When Harry Fondled Sally
I have long held the theory that men and women cannot be close friends. Most people nowadays (especially women) would immediately disagree, and indeed there is much to support this counter-claim. But it all depends on how you define friendship: I hold that acquaintances or superficial friendships may function properly, but nothing beyond that.
Of course, the famous pop-reference on this subject is the hilarious movie When Harry Met Sally:
Harry Burns: You realize of course that we could never be friends.
Sally Albright: Why not?
Harry Burns: 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.
Sally Albright: That's not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry Burns: No you don't.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: No you don't.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: You only think you do.
Sally Albright: You say I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry Burns: No, what I'm saying is they all WANT to have sex with you.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: How do you know?
Harry Burns: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally Albright: So, you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry Burns: No. You pretty much want to nail 'em too.
Sally Albright: What if THEY don't want to have sex with YOU?
Harry Burns: Doesn't matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Harry Burns: Would you like to have dinner? Just friends.
Sally Albright: I thought you didn't believe men and women could be friends.
Harry Burns: When did I say that?
Sally Albright: On the ride to New York.
Harry Burns: No, no, no, I never said that... Yes, that's right, they can't be friends. Unless both of them are involved with other people, then they can... This is an amendment to the earlier rule. If the two people are in relationships, the pressure of possible involvement is lifted... That doesn't work either, because what happens then is the person you're involved with can't understand why you need to be friends with the person you're just friends with. Like it means something is missing from the relationship and why do you have to go outside to get it? And when you say "No, no, no it's not true, nothing is missing from the relationship," the person you're involved with then accuses you of being secretly attracted to the person you're just friends with, which you probably are. I mean, come on, who the hell are we kidding, let's face it. Which brings us back to the earlier rule before the amendment, which is men and women can't be friends.
Which basically boils down to: "Men always want sex (or at the very least are physically attracted to their female friends), whether the girl is attractive or not, and even in cases where there is pressure to not have sex they secretly want sex, and sex ruins cross-gender relationships, QED". This is amusing and partially truthful, but not a complete picture.
What about women? What about men that aren't always sexually attracted to their friends? They do actually exist you know. What if sex is somehow removed from the picture? What about other issues between genders?
Let's start with the basic and practical problems with such a relationship:
1. In most cases, at least one of the two is bound to fall in lust or in love. Everyone knows this ruins friendships. Expectations are incompatible, attempts to change the relationship are inevitable, and the tensions will rise.
2. The 'one thing led to another' syndrome: Be friends for long enough and despite any convictions or feelings otherwise, an intimate or drunk moment suddenly changes everything.
3. When you are with someone, your so-called platonic friendships understandably breed fear, suspicion and mistrust in your partner. How many people actually succeed in staying platonic? Would you feel safe if your man hangs around an attractive female friend and shares intimacies with her day after day? Would you trust your wife with a man she obviously adores?
4. The attention and energy spent on this tricky friendship may be better spent on a real romance (I'll get back to this later). And if you do have a real romance, this special need you fulfill with your friend may evoke feelings of incompleteness in your partner.
5. The tendency to behave like a couple and suffer from communication difficulties and opposing gender characteristics without gaining from the more intimate benefits of such a coupling. This will be expanded on below.
6. Overcoming society's roles and expectations of such a friendship.
Assuming these can all somehow be controlled or worked around and that the people involved are not deluding themselves about their relationship, what are the typical, unique benefits each of the genders gets out of such a platonic relationship? Why do men and women bother with all these complications in the first place when they can have simpler relationships with their own gender that more often has similar tastes and viewpoints? Note that this discussion does not include women that behave like 'one of the guys' and vice versa. We are talking about a relationship where both genders bring their unique contributions into the relationship.
Women get a more easy-going, fun, less personal and non-competitive friendship. They also receive access to the intriguing and more exotic male perspective on things.
Men get a friend they feel they can confide in with personal and more intimate issues which they would feel uncomfortable discussing with other men. They also get experience with a friendly woman, which helps their dating fears (and ego). In a 1988 study, a survey by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships revealed that whereas women think sexual tension is the biggest problem in cross-gender relationships, most men think of it as the impetus for the relationship.
Note the important difference between those two descriptions: The typical woman looks to friendly men for a less intimate relationship, men look to women for a more intimate experience. This means men suddenly find themselves in an intimate relationship which they are relatively inexperienced with when compared to women, and it's very easy and natural for physical desire to arise out of such a circumstance, whereas women are more used to talking about intimacies with their female friends and approach their friendships with men for different purposes. This may explain why women are sometimes better at platonic cross-gender relationships.
Then again, in my experience, the general stereotype that women are better at these things is often wrong. Women like to think they can be platonic because it is logical, but empirical truths prove them to be as susceptible as men to the pitfalls, and even more so when feelings develop or suddenly enter the picture. This false optimism shows itself in both genders: A survey by match.com on 1500 people showed that 83% believe in platonic relationships yet 62% have had sex with platonic friends.
"Platonic Love is a fool's name for the affection between a disability and a frost."
But lets dig into the term 'platonic love' - its background isn't so simple: Plato actually defined love on several levels, the lowest of which involves sex, the beauty of the physical body and the senses, and the ideal level is one of a philosopher who loves a general and transcendental good/beauty. He also referred to an ideal love which involves homosexuality. Christianity later reformulated these ideas into a love for God and further separated the physical aspects, thus leaving us with a legacy of puritanical, repressive views on sex as non-spiritual and non-idealistic.
So the moderm use of this term actually filtered out all other forms of Platonic love except the most 'ideal'. The modern connotation is that platonic love is idealistic and, using the dictionary definition, it describes a utopian, spiritual relationship that transcends physical desire.
Once we look at it this way, we can argue that given the extremity of such a relationship, being 'just friends' is an oxymoron. But this hierarchy of platonic friendship over physical love is incorrect. Friendship serves as a basis for love which may or may not involve sex as an added value. If an ideal relationship is one that works at the deepest level and involves all beneficial forms of attachments and liasons, then an ideal relationship between man and woman must involve love and sex. Which means that the popular definition of platonic love is incorrect for both historical and semantical reasons.
Which brings me to the conclusion that a non-sexual, cross-gender friendship is restrictive, not idealistic. And this is restrictive tension that goes beyond the sexual. The bottom line is that the closer women and men get to each other, the more chances that the courtship, romance, lust and procreative mechanisms will be kicked into motion, especially when love develops. The closeness of the relationship is limited and even threatened because one has to constantly avoid its natural developments. Having a close but 'platonic' relationship is like trying to have your cake and eat it too.
Digging even deeper, as I described in previous posts, the separation between the genders is exquisite and finely tuned and the interactions between them are carefully engineered for natural growth and powerful synergy. At the same time, this power and deep interaction between opposing forces can only backfire when it isn't backed by a comprehensive and appropriately intimate environment. The closer men and women get, the more they will repel each other, unless they are held together by a strong glue. They are playing with fire without acquiring a fire extinguisher.
Close cross-gender relationships are not only troublesome because they're impractical, they're dysfunctional because they're too powerful to be treated with anything but our full attention.