Can Men and Women Be Friends?

I have had many close male friends over the years, and have therefore become somewhat of an expert on the question of male-female friendships - which is exactly why I am so skeptical about it.
06/05/2008 02:42pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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I have been told that I bear a vague resemblance to Carrie Bradshaw, of Sex and the City fame. Not in appearance, perhaps, but in manner. So now I would like to claim my Carrie Bradshaw moment, and ask the world this well-worn question: Can men and women really be friends? And, to put a slight twist on it, can the man you're dating really be friends with other women?

My boyfriend has a handful of close female friends, and now that we are having a long distance relationship (New York to Germany), these friendships have become both more necessary (I'm not there and he needs a social life) and more painful (who are all these other ladies he's spending all his time with?). I certainly don't begrudge him the friendships, but I can't help the twinge of hurt I get every time he tells me that he went out to dinner with a female friend or recently watched a movie with her (at her house!).

Of course he reassures me that these women are "just friends" and that he's not doing anything wrong. But then I remember that our relationship began while he was dating someone else, and that we, too, were once "just friends". We spent a couple of months doing friendly things, like going out for beers and taking walks, before it became clear that we weren't just friends and shortly afterwards he left his girlfriend and starting dating me. (It's worth mentioning here that he was unhappy in his old relationship and had wanted to break up for a while. Seen in that light, perhaps we never were just friends.)

Since I myself have had many close male friends over the years, I have become somewhat of an expert on this question of male-female friendships - which is exactly why I am so skeptical about it. Like Sally in When Harry Met Sally (the crown jewel of the can-men-and-women-be-friends film genre), I used to believe in platonic friendships. I, like Sally, was disturbed by Harry's suggestion that the sex part always gets in the way. The fact that the movie itself implicitly ends up siding with Harry (since Harry and Sally's friendship turns sexual and eventually leads to marriage) used to ruffle me back when I first saw it as a teenager in the early-90's. In my naivete, I thought it was a nice love story but a sadly cynical statement on the impossibility of real, i.e. non-sexual, friendships between men and women.

Now that I am a wizened 30-something, closer in age and experience to Nora Ephron when she wrote the great screenplay for that film, I have come around. I see now that the sex part is almost always present in some form between heterosexual men and women when they are close. Over the years, I have had too many friendships with men which were charged by sexual tension or which blurred the boundaries between friendship and romance for me to deny this reality any longer. (In fact, even when I first saw When Harry Met Sally I was having friendships like this, but I hadn't admitted it to myself yet.)

But does this mean that all male-female friendships will ultimately be destroyed - or forced to evolve - because of this sexual tension? Or that they necessarily threaten the romantic relationships the friends are in?

I think it is possible in some cases to conquer that sex part, to tame it, or to get it out of your system. For example, I have a few lovely friendships with men I was briefly involved with, but with whom I never got serious. (If it gets serious, the chances for friendship after it ends are much slimmer.) In other words, as far as sex goes, we've been there and done that, so the desire for it no longer infuses the friendship. I also have a couple of male friends who are married, and who I had brief crushes on before making peace with them being off-limits. In these cases, the crush was something I had to work through in order to free myself up to be a real friend to them, and sometimes to their wives.

I also find that when I am in a relationship myself, those hidden longings and crushes on male friends grow dim. Since I started dating my boyfriend a year ago, friendships with other men that were once driven by flirtation and fantasy have settled into peaceful, comfortable relationships in which I can genuinely enjoy the person's company without wanting something more. (I can only speak for myself here, since I am the one whose romantic status has changed. Who knows if they are still harboring longings for me?) It is actually a great relief. As far as male-female friendships are concerned, relationships can be a great liberator.

In other words, when you're in a relationship, friendships with the opposite sex - ideally - simmer down to a low boil instead of cooking over a high flame of sexual possibility. It's better that way because you get to spend time with people you like and even get a little harmless flirtation and male attention thrown in, safe in the knowledge that you are not doing anything to hurt your relationship. The best you can hope for, really, is that your boyfriend is doing the same thing with his female friends.