This is an age old question that people have debated over. In this modern age a knee jerk response might be, “Duh, how can you even ask that?” But there are still others who will say, “Not really. Not close friends because the sexual tension is always there.”
So what’s my stance?
The short answer is: yes, of course.
But the long answer is a bit more complicated than what a simple yes implies (men and women can be friends without romantic complications, just like same sex friends). The long answer addresses nuances and circumstances, and touches on my personal experiences.
As a pansexual woman, I always found this question absurd. The implication of the question in our heteronormative society is that a person can’t be friends with someone they’re sexually attracted to (i.e. men and women). But where does that leave people who are attracted to all genders? Guess I can’t have friends.
No, of course that’s not true. I have many beautiful and healthy friendships. But it is worth noting that the ones that stand the test of time are with women and gay men. So what exactly does that say?
Theory number one: a platonic friendship can only work if at least one person is not sexually attracted to the other (i.e. a hetero- woman and gay man, hetero- woman and a lesbian, etc). This means that regardless of the attraction one person has towards the other, the potential for sex does not exist, therefore the friendship can survive.
Okay, I’ll bite. The friendships I sustain with women have been with heterosexual women. So regardless of how attractive I find them, they will never see me the same way. Same applies to gay men. So the friendship is safe. Right? Right.
The same cannot be said of my friendships with heterosexual men because there is mutual attraction, then. Right? Well…
If the argument here is about potential then this shouldn’t be the case. Regardless of our attraction, I am not interested because I am in a committed monogamous relationship, therefore the potential is not there. Yes I have the capacity to love more than one person, but I cannot practice polyamory because my spouse doesn’t feel comfortable with it (another topic for another day, but suffice it to say that there is nothing wrong with a monogamous and polyamorous person being in a relationship, so long as the terms are clear and boundaries are respected).
So what dooms these friendships with heterosexual men to fail? I would say it’s perceived potential.
And this leads me to theory number two: a platonic friendship can only work if both people have mutual respect and understanding of each other’s boundaries. And this is the theory that I feel holds more water.
You see, any friendship I enter begins with a conversation about where I stand and what I am looking for. The people I endeavor to be friends with now know from the start that I am happily married and not interested in anything more than platonic friendship. Intimacy? Yes. Sex? No. Simple enough, right?
And yet, I find that my friendships with men lead to problematic drama that I simply don’t experience with women. And I don’t think that mutual attraction is the problem.
I lay my boundaries clearly with the men I become friends with. The women I become friends with don’t really do this with me because it’s implied that they’re not interested in more than friendship. I am an affectionate person and I find myself being equally affectionate with my friends, men and women. I always check in, ask for consent, and determine the level of comfort each of my friends have with physical touch. Some of the women I’m friends with prefer to keep to themselves and so with them I am hardly physically affectionate. Others are more comfortable and playful, and I can express my affection more with them. But things never become confused with being sexual.
I do the same with my friends that are men. Check in. Ask for consent. Determine comfort. And they’re always pretty open to my affection, as I am to theirs. But despite me setting boundaries, with men they are crossed. The men I’ve been friends with push a little further, testing my boundaries, to see if I’ll ever budge. They try to make things sexual, despite my clear assertion that the relationship is strictly platonic. And when they cross the line I am disillusioned by them. I realize they are more likely to act on their selfish interests, their perceived potential due to mutual attraction, than respect my clear boundaries, personhood, and relationship with my husband. I’m a patient person, so I’ve given chances. But I’ve learned that one transgression is enough of a red flag, and my patience has worn thin.
The exception should then be with heterosexual men who aren’t physically affectionate. And I have had such a friend. For the longest time, I even considered him my best friend. Our conversations lasted hours and we’d talk about every subject under the sun. I knew him so well and loved him so dearly, I joked that we’d be two old biddies drinking and bitching at a bar together during retirement. And he agreed that the picture was a nice one to imagine.
But then he ghosted me. That being the case, I can never know exactly what caused him to disappear from my life. But I can draw my own conclusions.
Our last encounter was a coffee date where I shared with him the exciting news that I was engaged. He was happy for me, sure, but pensive. He had shared with me before how everyone in his age group was getting married, buying homes, and/or working their dream job. So I figured his mood was attributed mostly to his disappointment with his own timeline. Now I imagine it had more to do with the fact that my new ring was the last nail in the coffin, ensuring that our friendship could never be more.
And it broke my heart. And it infuriated me. The empath in me understands that harboring feelings of unrequited love is torturous and space is a healthy solution. But I’d been friends with him for years. There had been ample time to communicate things and cut ties. But the conversations we had about what it would have been like if he and I had dated instead of my now husband and I always led to a mutual agreement that it would not have been healthy. He simply was not ready for a committed relationship. Sure, the attraction was there. But we were better off as friends.
So he was fine being just friends up until he realized there really was no chance for more. Even though he knew he couldn’t offer me the type of relationship I was looking for, he wanted the potential for all of me or none of me. And who cares how I felt about it?
All that said, I am no longer as open to establishing friendships with heterosexual men. I’ve been burned too many times. And as a person living with PTSD (a fact the more affectionate men knew before testing boundaries) it is simply not worth the risk of putting myself in a position where a “friend” might trigger me. And it is the unfortunate case that when men cross the line with me, a line I had already clearly set, I freeze as I did when I was raped. And it’s just too infuriating to think that my past and boundaries are less important than their present desires. A product of rape culture, for sure, and a clear reason men are a danger to women in intimate settings.
So, yes, men and women can be friends. But it requires a level of respect and maturity from men that I personally have yet to find.