Single Men and Women CAN Be Friends!
I never dreamed that I, a woman, would be “best man” at a wedding, but when my friend Thomas asked me to take that role at his wedding some years ago, I was honored. I thought about wearing a tux, but in the end decided on a long, fitted black dress with silver earrings and a silver cuff bracelet. No need to downplay my femininity. I was crossing boundaries just by my very presence in the role.
The other day, however, my husband and I were having tea at a café with a male friend who’s recently divorced (non-amicably) from a female friend of ours (somehow, my husband and I are managing, against the odds, to maintain a friendship with each of them). This friend, since his divorce, has been throwing himself headlong into the dating scene with women he’s meeting online.
“I’d like to be just friends with some of the women I’m seeing,” he told us, “rather than lovers, but it seems impossible for single heterosexual men and women to be friends. Either they’re romantically involved, or they have no relationship at all.”
Immediately, I thought of my friendship with Thomas, and had to disagree. I met Thomas in graduate school, and we started going out for the occasional drink. I think we each found the other to be attractive, both physically and personality-wise, but for whatever mysterious reason (perhaps involving body chemistry and pheromones) we weren’t sexually attracted to each other.
At least, it never came up as an issue, so perhaps we were burying those feelings for the greater good of our friendship. In any case, whatever we felt, our burgeoning friendship was clearly the most important thing. Had sex reared its head, so to speak, our friendship might have been destroyed, and I’m pretty sure neither of us wanted to risk that.
After grad school, we both moved to New York City, and our days of going out for a drink, a meal or the occasional reading continued — in fact, they picked up in frequency — and in addition to talking about our careers, we discussed the respective romantic relationships we were in. Thomas was never shy about discussing the problems in his relationships with me, and vice versa.
My love life was something I’d discussed before mostly with my female friends, but with him, it worked well, and I listened to his advice. He also was never shy about discussing his sex life with me, including some sexual issues he had that some women (and men) might have judged harshly or been overly titillated by. Clearly, he trusted that I wouldn’t judge him or become silly, and I didn’t. Although I was somewhat shyer about talking about my own sex life, I contributed plenty to the conversation.
Over time, we changed jobs and relationships, and we continued to meet regularly just to hang out and swap stories of our lives. I got married first, and it didn’t occur to me — or to my husband — that I would need to end my friendship with Thomas. What we had together was not a threat to my husband, or to anyone. It was, in fact, awfully pure and uncomplicated, as relationships (those emotional minefields) go. I’d like to think that his wife, whom I didn’t know well at the time of his wedding, which followed mine, understood that, too. After the wedding, now and then the four of us went out together, but it was clear that the real friendship was between Thomas and me.
So I keep wondering why my divorced friend finds it so difficult to be friends with women. I’ve heard his sentiment expressed before by single men (and women) and I know that it is a real “truth” for many. Is what Thomas and I have that rare? Are sexual feelings raging so hard for my divorced friend, despite what he thinks, that he’s unable to perceive the women he meets as anything but romantic partners?
Is it the same for the women he meets? Are they unable to perceive single men as anything other than sexual partners, despite their best intentions? Or, do the men and women stifle themselves in each other’s presence, feeling too self-conscious or defended, unable to speak openly from their hearts, which one must do in order to foster a friendship? Or, do my friend and his dates crave only fireworks rather than the slow, steady build up of a long-term friendship?