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The Sugars' conversation on friendship continues with a handful of letters concerning male-female friendships. Is there such a thing as a platonic relationship between a heterosexual man and woman? Can male-female friendships be as emotionally satisfying as same-gender relationships? What do you do when a friend crosses a romantic line? The Sugars discuss it all in rapid-fire fashion.
This episode was originally published on November 4th, 2016.
I am a young woman in a tight-knit, male-dominated, creative industry. Our work is our art, and our art is our work, which means there's ample opportunity to make meaningful connections that extend well beyond the proverbial water cooler. I have a few close male friends I am deeply connected to, and I mean true friends with whom I share strong, but platonic, emotional bonds. I love the richness these relationships bring to my life. My partner does not. He's convinced men and women can never truly be friends — that attraction will eventually get the better of one or both parties, turning disastrous for all. He's always suspicious of my male friends and frustrated at my investment in them. Naturally, this irks me, but Sugars, is he right? Is it just unrealistic to believe real male/female friendships are sustainable? Am I being naive to think we're not chemically bound to develop romantic feelings, and that if such an attraction did occur, we could recover without losing the friendship?
Cheryl Strayed: Steve, I think we are proof that the answer to this question is yes, men and women can really be friends. Platonically Puzzled, I’m actually concerned that your partner doesn’t think this. This tells me that he’s not really opened himself up to relationships with women without always making sex and attraction part of the equation, which I think really limits his life. I do think there are some things to consider when you’re straight and friends with somebody of the opposite sex, and you certainly want to respect your partner and make your partner feel valued and sometimes included in those friendships, but you can really develop true, emotional connections with people for whom you have absolutely no sexual desire and with whom you purposely don’t allow that into the equation.
Steve Almond: This is part of the problem with patriarchal thought and, more broadly, our relentless gender hang-ups. Everybody loves “When Harry Met Sally…,” but it’s a rom-com, folks. People have complicated lives, and because we get so confused about romantic intimacy and emotional intimacy, oftentimes there’s an occluded view of what is perfectly natural. What your boyfriend is jealous of is that you have really powerful friends that you feel deeply connected to, — not just in a professional sense, but creatively — and you invest in those friendships and your emotion in them. And good on you! And if he can’t get with that, then you need to get with somebody new. It’s so amply clear to me that taking the posture that male-female friendships are impossible is an adolescent view of gender relationships.
Cheryl: When I think about the closest males friends I’ve had, I’ve always pulled them into my life in a whole way. Maybe that’s part of the problem here. Maybe introducing your boyfriend to these guys — meeting them for drinks, for example — will diminish his sense of feeling threatened.
I come to you as a dear devotee of anything and everything Nora Ephron. I believe her writings and films know how to get at the core of human emotion, especially the male and female relationship. In particular, I have always maintained a steadfast fascination with “When Harry Met Sally…” As we all know, the theme of the movie surrounds the question as to whether or not men and women can be friends, and I must say that I side with Sally on this.
I have formed several friendships with my male opposites throughout the years. Friendships that I treasure for their hilarity, sincerity and lack of soap operatic drama. However, recently I have found myself at a crossroads with these male friendships. I, a textbook extrovert, take great care to get to know my male pals. I ask frequent questions about their families, jobs, romances (or lack thereof) because I love them and want them to know I am interested in their well-being.
My issue here is that it feels one-sided. I can count on two fingers the men that have at times been in my life, aside from my husband, who will message me or call me to check in and say hello. These two fellas devote time to knowing the "real me" instead of the "surface-level me." The others don't bother.
So I suppose my question is, is this a guy thing? Or is it just my guy friends? Do men truly not take the time to think about these things and ask the in-depth questions? Can I chalk it up to gender differences? If not, how can I continue to pursue these friendships without feeling emotionally exhausted all the time? When it comes down to it, each and every one of them has qualities I admire and I truly enjoy spending time with them. Yet, I'm left to wonder if I should be pouring myself into more fulfilling friendships for my sake. Is it only female friends from here on out? Because I don't think I can handle that, either.
Steve: Two male friends who call you and really want to know how you’re doing? — that’s not bad. Women, in my experience — speaking in generalization — are more considerate, more empathic, more apt to ask how you’re doing than to just want to joke around and not get into that deep, heavy stuff. I think a lot of friendship is in triage — figuring out which friendships supply which things that you need that are sustaining. If you have two friends who are considerate in this way, great. Nurture those friendships. But if you have friends who you goof around with and who just aren’t constitutionally ready to be the kind of friend who is going to look you in the face and say, “How're you doing?” you just have to recognize that that’s not who they are in the context of this relationship. Since you're a Nora Ephron fan, I recommend you read her essay "A Few Words About Breasts", simply because it's a more sophisticated and nuanced discussion about gender relations and how she struggled with feeling more masculine than feminine.
Cheryl: I, too, have noticed this about my relationships with men, and I’ve sometimes felt really annoyed and angry. But one of the most enlightening experiences for me when it comes to watching men in friendships and women in friendships is the close-up view that I’ve had watching my husband with his friends. We’re really good friends with this couple, Peter and Dorothy. We recently went hiking in Vermont with them. As we’re hiking, Dorothy and I go through the whole thing: the family, the children, the marriages — all the emotional, deep stuff. And then we get to the end of this walk and I’m saying to Brian, “What’d you and Peter talk about?” Books, basketball, music. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that this is Brian’s way of having intimacy with his friends. If he ever really needed to have that emotional talk that I have every day with my female friends, Peter and his close circle of friends would be there for him.
I am 46 and still happy and in love with my husband, who I’ve been with for many years. We have a mutual good friend that we both knew before we met. We have many friends like that, as we grew up in the same neighborhood and knew many of the same people, but didn't end up crossing paths until we were in our later 20's. One friend, though, has been acting in a way that makes me uncomfortable and angers both me and my husband. We’ll call this friend "Frank.” He’s always had an openly perverted personality, uses inappropriate humor and is flirtatious, but in the past has kept it funny and impersonal. Everyone knows that's "just Frank."
I've never been bothered by it until recently when it became personal. A couple years ago when Frank texted me when I was at work. He started flirting heavily, which caught me off guard, and even asked me for the address for my office so he could come by. I didn't respond further. The next day he texted me and said sorry he was so out of line. He said he’d been drinking and didn't mean to be so obnoxious. I said, don't worry about it. My husband and I talked about how the text conversation got weird. I had my husband read the texts to make sure I wasn't over reacting. My husband felt betrayed by Frank’s behavior and told me that Frank had been unfaithful to his wife in the past. This was news to me. I realized then Frank isn't just all talk.
Last summer my husband worked a lot of overtime. While he was working, I attended several social events with our group of friends that includes Frank, and his wife too, whom I like very much and also consider my friend. At one event, Frank, after a few beers, sat down next to me and looked me in the eye and said, “Have I ever told you that you have always been on my bucket list?” He meant, of course, having sex with me. He went on and on about how he’s attracted to me. I was utterly stunned and embarrassed. I didn't know what to say and was worried that someone would overhear him and think we were having an affair. I made a lighthearted comment, as if he'd been joking, and excused myself to talk to someone else.
Sugars, I know Frank is at fault here and I know I have done nothing to lead him to think I would be interested in a relationship with him. What is the best way for me to set him straight? I have trouble being blunt, even when I should be, because I hate hurting another person’s feelings. I want to say something to Frank that makes it clear that his behavior isn't okay and must stop. I'm not sure how to say it, partially because I know if I say something he will say “Oh I'm just joking” and try to make me feel stupid. I need help with making my point short, sweet and clear. Please help me find the right words.
Cheryl: This is a very easy question to answer and a hard thing to carry out. Frankly Annoyed, it’s very apparent to me that you are a people-pleaser and somebody who likes to smooth things over and not make anyone uncomfortable. But sometimes, in life, we are required to go against the natural thing we’re inclined to do and do the opposite thing. It’s a great test of our own strength and character, and it leads to us becoming better people. This is going to be one of those moments for you. You know the words. You know that Frank is acting inappropriately. He has clearly some sexual desire or sexual fantasy about you, and you do not want him to share that with you anymore. It doesn’t matter if you hurt his feelings. He’s not concerned about hurting yours by making you feel so humiliated. So you need to say, “Frank, I am married. I am not interested in having anything but a friendship with you, and you must stop saying these inappropriate things to me. And if you don’t stop, I am going to stop being your friend.”
Steve: I’m going to take it a step further — I think Frank is being a bully, and I think what you have to say to him in this moment is, “I have received this unwanted attention from you even after I’ve made it clear that I don’t want it. I’ve showed my husband your texts, and the next time you say one word that I deem inappropriate, your wife will know about it, and it will be an issue in your marriage because you’ve made it an issue in my marriage.” There’s a predatory nature to his behavior, and because you’ve rebuffed his advances, he’s humiliated and ashamed, and the way that he’s dealing with that is pushing further — bullying you, making things uncomfortable for you, even when he knows you’re not interested. It’s this moment when the spurned lover becomes your enemy, and the only way to respond to that is by saying, “You’re messing with my marriage and my social circle, and I’m going to mess with your marriage and your social circle. If you really want to be enemies, we’ll be enemies.”
Recently, my closest friend told me he was in love with me. After a whole week of discussing what it would mean for our friendship if we became romantically involved with each other, we decided we wanted to be in a relationship. I had originally wanted to test the waters without telling our friends, but he insisted that he wanted a relationship and that we should be open with everyone about out — our families and friends.
Two days later, we were having a conversation over text and I mentioned that I’d told one of our mutual friends about our relationship, just as he’d asked me to do. His response was: "I'm not sure this is worth shaking up our social structure." Soon, it became clear that he was looking for an out from our relationship. I’m not one to beg someone to be with me, so we ended the conversation and our relationship then and there over text, two days after it began. I told him I was humiliated and heartbroken, and I asked him to leave me alone. I haven't heard from him since.
My question is this, Sugars: What now? This is one of my most important friendships. We’ve been in constant contact for more than a year. Can our friendship survive this? Should I want it to? Clearly this is not the man for me when it comes to love, but I am most upset that he would treat a friend this way. Was this a lapse in judgement, or does it speak to his character? It's okay for him to not want to be with me romantically (even though he told me he's been in love with me for months), but I am torn about what comes next and how to handle it.
Steve: This is a lapse in judgment that does speak to his character. This is a catch-and-release kind of guy. The whole idea is to catch, and the moment you’ve got it, then you release. And boy, what a trapdoor he opened underneath you. Until he gets things seriously straightened out and comes to you with an apology and an explanation, I wouldn’t let him anywhere near you. I know that’s a painful thing to say, because you’re still attached to the idea that you’re going to retain this friendship. Take the romance out of it; that is not how a friend behaves.
Cheryl: I think you had a breakup, and I think you need to just go forward. There are other people with whom you can be friends. There’s also the possibility that he’ll circle back to you, but let him do that work. We all mess up, we all get confused, and if he comes to the realization that, in fact, he wronged you and that he does value your friendship, let him be the one to come to you and say that. What I really hope you won’t do is go crawling back to him and say, “Please, please, please be nice to me again because I value our friendship too much, even though you treated me like shit.” The person who did the wrong needs to take responsibility for that and say, “I’m sorry. I want to make amends.” If he does this, let him back in and see if those regrets are sincere. But I don’t see any reason for you to loop back and say, “Oh, I value this friendship so much it must be saved,” because he destroyed it. So you just need to walk forward and put this guy behind you.
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