We're Just Friends. Really!
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|Sun, 09-07-2003 - 7:48pm|
What Harry told Sally was wrong.
Platonic friendships are not only possible; they're flourishing
Michele Greenberg, 33, has found plenty to love about Michael Gould, 38, whom she met 15 years ago when they worked together in a Massachusetts mall. He's open-minded, good-looking, fun to be around, and he has a great sense of humor. Not only did she and Gould grow up in neighboring towns, with a similar cultural and religious background, but they also share the same interests — trying new restaurants, seeing movies, going out for drinks with friends. "We're really comfortable with each other," she says. "I can tell him intimate things and he'll always give me his point of view. There's never any jealousy between us."
Which is a good thing, given that Greenberg is married to someone else. She and Gould have always been just friends. Over the years, they have helped each other through tough times and analyzed the drama and dilemmas of their respective romantic relationships. When Greenberg got married in 1998, Gould was in her husband Paul's wedding party and signed their ketubah (the Jewish wedding contract) as Greenberg's witness. Although she admits to seeing Gould somewhat less since she got married, Greenberg knows they will always be close. "We're like a sister and brother," she says. "He's completely integrated into my life. I know I'm part of his family, and he's definitely part of mine."
Whether they've worked together, gone to grad school together or played in the same Free to Be ... You and Me — era sandbox as children, today's twenty- and thirtysomethings enjoy more platonic relationships than any previous generation. According to a 2002 survey by American Demographics/Synovate, 18-to-24-year-olds are nearly four times as likely as people over 55 to have a best friend of the opposite sex. Among adults ages 25 to 34, more than 1 in 10 said their best buddy is a member of the opposite sex.
The vast majority of young adults seem to see such friendships as a natural thing: a 2001 Match.com poll of 1,514 members found that 83% believe men and women can be just friends. Until recently, such friendships, when they existed, usually faded away after one of the pair got married, at which point cozying up to pals of the opposite sex no longer seemed appropriate. Today, people not only form more cross-sex friendships, but they also include their best mates in their weddings and maintain the friendships long after the wedding day.
Despite Harry's contention in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally that men and women can't be friends because "the sex part always gets in the way," male-female friendships have traditionally been hindered more by practical obstacles than by sexual trapdoors. In generations past, girls and boys played on opposite sides of the playground and were groomed for distinct roles in life. Now, however, "strict gender roles have broken down from age 7 onward," says Michael Monsour, author of Women and Men as Friends: Relationships Across the Lifespan in the 21st Century (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002). Americans come of age sharing soccer fields and video games, roaming the Internet together, occupying the same dorms at college and then winding up as peers at work. Not only are there more opportunities to befriend members of the opposite sex, there are also more reasons to get along outside a romantic context. "A big basis of friendship is commonality," says Monsour, "and today the different sexes have more in common as they go through the life cycle, which becomes a catalyst and incentive to cross-sex friendships."
Amy Augenblick, 31, an educational consultant in Alexandria, Va., and R.P. Eddy, also 31, a management consultant in New York City, have been friends since Eddy was assigned to the desk behind hers at study hall in high school. The two didn't become close until they attended Brown University together, but at that point they forged a lasting bond. "People usually think of a spark between people in terms of romantic relationships, but I think there are friend sparks as well, where you suddenly feel this intense connection," says Augenblick. "R.P. and I had that in college. I really wanted to spend time with him."
Eddy is equally impressed by Augenblick. "If I have a big emotional challenge — anything from a problem with a boss to a girlfriend I don't understand to worrying about what I should do with my life — Amy is the friend I most want to talk to," he says. "She's unbelievably insightful."
The two never dated each other but did become the other's fall-back escort to formal functions and work picnics. Within 24 hours of her engagement to Walton Smith, a fellow Brown alumnus, Augenblick asked Eddy to be in her bridal party. "He's my friend. He's my guy," she explains. So in June of 2001 Eddy ended up next to the bridesmaids, wearing a tie that coordinated with their dresses. "Walt didn't bat an eyelash," Augenblick insists. "He's not the jealous type, and there are no questions about the nature of my friendship with R.P. Besides, R.P. and I were friends long before I dated Walt. R.P. was part of the package." When Augenblick gave birth last year, she and her husband asked Eddy to be their daughter Isabella's godfather.
Such tales are becoming increasingly common, says Kathy Werking, author of We're Just Good Friends: Women and Men in Nonromantic Relationships (Guilford, 1997). When Werking, a professor of communication at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., began studying cross-sex friendship in the late 1980s, it was hard to find people who had long-standing friendships with members of the opposite sex, especially if one or both were married. But social barriers to such enduring friendships have collapsed. "The idea that once you're part of a couple, you really shouldn't be friends with people of the opposite sex, just doesn't apply anymore," she observes.
Amanda Williams, 28, an artist and gallery owner from Oakland, Calif., says the 1997 marriage of her childhood friend O'Darie Weathers actually strengthened their friendship. When Weathers announced his engagement, Williams made a point of telling him that although she would always be his best buddy, his wife would now be the "main lady" in his life. "I wasn't telling him something he didn't already know," says Williams, "but I just wanted to be clear." Expecting their friendship to trail off somewhat following the wedding (in which she served as best woman), Williams was surprised by Weathers' efforts to maintain the friendship. He called every week and made sure they had time together when she visited him in their hometown of Chicago. "He's the only friend I have, male or female, who recognizes that after you get married, it's still important to nurture other relationships in your life," Williams says.
Researchers who have examined cross-sex friendship say that any initial sexual tension tends to fade over time or become irrelevant. "If a friendship is going to become romantic, studies show it usually does so in the beginning," says Heidi Reeder, a professor of communication at Idaho's Boise State University. "The longer the friendship lasts, the more likely each person is to see the other as a friend." (One study, however, suggests that at around the two-year mark, platonic friends often reconsider their romantic options.) Moreover, Augenblick's friend-spark idea has a basis in academic theory. According to Reeder, three types of attraction can exist between men and women: sexual, romantic and friendly. Often, Reeder says, people will feel one or two forms of attraction without the third. For example, a woman might feel drawn to a man as a friend and theoretically think he would make a great boyfriend — if only she were physically attracted to him. Or a man might like his best female friend and even find her sexually attractive but believe they would make a terrible couple. The solution? Just friends.
Some pairs manage to navigate the transition from platonic to romantic and back again. Tracy Livingston, 30, a teacher from Ridgefield, Conn., dated Keith Lawrence on and off in junior high and high school. "By college we realized we were better friends than lovers," she says. These days Livingston, who got married on July 19 (with Lawrence as her "bride dude"), tries to set Lawrence up on dates. Her husband Elliot "is great about our friendship," she says. "I wouldn't have married him if he weren't." The threesome often goes out at night together or plays golf on weekends.
The benefits of platonic friendship are multifold, if a bit different for each sex. Male friendships tend to be founded on companionship; men typically define their best friend as someone with whom they can do things. Women usually count a close friend as someone with whom they can talk and share feelings. "Men often find it difficult to become emotionally close to other men," says Peter Nardi, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. "They're more comfortable revealing their emotions to a woman." Each sex looks to the other for aspects of the other's form of friendship. While men want a deep emotional connection, women crave undemanding companionship. Alexandra Robbins, an author and self-professed tomboy from Washington, says she has more male friends than female. "Guys tend to be more laid-back," she says. "There's no agenda, and none of the cattiness. I've never gotten into a fight or even an argument with a male friend."
Mike Zani, 33, a private equity investor and former professional sailor from Dallas, has met many of his closest friends through sailing, including several women. "Sharing that lifestyle really brings people together," he says. "In a sailing race, it doesn't matter if you get beaten by a female skipper. You treat that boat like any other boat."
Zani met Louise Gleason while competing against her college sailing team. Several years later, he was her coach for the 1996 Olympics. The two lived in the same house and spent long, intense hours training side by side. Today he considers Gleason, 32, a physical therapist from Miami, one of his best friends. "Louise is the kind of person I'll call if I have a personal problem or joy and, at the same time, someone I like to go have a beer with," Zani says. "My sister died when I was 15, and in certain respects Louise fills that sisterly niche in my life."
On Sept. 6, when Zani gets married at his bride's family farm in Monticello, Ky., Gleason will be right by his side, along with seven groomsmen and the best man. Although she'll wear a dress to match the bridesmaids', her role is different: she'll be the groomswoman.