The Hard Facts: The Platonic Question

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Only once the sexes mixed on equal and familiar terms at school, at work and in the social spaces in between — only once it was normal and even boring to see a member of the opposite sex at the next desk — could platonic friendships become an ordinary part of life.” (“A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?” ; New York Times, 4/7/2012)

This article from Sunday’s New York Times is worth a read. The author, essayist William Deresiewicz, explores the political history of platonic friendship between the sexes, ultimately saying that after the feminist movement of the 1960s, friendship between a man and a woman–one without sexual undertones–became possible, and even the norm.

Deresiewicz goes on to say that, really, most people do engage in totally harmless relationships with those of the opposite sex, and it’s only popular culture that pretends it’s so tough. That’s because it’s not interesting, or sexy, he says. “It doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end,” he writes. “Put a man and a woman together in a movie or a novel, and we expect the sparks to fly.” He also contends that as a culture we don’t quite “get” a loving relationship that isn’t familial or romantic. It just doesn’t make sense.

I’ve been skeptical of male-female friendships in my day, too. During my year of friending, I made exactly one guy friend, and we didn’t spend nearly as much time together as I did my female friends. I guess I thought that if I was spending time with a man, I should be with my new husband.

But I’ve made one great man friend as of late. We’re good buddies, and it’s totally platonic. The other day he called to tell me about some girl he is into and explain how his pursuit is going. I gave advice… or tried. (I’ve been out of the game a while.) It was refreshing, and pleasant, and completely nonsexual.

Maybe I’m evolving.

So what do you think, are male-female friendships totally normal? Does pop culture only pretend it can’t exist since it makes for a boring story? Or are we not nearly as evolved as Deresiewicz lets on?

28 Comments

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28 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Platonic Question

  1. I have lots of female friends because I have an easier time getting along with women. And no I don’t have any intention of dating or sleeping with most of them. Some are like family to me, others are my drinking buddies and we talk crap about each others love lives & give each other advice. Even with coworkers, the ones I usually end up socializing with both in & out of work are women. I literally have a handful of close guy friends.

    Now for the girls that I have or had any sort of romantic interest in, my feelings either changed one way or another after getting to know them, or whatever tension we had was put to rest because one of us had a partner. So I guess its a matter of do I want to respect you or romance you?

    It’s not that hard at all to have a friendship with the opposite sex. It just gets complicated when other people assume you two are a couple or are fooling around (while their significant other is in the same room) because you have great chemistry/history and you let that get to you.

  2. I think its fine as long as neither person is attracted to the other. But I am not sure that happens very often…one person usually feels attracted and that makes it weird. Here is another question that my husband and I have discussed…can I be friends with a lesbian?

    • I had a very close, platonic relationship with a lesbian. Well, now that I think about it, she never told me she was a lesbian while we were friends. It was only after she came out to me that our friendship fizzled, her choice, not mine. I was very sad that she made the assumption that I wouldn’t want to be friends anymore. I still miss the friendship.

  3. Janna

    You’re joking, right? Especially “can I be friends with a lesbian?” comment. Please say you’re joking. If everyone has moved past the mentality that apparently everyone in the world is constantly looking to have sex with everyone they encounter, I think all parties in a friendship will be okay. If you have to ask, maybe you already have your answer. i.e. No, I can’t be friends with a guy (or lesbian) because I will forever be imagining my new friend wants to sleep with me and that really makes things weird and/or offensive for everyone.

    Then again, to try to make myself have perspective, I should remember that I have a ton of brothers and always found myself very comfortable with non-romantic relationships with men (and women). People are just people.

  4. I can’t imagine being friends with a guy if I weren’t married. Being that I am happily married for 16 years, there is no awkwardness or reading between the lines or possible misunderstandings.

  5. Anonymous

    I think it all depends on the two people involved and their circumstances: their level of maturity, common interests, how they met, and probably many more vairables. I do agree though that if there is any hint of sexual chemistry between them, a true friendship would be difficult if not impossible.

  6. Rose

    Male female relationships are totally normal and healthy. I have several male friends. I find guy friends tend to create less drama. As long as there is no underlying feelings, these relationships work well. Rachel, I’m glad to hear that you have become more comfortable with male friendships. I know you had some hesitation about pursuing these friendships while you had your year of friending.

  7. I have always had more male friends than female. The friendships tend to be far more honest, less drama filled and less competithave. I have been “best man” at my best male friend’s wedding. The thought of sexual relations doesn’t enter into the equation. We would both look at each other and say “kidding, right?”.

  8. My close male friends are all either ex-boyfriends, guys I got close to because I fancied them, or guys who got close because they fancied me. The sexual tension stuff has all long since died away, but meeting them when I was single meant that they were all initially sized up to see whether or not they were a potential partner.

  9. quetzalcotl

    Coming from an all-girl’s high school, I found it a bit awkward at first when I hang out with boys. Either I act too ballsy around them that they’d get intimated, or I become aloof and they’d think I was a snob. Come college and I started getting used to seeing boys in school and in the classroom, that I became comfortable talking to them. Heck, I even think that boys are easier to befriend than girls!

  10. I think it’s great having friends that are guys, but I don’t really believe what people are saying about sexuality never coming into play. I think if you are single, and you have a good friend of the opposite sex, at SOME POINT you think to yourself “why isn’t this more?”. You might dismiss it quickly, you might have good reasons it never becomes more, but it’s there.

  11. Lovinlife

    Rachel, you aren’t the problem. When you say the relationship is purely platonic you are absolutely honest on YOUR part. Go back to your book and read what your husband said about men friends. I read it to my husband and he totally agreed.

  12. I have been on both sides of this question. I’ve seen women who were obviously interested in my husband try to pursue a friendship with him, and also those who were friends with him without the tension. I have had purely platonic male friends (on my side at least, with a healthy respect existing in the relationships.) I’m currently in a playgroup primarily composed of stay at home dads, and we discussed this, with varied opinions. I feel very comfortable and asexual in these relationships, but there is also a context, our kids, that we share. I think the key if you are in a relationship is to be friends with the other partner also, to define boundaries well and be respectful of the other person’s boundaries. Also, to be honest with yourself about whether you have additional feelings. If you do, and you are single and the other person reciprocates, great, the friendship can evolve. If you are in a relationship or they are, then it’s time to back off and give the friendship a little distance. I think “platonic” friendships between married folks can sometimes lead to temporary “crushes” which when acted upon can be disastrous, when the reality is that you are only seeing a portion of the other person and holding the qualities you like against the whole picture of your spouse/partner. That’s an unfair comparison, and if you are in a bad place with your partner (as we all have slumps) a person can find themselves caught up in admiration for the “platonic” friend that leads to potential affair material. It’s a fine line, for sure, but it is possible, depending on the people involved and their honesty and integrity.

  13. Ana

    Yes it is possible. One of my best best “four jars of pickles” friends in grad-school was a guy. Neither of us had ANY interest in each other besides friendship (though I did have guy friends, not as close, that I would develop crushes on). What changed was his girlfriend (now wife) moving in…it just didn’t seem right to constantly be calling each other to go over the mundane details of our life. Maybe that would’ve happened with a girl-friend too, though? You just can’t sustain that level of friendship when you have a significant other relationship to also sustain…hmmm….Most of my guy friends now are at work & I’ve been less successful in branching those friendships out of the office.

  14. I’ve tried to have several platonic freindships with guys, especially in college. The problem was that even when I HAD a significant other at the time, the dudes I was friends with would eventually show an interest in me. Hoping to quickly snuffle it so we could just be friends, I would be straight with them and let them know I could not think of them like THAT. unfortunately this would lead them to all but ditching me completely, never wanting to hang out anymore.

    Now I have several guy freinds. But guess what? They aren’t interested in women. So it goes…

  15. Jen Q

    From preschool through college and till now (I’m 40) I have always had guy friends as well as girl friends. Wheather I was single or attached, and wheather they were single or attached, made no difference either – unless a single guy got a jealous girlfriend, then I was shunned sometimes even with him apologizing. A few were gay too, not that I cared either way, I usually found out after a time. I have also had a few lesbian friends. I had boyfriends along the way and now I’m married, so it was not like I was just an asexual being. I just have never seen any issue. Men and women aren’t identical, but for the most part people are people therefore any are friends potentially.

  16. This is a most invigorating post and I’m happy to see that people accept that platonic relationships are possible between a man and a woman. My best friend is a guy – I wrote about him here http://rookieteachertales.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/unlikely-friends/ – and we’ve been getting along fine, of course he has a girlfriend and I’m single but I feel no romantic inclinations towards him. Thanks for this post!😀

  17. Julia

    To be honest, even though I have 4 good male friends I am on the fence with this one but only because I’m married now, and I suspect that my view on this would be different if I was unmarried. I used to believe that platonic friendships could exist (part of me still believes this) now I’m not so sure. Or maybe I’m just cautious.
    I have 4 really good male friends. One of them is gay, the other three are not. There has at some point been chemistry between me and the heterosexual guys and there came a point in the “friendship” where we needed to work that out. Either the friendships started out because of an attraction which was acted on or they started as regular friendships where the chemistry (possibly) needed to be acted on a bit later. I have worked out these issues with my 3 boy friends – it’s obviously never been an issue with the gay guy.
    Having said all that, although I am friendly with males, I am no longer on the lookout for NEW male friendships because I’m married now and I do not want to put myself in a position where chemistry could flare up.

    My husband is comfortable with my relationships with my 4 boy friends. They do respect him and our relationship. They were in my life before him and luckily the chemistry issues were sorted by the time I met him. The only thing that my husband has ever told me was that, at the end of the day, they are still MEN. And they are visual. And that even male friendships are easy and fun and uncomplicated, I do still need to be careful and watch my body language around them etc. I do enjoy my male friendships VERY MUCH. Seriously. I LOVE my boy friends. There is something special about a male friendship. There is little to no drama and everything just seems easier somehow. Glad you have a good guy friend. I think every girl needs at least one of them.
    Am on the verge of buying your book and I’m soooo excited!

  18. Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life

    I think it’s an area to proceed with extreme caution if you are married/committed to someone and have a close friendship with someone the same gender and orientation as your spouse. I have many male (straight) friends, but they are not super close friends. My best friend is male, but he’s gay. A saying I heard once that stuck with me, about what leads to cheating, is never to build windows where there should be walls and walls where there should be windows. Meaning you should consider it a red flag if you start confiding to your friend personal details about your romantic relationship that should be kept private and/or if you start hiding from your significant other the fact that you’re spending time with this person.

    My husband has always had many female friends and he works with many women, which doesn’t bother me at all. In my mind, though, a line would be crossed if he were (a) spending more time with a female friend than with me, (b) confiding things to a female friend that he did not tell me, or (c) lying to me about having spent time with a female friend.

  19. Pheobe W.

    Rachel,

    I’m glad you thought write a post on this article! I read it a few days ago and it made me think of your book. Interestingly, it wasn’t so much the aspect of platonic male-female friendships that made me connect the dots as it was the concept below:

    “But the notion of friendship as the root of romantic relationships started to seep into the culture. The terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” also began to appear in the 1890s. We take the words for granted now, but think of what they imply, and what a new idea it was: that romantic partners share more than erotic passion, that companionship and equality are part of the relationship. Who doesn’t think of their spouse — or claim to think of them, or want to think of them — as their best friend?”

    I felt like there were parts of MWF Seeking BFF where the notion of husband as best friend had to be debunked in order to a.) justify the search, and b.) convince those who don’t feel the need to make friends simply because they have their husband that they DO actually need friends. I completely agree with your message – female friends are incredibly important and I value my female friendships and think they are completely necessary. I sumultaneously feel that my husband is my best friend. It’s possible to have multiple best friends, right? I just found certain part of the book (the parts about marriage) difficult to relate to because my husband is capable of engaging in a lot of conversation topics that the book claimed men were incapable of discussing. For example, we love to analyze other people, other relationships, interpersonal relatings, etc. Basically, I feel that having lots of friends is great, but I don’t think it necessary to put down the friendship aspects that exist between husband wife/ bf gf in order to make that point. Our underlying friendship is one of the best parts of our relationship🙂

  20. lawyerchik1

    I think that as long as both parties are fine with the “no potential for anything else,” male-female friendships can be wonderful. I’ve had male friends with whom I would never even have thought of having a romantic relationship, and I’ve had male friends on whom I did have a bit of a crush that I got over.

    The only times I have had male friendships that tanked was when the guys involved either really wanted something more or they wanted the idea of something more – whether they were married or not – and I either refused to take them seriously about it or I told them that it was not on the table. When you tell a guy that you don’t think of him “that way,” after he’s raised the subject, his ego doesn’t allow him to stick around to be “just friends.”

    At the same time, I think that sometimes, chemistry can sort of sneak up on both parties, and that’s how affairs start…..

  21. I have always had male friends. I get along better with men that women. At parties, I start out chatting with the girls, but, invariably, I end up with the guys. The only problem is their wives usually have a problem with it. I find it insulting that they think I would even consider making a play for their husbands.

  22. 00000

    The only people who say they aren’t possible are sex-addled.

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