The Importance of Friends Without Benefits
Do you remember early in the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’, on their road trip from Chicago to New York, when Harry proclaims men and women can never be friends because sex always gets in the way? A few years later, they bump into each other and become…friends. Until they have sex and then it all goes to hell. Their solution to getting over the weirdness? They get married. A tidy little wrap-up that drives me insane, essentially proving Harry right, that sex will always be a temptation between friends and once that line is crossed there ain’t no going back and now it’s matrimony or bust. I swear, at the end of the film Harry is still looking like a deer in the headlights, wondering how he is going to possibly live the next 40 years with a woman who takes ten minutes to order a sandwich.
A lot of us will, at some point, experience a little ‘whoops’ moment when a person we considered a friend suddenly appears naked between our legs. I’ve heard countless stories of good friends, under the influence of alcohol or a Joni Mitchell song, decide to start snogging. Then, once they’ve known each other carnally, they are banished from the paradise of platonic bliss and struggle to redefine their relationship, often choosing to abandon the friendship altogether because sex just makes things so difficult.
In some cases, two people can succeed in turning a friendship into a relationship. Studies cited in Psychology Today look at the key ingredients needed to re-rudder the ship in order to cruise into conjugal bliss. But this requires being clear about what you each desire and what your expectations are. If there’s a mismatch, conclude that there’s no salvaging what’s been created after deciding to get your bits together.
But what I’d really like to ponder are the benefits of keeping a platonic relationship platonic and well cared for, even after we take up new romantic partners. What I think you get when you become close to non-sexual friends who are the same sex as your lover, is greater empathy for your romantic partner. When I don’t understand my mate’s behavior, and we can’t resolve it without an argument, I’ll consult with my man friends. It’s like learning to play tennis. Have a mate try to teach you a backhand and in no time you’re imagining your racket smashing his fuzzy little head. But if you have a friend as an instructor, somehow their explanations aren’t personal affronts. They’re crucial information.
For me, telling a new love interest about male friends is a sort of litmus test, a way to quickly assess if my man buddies are going to be perceived as a threat or a diminution of what I might have with this new lover. The last man I dated would protest at the mere mention of a male friend, and couldn’t even bring himself to read my writing because it often referred to past lovers. It didn’t take long for me to conclude that my world with this man could only shrink because I would never be able to invite him into the fold of my established friendships simply because so many of them have a penis.
Tolerating your lover with their friends of your same sex is an exercise in trust. If you can be reassured without turning green, then it’s likely you have a relationship that will resist a buffeting by bigger, trickier issues. I used to experience anxiety when my partner was out with a female friend and it was enough to make me nauseated. But then I discovered the antidote to my misfiring autonomic nerves. I became her friend. Instead of looking at these other women as adversaries, I rejected the evolutionary notion that this other female was competing with me for my partner’s sperm, and became her ally. Once you’re on the same team, it’s less likely that a friend is going to fuck up what’s important, now that all three of you are involved.
My male friends are genuinely interested in how women work and are open to my influence. And I’m just as inquisitive about why so many men can’t put the toilet seat down or close a cupboard. If you replicate this kind of curious cross pollination between the sexes, maybe eventually we’ll be able to live together more contentedly on Earth rather than continuing to inhabit our separate planets of Mars and Venus.
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