What happens to cross-sex friendships in adulthood?

Friendships between men and women.
Oct. 1 2010 7:17 AM

Epilogue: Till Love Do Us Part

What will happen to my friendship with Jeff in the years to come?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Westminster Review, a quarterly British publication, ran an article in 1899 by a female writer starting with the question: "Why is it that women cannot be allowed by the world at large to have male friends?" Blame the gossips "whispering evil reports," she says: Men and women can't be friends because everyone assumes they're sleeping together. A year later, another writer, this time a man, took up the same question but answered it differently: Only after women prove that they can have "worthy thoughts and aspirations" without "losing any of their modesty and self-respect" will men "pay homage to them as platonic friends."

Growing up in New York City roughly a century after the Westminster exchange, I never had to prove to my best friend, Jeff, that I could pull off the worthy-yet-modest trick. And while there was certainly some whispering about the nature of our attachment, that didn't have much of an impact on our friendship. Like many contemporary men and women, we found that it's entirely possible to get along without having sex.

Which is not to say that our friendship, was, or is, without strain. There are certain complexities inherent to cross-sex friendship—there's bound to be discomfort, for instance, when someone starts dating. The new partner might feel threatened, not quite understanding the nature of the friendship (or even questioning its authenticity). The friend might feel replaced.

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Our freshman year of college (we went to different places, and in fact have never attended the same school), Jeff started dating someone semi-seriously. He'd had a girlfriend or two before, but those were such gawky, short-lived affairs that I hardly processed them. I remember with a good deal of embarrassment how cold I was to that girl when we first met. It's not that she made me wish away the Platonism, but she made it manifest that, as adults, non-romantic intimacy necessarily wanes. You can't even consider sleeping in the trundle bed if the actual bed is already spoken for. I was relieved when, several months later, he broke things off.

Jeff, who's generally a kinder-hearted and more generous person than I am, was kinder-hearted and more generous when my turn came. My college boyfriend, who'd slept with all the women he might once have called friends, was at first suspicious of my relationship with Jeff, but to his credit he never made an issue of it. We were together for six years, and, in that time, my friendship with Jeff changed less than I thought it might. If anything, the long-term romance strengthened my attachment to Jeff; he was my way of accessing the wider social world.

Meanwhile, Jeff didn't have a comparably significant relationship. I've wondered whether I'm partly to blame for that—if having a close female friend raised the bar for an acceptable partner. Or maybe I'm just flattering myself. Whatever the case, about two years ago he met someone. Serendipitously, I began seeing my current boyfriend within the same two-week period, which I would guess is why I've handled this development rather maturely, thank you. But what I dreaded our freshman year of college has come to pass: I've been, at least to a certain degree, replaced. He's been replaced as well.

A few months ago, I moved out of the apartment I'd been sharing with Jeff and started living with my boyfriend. Jeff and I have seen much less of each other, but it's too soon to tell if that's indicative of what's to come, or just an anomaly—maybe even a product of the fact that I've been working on this series.

To get a sense of how romance (and adulthood generally) affects other platonic friends, I looked back through my survey of nearly 600 Slatereaders. Lots of respondents explained that the tenor of their friendships had changed. Now that Heather and Nathan are both married, they abide by an unspoken rule that they can hang out only as a foursome. Heather likes Nathan's wife, and vice-versa, but it bothers Heather that she can't see her old friend alone. Needless to say, there are no such restrictions on her same-sex friends.

I also heard stories of meddling romantic partners and stressed or broken relationships. Fraser's one-time girlfriend, now his wife, was so upset by his close friendships with women that she gave him a them-or-me ultimatum—he talked her down. Oscar got the same ultimatum but refused to acknowledge it and was summarily dumped. After S. got married, his wife threw fits whenever he wanted to see Kathleen, and would get furious when he'd help her in boyfriend-type ways—like catching mice in her apartment.

Yet for every person who wrote to me about petty jealousy, there was someone else who said there's no conflict at all—the friend and the partner get along swimmingly. "Judy" relies on "David" (these are made-up names) for long, sympathetic chats, and her husband doesn't mind. Her husband's not the emotional type; he's glad the heart-to-hearts aren't his responsibility. "Everyone wins," David wrote.

Although Judy's husband sounds terrific, for now, at least, he's in the minority. The first, most common response to a platonic relationship is still cynicism. And I have a confession to make: I loathe a raised-eyebrow reaction as much as anyone, but when I see a man and a woman together—eating dinner, at the movies, on the street—I assume that they're involved. If I'm told that they're "just friends," I don't automatically accept the claim.

Perhaps the cover illustration for this series  can double as a Rorschach test—to help determine how willing you are to accept the possibility of platonic friendship. I, for one, found myself scrutinizing the man's facial expression. Ostensibly, he and the woman on the couch are just friends, but doesn't he look a little suspicious? What's he hiding under that blank stare? I wonder whether he's after something more.

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