Can men and women be 'just friends'?
The older I get the more I learn about the dynamics of male and female relationships, yet with more knowledge only comes more grey space. I come from an upbringing that was heavily male influenced. I have a younger brother and no female cousins. My father is a very typical “bloke” who fixes things, gets dirty, drinks beer and has no soft side. I grew up surrounded by males: playing GIO, in mud, riding bikes and being teased relentlessly. I didn’t love it but it was the norm. I don’t remember what age I was when I stumbled upon the realisation that I had a lot of male friends. Or when it became obvious that I naturally connected with males easily and I was able to maintain uncomplicated, innocent friendships with them. In my early twenties this became more complex when I unintentionally stepped into the (very disliked) role of “that girl who is friends with my boyfriend”. Of course the entry to adulthood also brought with it the enigma of chemistry, the new aknowledgement of temptation and the associated confusion of sex (real or imagined). When I asked for broader opinions on the “Can we be friends debate”, the topic quickly proved to be polarizing. I was surprised to find that more men than women gave me a straightforward “Yes”. They affirmed, without question that men and women can be friends. Women on the other hand gave more convoluted responses that were burdened with resounding skepticism. Reasons ranged from “A male friend broke my heart”, to, “I used to say yes but recently I’ve realised that all male friends have tried to fuck me”. My favourite reaction was the old “saying”, “Men don’t have women as friends, they’re just women they’re yet to sleep with”. When I pressed men on this there were a lot of laughs, pauses for thinking and the semi reluctant, “Actually now that I think about it, yes I would sleep with her given the chance.” I found that everytime I dug a little deeper, I uncovered cracks of variables hinged on sexual tension, intimate trysts, attractiveness, longevity, geography and intensity. The only response that stunned me for its acute brevity was, “I believe women can be friends with men (even if there is an attraction) men can’t if there is.” Regardless, I like to be thorough so I’ve dissected the most commons scenarios in which the male/female friendship can play out, and how you can positively direct it. You meet and have sex. There’s no previous friendship, it’s not a date. You don’t have a lot of background knowledge of each other but there’s an initial attraction and connection. Can a friendship develop afterwards? In my opinion yes. However, all the feelings that could ignite should you want to form a romantic relationship still need to play out and be eliminated. The time that this takes varies based on whether one of you has stronger (romantic) feelings than the other. If yes, then there’s still that tricky tête-à-tête of acknowledging the sexual experience but also accepting that it will not evolve into “dating” that needs to happen. In the case that there’s no residual feelings on either side, friendship can happen pretty quickly. You’ve alleviated any sexual tension and can skip straight to being mates in a very wholesome and rewarding way. You meet, have sex and one of you has deeper feelings. Not grounds for a good friendship. One person is more invested than the other person which means there’s an imbalance of effort, hopefulness and expectation involved. As long as there are deeper feelings and an ‘unrequited’ hiding somewhere there’s a grey area that manifests in pain, pity or anger. Yuck. You meet on a date and casually date for a while. Trickier because the very purpose of meeting is founded on the cultivation of a romantic match. First you need to admit that part has failed. Real friendships are reliant on trust and communication and successfully crossing the boundary between any transitory relationship means an honest acknowledgement of an ending before there can be a beginning. Being honest can get prickly but it allows for transparency and prompts everyone involved to consider their feelings outside of the inherent hope that romance brings. Like any ending, this one needs time to be processed. This space will help understand if there is a genuine admiration and respect for the other person. If this works it can be an incredible opportunity to nurture a unique, yet intimate connection without the bonds of expectation and commitment. Once you’ve alleviated the risk of exposing feelings tethered to the idealism of a relationship it can be playful and comfortable because you both know what you mean to one another. You meet on a date and nothing further transpires. There’s no reason you can’t be friends. You’re essentially two people that have already ruled out a romantic connection. Pass go, collect $200 and friendship chains. You have a very close friendship and the connection (accidentally) becomes sexual. Unfortunately you’re fucked. A lot of the time feelings in friendships naturally evolve into love, regardless of the genders at play. We can attribute this natural evolution of feelings (read: blame) to science and the chemicals that are released in the brain (Oxytocin and Dopamine) when you form a close connection with another human. This unique emotional and mental BFF alignment forms a stickiness that gradually, and blindly melts the boundaries of friend and “boy-friend”/”girl-friend”, and that’s before you take off each other’s pants in a sheets tangled craze. As a best friend you adore one another, you’re protective, invested, connected, caring and borderline obsessed with each other. When you invite sex into friendship you’re looking at an explosive powerhouse of unrepentent salaciousness backed by the heavyweights of genuine adoration and trust. It’s a relationship that already has the inbuilt function of intimate knowledge too. Not only does this person know exactly when you need comfort and how, despite refusing company 3 times but they will happily lavish you with attention for hours until you come. The shock of stumbling across the 3 in one package deal of friend, lover and kinda-sorta partner results in a destabilizing blurring of -ships. With only one line left to cross you’re now navigating a mindfield of fuckery that could crystallize into an exquisitely gorgeous love or, it could implode and leave you mourning the loss of a best friend and someone who, let’s admit it, you now kind of really like (seeing naked). This seems to be the hardest “undo/redo” of all male/female relationships but in spite of it’s messiness it’s a special one. It’s born from an ambiguity which refuses to be pinned to any one moment, and is an organic, experiential relationship which challenges the socially paraded tick-a-box perception of love. And it stands to teach you a lot, if you let it. Friends with an ex. Entirely possible. It confuses me that being friends with an ex is still considered outrageously controversial. With an amicable break up and enough time you should be able to honour the admiration you have for an ex. If you spend a number of years in a (loving) relationship with a human and know them intimately then why does a relationship ending change everything? After a suitable amount of time has passed, feelings have settled and both are independently happy it’s possible to have a healthy and fulfilling friendship with an ex. As an added bonus this relationship brings brutal honesty with it. Think about it, if you’ve yelled at someone to get the fuck into bed and stop putting holes in the carpet with their relentless pacing you’re not going to flinch at telling them they’re pissing you off, owe you $42.50 or look shit with that haircut, are you?
WRITTEN BY Jess Matthews Writer and Dating & Relationship Coach