The eternal problem…part three

I’m not usually in the habit of doing long-winded or long-running blog posts, but there appears to be an issue that keeps cropping up, both in real-life conversations and the blogosphere – that of male-female friendships. [In the last week, it’s even featured on national radio – there’s a long debate on last week’s Chris Moyles podcast.]

It’s the eternal problem of whether (in the words of Harry, of When Harry Met Sally fame) a man and woman can be friends ‘without the sex thing getting in the way’. I’m wondering if perhaps the amount of thought being put into it makes it a book-worthy subject, perhaps with chapters authored by men and women alternately – could be an idea…

Also unusually, this post is going to require some background reading on your part (if you care that is, if you don’t you’ll probably be fine, but I like to give people the option!). You’ll also need a working knowledge of the movie, if you haven’t seen it, there are useful YouTube clips within the links that follow. Last summer I wrote on this topic twice (on consecutive days in fact), inventively entitled The Eternal Problem and The Eternal Problem Part Two – I’m going to try not to repeat myself and in some instances my thoughts back then have now changed. Those posts prompted some interesting conversations in various circles and for one particular blogging friend it’s a question that he’s pondered quite considerably. Last week he wrote at length on the subject and this post is intended as something of a response to his thoughts – a female perspective if you will. (Originally, this was drafted under ‘Rebuttal’ but that’s actually too strong a term when I don’t really intend to argue with him.) I was already beginning to collate some thoughts when a mutual friend suggested in the comments that perhaps I might weigh in with my views, so here they are:

Friends and Teenage Angst
It’s not particularly surprising that friendship between the genders is subject to such a question, when the idea that sex has to be involved somewhere is perpetuated throughout society. Take TV for example, the classic Generation X ideology of Friends shows that no friendship group is without its complications. On the one hand you have the marriage that emerged from Monica & Chandler’s friendship and the on-off relationship that defined a generation – Ross & Rachel. But if you look more closely (and being the Friends geek that I am, I know this without having to check) every friendship had sexual attraction (or something similar) thrown into it at some point. Monica fancied Joey when he first moved in; Ross and Phoebe nearly made out in a flashback episode; Rachel & Joey had a dalliance; Ross and Joey couldn’t cope when they realised how good napping together was… Using a different example, what about the incestuous nature of Dawson’s Creek? The un-ending saga of Dawson and Joey – sexual tension between two friends of different genders at its most potent.

Joey & Dawson

The prevalence of such relationships would suggest that it’s something that everyone will struggle with at some point eventually – so maybe Harry is right? But in fact, in the examples above, it didn’t actually spell the end of the friendships. My own theory is that Harry is wrong, not because sex isn’t an issue, but because it doesn’t have to prevent good friendships from developing and lasting.

Bringing Plato back from the dead
I think a big part of the problem that society has is that it seems to have forgotten or ignored the existence of platonic love. We seem to be so conditioned to look for romantic love that when we feel the emotion of attraction we assume that it’s that, not simply a genuine filial love. I can remember feeling distraught when moving cities and leaving my (first of several) gay best friend behind. For quite a while I couldn’t work out if what I felt meant that I liked him too much, even though I knew he wasn’t interested in me that way. After much soul searching, I realised it was simply a case of having formed a close platonic bond that I was genuinely sad to be changing. A year later when a close female friend left the country I was similarly upset, yet wouldn’t ever have wondered if I felt something more – because she was female! In his post, Andy talks about the role of attraction in friendship and he’s right, there has to be some attraction there in the first place for any kind of friendship to begin. We’re just rubbish at understanding that different forms of attraction are just as valid as sexual attraction.

It’s not the end – it’s only the beginning
Realising that you have feelings for a friend (and not having those feelings reciprocated) also needn’t mean the end of a friendship. Harry seems to assume that this is the case – given the utterly immature way in which both he and Sally respond to their one night stand, this is unsurprising – but he’s wrong. Yes, there will always be people who either can’t deal with knowing someone likes them or that their feelings aren’t returned, but in mature, open and honest friendships this really shouldn’t be an issue. You need healthy boundaries and plenty of honesty, but it is doable. Personally, I’ve struggled with this. There have been incidences where I’ve been terrible at ‘guarding my heart’ (a classic Christian cliché) and got badly hurt in the process, but I’m making progress. Things will never be perfect, but just lately I’ve learned a lot of important lessons that I think will result in a healthy, long-lasting friendship.

It’s deeply disappointing that being open and honest doesn’t always work – it’s cases like those that make Harry seem right, but I think they’re exceptions to the rule. I honestly don’t think that God intended for the two sexes to remain separate from each other in this way. The idea that women shouldn’t be close friends with men exists in certain Christian circles, but why be restricted to just half the population? Being friends with the opposite sex is of vital importance. Whatever some might say, the genders usually process things differently – for example, I’ve often found male friends’ relationship advice more useful than women’s.

It’s all Enid Blyton’s fault
Many of us are screwed up in this area because their formative years were spent in a single-sex environment (Part 1 explored this a little). Educationally I’m of the opinion that this is beneficial and I know that the decision to go to a girls’ school age 11 was my own, but it really doesn’t do you many favours socially. I’m now 28 and only really began having good male friends when I was at university. My mid-20’s were overshadowed by a deeply complicated friendship and only now am I starting to make better judgements. Just a couple of weeks ago a good friend at church discovered that I’d attended a local girls’ school and her response – “well that explains a lot” – says it all really.

Last summer, in between Part 1 and Part 2, I had a discussion with a male friend on this question. [Fortunately it was online and I saved the text, so now have it for reference purposes – however, just because it’s what we said at that time, doesn’t mean it holds true today.] One thing he said that really irked me was:
I think men can be terrible in how they can behave towards women, but when it comes to friendship, I think the issue falls more with the girls, because most guys can spend time with someone, get to know them a bit, and not automatically assume that this means the girl wants to date them/marry them/take them to bed…”we spent a whole hour at the party just talking! He must like me!”

At the time I insisted he was wrong, or at least that at some point girls go through a stage of thinking that, but we grow out of it. Now however, I’m not so sure. I wonder, because this is an issue so many of my friends have, if women are naturally conditioned to seek out love and affirmation and therefore are more inclined to jump ahead of themselves. My friend Katie and I refer to this as having a ‘Grolsch moment’ (an explanation for this term can be found in this advert). I’m definitely guilty of it – not in the base way in which it’s described above, but I know that affirmation can mean so much to me that a bit of positive interaction or flirting can get me carried away.

However, that’s no excuse for avoiding friendships. We as women need to make sure that we take male friends’ words and actions as they’re intended on a platonic level, rather than desperately searching/hoping for a subtext. At the same time, men need to be careful about how their actions might be interpreted and ensure that they aren’t guilty of leading their female friends on. If you’ve discovered that a female friend has feelings for you, it’s probably not a good idea to place your hand over hers while holding an umbrella, because that just sends out confusing signals. [FYI, that’s a genuine example, hence its specific/random nature!]

It’s complicated. Last year I was very nearly of the opinion that it was so complicated that it wasn’t worth bothering with – I think I meant the question as opposed to cross-gender friendships – but now I think it’s something to be borne in mind in an effort to reform society’s attitude. Along the way we also need to spend more time considering our friendships and ensuring that they are as healthy as they can be. Maybe, if the two things come to fruition, Harry will forever be wrong…

The thing is, friendship is a beautiful thing. (That’s something else I was scornful of in my discussion last year, thinking it too mundane and every day to be beautiful – I was wrong.) It enhances our lives beyond measure and, while it can be painful at times, we can’t live without it. In the last few weeks I’ve been astounded at how amazing my friends are (that sounds unbearably cheesy and was nearly a truly pathetic Facebook status, but it’s true). Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the difficult aspects of it that you miss out on the opportunities it provides you.

[Incidentally, I don’t think this will be the end of the matter. I’ve got a pile of research now and could rant on forever, but I think that’s enough for today!]


  1. I think this largely depends on the individuals involved, doesn’t it? I know lots of people who largely have friends of the opposite sex and in most cases it’s platonic. But others find it harder and base their opposite sex friendships on flirting, or just don’t have any at all. The important thing, though, is that friendship is hugely important and I think we should pursue it in all its forms.

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