Can Men & Women Just Be Friends?
Dear Allison and David: I’m about to move in with my boyfriend of one year, but now that we’re taking the relationship to the next level, he’s told me that he has a problem with my very close—platonic—relationship with my best male friend. I’m excited to take this next step with my boyfriend, but I deeply value my friendship as well. What should I do? — Tripped Up
“Can men and women just be friends?” It’s a question we return to in literature, art, and film—a simple one, but based around a rather complicated issue. Why complicated? One word: Motive. There are certainly situations in which one of the parties involved isn’t just in it for good conversation over coffee. It’s also somewhat common for one of the friends to have a closet crush on the other (not to mention the object of the crush sensing the other’s attraction and getting a nice ego boost out of it). Sometimes there’s a tacit My-Best-Friend’s-Wedding agreement: If things don’t work out in other relationships, we always have each other.
Here’s what I suggest: Step away from the need to defend the platonic nature of this relationship. Look at it as objectively as possible, and ask yourself what your motivation is. Are either of you attracted to the other? Is he your secret back-up plan? Would you be jealous if he got into a serious relationship? And maybe this is the biggest question of all: If your partner had the identical friendship with another woman, would it bother you?
“Sometimes there’s a tacit My-Best-Friend’s-Wedding agreement: If things don’t work out in other relationships, we always have each other.”
If the honest answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no, then I would deem this a clean friendship. And if this is what you indeed have and you’ve reassured your partner, then he needs to trust you. That said, it’s your responsibility to make sure that the intimacy you share with him is not compromised. In other words, if you find yourself able to be more vulnerable around your male friend than your boyfriend, this may mean you’re not as committed as you think. And while your male friend may be someone you confide in, your partner should be your most trusted confidante—if you want to have a truly intimate relationship.
The bottom line is that no one person can give us all we need. It is so important in any successful relationship to maintain a true sense of autonomy, and this means having your own friends. Usually this is a non-issue. Women have girlfriends. Men have their buddies. It’s when the possibility of sexual attraction and a physical relationship exists (this is true no matter what your gender or sexuality) that it can get messy. But if this is a clean, purely platonic friendship, assure your boyfriend. If he refuses to accept this, then unfortunately you may need to consider not taking the relationship to the next level just yet.
I’ll be the bearer of difficult news: In my experience, this sort of situation almost never resolves smoothly. Inevitably something has to give. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but I’ve personally never seen or heard of a very close male-female “friendship” (in which neither party is gay) that was entirely clean—that is, devoid of all sexual tension or ulterior motives, even if those motives were less than fully conscious. I know we all want to think of ourselves as enlightened modern adults, the beneficiaries of centuries of culture and refinement (more so with the new gender revolution), but the reality remains: We can’t fully escape our evolutionary heritage. And it colors everything.
Given this annoyingly durable hard-wiring, it seems (for better or worse) one thing is almost always present when men and women relate to each other: ego. For instance, one of my best friends had what he described as a wholly satisfying and purely platonic friendship with a woman for years. They were extremely close. He swore he wasn’t attracted to her, or interested in anything beyond the friendly connection they shared. But when she called him one night to gleefully announce she’d just met the man she was going to marry—he literally freaked out. Panic set in. It took him months to get over it. Despite claiming that she was merely his “buddy,” that he never desired her physically, that he always had her best interests in mind, some part of him still wanted her all to himself.
Allison and I also have a woman friend who recently told us that she set up one of her best guy friends with another woman she thought would be a good match for him. Well, turns out she was right. The two totally hit it off and became a couple. The result? Our matchmaking woman friend felt deeply, irrationally jealous. The relationship she had just facilitated became the source of a mini personal crisis. Why? Because when it comes to men and women and intimacy, we may want one thing, but nature often wants another.
Am I saying that men and women can’t be friends? Of course not. But I do find it highly dubious that one can simultaneously have a truly intimate relationship with two members of the opposite sex, and cleanly label one “friend” and the other “partner.”
“Given this annoyingly durable hard-wiring, it seems (for better or worse) one thing is almost always present when men and women relate to each other: ego.”
Therefore, it seems to me that you have a few options—unfortunately none of them will make everyone happy:
First off, you can tell your boyfriend that you love him but plan to retain your friendship as it is. My bet is that no matter how “evolved” your boyfriend is, this option will cause your relationship to suffer (while keeping your friendship intact).
Second, you can tell your friend that your boyfriend doesn’t approve of the friendship, and that you’re going to have to cut it off. Not only will this option likely cause your friend to be upset (understandably), but it may very well cause you to resent your boyfriend.
If you want your relationship with your boyfriend to a) last, and b) evolve, there’s a third option that I think is the best of all these imperfect solutions: Once you move in with your boyfriend, allow a natural, hopefully unforced, congenial shift of that earlier friendship to happen. It’s likely that as your relationship with your boyfriend develops, your friendship will organically become less intimate in ways and fade at least a bit in that sense. Your boyfriend will sense it and be relieved. No need to have the “break-up talk” with your male friend—just let things realign. It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest thing to having your cake and eating it too.