Here’s my take on the oft-asked question:
Short answer: Yes, because such friendships actually exist. Somewhere.
The question should be “Can platonic relationships between men and women happen more often and can they be sustainable?” The answer to that question is longer.
For me, friendships — long-lasting friendships — require three things to be sustainable:
1. Both people must be allowed to be themselves, no matter how weird they are.
2. The friends must spend a lot of time together. Face time is best. Long stretches of face time is even better.
3. Fun. The friends need to do fun things together regularly.
I find it difficult to find someone of the same-sex, let alone the opposite sex, who fulfills all three of these requirements of friendship. The first requirement is the hardest.
I’m an intense person or I come off that way. I think I’m just really, really curious. I want to know. I’m definitely an intense friend. I like to get deep and close as soon as possible and most people…don’t.
Or I like a lot of space and minimal communication at times and most people…don’t get it.
It’s hard to be myself without an ability to get close AND have space and time to myself. Very few people can tolerate it and very few do. I have few friends.
I want to know everything that is going on on the inside of people AND I want time to be alone and I assume most people want to go as deep and want as much time to be alone as I do (wrong). So, I’m constantly coming towards people and then backing off because I sense that they can’t handle my intensity. I feel like Ane Axford who wrote in a beautiful blog post on friendship*:
I always tried to tame (my intensity) down and felt insecure about how to act with people…I realized that I am an intense person, and that is great. I do love intimacy. I have a hard time tolerating anything shallow.
I’m attracted to everyone I’ve had long relationships with and I don’t mean sexually. There’s something inside of me that is attracted to something inside of them that keeps the relationship going, that keeps us talking, engaged and in each other’s life. I think all long relationships have this attraction.
But it’s this attraction that messes up most opposite sex friendships (I’m assuming both people are heterosexual). It’s trouble with a capital T. Actually, all three of my requirements for a sustainable friendship cause problems in a platonic male/female friendship.
Why? Because of the glorification of romantic love and romantic relationships over every other type of relationship.
Sometimes my desire for depth, closeness, and face time along with my natural attraction to someone I click with can be misinterpreted as romantic interest in a platonic friendship. Sometimes I misinterpret it that way. My intensity seems to be inappropriate in the friendship. But that intensity is really just a sign that I think someone is fucking great. And it’s fucking exciting to find someone fucking great. And I always try to get as close as possible to someone fucking great. Who wouldn’t? But, getting close is seen as wanting to get close romantically even by me and it’s confusing and I tend to back off quickly because, ironically, in a friendship with a guy, wanting to get close actually prevents you from getting close.
And if I want to get so close, why not make it a romantic relationship? Because a romantic relationship is better than just being friends, right? This is where the idealization of romantic love can prevent platonic male/female friendships from developing. Romantic relationships sometimes are not better than friendship. According to Andrew Sullivan, author of Love Undetectable, valuing romantic love over friendships prevents friendships from flourishing:
The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence.
We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.
Why would you not pursue a romantic relationship with someone you are comfortable being your true self with, spend a lot of time with, and have fun with? Sullivan provides a reason why not:
Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.
A condition of friendship is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another. And one is drawn to it not by need but by choice. If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy. As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist. But until a lover seeks to possess his beloved, the love has hardly begun. Where love is all about the juggling of the power to hurt, friendship is about creating a space where power ceases to exist. There is a cost to this, of course. Friends will never provide what lovers provide: the ultimate resort, that safe space of repose, that relaxation of the bedsheets. But they provide something more reliable, and certainly less painful. They provide an acknowledgement not of the child within but of the adult without; they allow for an honesty which doesn’t threaten pain and criticism which doesn’t imply rejection. They promise not the bliss of the womb but the bracing adventure of the world. They do not solve loneliness, yet they mitigate it.
Freedom, autonomy, a space where power ceases to exist…platonic male/female relationships could actually relieve the unbelievable pressure we put on romantic relationships to completely fulfill our emotional needs. It is when we do not allow for autonomy that opposite sex friendships are doomed. It has soured mine and it was usually my fault.
Example: If I leave a voice mail or send an email to a female friend and she doesn’t respond in a day or even a week, I think “She didn’t respond. Hmm. She must be busy” and I don’t take it personally. If a male friend (actually, if any male at all) doesn’t respond to a voicemail or email promptly, it means he’s ignoring me.
As soon as this happens, the friendship is on shaky ground because I want something from him. There’s no more freedom and autonomy. There’s an agenda and expectations. The only thing you should want from any friend is for them to have and do what they want and be happy. They should be freed from fulfilling unmet romantic needs.
I’m learning to never have agendas with anyone. To never have agendas, period. Life is suddenly filled with pleasant surprises when you give up your agendas.
More men and women can sustain friendships if we stopped assuming romance and sex must occur and is preferable to platonic relationships and if the guy and the girl talk about what they’re feeling and thinking. In other words, communicate. Assumptions can be made and things can be left unsaid in same-sex friendships. Romantic relationships thrive on mystery. Opposite sex friendships need constant discussions about intentions, assumptions…everything really. The platonic male/female friendship thrives on talking more so than any other relationship. In Camille Chatterjee’s Psychology Today article, “Can Men and Women be Friends?”, she reported that
According to Kathy Werking, at Eastern Kentucky University and author of We’re Just Good Friends the number one thing male and female friends do together is talk one-on-one. Other activities they prefer—like dining out and going for drives—simply facilitate that communication. In fact, Werking found, close male-female friends are extremely emotionally supportive if they continuously examine their feelings, opinions and ideas. “Males appreciate this because it tends not to be a part of their same-sex friendships,” she said. “Females appreciate garnering the male perspective.”
None of my friendships with men were sustainable and I don’t know if I’ll ever have a sustainable one. And yet, every attempt was worth it and I know I will attempt it again…with no agenda.
*January 2015 — Ane Axford has discontinued her site Sensitive and Thriving. If you click the link it will take you to her new site, Sensitive Leadership. I don’t know if the old articles on Sensitive and Thriving will be available on the new site.