This is bound to get me in trouble. It came out of a recurring pub conversation, and I know I am biased because of my wretched romantic history, and I know the issue is controversial – my female friends would (and do) strenuously disagree, and shake their heads at my hopelessly male perspective. It’s the Harry met Sally conversation - you know, that a man and a woman can't just be normal close friends without romantic complications.
Just a couple of points to make clear before we start, to head off any awkwardness the below may raise in my circle of friends and acquaintances:
1) I am not talking about light, well-established, casual friendships, rather the more emotionally intimate sort.
2) There is no passive-aggressive subtext here – I mean only what I say, and it’s not aimed at anyone – it’s precisely because I am, for once, currently, thankfully, free of any of this kind of emotional weirdness (to my conscious knowledge at least) that I can talk about this kind of thing openly, freely and dispassionately. Amen.
I’m fascinated by these unspoken things that go on between people of the opposite sex – because, while we like to think in black and white that “these two people are together in the romantic category” and “these two people are together in the friendship category”, and there is no possible cross over between the two, in the hidden, dank corners of people's brains there are often all kinds of gradations.
The line can be a deceptive one - you think you know where it is, but then, one day, suddenly it's hazy and shifting. After all, isn't that the romantic ideal - an intimate friend who we also find hot?
As if all friendships are exactly the same and emotionally equivalent; as if, because there is no overt romantic activity, or because these two people aren’t sleeping together, that means your gender is irrelevant and there’s no frisson there at all. Male/female friendships are nearly always of a different quality, have a different dynamic.
Ok, maybe not so much in distant, casual friendships or in friendships where the boundary is rigorously clear and strictly imposed, in thoughts as well as actions (very important) – but what about those acquaintances where the “what if” hovers in the air? That, even if you have no intention or even much attraction towards it, you know you could get together, if only briefly, if you just ignored any emotional fall-out: Maybe, if the circumstances were just right and you were weak and needing affection and decided in a moment of madness “what the hell”...
That knowledge changes everything about the dynamic of a friendship. I’ve seen so many male/female friendships that clearly don’t act like same-sex friendships – where he acts as the strong, fatherly protector, where she’s happy to snuggle up to him when in need of a bit of affection, where there’s a crackle of mischievous flirtatiousness as the bed-rock of the thing, where they tease and show off to each other – and it’s simply naive or disingenuous to maintain these are totally bloodless and identical to every other friendship you have.
And I’ve also seen the surrogate boyfriend/girlfriend thing happen too much, where at least one party is getting all the benefits of having a devoted member of the opposite sex to lavish them with attention, talk deep with, respond to their beck and call and even go on pseudo-dates with – knowing they can walk away at any time and that there is no binding, overtly-stated claim to emotional commitment.
This isn’t necessarily unhealthy – if both sides are happy with that kind of relationship as it is, and take comfort from it; if both understand what it is and have no buried yearning towards anything more, then fine. But in reality, it’s rarely that evenly balanced or well understood. Someone is usually more interested than the other, and that someone is, even if it's not conscious or deliberate, being used.
The “friend trap” – where you get locked into a thing that you think is going somewhere, only to be told that you’re “just a friend”, by which point it's too late and you are smitten – is a well known phenomena amongst my male friends, and something that’s happened to me, admittedly, too many times for comfort (which has perhaps jaded me... sigh. Ok then, has very clearly and definitely jaded me).
It’s not specifically a male affliction – it’s just as possible for women to be on the receiving end of that, but it does seem to happen to men more – maybe it's my soft friends, but I’m not sure I know a guy it hasn’t happened to at some point. Because there is a tendency for men and women to view male/female “friendships” differently...
If a single heterosexual bloke suddenly becomes a girl’s “new best friend” and starts going out of his way to spend loads of time with her, then 95% of the time he is sweet on her. It’s that simple - sad, but in my experience, true. Other blokes can see this a mile off. Many women apparently can’t – or at least won’t consciously acknowledge it or think about it, because that would complicate a nice, pleasant situation.
The difference between close same-sex and male/female friendships is that the attention of someone of the opposite sex that you recognise as hypothetically eligible and reasonably attractive (even if you don’t really fancy them yourself) is flattering.
Everyone likes to be a sun with planets orbiting them, and your sun does not like to lose one of those satellites, even if you had no intention of doing anything with them. I’ve been as guilty of taking pleasure in this in the past as anyone else.
When a friend you suspect has “a thing” for you, that you keep at arms length because of this (but nevertheless keep) suddenly finds someone else and stops talking to you so much – well, in a small, barely registered way, it still smarts a bit. You feel just a tiny little bit less attractive and important and a tiny bit more alone in the world – a slight slight against the brightness of your sun.
When you are at a low point yourself, starved of affection and slightly insecure – whether long-term single, or just coming out of a failed relationship, or stuck in a stale and "complicated" one – these weird, repressed, need-feeding attachments resonate all the more.
But none of this is ever acknowledged. Such things are rarely thought about clearly, spoken about out loud or discussed amongst friends unless they are extreme and obvious and causing problems. Many close male/female friendships feed a need that same-sex ones don’t, but everyone pretends – for the sake of avoiding awkwardness and complications and repercussions that no one wants to explore – that they are just the same.
Which is not to say close but bloodless male/female friendships aren’t possible – they clearly are, and I have some myself – but in order to happen they have to involve at least one of the following:
A) that neither party finds each other remotely physically attractive;
B) both parties have very clear boundaries, with very good reasons for them, so that there is absolutely no possibility of even imagining in your most wild, futile dreams that it would ever cross into sweet and tender romance;
C) both parties share a long history, a lot of water under the bridge, so that roles in each other’s lives are firmly established and any early attraction or question of romantic involvement has been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.
B) and C) are things that take time to establish – they are not in place with recent acquaintances, and therefore any so-called “close friendship” that suddenly springs up between a bloke and girl is quite understandably a bit suspicious and inappropriate.
This is why properly close non-romantic friendships between the sexes are comparatively rare; and why the term “friends” is viewed by a million guys as a cruel and baffling card that women will sometimes play to tear a bloke’s heart in two.