Can men and womenreally be friends?

Friendships between men and women.
Sept. 29 2010 7:05 AM

The Sex Part

Can men and womenreally be friends?

(Continued from Page 1)

Jody ran through a couple of boyfriends quickly, while Sean stuck around. At least once, she asked him to break up with a boyfriend on her behalf, but he didn't oblige. By sophomore year, he was over her. Twenty years later, they're married—to other people, and are still friends. Sean was Jody's attendant at her wedding.

When they first met, sex was a factor—for Sean if not for Jody. But at this point, Sean and Jody are like Sue and Brandon in that sex is unthinkable. This is a possibility that Hollywood ignores: Unrequited love gives way, once and for all, to a satisfying platonic bond. It's a common progression, with many respondents describing how, at some early stage, one party or both wanted a physical relationship, but then those feelings dissipated.

Lingering Doubts: Joel & Ruth

Joel and Ruth went to high school together in the mid-90s, but it wasn't until they re-met in a history of philosophy class in college that they became friends. Six or seven months later, when Joel was in a deeply uncommitted relationship with another woman, they started fooling around in the "off stages." Eventually Joel decided he wasn't interested. She slammed the door of his apartment and called him an asshole—a pitch-perfect scene from a romantic comedy. A few days later they were back to being friends.

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Today she lives on the East Coast and he lives in the Midwest, where he's finishing his Ph.D. They mainly keep in touch by phone and daily e-mails, and see each other over the holidays.

Joel and Ruth seem further along on this Kinsey-type scale than Sean and Jody—or at least Joel does. He describes Ruth as "simply the perfect woman—she's hot, and I could spend the rest of my life talking to her." He also confesses that, "many times, particularly in the dark, lonely nights of the soul that have comprised my graduate study, I have asked myself if perhaps I was in love with her and had repressed it." Yet he never finds himself wanting to sleep with her, and he doesn't feel the urgency with Ruth that he's felt with other women.

Settling for Friendship: "John" & "Jane"

"Jane" (an anonymous respondent) first encountered "John" in 1989, when she was working in a congressional office and he was working as a reporter on the congressional beat. She'd watched him on television and felt shocked to meet him in person. (She was 23 years old at the time.) He hardly even noticed her. Over the next 17 years she saw him again only once or twice until, four years ago, to Jane's complete amazement, they became friends. Now she's his confidante in personal and financial matters and often works as his personal assistant—though she receives no payment for this position.

Jane, unlike the other respondents, actively wants her friendship with John to become romantic, but she's sure he's not interested, and doesn't want to risk their relationship. Jane's is the classic Hollywood case. She doesn't doubt, as Joel does; rather, like Duckie in Pretty in Pink, her feelings are unrequited and so she settles for friendship.

Repressed Attraction: Kevin & "Lucy"

Kevin, who's in his early fifties, doesn't have "dark, lonely nights of the soul." He knows exactly what he thinks about "Lucy" (not her real name), whom he met in 1989, when he was working as a freelance music journalist. She was a local musician, and they saw each other initially at public events. Then professional admiration gave way to something more personal.

He was, and still is, extremely attracted to her. Kevin also suspects that the attraction is mutual. But they were both married when they met and are still married today, so he's never acted and says he never will. "I do find her desirable and might wish to deepen the relationship if it were ethically possible, which I do not believe it to be. … This is an issue involving morals and honor and fidelity, unfashionable as these concepts are today. The sort of person who would abuse the trust of an old friendship or betray one woman to be with another is not the sort of person I choose to be."

This is a very different sort of beast from the usual understanding of platonic love, but it's not the Hollywood model, either. Because ethical codes and stability are more important to Kevin than acting on his impulses, he feels satisfied with perpetual dissatisfaction.

Modern Love: Eric & Nancy

Nancy and Eric met at a puzzlers' convention in 1992 and had their first conversation, about Lyle Lovett. When Eric invited Nancy into a ménage à trois with his girlfriend, she accepted. Nancy happened to be married, but she figured her husband wouldn't mind, since they were experimenting with "openness."

Eric's girlfriend was a bit of a masochist—hot wax, nipple clamps, paddles, whips. At first, Nancy just watched. Then she participated. But it wasn't her kind of thing, really, in large part because she wasn't actually attracted to either Eric or his girlfriend. Eric and the masochist broke up, but when a new girlfriend came along, Nancy proved her friendship for Eric yet again by looking on. Once she felt so bored she fell asleep.

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