One of the biggest myths in dating – and one I can’t stand – is the idea that men and women can’t be just friends. In its own way, it’s perversely fascinating because it’s very much a Straight People Problem. The idea that sex will inevitably come between two people doesn’t seem to be an issue when it’s two gay men or two gay women… and then of course, the idea that bi and pansexual people can’t be friends with anyone. But put a straight man and woman together and the general assumption is that somehow sex will inevitably rear its head and make platonic intimacy impossible.
As tempting as it is to just make jokes and quote When Harry Met Sally, the idea that men and women can’t be just friends is actually shockingly toxic to men. Men already have a hard enough time fostering emotionally intimate friendships with other men; when we also accept that platonic intimacy with women can’t exist, we isolate ourselves even further. As a result: we find ourselves even lonelier than before, even when we’re surrounded by friends and familes.
As part of an ongoing series on helping men be more emotionally intelligent, we’re going to pick apart some of the barriers to cross-gender platonic intimacy and talk about how to learn to be able to be just friends with women… and how this can make us better, healthier men.
Believing the Worst About Ourselves (And Acting Accordingly)
The problems with men and women trying to be just friends is actually surprisingly complicated… for men. Women have much less of an issue of compartmentalizing attraction from intimacy. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggested that while women were capable of keeping things platonic, men tended to have a harder time with the idea. But far from being a case of biology being destiny, this is a confluence of issues for men ranging from ideas surrounding male sexuality, to gender relations and emotional intelligence.
And one of the biggest issues when it comes to the idea that men and women can’t be just friends is that it’s predicated on men believing the worst about themselves.
One of the oldest and hoariest tropes surrounding male sexuality is that all men are inherently horny beasts and are powerless before our penises. Because our sex drives are so all-encompassing, we are unable to compartmentalize sex from every other aspect of our lives. In fact, our lives are focused around getting our penises into as many holes as possible over the course of our lifetime. This, of course, means that no matter what our conscious minds might wish to believe, ultimately our cocks have the final say in just about everything in our lives.
This is part and parcel of some of the bizarre contradictions surrounding toxic masculine ideals – that being a man means being at the mercy of our id. We can’t relate to women as individuals or as anything other than potential fuck-holes because we’re too immature to be able to control ourselves. By default, any interaction with someone of the opposite sex1 that we’re not related to is prelude to our trying to sleep with them. Of course, not only does this mean that not only can we not trust women, but we can’t trust men either. After all, if men are powerless before their penises and can ultimately only interact with women as a prelude to sex, it means that the men in your life are all waiting to betray you. By definition, every man you spend time with is simply waiting for the opportunity to bang your girlfriend or wife and will do so as soon as your back is turned. In fact, the JSPR study validates this: men were as likely to desire to date their “taken” female friends as their single ones.
Now to be sure, there are people who will talk about things like “bro code” keeping their friends from crossing those lines, and perhaps they even believe it to an extent. But at its core, believing that men and women only interact on a sexual level only serves to isolate men further; sex keeps men from being genuine with women and by extension, in competition with all other men. Who, then, can guys turn to for their emotional health? They’ve cut themselves off from all forms of social support, unable to trust anybody beyond the most surface level.
And while we’re talking about an inability to trust…
Friends Under False Pretenses
This idea that sex gets in the way of all cross-gender friendships leads to, among other things, women being unable trust men. One of the issues brought up in the JSPR study and related follow-up is the number of men who treat a cross-gender friendship as an opportunity for sex or a romantic relationship. For many men, being “friends” with a woman is simply the pretext to hang around in order to get into their pants.
This behavior serves to further isolate men, not just from friendships but potentially from romantic or sexual relationships as well. Because so many women have been betrayed like this, they’re naturally more guarded and less trusting of guys, even ones who have legitimate intentions. While not every guy does this2 , the fact that almost every woman has a story of someone who was pretending to be her friend in order to get laid means that they’re left having to assume ulterior motives.
However, the idea that sex and friendship are mutually incompatible is also part of what leads to men thinking of friendship as a consolation prize for sex – devaluing both sex and friendship at the same time. It treats the offer of a legitimate emotional connection as a sort of “fuck you, you’re not good enough for me,” rather than someone3 trying to show that yes, they do value having you in their lives. This belief is, in no small part, part of how men are taught to believe that The Friend Zone is something that’s done to them – a cruel trick, or a way to keep men dancing in attendance to satisfy a woman’s emotional needs until a “real” man comes along.
Hell, for some, the idea that women would offer friendship is inherently insulting.
This is the trap in treating male/female friendship as “just friends” – the implication is that being a friend is inherently lesser in terms of intimacy or importance in another’s life if sex is not involved.
Except sexual attraction and friendship aren’t and don’t need to be mutually exclusive…
The False Dichotomy of Sex and Friendship
The generally accepted meme – as codified by When Harry Met Sally is that men can’t be friends with women they’re attracted to because sex inevitably gets in the way.
The part that goes unmentioned is how sex and sexual attraction get in the way. After all, if you’re dating somebody, you presumably have an emotional connection as well; it’s difficult to keep up a relationship with someone you can’t stand. Sex, somehow, doesn’t get in the way of friendship in that context. Is it because women don’t trust someone who’s attracted to them? Or perhaps because a man who’s attracted to a woman can’t act honestly around her as he tries to get her into bed? Then the problem isn’t sex, it’s the lying. Is it because the man will automatically attempt to court and bed her and this will drive them apart? Then the problem isn’t sex, it’s the behavior, making it a boundary issue. Is it because sex would “ruin” the friendship? Then the problem isn’t sex, it’s the two individuals involved and how they relate to sex. Is it because a man doesn’t or won’t respect someone who lets him sleep with her? Then the problem is that he’s an asshole.
(Notice how the issue is the man’s behavior? That’s in no small part because we as a culture seem to accept that it’s the man’s view of the relationship that decides whether it’s platonic or romantic…)
At its core, the idea that sex and friendship are mutually exclusive seems to come down to two issues. The first is that the two can’t exist simultaneously; the fact that you’re sexually attracted to someone means that what you feel isn’t friendship. The second is that attraction must be fulfilled, that an erection is a call to action.
In the former, part of the problem seems to revolve around our concepts of love and desire. We tend to only believe in two kinds of love: the sexless love for family and the love we reserve for our partners. Because we may not be interested in dating our friends, it means that by default, that love must be sexless. If sexual desire is involved then it can’t be friendship. At the same time however, we’re perfectly capable of being sexually attracted to people we don’t like; hell, sometimes we’re attracted to people we actively loathe. If sex can exist independently of wanting to date or marry someone (or even liking them) then it can’t contradict friendship.
In the latter, the problem is the idea that attraction is something that must be pursued and that the pursuit somehow conflicts with being friends. The problem here is the assumption that attraction is automatically the only impulse we can’t control. We all have impulses and ideas that we don’t act on, all the damn time. After all, if we responded to every stray emotion or thought we had, I-35 would look like something out of George Miller’s wet dream.
Part of being a grown-ass adult is learning how to handle our feelings. The fact that we’re attracted to somebody doesn’t necessarily require that we’re going to pursue it. For that matter it doesn’t even need to be brought up. It’s entirely possible to be just friends with someone without telling them that oh, by the way, you want to see them naked. It’s possible to let attraction just be, rather than making it somebody else’s issue. In fact, that refusal to not pursue it and treat every woman as a potential sex partner gets in the way of men’s emotional health.
The Emotional Benefits To Being Just Friends
While it’s difficult to talk about the benefits to being friends with someone without making friendship sound mercenary, pursuing a platonic friendship with women has benefits overall. Developing, accepting and maintaining a platonic friendship with women helps men learn to grow, socially and emotionally.
For example: one of the interesting findings of the JSPR study was that men tended to regularly overestimate their female friends’ interest in them.
To a certain extent, it’s understandable that some men might confuse platonic affection for attraction. Women, in general, tend to be more emotionally and physically demonstrative with their friends, being more willing to open up, share secrets and generally show appreciation for their friends. Men, on the other hand, are socialized to be more closed off and keep things inside. When any demonstration of affection or intimacy is rare or unusual, it’s not surprising that guys may confuse something as simple as a friendly hug as a neon sign reading “She wants the D”. Being just friends can, among other things, help men learn to differentiate between signs of friendliness vs. signs of sexual interest and attraction. By being exposed to more forms of intimacy and affection – beyond the assumption that all cross-gender interactions are inherently sexual – it’s possible to learn to be both more demonstrative and able to accept that affection.
Having more female friends can help you improve your social calibration. Understanding women, listening to them – really listening to them, instead of trying to explain their own lived experiences to them – can help you learn how to relate better to others. By paying attention and listening to what women have to say, you’ll start to learn. Even learning to recognize how the way you say something can come across as patronizing or insulting when you don’t mean it to can help improve your ability to read social situations and respond.
But outside of practical issues, being friends with women is healthier for men, emotionally. As I mentioned earlier: men have issues with social isolation and emotional intimacy. Because of fears of being perceived as gay or unmanly, we tend to hold back from opening up to our male friends. As a result: we tend to make our partners our sole source of emotional support. That is a tremendous burden for any one person. Having female friends who are just friends gives you a broader base of support – and gives them more support when they need it as well.
Just to be clear: I’m not saying that platonic female friends are there to teach you how to emotion better. It’s on you to learn how to do this yourself, especially by following examples, not to expect others to do the work for you. And yes, you should also seek out more emotionally intimate relationships with men too – I’ll cover this in a future article.
How To Be Just Friends With Someone You’re Attracted To
So with all of this in mind: how do you navigate the issue of attraction to someone you’re just friends with?
For starters: relax about it. Attraction to a friend is understandable, even common. After all, you wouldn’t be friends with them if you weren’t compatible and if you didn’t think they were awesome, would you? The key is to not let the feeling throw you or make you panic. The fact that you’re attracted to somebody is inherently neutral. It doesn’t say anything about your friendship to them. It doesn’t mean you need to do anything about it. It just is. It may seem like the best thing you can do is force it away; this is actually a mistake. Trying to stuff an emotion or feeling down the memory hole just makes it even more present in your mind. Ever try to not think of something? For example: try to not picture Estelle Getty dressed as a fox at a bondage club.
Instead of trying to force it away, just let it be. Don’t dwell on it but don’t avoid it. Acknowledge it to yourself and move on. You will have enough stuff going on in your life that other things will occupy your mind as long as you aren’t making your attraction a big deal.
The other thing you should do is behave normally. Your crush is your business, not your friend’s. Bringing your feelings front and center as part of your friendship is forcing your friend to deal with something that’s not their responsibility. As Captain Awkward puts it: part of being just friends with someone you’re attracted to means setting some self-boundaries. Flirting with them (if you don’t already have a flirty friendship), denigrating her relationships with people who aren’t you, making joking-but-not-really comments about the two of you as a couple, or doing things like the too-long-and-now-it’s-awkward full-body hug are all ways of making your issue theirs.
Should you mention it? Well, that depends on a couple of issues. If they’re dating someone else or otherwise have a monogamous commitment, then no, you should not. It’s not fair to put them in the position to have to turn you down and risk hurting your feelings. Have they been giving you signals that they might want to be more than friends? Are you capable of not taking rejection personally and letting the matter drop if she turns you down without it curdling your friendship? Then it might be possible to carefully broach the topic. If you don’t want to take the risk… then no. Keep it to yourself and allow things to progress on their own.
Women make amazing, valuable friends, when people don’t let issues of sex or romance complicate things needlessly. Handling an inconvenient attraction to a friend, or being just friends with someone you’re attracted to are part of developing your emotional intelligence. Not obsessing about your feelings not only lets you continue to enjoy your friendship, but it also leaves you open for when you meet someone who is right for you, romantically.