The Age-Old Debate: Can Men and Women Really Be Platonic Friends?
Before we dive in, I need you to know exactly what this question is dealing with: a straight man and straight woman, both single. No one is married. No one is coupled. It's not your co-worker or best friend's boyfriend/girlfriend or fiancée, because those circumstances create natural barriers that (almost) always keep you safe from crossing lines. In this question, we're dealing with two completely free agents who are sexually attracted to the opposite sex. Got it? Good.
So, with all that in mind, I've never been able to have guy friends. And it's typically nothing they do. In fact, only once or twice has it been on them (i.e. being secretly in love with me the whole time or showing signs of jealousy/upset when I mentioned a new dude's name or brought him around). Usually, it comes down to me and the fact that I end up wanting to make out with all of my guy friends at some point or another and can't control myself. I've had plenty of opposite sex friendships that have started innocently enough, but whether it's buried deep down from the beginning or blossoms on its own, attraction almost always arises in some form or fashion, and it's always enough to distract me from the platonic nature of things.
For example, in high school, I was very best friends with a guy. We were in every play together, attached at the hip, and would talk on the phone for hours every single night to the point of falling asleep with our Nokia brick phones right next to our heads. We even went to prom together (just as friends), and Ellen let him sleepover afterwards (UNPRECEDENTED). His was a friendship that I cherished more than most; it was so refreshing to have a male's perspective on so many teenage conundrums and ham it up with the opposite sex. But as it always happens, he started dating someone and it fucked me up. I felt forgotten and got jealous. I hated hearing about her and did nothing to hide it. There also came a point in our friendship where I couldn't live not knowing what it was like to kiss him and so we did once or twice. Turns out, he was gay all along (as if the plays and hours-long late night phone calls didn't give that away), but still — our making out and my fit of jealousy upon him showing even mild (yet feigned) interest in another girl was my first run-in with the complexity of male/female friendships.
Another time, my high school ex's best friend who claimed to be my friend too cornered me at a house party in the bathroom, threw up against a wall, and made out with me like our plane was going down (it was hot but not friendly behavior).
I tried for a platonic friendship again later in life with a co-worker. I had dated his friend (another co-worker. Shoot me), but our entire group of co-worker friends were so close that no one was going anywhere, even after a breakup. My friend and I became insanely close. He lived in the same apartment complex as me, so we had many a night visiting each other's apartments, laying on couches and beds drinking wine, shooting the shit, talking about our romantic hang-ups, and laughing so much there was no WAY I wasn't going to fall for him sooner or later. One extra drunken wine night, I quite literally chased him around my apartment trying to get him to make out with me while we laughed until we were sick and my living room curtains somehow ended up splashed in wine. It wasn't until I had left that job and taken a new one that we finally acted on the obvious attraction between us. It started at a club on a typical night out and ended up in his bed, and lemme tell ya — it legitimately felt like hooking up with your brother. Lesson learned on that one.
So, in summation, it's my pretty firm belief that there is no such thing as just friends when you're dealing with a man and woman who are both straight and single. There is always underlying tension in one or another that makes having a fully, truly, purely platonic friendship impossible. But don't just take my word for it. I asked fellow female blogger, Allison Arnone, and male sports writing wordsmith, Rustin Dodd, to weigh in on the topic as to offer you a few more viewpoints. Here's what they had to say.
Whenever someone picks my brain regarding a certain subject, I always go with my visceral reaction since that tends to be what I truly feel. And once Emma posed this question "Can men and women ACTUALLY be *legit* friends?" my gut said:
I thought about how, back in high school, I mostly hung out with dudes. I had girlfriends, of course, and to be honest I think it’s weird if a girl DOESN’T (if you are a woman and can’t get along with women? You’re probably the actual WORST), but my “crew” was always comprised of more duderuses than uteruses.
The thing is, I adore my girlfriends. I always say that nothing can really trump ‘girl time’ and I love spending time with my ladies whenever I can. I NEED it. But I always thought there was something different and great about my friendships with men. I honestly think that you won’t find a more unbiased, genuine friendship stripped of jealousy and drama. Guys don’t really get catty or sensitive, and they’re usually not jealous or cliquey either. My friendships with men always felt real, honest, and comfortable.
This was my stance as a teenager, a woman in her young/middle/late 20s, and even into my early 30s. GUYS AND GIRLS CAN BE PLATONIC FRIENDS, Y’ALL. Stop coming to me with this whole “Your guy friends want to bang you” mess. Stop with your “I mean, you guys are friends, but he’s probably secretly in love with you” bullshit. I always HATED hearing that and felt like it diminished what *I* thought were legit friendships.
So that? That was my visceral reaction.
But then, days after Emma came to me with this blog post idea, I got on a plane to Los Angeles for a work trip and I watched When Harry Met Sally on the flight. I hadn’t seen the movie in years, and forgot that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters debate over this very topic:
So I started thinking about it again. I certainly had the time – a flight to LA from NYC is, like, 7 goddamn hours – and wondered if my stance changed especially now that I’m older and also in a semi-new(ish) committed relationship. I thought about how there needs to be a lot of fucking caveats if you want to maintain a friendship with a member of the opposite sex; ESPECIALLY as we grow up and folks are in monogamous relationships/marriages. I thought about how:
· When my guy friends are in a relationship, I don’t text or call them as often in fear of being disrespectful to their girlfriend/wife. (You do NOT want their S.O. being suspicious of you – I REPEAT, YOU DO NOT WANT THIS.)
· Similarly, when I’M in a relationship, I notice my guy friends do the same and I barely hear from them.
· I don’t like to communicate past a certain time of night. I can text one of my girlfriends at 11pm on a Tuesday, but I would NOT do that with a guy friend for the same reason listed above, and also because I’M in a relationship currently and that feels…ick. (Let me set the scene: you’re watching a movie with your man and your phone buzzes at midnight and you look at the text and start giggling at the hilarious inside joke/meme/photo/whatever and tell him it’s from your GOOD PAL Andrew. See how well that goes over.)
· At this stage in my life, with a few exceptions, I would not do anything “alone” with a guy friend. I don’t care who they are, if my boyfriend knows and likes them, or if I’ve been friends with this person since I’m in diapers. It doesn’t feel right to me. (I don’t mean this in a creepy Mike Pence-sorta way; I mean, I’m not going to dinner, drinks or the movies with a dude while I’m dating someone. But I’d OBVIOUSLY do it with females.)
· I think about how it’s felt in any relationship I’ve been in to know the guy I’m dating has a super-close platonic girlfriend. Even if you trust your man and everything’s good and healthy, you’re still like… um OK, but she needs to go away forever kthanxbye.
So if all this is true, can men and women REALLY, truly, actually be friends?
Now I’m not so sure.
I have thought about this question for years, in part because I have spent my life having many so-called "friends" who happen to be women. My best friend throughout high school and college was a girl. She's married now, so it's different. Yet we're still incredibly close. We met in art class in the seventh grade and "went out" for a bit that summer. After making out a few times, it was not to be, and we opted for friendship.
This worked, I think, because whatever physical attraction existed once slowly faded away. I began to think of her more as a sister. Yet even framing our relationship like this would be dishonest. Because even as we settled into a fulfilling, platonic relationship, even as we leaned on each other throughout high school and college, even as we discussed our relationship issues and life struggles, I would occasionally find myself thinking one thought: Would we be good together?
These questions are not black and white, of course. They're usually answered on a spectrum. In this case, the answer ways always more no than yes. We were splendid as friends. Probably not so much as more. So it worked out.
Yet as I think about it, this story of male-female friendship (one that actually worked!) has pushed me off my long-held position. Can men and women be healthy, platonic friends? Actually, no. I don't think so.
This is a cynical position. I understand that. But I suppose I think about it like this: Can grown men and women be friends? Yes. But does a healthy friendship include one side thinking about sleeping with the other occasionally/all the time? Yeah, probably not.
And this is how it works. About four or five years ago, I met a girl through Twitter who grew up in the same city as me. We had lots of mutual friends, and I sort of worked with her boyfriend. We clicked from the start. Our personalities connected. We vibed well. The conversation was very easy. She was a little bit of a bro. She loved sports more than I do, and I do sports shit for a living. But she was great. We became fast friends, even though we lived in different cities. We had meaningful conversations. Met up at the holidays and stuff. She was dating my friend, so there was no pressure or expectations. Just friends.
And, of course, I learn three years later that she was into me the whole time.
This, of course, was not a terrible development. It made some sense to me, but honestly, I never read it like that. And if not for a long-distance issue, we probably would have dated for a long time. But it did make me think: Wait, did we really have a healthy friendship those first couple years? Maybe? But probably not.
It sounds a little callous, maybe even sketchy. But I believe men, when in the presence of women in a non-work environment, are often thinking one of two things:
1. I'd really love to sleep with this woman.
2. Would I sleep with this woman?
This is why men are horrible. And this is no way to go through a friendship.
Now, there are exceptions. I have great friends who are now married. Some of these women I became friends with BECAUSE they married my friends. These are strong friendships. Yet in most cases, it is not the same.
The other exception, though, is even more interesting: I call it the Jerry and Elaine. If a man and woman are open about their attractions, if they talk about them and demystify them, maybe there is a chance. But what is that relationship?
If we're defining friendship with a capital F -- the vulnerable, loyal, share-deep-thoughts kind of friendship -- this is just almost impossible to pull off. I think men and women can have non-sexual, non-romantic relationships that are funny and interesting and exciting and totally worth having. Are they true friendships, though? I'm not so sure.
Billy Crystal said it best: "Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way."
It is trite and cliche and, sadly, true.
So, what do you think? Sound off in the comments and let's get a real conversation going.