If you believe that women and men can’t just be friends, these experts have some wisdom to share that might just change your mind. Read on to see whether that best friend is really a threat — and when to relax.
|By Mark Amundsen
aul Silverman had a problem that probably should not have been a problem.“I don’t think my platonic friendships with other women were the sole reasons behind my divorce, but they certainly influenced it,” says the Westchester, NY resident, whose marriage ended after two years. “Part of our problem was that my ex-wife felt
like a lower priority than any of my friends during our relationship. Or a lower priority than my friends and other activities — my music, for instance. There was a time when my wife, while we were dating, was certainly jealous of my women friends, one in particular. This was early on, when we were still establishing trust. But it certainly didn’t help that most of my friends were (and still are) women.”
Paul’s case raises some perennial puzzlers: Can men and women be best friends in a purely platonic relationship? And what does that mean to the romantic partner on the outside of that friendship looking in?
It’s been more than 20 years since Harry (Billy Crystal) told Sally (Meg Ryan), “What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape, or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” And then (spoiler alert!) the sex part gets in the way. Since then we’ve seen Julia Roberts (My Best Friend’s Wedding) and Patrick Dempsey (Made of Honor) fall in love with their opposite-sex friends, as well as several small-screen versions of the same story. And long before then Lord Darlington, in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, said, “Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.” Is culture reflecting reality? Is it impossible for men to be friends with women, especially those they find attractive?
Janice D. Bennett, Ph.D., a New York City-based relationship expert, has addressed this question a number of times on her Web site, DoctorLoveCoach.com. Dr. Bennett notes that physical attraction is not the only kind of attraction there is. “What makes two people friends? Well, they are ‘attracted’ to something in the other, and they want to spend time together. A young girl likes her Barbie dolls, and her neighbor likes them too, so they play Barbies together. Maybe a boy is attracted to another boy, who is very good in sports, or they follow the same teams, and so they become friends and spend time together. So why wouldn’t this be true with the opposite sex, even as adults? A man and a woman both enjoy participating in tennis matches, or they work together on a charity function, or they both like wine tastings. They found some attribute or behavior in the other that attracts him to her (and vice versa).”
This contradicts the popular notion that men have loyal but superficial friendships that focus on Cheez-Its and the NFL, while women have deep, enriching relationships that run straight to the soul (until they have a disagreement about shoes that results in all-out war). So even if there are shared interests, don’t men and women have incompatible friendship styles?
Karen Walker of the University of Pennsylvania published a paper in a 1994 issue of the journal Gender & Society: “Men, Women, and Friendship: What They Say, What They Do.” Walker wrote, “Men and women respond to global questions about friendship in culturally specific ways. Men focus on shared activities, and women focus on
shared feelings. Responses to questions about specific friends, however, reveal more variation in same-sex friendships than the literature indicates. Men share feelings more, whereas women share feelings less; furthermore, the extent to which they do so varies by class.” So yes, to men, Cheez-Its and the NFL are crucial, but not everything. In his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, Geoffrey Greif, DSW, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, noted that “some men often like having women as friends. They feel greater comfort in sharing intimate details about their lives with women than with men, perhaps a throwback to their early socialization by women. They don’t compete with women in friendships as they do with men. And, they can be physically close with them (hugging, for example) in ways that they might not feel comfortable doing with men.”
So it is possible for men and women to be friends. But this puts us back where we started, with Paul Silverman — and the jealousy issue. “There is a degree of flirting,” Paul admits, “and that played a part in the stress early on in my relationship with my ex-wife. From time to time even today, one of my women friends and I will joke about why we never got together. It’s an ongoing conversation that we’ve never acted on.”
Dr. Bennett says, “In order to assure a new love interest that there’s nothing more to the friendship than friendship, there has to be A) self-control and B) trust. You have to be the kind of guy with integrity who says what he means and means what he says—that’s my definition of integrity. He can be trusted that he is loyal and committed to his girlfriend, and that this romantic relationship takes priority over his friendship with the woman any day.”
For the person on the third side of the relationship — the love interest who discovers that this date has a best friend of the opposite gender—there’s a tendency to presume that the friendship on display is the residue of a romance gone awry. After all, if they like each other so much, why aren’t they dating?
“First off, if you’re in a relationship with somebody who has opposite-sex friends, try not to let your insecurities get out of control,” advises Diane Mapes, author of How to Date in a Post-Dating World. “Confidence is a big plus in this situation; constantly making jealous noises gets old fast and if your significant other isn’t sleeping with the person, you might just talk him or her into it.”
That doesn’t mean you have to be silent. “I think asking questions about the nature of the friendship is fine — how did you meet? What do you like about this person? What kind of stuff do you guys do together? Those are the kind of questions you’d throw out for any friendship,” says Mapes. “But hammering about whether they’re sleeping together or whether they love him or her more than you is just going to drive your significant other away.”
The fact is that some straight men and women are just friends. “I have a couple of very close relationships with men as well, though my closest platonic relationships are with women,” says Paul. If a guy is honest when dating, it works to his advantage. As for the new girlfriend, Mapes recommends, “Interaction with both parties is what you want. In fact, the best way to handle a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s opposite-sex friend is to become friends with that person yourself. That way, you can all hang out together, and if the friend has designs on your significant other, that person will now have to deal with the guilt of betraying a friend — you.”
Having integrity also means respecting the boundaries of friendship. (Paul says that he has never run up against boundary issues with his female friends.) People tend to work these things out on their own; men and women are likely to know how much physical contact or emotional intimacy is appropriate.
But let’s say the When Harry Met Sally scenario happens, and a male-female friendship somehow becomes sexually intimate for a short time. Or perhaps a love relationship devolves into a “let’s be friends” situation. Can true friendship survive, or is it like trying to turn a pickle back into a cucumber?
Dr. Bennett finds it improbable. “It’s very difficult to have a platonic relationship with someone you’ve been physically intimate with,” she says. “That’s because you still have emotional energy ‘cathected’ to the other person. This may be more true for women than for men, but as I’ve been known to say, sex is like superglue: It’s very easy to get stuck, but very difficult to get unstuck.”
Mark Amundsen, a writer and editor in New York, makes friends wherever he goes.