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How Do Platonic Friendships Between Opposite Sexes Actually Work in Practice?

Three men and women, whose relationships collectively span more than 60 years, take an honest look at what keeps them ‘just friends’

Can men and women really be just friends?

It’s a valid question with an answer that inevitably circles back to the whole “sex” thing. According to Harry (a straight white man played by Billy Crystal in 1980s romcom When Harry Met Sally) the answer is simply “no.”

Harry: You realize, of course, that we can never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

As per this Thrillist article, psychologist Wendy Walsh disagrees, suggesting that as long as men and women keep their boundaries intact, they can and should be friends. “The key, she says, is setting boundaries early on and keeping the details of your romantic relationship private to avoid emotional intimacy,” writes Jeremy Glass. “So, if you’re running to your female friend to hand out juicy details of the hot sex you just had with your girlfriend… stop.”

Professor Sandra Faulkner, of Bowling Green State University, agrees with Walsh and says that the idea that men and women can’t be friends is, for all intents and purposes, heteronormative bullshit. “It plays into what I call the heteronormative script,” she explains to Broadly. “If you are operating under this script, then anytime you think of a man and women together, you assume it must be romantic — because of the script. But many of us don’t operate under these scripts.”

At least one redditor seems to concur, although their reasoning is highly flawed at best. “Yes — even if one of you would fuck the other if the chance presented itself, it doesn’t mean you can’t be friends,” writes shoup88. “As long as both of you are fairly attractive people and have a lot of options, it’s not a guaranteed path that you’ll fall madly in love with each other. You might have a fleeting crush and that’s it. Or not even.”

But then, of course, there’s science — the ostensibly senior arbiter of pseudo-subjective gender talks — which seems to argue that it’s more complicated than the non-heteronormative script would like you to believe. The reason: Evolutionarily speaking, our hardwired mating instincts do have an effect on whether we can really be just friends with anyone of the opposite sex. As you might expect, this seems to go double for dudes.

“A 2012 study found in the majority of opposite-sex friendships, there’s at least a low level of attraction,” reports Medical Daily. “Men reported more attraction and a stronger desire to date their female friends than women did their male friends. These men were also more likely to overestimate how attracted their platonic female friends were to them, while women underestimated how attractive they were to their male friends.”

All of which is to say, if you’re here for some sort of definitive ruling on whether it’s possible for straight men and women to Netflix and chill sans any and all coital predispositions, you’re missing the point. Because obviously there are straight men and women who — whether you want to believe them or not — do in fact fall into the category of friends without benefits (or benefits of that kind, at least).

The real question is: How does that platonic friendship work in practice?

To find out, we asked three pairs of platonic friends: Liz H. (29) and Aria Y. (28), who have been friends for 12 years; Miriam K. (64) and Kambiz R. (67), who have been friends for more than 30 years; and Ernest C. (40) and Tyra S. (40), who have been friends for more than 23 years. Here’s what they had to say…

On Whether They Were Ever Attracted to Each Other

Aria: I’m gonna be honest right now. She’s just a very pretty girl, and I’m sexually attracted to pretty women. I never had a desire to wanna be with her or anything in that relationship. But like, if she wanted to fuck, in the earlier days, I probably would have.

Liz: I didn’t know that [he was ever really attracted to me]! I guess when you first meet someone you can be attracted to them, but then as you become their friend, your relationship changes and it’s not … it just doesn’t turn into that. You know what I mean?

Aria: Yeah, it wasn’t like overcoming it, because I was never attached to the idea. It was more of an animalistic, “Oh, she’s pretty.” But even if she wasn’t, I’d still be friends with her because of her personality. The attraction part isn’t something I choose — she’s a pretty girl, I’m attracted to her. It’s just man-dog nature. That’s a big problem, though — men become attracted or go into it already attracted, but also attached to it. Mine was never anything remotely close to that.

Liz: Probably if I had feelings for someone, it would be hard to be friends with them, like how it’s hard to be friends with your exes right after you break up. We never had anything go past friendship, so that’s probably why it’s never been a problem for us. Who knows, if something had happened and then something else happened, and then someone gets upset … I think it would be hard to go in that direction, and then go back to a friendship. But I agree, I feel like you can be attracted to someone and be friends with them, like physically. Or you can realize, “Oh, that person is attractive, but my friendship with them is more important.” I think there’s a difference between those two.

Aria: I’m just remembering now that a long time ago, pretty much when we first started hanging out, we did have a conversation where I asked you if you thought I was attractive or whatever. Your response was something along the lines of, “You’re good looking, but I’m not attracted to you.” That’s all I really remember. I’m pretty sure that it did come up.

If I’m being totally honest, it’s something that — I wonder, I’m not sure, but if I didn’t have any attraction to her in the beginning, I wonder how friendly I would’ve been toward her? Because men are shallow. If I wasn’t at all attracted to her, if I thought she was ugly… I’m not saying I wouldn’t be friends with you, just that maybe it would’ve taken longer. I don’t know how it would have been. I don’t have any close girl friends who aren’t attractive, but I’m friends with a lot of girls that I’m not attracted to. It’s always, at one point or another, sexual. Maybe that’s not true, I don’t know.

* * * * *

Miriam: Well, at one point you may have that attraction, but for me, I think that you shouldn’t be involved in any kind of sex. That’s something that makes you more prone to jealousy. When jealousy and the other things become part of it, the friendship isn’t going to work.

Kambiz: So I think Miriam is very attractive, number one. Again, to maintain the friendship, you have to kind of keep your high-quality values in play. Like maintaining respect, and in order for me to maintain my long-term relationship with Miriam, I have to not get romantic and not get sexual.

Miriam: We hug each other, kiss each other sometimes, you know.

Kambiz: Yeah, we do. Sorry, let me express, like… I don’t touch her breasts! But a male friend, I may just get physical as a joke. I may have touched their upper body. You know what I mean? But with Miriam, there’s a line you don’t cross.

On How It’s Different Than Same-Sex Friendships

Kambiz: She’s not a man. I don’t expect her to be a man.

Miriam: Well, it’s actually the same except in some parts. He’s a man. He’s looking at something from his perspective and a woman, they’re looking at it from a different perspective.

Kambiz: She doesn’t talk to me about women’s health issues, and I don’t expect her to. That’s not part of our deal, and I don’t expect her to talk about it. And I don’t talk about my men’s specific health issues, stuff like that, you know. Just the basic stuff that men keep to themselves. I don’t talk about this stuff to my male friends either. Another difference is language: If I use the word “fuck,” like I’m joking around with my male friends, I don’t use it around Miriam, just to be appropriate. It’s partially cultural — we’re from Iran, and we’re still a little more traditional that way… Not so traditional, but just out of respect.

* * * * *

Liz: He has insights that I or my female friends wouldn’t have because we’re not guys. There are certain things that I might ask him advice about that I wouldn’t ask my friend about. Like something about, if I was dating and I had a question about that, then maybe I would go to him before to get another perspective on it. Also, I wouldn’t be as touchy with a male friend as I am with a female friend, probably because I would be nervous they would take it the wrong way.

Aria: I’m pretty physical with both male and female friends.

Liz: I don’t feel like you’ve ever crossed the line with me.

Aria: Yeah, because it’s not sexual. But like, I’ll shove you or do some shit I’d do with my guy friend.

Liz: That’s different, though. Shoving is different from like, y’know, Katie [Liz’s female friend], she will take your hand and play with it. Stuff like that I wouldn’t do with a male friend. That would just be weird.

On What They’ve Learned From This Friendship

Ernest: I know for me it comes from being a whole person. My relationship with her, it’s a microcosm of all relationships, right? Half the world is women. I can’t just have sexual relationships with half the world. Like, that’s idiotic. But a lot of people don’t see it that way. The way I was raised, that’s the way I was taught to be. Now, I’m not saying like, my parents. It’s just the fact that at some point I realized I should be able to be friends with women.

Another thing, too, it also goes into the chauvinistic, misogynist side of the world, right? Until you actually know women in a real way, you don’t know how they offer something else. You know what I mean? If you just see them as sexual objects then really, in your brain, they don’t offer anything outside of that. So it’s like I’ve gone through so many years of my life where these women have been in my life that could have offered so much more to me in a fulfilling way, that I looked over because I didn’t get it. And that’s ridiculous.

Tyra: I agree. I just think it helps us understand the other person. When you’re in an actual relationship with a man, it helps that I have had conversations with a man and kind of understand how men think. Obviously, Ernest isn’t all men. But it makes sense to know where that other person’s coming from, especially, I think, on the flip side — like, for men to understand that sometimes we’re just irrational and we’re emotional. We’re just prone to different things than you’re prone to.

I always think that men who have sisters make for better husbands, because they grew up with the crazy and they understand it. So the same for me — I feel like I have a better insight into what men think, feel and do because I can go to Ernest and ask him, this happened, why do you think that this happened? And he’ll give me his opinion, and based on his group of friends and what he’s seen happen. So I have a better, more well-rounded insight into men.

* * * * *

Kambiz: One of the problems men have is that they don’t feel like they know women. Usually for even male friends who have successful marriages, sometimes you get together, and they’ll say, “What do they want?” Like, we don’t really understand it. So having friendships with women helps us understand the other side, the other gender.

Miriam: For me, as a woman, being friends with a man is an opportunity to work out different things. If I say something to Kambiz, and say, “Don’t say it to anyone,” he won’t repeat it. Men are more trustable in that point than women, because women like to chit chat more.

On Whether Their Significant Others Have Ever Been Jealous of Their Friendship

Tyra: I guess maybe a little, but not in an outright way that his girlfriends have been [jealous]. I mean, they’ve been like, “Oh, so you’re talking to him,” or, “You talk to him about that?” Those types of things. Maybe it’s just because they’re men and so they hide it more than women. That probably has a lot to do with it.

Ernest: I used to have an, “I don’t want to talk about it” kind of vibe vs. actually dealing with it. I think at this point, I’d be better at it. I am better at it.

Tyra: I just don’t think that we knew how to handle it, really. I remember little things, like if I’d call him and he’d be with his girlfriend, he’d answer and not necessarily tell me that’s where he was, so then I’d just keep talking because I don’t know where he is. But they’d be upset like, “Why is she calling you?” Well, I don’t know where he is, so I didn’t know I couldn’t call him.

Ernest: So then we’d get off the phone and I’d have that argument, but I still wouldn’t clear it up. I’d just be like, “What?” I’d make it weird. A lot of it had to do with just not knowing how to deal with it and who I was at the time. It’s exhausting to have real conversations all the time, you know what I mean? At least for me it was. But every time I talk to Tyra, I’m having a real conversation.

Tyra: For me it was being mindful — being mindful of the level of intimacy that I had with Ernest vs. the boyfriend. So if I’m telling Ernest all my hopes, dreams and feelings, it’s almost like then I’m comparing his response or what he said to what the boyfriend thinks and said. And it’s not really measuring up because Ernest knows me better and longer and all that jazz. So some of it wasn’t fair, because I’m comparing. I can’t compare relationships and knowing, “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t share this with Ernest, this should go to the boyfriend.”

* * * * *

Kambiz: In my case, no. I started dating a couple years after my divorce on-and-off with someone else, and Miriam was one of the first people that I introduced her to as a friend.

Miriam: Men and women friendships, the thing that really makes it work is that two people really give each other space. They shouldn’t have the jealousy thing. If jealousy becomes a part of the relationships, it’s not going to work. We have arguments. We get mad at each other. But what I think is at the root of our friendship is honesty.

Kambiz: She knows I’m always there for her if she needs anything — emotionally, personally, whatever, whatever, whatever. And I know she’s there for me too.

On the Future of Their Friendship

Liz: When I have kids, they’ll have my friends, and it will be nice that they’ll have friends who are male and female, I think. Grown-up friends, yeah.

Aria: Oh yeah, I’d like to be kind of an uncle to this kid, you know? The cool uncle, that’s my plan. That’s a good future plan for the ending there. I’m gonna be an uncle.

* * * * *

Tyra: I think that [our friendship] will end when he gets married. We talked about this before, because we cannot maintain this level of communication. You can’t just call me on the phone and we gonna talk for two hours while you sit on the couch and your wife is making dinner. Like, that’s not gonna work. I’m not gonna forget you exist, but it’s definitely not gonna be the same.

Ernest: That’s true. Yeah. So we have discussed it. Well, actually, whatever it is right now, that would be over. That would be different. But we’ll see. My new girlfriend’s kinda cool.

Tyra: Yeah. They always are. He’s in denial.