26 February 2013

On Male and Female Friendships

Myths of Male and Female Friendship

Today (and after a considerable delay), Chewie and I take on that age-old question of whether men and women can be friends.

We maintain that the question “Can men and women be friends?” is flawed and misleading because the word "can" merely inquires about the ability to be friends. It’s akin to a teacher or foreman asking, “I don’t know, can you?” in response to “Can I go to the bathroom?” In that instance, "can" becomes "may."

Can a man and woman be friends? Sure, of course they can. It’s possible. We humans can adapt to virtually anything and are capable of making friends with a variety of peoples.

A better question would be “Should a man and woman be friends” or perhaps “Is it possible for a man and a woman to be good friends?”

In this age, a lot of people within Western society still cling to the notion that it's possible for most men and most women to be platonic friends with each other. Unfortunately though, that's very rarely the case. In particular, people think that it's easy to strip out the romantic and sexual-attraction bits that often define how and why people associate with each other--and that what works with relating to their own gender will work just as well with the other. The popular film When Harry Met Sally examines this idea and says that while it is possible, “the sex thing always gets in the way.” Indeed, most any guy (Chewie and myself included) has seen “the sex thing” come up over and over again without fail ever since we started noticing girls.

A couple of months ago, Chewie had an interesting conversation on the plane as he was flying to the U.S. with a Russian woman regarding this very topic. She brought up three prerequisites that must be in place, and both Chewie and I agree completely.

The three "prerequisites" that must necessarily be met by a couple intending to establish any sort of nonromantic and nonsexual friendship are:
  1. Neither party acting on whatever attraction (if any) they have for each other
  2. Plenty of shared interests between each other (i.e. jobs, hobbies, family/friends)
  3. Actual reciprocity being practiced between each other
Why these three? It's because they work. Chewie and I both have trusted female friendships, and all of them employ these three basic principles. Thus, there is no interference over possible romantic or sexual motives, but there's also the marks of getting along rather well: having mutual interests and reciprocating activity. There is a balance of "power" in the bond and fair boundaries are obviously in play. As a result neither person feels like they're being deprived of the possibility of "more" from the other.

More importantly though, all of those aforementioned friendships only work because all three elements are in place and are mutually abided by.

This then also usually means that where all three of these principles cannot be put into play, the "friendship" between a man and a woman will usually disintegrate over time. Both genders aren't immune to it, though this often figures where the man wants a romantic or sexual relationship and the woman isn't interested. We see this everywhere in pop culture. Countless music, movies, books, and TV shows have showcased the “best friend becoming boy/girlfriend” meme. The movie When Harry Met Sally is but one example.

Let’s say two hypothetical people named Alice and Bob attempt to forge something without these three in place. Usually, this will result in something like the following happening:
  • Bob desires a relationship with Alice, but Alice doesn't want to and thus gives Bob the "let's just be friends" spiel. Bob thinks that by playing along he may be able to change Alice's mind, but she doesn't. And frankly, why would Alice? She's getting the very commitment she craves (at Bob's expense) without having to actually date and have sex with him. Especially when there's Charlie the Cad and Dave the Douche that sexually excite her more than Bob. 
  • Alice decides she wants things to go further with Bob, but Bob doesn't care. Alice thinks that if she gives Bob sex on a regular basis that'll get him to change and commit to her. Alas, it doesn't. And for Bob, why should he change? Alice is giving him all the sex he wants (at her expense), and that's the only reason for him to stick around anyway. Hell, even if Alice decides to cut him off, there's always Erotic Emily, Hannah the Hottie, and Slutty Sally who are gladly waiting to take her spot.  
Both cases are the same, and they revolve around the same basic premise: getting as much they can from the other person while giving as little as possible--also often known as the "free lunch" gambit. Most attempts at forming a friendship between a man and woman, particularly if there's a prior history of dating and/or sex involved, usually devolve to either of these cases.

I should note that there is a third case, and it is where many "friends with benefits" arrangements derive from. On the surface, it appears that allowing some degree of romantic/sexual intimacy may be the way to keep everyone happy. However, this usually leads to a fundamental problem in its own right: if anyone involved seeks any change in the status quo at some later point, they end up going to one of the two above cases. Sooner or later, somebody wants more. Whether it’s more time, more emotional and/or sexual availability, more resources, it always comes out. The situation is thus inherently unstable and liable to change quickly.

For what it is worth, these cases also explain why the idea of "Let's Just Be Friends" is something that usually (if not nearly always) ends up being dishonest and deceitful. Most often, not all of those three precepts have been satisfied. Thus, the person throwing down the "let's just be friends" is most often the same one who wants the connection to continue (for the commitment or sex) at the expense of the other person, and they will only accept the continuation if it is on their own terms--as in "only if the rules are slanted to suit them."

Why? We suspect that one or more of three reasons are in play with such individuals:
  1. They are usually deriving some pleasurable benefit as a result of the connection that they (arguably) don't want to give up (e.g. commitment/devotion, sex, entertainment, money)
  2. Their true reasons for splitting are obviously mean-spirited, insulting, unfair, or outrightly asinine, and they themselves know it deep inside. Obviously, if said reasons were revealed, it would reflect very poorly on them as a person and likely damage their chances of finding someone else.
  3. They do not have the strength or decency to just openly say "I'm sorry, but we cannot continue like this."   
Yes, at its very core, "Let's Just Be Friends" is quite selfish and insulting. On top of that, it's often taken as a half-hearted "easy way out" in the hopes of avoiding a drawn-out and "messy" break-up. Why? Let's think about who's saying it and what the other person all too often hears:

  • A man telling a woman: "Hey, let's just be friends" often comes out to "You're good enough for sex, but not to be my girlfriend. You're just not good enough for me to date, but I'm still hoping that you'll continue to put out for me anyways." 
  • A woman telling a man: "Hey, let's just be friends" often comes out to "I really like it when you take me out on your dime, listen to me complain about the other men I'm seeing and having sex with, buy me random gifts, and just overall doting on me. But I don't want to have sex with you (again). Ever. You're just not good enough for me to date, but I'm hoping you'll still give me that commitment anyways."      

Fundamentally, this also necessarily means that the other person is being led on--and has been ever since the moment of "let's just be friends" was proffered. Most people don't want to see it that way; they'd rather try to convince themselves that they do care (e.g. "he/she is a really great person and will make some lucky person very happy someday"), but that they just don't see the other person "in that way." As one image meme put it so bluntly: "Why can't I find a nice guy/girl exactly like you, but not you?"

Thanks to the current social narrative, this said other person is being led on in the sense that they've been told countless times over the years that "getting through it will lead to THE relationship." In fact, this narrative is often a staple of pop songs, romance novels, and sappy rom-coms. But what really happens is that the person on the receiving end is prodded (often by emotions in the spur of the moment) to effectively "consent" to their own manipulation.

Thus, men AND women alike go through the harrowing process and agree to the terms thinking that at some point, things will change and they'll find themselves with the relationship they crave with the person they want. Unfortunately, this rarely (if ever) happens in real-life.

And the solution is simple, assuming there is no desire to (re-)establish a romantic/sexual relationship on the part of the person seeking to give the "let's just be friends" speech:

Unless it's perfectly clear to both that the connection is ending on good terms, AND both people are clearly seeing that all three precepts are being met, the "let's just be friends" should simply NOT be tendered as a method of breaking up.

Instead, it's easier in the long-run (and more honourable) to just be honest with each other, give each other space, and wind it down quickly. At that point, it's clear both people need to move forward. Stringing them along with false hope is not the way to do it. After all, things will not “work themselves out” on their own unless actions are taken.

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