It’s Complicated

One of my most common topics of conversation seems to be the question of whether men and women can be friends. It occurs regularly, with people I am close to and people I’ve just met, in all sorts of contexts. And it is often much on my mind: you see, I have a lot of female friends.

It’s the “When Harry Met Sally” Problem. No, not the issue of faking orgasms in public spaces (which is much less common than you might think – at least in this country). It is Harry’s contention, on which the films plot hangs, that men and women can’t be friends with each other. I’ll let him explain why.

In many ways this is a logical argument. Basically, sex gets in the way. Our sexual desires are undoubtedly among our strongest drives, so it’s not really that surprising that sexual tension could hamper, or even impair, cross-gender friendship. But it’s a concept that I’ve always fought strongly against. I want to explore the whole area a little, if you’ll humour me.


I have no problem acknowledging that we are sexual beings, and that are sexual drives come into play in most, if not all of our relationships. But I do take issue with Harry’s assertion that this means genuine friendship between men and women is impossible. I think there are two big reasons for this: on the one hand, removing the possibility of cross-gender friendship effectively removes the potential of intimacy with a whole half of the human race, which is ridiculous. On the other, I think Harry’s painting of the issue is far, far too simplistic.

I believe our sexuality and our sexual attractions and attractiveness play a part in all our relationships. As do our emotional mores, our psychological proclivities and predilections, our moods, our social and ethnic standing and background… Basically all the many conscious and subconscious factors that make up our humanness. Each and every one of these, and more, come in to play in all of our interactions, to one degree or another.

Think about your current friendships. How did you meet your best friend? What drew you to them? Imagine a context where you recently made new friends; perhaps you went to university or college, or started a new job, or moved to a new church or social club. Faced with many new people who you could possibly get to know, what drew you to the people you are now friends with?

There is always an attraction. It might be an emotional one, it might be a physical one, it might be a psychological one; but there is always some form of attraction on which a relationship is formed. And that is any relationship, male-male, male-female etc; platonic or otherwise.

If that’s true though, it complicates Harry’s thesis somewhat. Sure, sexual attraction may well be at play within a male-female friendship like the burgeoning one between Harry and Sally, but it may also be a factor with Harry’s guy friends (although I’m sure he wouldn’t want to admit it). If you are going to cut out any possibility of attraction – except with those you want to sleep with – then, if you are honest with yourself, you are going to be a very lonely person.

He’s just not that into you

This whole issues has been a big one for me, because a large proportion of my good friends are female. Not exclusively, but probably more than 60%. For some reason I find women easier to get to know and form genuine friendships with than I do guys. Maybe it’s because they tend to be less threatening (a distinct lack of bravado), or maybe because they tend to be more emotionally open. I don’t know why; but I have more good female friends than I do male.

So, Harry’s thesis has actually been a bit of a source of guilt for me. I think I know myself well enough to know where there is sexual, or emotional, attraction on my part, but I can’t speak for the other party. But if Harry is true, then all the women friends I don’t fancy must fancy me. So am I causing them issues? Is the very fact of my friendship being unhelpful to my friends?

It’s not you, it’s me

Complicating this somewhat is a dichotomy within my own personality. I am very definitely an introvert, and as such I tend to split the world into two very distinct categories: people and friends.

“People” is most of the world – those I know and those I don’t. Through no fault of their own (mostly) I find them very hard work, and resist engaging with them. I hold people at arms length for as long as possible, and resist engaging with them. I appear reserved towards them; perhaps even cold, grumpy and indifferent (at l’Abri I apparently have a reputation as being “scary”, probably for this reason).

“Friends” are altogether different. Friends are people who get inside the wall, who I make efforts to get to know and be known by. They are people I really, genuinely (sometimes passionately) care about. I am very interested in my friends, and want to spend plenty of quality, one-on-one time with them. And I do, when I can.

I would imagine that the transition from “people” to “friend” would be very confusing. A transition from cold to warm, from distant to intimate. Yes, I can see that that might be confusing. Especially if you are female.

[As an aside I was, a while ago, planning to write a post/essay on this very subject entitled “To all the women I know: an apology”]

There can only be one

So attraction and intimacy. Both issues. Of course, life is even more complicated than that…

For myself, and almost everyone I know, the (romantic) relationship ideal is (at worst) one of serial monogamy. Preferably life-long serial monogamy. In other words, marriage. The thing with marriage, though, is that it automatically transforms the relationship landscape. However many wonderful people there are out there; beautiful, intelligent, passionate women, or caring, mature and handsome men; you can only be a life-long serial monogamist with one of them.

It is undoubtedly true that you will meet, in your lifetime, a whole bunch of people that you are very, very attracted to. People that you may fall hopelessly in love with. People who you want to be life-long friends with. But you can only (ideally) marry one of them.

[As a good friend said to me once: “No one ever plans to get divorced” – everybody intends, at the start, for their marriage to be lifelong.]

I have known, as friends and sometimes as girlfriends, many wonderful women. Some I have been very powerfully emotionally attracted to; others physically; others both. But I have only ever wanted to spend the rest of my life with one. There was no fault in the others, no sense that a relationship between us couldn’t have worked, it just wouldn’t have been the same, as good. [Although, in my case, they would probably all have been better]

All of us, I think, chose at some point not to be with someone, not because we don’t fancy them, not because we don’t love them. But because we don’t want to spend our future days looking over our shoulder, wondering “what if…”

We save ourselves, for the one.

It’s biblical

I don’t really know what I think about Christianity, and I don’t want to go all  “church-y” on people (read through the archives if you want that), but I do, still, find some of the Christian narrative helpful for making sense of the world. It’s better than any alternative that I have found, yet.

Right at the beginning of the bible is laid out a vision for the nature of creation, and the nature of humanity within that. And that account says that together, as male and female, humanity is created in God’s image.

To me, that has always meant this: that it is only when men and women are together that we are fully human, fully what we were intended to be. Yes, men and women are very different beings: for example, men tend to be (primarily) visually attracted to someone; women tend to be (primarily) emotionally attracted to someone. Yes, at times we can fail, utterly, to understand each other. But the reality is that it is only together that we are all that we can be, informing and complementing each other.

I really do believe that cross-gender, heterosexual friendships are not only possible, but genuine, deep and rewarding. I think they are what we are made for. Yes, such friendships can be very complicated – they can be messy, even painful. But so can any form of intimacy. If you shy away from all possible risk, you end up a very lonely person.

It’s complicated

Is Harry right? In part, probably. In full, no.

I think all relationships are messy, risky and potentially painful. But I also think they can be hugely rewarding

I think it is possible to be friends with someone you fancy, even someone you love (although I would suggest, in that case, an honest conversation and some healthy boundaries). I think it is possible to be emotionally attracted, even in love, with someone and not physically attracted to them. I think it is possible to find attractive someone of the same sex, and still be heterosexual. I think monogamy can work. And I still, perhaps naively, believe that a true platonic friendship is possible.

Congratulations on reading all the way through (if you haven’t just skipped to the end). I hope it was worth it.

The conclusions are this: all human relationships are messy. All friendships are affected and inflected by our needs, desires and peccadilloes. But despite that, they are all, so, so often, worthwhile.

9 thoughts on “It’s Complicated

    • Phil, thank you.
      I don’t think the word “lots” is always appropriate, although it undoubtedly is in some cases.
      To clarify: I mean monogamy as apposed to polygamy – an exclusive sexual relationship with a single partner, rather than having multiple partners at once – and serial in the sense that non of us can predict the future, and so the intention to only have a single sexual partner over a lifetime, while honourable, is probably naive. I mean it in the context of relationships that are intended as long-term and exclusive, not short-term bed-hopping.

      Does that help?

  1. has humanity always struggled with this harry sally problem?

    to what extent is it aligned with the idealisation of marriage, the privatisation/nuclearisation of the family and hollywood’s search for ‘the one’ and the particular manifestations of public sexual mores curious to recent history?
    – that is to say, is the harry-sally problem a ‘sex’ problem in its own right, or symptomatic of something bigger than sexual attraction, and has that changed?

    of the two, sex/attraction and intimacy/exclusivity, if christians have subdued the former but still stumble on the latter in their harry-sally car journeys it would be useful to ask: if we say marriage is more than sex, and sex is only in marriage, what aspects/issues lie in that venn intersect which is in-marriage/exclusivity but not-in-sex?

    would there be a harry-sally problem if they lived in a culture of arranged marriages?
    would there be a harry-sally problem if they were nudists? (…and other ill-advised grand plans phil has for expressing his contempt for sexuality)

    could the (considerable) benefits of platonic cross-gender relationships justify the cost of a society curtailing, tabooing and potentially hang-up-ing its public expressions sexuality?

    what could be better achieved in single sex arrangements? that is to say (betraying a thinly veiled sympathy for complementarianism) what is the cost of sexual-equal-ity? (is there word for that, egality? no-differencity? not quite androgeny? .. .. oh I don’t know, I asked it at a lunch table, what is the difference between a man and a woman.. but this is a tangent.)

    • Phil, insightful as always. I’m not even going to try and answer all of your questions, but here are a few thoughts:

      In terms of societal change and history, I think the basis of this problem has probably always existed, but that our current society has probably magnified the issue. In the past (and even in some cultures now) friendship of any kind between a man and a woman has been prohibited, meaning the only interaction comes within courtship and marriage. I don’t think this ‘solves’ the problem though, it just suppresses it (and probably encourages negative stereotyping and prejudice at the same time). I think in less-restrictive-but-still-restrained societies than our own (say, ours of 100 years ago) it was probably still an issue, but again social mores and conventions would have prevented it being so apparent: you were only friends with people who were married.
      I think modern western society wears its passions and desires on its sleeve, along with its freedoms. So these issues are close to the surface for us, instead of suppressed or repressed. But that doesn’t mean we are the first to experience them – we are naive if we think there were no affairs when the bounds of marriage were stronger, or less defined by ‘love’.

      The Hollywood obsession with Romance undoubtedly makes the whole process of pairing harder and less realistic. In terms of cross-gender friendships…? Well, I guess the process of constantly being on the lookout for “the one” tends to colour any possible friendship…

      Cultures that arrange marriages tend to look unfavourably on male-female friendship.

      Complimentarianism is simply subjugation dressed up in fancy theological clothing

      I have no real experience of Nudism, so I’m not sure how much I can comment on this… My guess would be that it would do little more than remove mystery from the equation. And I am not sure that would be a good thing.

      “contempt” is a very strong word, especially when directed at something so fundamental to our humanness. I hope you don’t mean that…

  2. I didn’t refresh the page before I posted those. Hello.

    No you are clear. I felt that the ‘serial’ was either superfluous or that I had misunderstood it. I follow you in terms of an unpredictable future and its contrast with polygamy.

  3. Mary Frances says:

    Sue Morrell has an excellent lecture on this very topic – remind me when you come and I’ll make sure you listen to it. Her conclusion is: yes they can. xoxo

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