Saturday, March 15, 2008

Can men and women really be just friends?

We shared a bedroom umpteen years ago, but nothing happened. It was a weekend beach lime, and, in my haste to be in the water, I neglected to state a roommate preference. By the time I emerged from the water, all the sleeping accommodations had been sorted out, and I realized that my options were going to be sand or shared bedroom. I opted to share.

Running into him years later was enlightening. He told me that that weekend became a line of defense against women who would accuse him of being interested in just one thing. He could, with a straight face, tell them about the weekend he spent with a woman, and nothing happened.

It has served no such purpose for me. Maybe it’s a gender thing, I dunno. But for me it’s just a nice memory of an interesting weekend spent in a bedroom with a gorgeous man with whom I never became physically intimate. Then again, I’ve never been called upon to defend whether or not I perceive men as being only good for one thing.

But our conversation ignited the question of whether men and women can be 'just friends'. Of course I recognize that this question is not original. It has been thoroughly explored as in “When Harry Met Sally”, and the sitcom, “Friends”.

Mary Hunt (author of 'Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship'), believes that true friendship is always based on the premise of equality, which does not necessarily exist in male-female relations. On the contrary, she observes, “economic, political, psychological, and other differences between the genders result in the fact that women find it difficult to be friends with men and vice."

Others argue that men and women can develop platonic connections but that problems arise when they attempt to sustain these bonds over time. Nietzsche averred, quite bluntly, that a woman “can enter into a friendship with a man perfectly well; but in order to maintain it, the aid of a little physical antipathy is perhaps required." Ouch!

This of course implies that a man and woman who are not erotically involved with anyone else, and who find each other attractive, may experience difficulty remaining 'just friends' over time. Is it inevitable, under such conditions, that an erotic attraction would eventually develop? Would my very attractive bed-mate and I have ended up doing a little something something had the weekend been prolonged? Hmmm…

But there are other reasons why it is sometimes difficult for a man and woman to maintain a platonic friendship. Quite often, these difficulties have little to do with any lack of ability to keep their hands off each other. Instead, problems often arise from the troubling impact such friendships may have on co-existing romantic relationships.

Many lovers find themselves repeatedly having to convince their jealous partners that there is nothing to feel threatened about in their friendship with someone of the opposite gender. Eros can be very possessive.

Other lovers may accept that a friendship is platonic, but nevertheless question the need for this other bond. They do not see these extra-intimate bonds as an expression of a healthy emotional need, but as evidence that there may be something missing in the romantic relationship.

Some lovers resolve the issue by simply including their erotic partner into the platonic bond, forming a three-way friendship. Others take a firmer stand, insisting on their right as mature individuals to have friends outside of the romantic partnership. And for others, it eventually becomes an unfortunate question of having to choose between romantic partner and platonic friend.

And yet, as long as women and men continue to work and play in the same spaces, the business of friendships across the gender divide will remain a salient one. Attempts at forming such friendships are sometimes misunderstood. How often have we heard the line of defense against accusations of sexual harassment that the person was just trying to be friends? How often has it been true?

As J. B. Priestley noted aeons ago, friendships between men and women will always have to face certain difficulties that will not be present in same-sex friendships. There will almost always be what he calls "a faint undercurrent of excitement” usually not present when only one sex is involved. And this is where problems often lie.

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