Friday, June 11, 2010

Piece of Advice #43: Recognize the limitations of male-female friendships

This topic was suggested to me by incurablesanity.*

Sadly, much of what can be said about friendships between men and women was summed up by Harry in the following two snippets from When Harry Met Sally.

I say this with actual, authentic sadness because I have almost always found it easier to converse and get along with men than I have with women.  If I attend a party and find myself after a time in interesting conversation, fully comfortable and enjoying the exchange, it is nearly 100% likely that I will be talking to a man.  I am much more guarded with a woman and take a toe-in-the-water approach, continuously checking for signs that I am/have offended or bored her or that she has judged my choice of topic to be unfeminine in some way or that she is assessing my appearance/fashion sense/choice of companions/whatever.

Back when I was single and had male friends I enjoyed the casual companionship they often provided, but I noticed that inevitably that easy friendship would get more complex over time as one or the other of us would stop seeing the other as a friend and start seeing a love interest.  Then things became awkward, unpleasant, and sometimes rather ugly.  This happened time and time again, and it happened even when he was involved with a friend of mine or when I was seeing someone else, or when I thought I had been unambiguous about where this was going (as in: we were not going to be having sex together at any point in future) and had been conservative in dress and comportment.  It just tended to get messy over time.

Twice I had roommate's boyfriends scope me out as to whether we might have a (hypothetical) chance together in future, should things go sour in their current relationships.  (As I am not a man poacher, I had to come up with a way to dodge without being insulting or triggering a tattling reaction - tricky.)  Once I had what I thought was a very positive friendship with a coworker.  This was while I was living in Russia.  The lifestyle there was very hard, and while we had very little in common personally and were both in long-distance relationships with other people, we enjoyed each other's company and provided each other a good ear for venting about the frustrations of living and working as we did.  Then I took a trip with him over the Christmas holidays.  It was open invitation getaway, and a third person considered coming along, but didn't in the end.  This was supposed to be a weekend thing - see Vilnius and get back home - but I had visa problems at the border and wound up stuck there because the consulate was closed for winter break.  During all of this, things came to a head in our friendship.  He made a pass which I deflected, and then he bailed out of the city and left me to deal with all of these problems alone.  Somewhere in the middle of this frigid, frightening sojourn which included getting shaken down by tourist-targeting thieves, being asked to pay for my new passport photos with sex, and playing hardball at the Russian consulate, I began to realize that this relationship had been doomed from the beginning because sooner or later one of us was going to cross the Rubicon of loneliness/horniness and an act of war would be committed.  Which is exactly what happened.

After that I revised my expectations of friendship with men down to a much more manageable, less vulnerable level and at the first hint of awkwardness tried to limit contact so no one would get hurt.  Eventually I came to the same conclusion Harry does above and resigned myself to more shallow social interactions with men.  Now of course I am married, and I forego male friendships because it might give the appearance of wrongdoing or expose my marriage to stress it doesn't need.

I'm not saying friendship between men and women absolutely can't be done.  Perhaps other women are more socially adept than I was and can better sidestep the hidden land mines of sexual attraction, rejection, and hurt feelings than I could.  I will say that my best friend in high school was a guy.  I spent loads of time with him, and things never became awkward between us and I still feel wholly positive about that relationship.  He was, however, gay.

*If you have a topic you would like to see covered here, I can be reached at grerp at yahoo dot com.


  1. One of my closest friends is a woman...but unusual circumstances have brought that about. First and foremost, she's also great friends with my wife, and I, great friends with her husband.

    We started out as friends before either of us got married..but that's because we had a shared interest in the martial arts, and I became her teacher. in Hawaii, we all have a tendency to what's called "hanai" really close friends - i.e. start referring to each other as family members.

    After a few years of friendship, we began to refer to each other as brother and sister. We've gone out and done things together (from outward appearances to others, look like "dates"), but we have never had the ambiguity or awkwardness of any sort of expectations beyond the platonic level between us.

    When she got her boyfriend, who eventually became her husband, I was one of the first friends she introduced him to, and we became fast much so, that after several years of their courtship, I was one of his groomsmen at their wedding.

    But I realize my situation is still pretty unusual. Generally speaking, I think Harry was right. :)

  2. It sounds like you have a lovely friendship, KG, and one that will continue because of the way you formed it.

  3. grerp, this is a great post, and very timely for me! This question has come up in a recent thread at HUS, and not surprisingly, at least to me, the men and older commenters reflect your view (and mine). The young and female commenters generally feel very positive about platonic friendships with men. Several testify to having great friendships with zero sexual tension. I was thinking of posting the question as sort of an Open Mic thing - I'm really very curious to know if this can work, and what the right circumstances might be.

    My own daughter recently expressed that she had a "friend problem," code for a guy wanting more when she doesn't. She sighed and wondered how she could go about finding a gay BFF. It's really not an unreasonable question!

  4. Susan - I just stopped by and read that thread, and I do think it's interesting that there is a difference in how optimistic older vs. younger people are about male/female friendships. Perhaps it is experience, or perhaps it reflects a shift in society and expectations of dating or hooking up, etc. I don't know.

    As far as gay BFF's are concerned, I'm sure they are in high demand. :) Mine was great, but moved to the big city after high school and so I only get to see him at Christmas, unfortunately.

    Oh, and thanks very kindly for the linkage!

  5. first time commenter here, followed from Hooking Up Smart.
    I was one of those young girls who believed in having guy friends with no tensions, until I realised that sometimes, that "no tensions" is willful ignorance on the girl's part, and if you were to ask the guy who she was "platonic" friends with, nine times out of ten, he'd say he was hoping for more.
    It seems to be rarer that the girl falls for the uninterested guy friend, but i am proof it can happen, and that's not fun either.
    It seems that,to me, co-gender friendships are short term things. great while they last, but doomed to fail. unless somehow both friends form loving relationships with their respective matches in another guy girl friendship? something tells me thats not likely. :P

  6. The problem is when one person gets into the relationship with sex at the back of their mind. One of my best friends is female, but we didn't get into the friendship with one of those awkward "let's just be friends" moments.

  7. It's all true. My relationships with female friends always slowly start to escalate if only in my own mind.

    I have given consideration to Keoni's method of refering to one particular person as "sister"... or maybe "cousin". (It's legal to do sex with your cousin.)

    Maybe we could amend it so that two opposite sex bloggers happily married living in separate States can be friends...

  8. I am of the When Harry Met Sally church. I've had so many guys "trick" me into dates by the whole "let's just be friends" spiel. I'm happy to be friends with guys that I'm attracted to, even if they aren't with me. It's painful, but I've learned to manage it, and I can put it on the back burner. However if a guy is attracted to me and me not him, I always make it very very clear that nothing is going to happen and then they usually leave. And when they didn't I would eventually desert them when they made a move etc etc etc.

    I think guys and girls can be friends, but not without some heartache and sacrifice on the part of one person or another.

  9. Wow you were fast and I was away for the internet for two days. Thank you for writing on this.

    I had to learn the hard way that I can maintain close relationships with men. My best friend in high school was male, but that ended very poorly. He wasn't the only one for certain. I've learned I have to keep some level of distance from men I'm not interested in. There is a level of intimacy that shouldn't be shared with a man I'm not dating.

    I am the same way that I tend to get along better with guys but there is a line I don't cross. I can have male friends, and in my line of work would be hard pressed not to, but I've found it is better to find a female acquaintance to talk to about a lot of things than a male friend.

    I am told there are women who can pull it off but I've noticed that into college that those become less and less and those who are friends with men are usually pretty manipulative people.

  10. greenfieldnews - Welcome! I agree with you on the willful ignorance. I think women can be put in the friend zone too, but things tend to get a little more physical when it's that type of male/female friendship which women can use to delude themselves that it's "more" when it really isn't. Been there, done that. Glad it was a long time ago.

    Vincent - How exactly did your friendship come about?

    Athol - "Maybe we could amend it so that two opposite sex bloggers happily married living in separate States can be friends..."

    Definitely. ;) But all bets might be off if you figure out how to use your accent online.

    V - Welcome to you too! It sounds like we are on the same wavelength.

    incurablesanity - You are most welcome. I had one friend in college who was in a traditionally male field of study. She had a lot of very good male friends. Looking back I think she had a lot of male friends who really would have liked something different. I always wondered at her success with guys; now I know I should have majored in Chemical Engineering.

  11. Pardon my cynicism, but gals who have friends know exactly what they're doing. They're keeping the poor saps in reserve in case things with the BF don't work out. Either that, or they're using their male friends to boost their egos. I agree with Harry here...

  12. MarkyMark - I think you are underestimating somewhat the trauma/drama of girl/girl relationships. Lots of girls wind up seeking guy friends because their female friends are bullying/controlling/mean. Guys can seem very easy to get along with if you have been a part of a difficult girl clique. But, of course, guys have their own complications.

  13. Urgent: One of my female friends told me I was sexy in a text message. I don't know if she was joking. Is she saying she wants to date me?

  14. Josh - it really could mean anything. I'd have to know the context and more about her and your friendship, and even then, I'd be guessing. Sorry I can't help more!

  15. I'll email you. I really don't know what to say to her when we meet again.

  16. I enjoy male friendships and did while married. However, I didn't treat them like female friends, and avoided situations that might've tested the very clear boundaries I put in place for them.

    As a single woman, I have even more male friends, mostly because I've chosen to remain in contact with some men I've dated. But boundaries are still very clear. Being my friend is a privilege, and if you continue to test my boundaries with sex, I will revoke that privilege.

  17. I was going after one of her friends and my friend was going after her ("Michelle"). He failed, I succeeded, but the relationship didn't last. By that time though Michelle and I had become friends and we probably remained that way because the girl I had had a relationship with wasn't very close to Michelle to begin with.

  18. MarkyMark might be right, but I doubt it. Usually those in the friend zone are never going to be in for an upgrade, and more often then not will know that (or even be told that!) right from the start.

    However, I do maintain that female friends can be useful if they can provide access to their circle of friends, one or more of whom just might want to relate to you as something more.

  19. I think MarkyMark is wrong here. I can't speak for all females, so there probably are ones like he described, but I love the platonic company of men and I get very sad when my friendships when men end due to sexual tension. Perhaps it's because I have brothers that I value male friendship, but also shared interest. There are certain things, like camping, that most of my girl friends refuse to participate in, that my guy friends will happily show up with gear and start a campfire. Sometimes guys raised by single moms are sensitive to this, I can usually form more lasting friendships with them. Friendships usually end, or stagnate, when he gets a girlfriend or when my presence becomes an obstacle in pursuing women.

    If a woman has a connection to a man, she is not using him to feed her ego (most of the time). It's possible if the friendship began with a romantic (or sexual) proposition, like if they went on a date and she said, "let's just be friends." Personally I value my male friends the same way I value my female friends.