every meaningful platonic relationship are respect and trust. Without these, even the most promising friendships can crumble. Respect means acknowledging your friend's feelings, thoughts, and boundaries, even if you don't agree with them. It also involves treating them with kindness and integrity, the way you'd like to be treated. Trust goes hand-in-hand with respect. It's built over time and solidified through consistent, reliable behavior. Trust also means keeping your friend's confidences and being dependable when you say you'll do something.

Acceptance and Forgiveness: No one is perfect, and that includes our friends. Sometimes misunderstandings or mistakes will occur, and that's where acceptance and forgiveness come into play. Acceptance doesn't mean agreeing with everything your friend does or says, but rather acknowledging them for who they are, flaws and all. It's understanding that people have different perspectives, habits, and shortcomings. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is about letting go of grudges and disappointments. Holding onto negative feelings can poison a friendship over time. True friendships have the elasticity to survive mistakes and the depth to permit forgiveness


Platonic relationships are the backbone of our social lives, providing emotional support, companionship, and a unique form of love that enriches our lives in countless ways. While often overlooked in favor of romantic or familial bonds, the importance of platonic friendships cannot be overstated. They offer a sense of community, bolster our mental and emotional well-being, and even have the potential to improve our physical health.

However, like any relationship, platonic friendships come with their own set of challenges, from emotional imbalances and time constraints to the complexities introduced by gender differences and changing life stages. Yet, understanding these challenges and actively working to overcome them can lead to more fulfilling and lasting friendships.

The key to nurturing these relationships lies in regular interaction, mutual respect, and the setting of appropriate boundaries. As life evolves, so do our friendships, and that's perfectly okay. What's important is that we recognize the value of these relationships and make the effort to nurture them. Because at the end of the day, a life rich in platonic friendships is a life well-lived.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). Platonic Relationships (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from

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