Can men and women really be just friends?
After the 1989 blockbuster movie “When Harry Met Sally…” many were left questioning whether truly platonic relationships are possible. But friendships between men and women really do exist and, if anything, are becoming increasingly common.
Over the past two decades, the differences between male and female societal roles have narrowed. Women are spending time in the workplace beside men; men are more actively participating in child care, housework and parenting. These generational shifts have spawned cross-gender friendships that your grandma never dreamed about.
Yet there is still a paucity of research and no roadmap to guide us in handling these complicated relationships. That’s why we tend to resort to shorthand when explaining them. We may say having an opposite-sex friend is like “having a sister” or “having a brother.”
Shared values and expectations are essential to any friendship, but achieving this between platonic friends is especially tricky.
Kate’s experience highlights the potential pitfalls of failing to define a platonic friendship explicitly from the beginning — and, perhaps, redefining it periodically. (The names here are not real.)
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The case of Kate
Kate met her best friend, Jake, through her husband, Marc. At first, the three friends went to the movies and had dinner together quite often. Then Jake met Allyson, who would later become his wife, and the threesome became a foursome.
Jake was outgoing and loved being with people. Allyson worked long hours as a nurse, so Jake fell into the habit of coming over often to hang out with his old buddies. “It began to seem like he was always with us,” Kate says. He was even there, clapping like an uncle, when her son, Ari, took his first steps.
If Marc was working, Jake would accompany Kate to the mall to pick out baby clothes or to shop for gifts. “Jake actually enjoyed shopping, and I often joked he was my favorite girlfriend,” Kate says. Marc trusted his best friend (and his wife) so there wasn’t a hint of jealousy.
“There was only one time when I felt really awkward with Jake,” Kate admits. The two couples were at a movie, and Jake asked his wife to switch seats so he could sit beside Kate. “I nearly died,” she says. “I was so embarrassed and stunned he would do something like that.” But that seemed like a one-time gaffe.
A few years into their friendship, Jake confided to Marc that his marriage was foundering. Kate and Marc encouraged Jake to see a marriage counselor and tried to support him. Soon after, things calmed down and seemed normal between Jake and Allyson.
One day, however, Marc was changing a tire in the driveway when Jake stopped by. He went into the house to say hello to Kate. Out of the blue, Jake blurted out, “I’ve met the love of my life.”
“You’re married,” Kate said. “Are you having an affair?” She was shocked and disappointed in her friend.
Then came the kicker. “It’s you,” Jake said.
Kate was speechless. She picked up Ari and ran outside. Jake followed and said goodbye to all of them as if nothing had happened. After he drove away, Kate immediately told Marc about the incident. The next day, the couple called Jake, and Kate told him that even if he wasn’t, she and Marc were happily married. She hung up and cut off all contact with her once-best friend. Although it was painful to lose a friend, as far as Kate was concerned, Jake had crossed a line that signaled the end of the friendship.
“You can’t expect everything from one relationship,” comments Lauree Ostrofsky, founder of Simply Leap, a life coaching and communications company in Washington, DC. “Even if your partner is great, other friends (male and female) can really add to and enrich your life,” she says.
But just as same-sex friendships morph over time—and even the best of them don’t necessarily last forever—recognize that a platonic friendship may turn steamy for one individual or another. Having a solid friendship as a foundation should help in successfully renegotiating the terms of the relationship.
Searching for rules
Three basic rules can prevent problems in opposite-gender friendships:
1) Establish clear boundaries from the onset
Whether you’re single or married, platonic friends need to talk about what’s acceptable in the relationship and what isn’t. For example, if one is a touchy-feely person and the other isn’t, they had better get on the same page quickly. Kate and Jake fell into their relationship without ever explicitly discussing it. When she felt uncomfortable with Jake’s behavior in the movie theater, she should have spoken to him about it afterward in private.
2) Respect your romantic mate or partner
If one or both platonic friends are married or in a romantic relationship with someone else, they need to be especially careful not to undermine that primary relationship. While Marc was open and forgiving, maintaining a platonic relationship is inadvisable if your spouse or romantic partner is insecure and jealous. Never fan the flames by keeping secrets, or by sacrificing time and closeness with a primary partner for a friend. Be inclusive and make opportunities for the three or four of you to be together as well.
3) Be cautious about appearances to others
You both may have agreed on the rules — and your romantic partner may have blessed the plan, too — but people in your workplace (for example, an older supervisor) may still associate cross-gender friendships with romance. Flaunting a relationship with a “work spouse” (someone you’re closely tied to at work) can create misunderstandings among supervisors and co-workers that undermine your reputation at work. Always maintain your professionalism and exercise caution about drinking too much at office parties (think TV’s “Mad Men”) or burning the midnight oil together too often.