Platonic relationships. Can a man and a woman just be friends, without sex entering into the mix? I asked a number of people from all walks of life—including a number of relationship and dating experts—and the responses have been very interesting.
Of the 100+ people I spoke with / received responses from, many claimed they were in relationships—close relationships—with members of the opposite sex… and have never crossed the line into romantic territory. But what about primal instincts? What about when one or both do enter a romantic relationship?
Obviously, sexual tension can throw a proverbial monkey wrench into the roots of platonic relationships. Ever see When Harry Met Sally?
Sally: We are just going to be friends, OK?
Harry: Great, friends. It’s the best thing…You realize, of course, that we can never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I’m saying is - and this is not a come-on in any way, shape, or form - is that men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.
Sally: That’s not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry: No, you don’t.
Sally: Yes, I do.
Harry: No, you don’t.
Sally: Yes, I do.
Harry: You only think you do.
Sally: You’re saying I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry: No, what I’m saying is they all want to have sex with you.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: How do you know?
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, men pretty much want to nail them, too.
Sally: What if they don’t want to have sex with you?
Harry: Doesn’t matter, because the sex thing is already out there, so the friendship is ultimately doomed, and that is the end of the story.
Coupled with this fictional tête à tête is the reality of how men approach relationships—platonic or otherwise. One of the proponents of the impossibility of platonic relationships is what is known as the Ladder Theory. Although perceived to be shallow, the theory is based on primal/sexual motivators. There is some logic to it and the notion of “let’s be friends” never enters the mix. For purposes of brevity:
The Ladder Theory is a funny, scientific explanation of how men and women are attracted to each other. It also covers such topics as why women sometimes just want to be friends but men always want sex. It is based upon many years of sociological field-testing, and was first conceptualized in 1994 in Exeter, CA by Dallas Lynn with acknowledgments to Jared Whitson for his role in formalizing the theory.
To illustrate the theory, let’s take Bob… a normal guy.
Bob meets Jane
Then Bob meets Connie
Now the ladder theory description goes like this:
• Bob meets Jane
• Bob sizes her up based her attractiveness, and his chances of scoring with her.
• Bob puts Jane on the Ladder
• Bob meets Connie
• Bob sizes her based her attractiveness, and his chances of scoring with her.
• Bob puts her on the Ladder in relation to Jane
More on the Ladder Theory can be found here »
The notion that men consider women as sexual marks first and friends second was outlined by a number of respondents to this article. “Ric”, a man with a 13-year friend in “Linda”, started his relationship with her with romance as his primary interest, but it morphed into a very close relationship… where Linda is now the agent for Ric’s living will, medical Power of Attorney, and the executor of his estate:
"At first I wanted a romantic affair," said Ric, "but soon learned I was not Linda’s type, so pulled back and we became buddies. We have been there for each other for a very long time, and I would hate to think how much of a hole there would be if she weren’t there. While our relationship remains platonic, we still share a bed when visiting each other, and curl-up and snuggle like an old married couple, but, and I know this is hard for people to believe, we have never had any sexual contact, and don’t want it."
But what about the women in these relationships? Are they used to (and comfortable with) being seen as sexual marks first, and women with intelligence, opinion, and friendship second? I asked DeAnna Lorraine, a dating expert and life coach based in San Diego for her perspective, both personally and professionally:
Charles Orlando: This may be an obvious question, but let’s get it out there. Would you say that attractiveness plays a part in whether a man will start with you as a romantic prospect or a friend?
DeAnna Lorraine: Absolutely. It’s shallow, but it’s not my doing… it’s how men size women up from the initial meeting. Women can live a completely different life based on their attractiveness.
C.O.: But once couples get past the initial courtship, you end up looking across the breakfast table at the same person everyday and the attractiveness eventually has to have something more behind it. Don’t friends make better romantic relationships?
D.L.: Oh sure. If you can be friends before you start up romantically, it can make for a great relationship. But most of the time, it doesn’t start that way. Even if a platonic friendship is what’s on the surface, one of the parties is almost always interested romantically. If you can build a solid friendship and then cross the romance line successfully, it can be really good.
C.O.: And therein lies the rub. “Crossing the line” into a romantic relationship can be a challenge for longtime friends, because you run the risk of ruining the friendship if things don’t work out. How can someone cross the line with a chance for success?
D.L.: You have to make sure the risk if worth it. It has to be more than just a one-time attraction where things feel kind of “right” that night after a few cocktails. If it is a solid friendship, it’s better to talk about it, and not just make a sexual move. Discuss the possibilities: Do you share the same values? Views on children? Similar backgrounds and goals? Making sure all those things are in place will create the foundations a long lasting relationship. That way, if you decide to take the plunge and cross-over, nothing is lost. It’s all based on open communication, honesty, and respect. Nothing gets lost.
C.O.: But can men and women be friends-only?
D.L: Not if one or the other is interested romantically because as humans & sexual beings, we have the temptation to cross over to the romantic side. It’s like having a sizzling steak put right in front of you. You may not “need” it, but you might take a bite just because it’s right in front of you, and it’s human nature to be tempted and/or take action on those urges—just like when a romantic prospect is right in front of you. I’m all for platonic friendships, if you can make it work. The truth is: even though a lot of women may end up having feelings for their male friends, they are usually the ones who don’t make the first move. It’s the men that will act on it and risk the friendship.
C.O.: Do some of your clients have this kind of problem (read: trying to woo a friend)?
D.L.: Yes… and my advice is to try to recognize and communicate with the other person. See if there is mutual interest to ascertain if it’s worth the risk. Usually one party in the friendship is oblivious to the situation, so oftentimes someone gets hurt. Mostly, it’s guys that get it confused, driven by their primal instincts.
C.O.: Have you ever had a “friends first and friends-only” guy?
D.L.: Personally? Yes and no. I’ve been in the scenario before where I’ve enjoyed a platonic male friendship, only to have one of them try to turn it into a romantic one. And if I’m in a relationship, I’ve found with some men that as soon as they find that out they won’t be interested in just a friendship with me… which points out the fact that they really don’t want to be just “friends”. And it can be frustrating in the business world as well [as a dating coach], because I’ve had male clients who have tried to cross that line. I’ve learned to be very assertive with expressing by professional boundaries with my male clients.
And the notion of men being the party to mistake a friend connection for something more seems more the norm, as demonstrated by Georganne P. Bickle. Georganne is the author of Dear Men: A True Story, and had the following to share from her personal life:
“Men and women can be just friends, but it is very difficult. Both have to have the mindset of [platonic] companionship and nothing else. In the past I have had a couple of men friends that were like brothers to me, whom I loved dearly like a member of my own family. The problem was that after a while, spending time together, doing things we both enjoyed, they crossed the line and wanted a relationship, which I didn’t. Thus it ruined the friendship because every time we got together after that to do anything—a movie, a bike ride, etc.—that same old topic of a relationship always reared its ugly head and I could no longer feel as open and trusting as I did before.”
Despite the data, there are a number of people (both men and women) who claim they are in very successful—and decidedly non-romantic relationships. Take Daphne:
“I have been best friends with my friend Gary since 2006. I do not feel anything romantic for him nor does he me. People ask us all the time, I do love him as a person and friend, but I am not “attracted” to him as I am to guys that I know I want to date. I know he cares (he’s seen me at my lowest) and therefore he’s more like a brother to me than anything. We have never crossed the line into romance, but it does make my REAL romantic relationships hard. I make sure to introduce Gary into the picture right at the beginning the guy I’m dating can either he can deal with it, or not… but I will not ever break ties with Gary because of a guy I’m dating.”
Then why not start dating him, Daphne? Why not capitalize on the friendship, and add romance?
“What stops me from making Gary into a boyfriend? I’m just not attracted to him that way. I care about him as a person, but he is not my type. I have a certain type of guy that I like, looks, what he does, etc., and Gary does not fit the mold. And I’m sure I’m not his type, because he dates girls completely different than me.”
Daphne’s situation seems to be the anomaly, as most people I’ve connected with started as friends early in their lives—mostly childhood—and the romantic spark simply never ignited. Take Julie Yack:
“Two of my best friends, other than my husband, are men. We became friends in high school a gazillion years ago and now continue to be friends. Their wives and my husband don’t mind at all. In fact last year one of their wives surprised him with a plane ticket to come visit me without her. Never anything romantic or sexual, just always friends. “
But what about strain on your marriage, Julie? Do you share any details about your relationship with your husband, with your male friends (a la girl talk)?
“If there’s any strain on my marriage, I am unaware of it. I truly think that my husband is fine with it. He knows he has my heart and that my male friends are just friends, period. If we (my male friends and I) haven’t been romantic is 25 or more years, pretty sure it won’t be happening. In high school we each dated all of the other’s friends, just never each other. We shared more “girl talk” back then and when we were single adults. I do talk about many things with these guys, but am still respectful of my marriage. “
Despite these success stories, the challenges of attraction in male/female friendships still remains. Lauree Ostrofsky, CPC Communications Consultant & Certified Life Coach, offered the following from her profession and personal experience.
“This subject is of interest to me personally, as I navigate being married and wanting close male friends. Currently I have a couple close male friends and get a lot out of the interaction. With any friend there is the opportunity to establish an emotional bond, to become emotionally involved you could say. With opposite-sex friends (plus you and possibly their partners) boundaries are vital. The male-female dynamic provides an opportunity for attraction, the added layer that can derail the connection felt into something much deeper that can put pressure on a marriage/committed relationship. If there are problems already, there is a risk of this friendship filling in the blanks or overriding it.
The truth: You can’t get everything from one relationship. Your partner can be great, and you can also appreciate what other friends (male and female) bring to your life. If bonds, regardless of gender, are established from this place they can be healthy and rewarding. I would say that this speaks to how many of my male friendships have formed. Though I have sensed some attraction at times, the value of the friendship far outweighs the what-could-be feeling.”
And the consequences of trying to turn a strong friendship romantic can be emotionally devastating… and not only to the people involved in the relationship, but outsiders, as well. The follow are anonymous, to protect the identities (and marriages) of the respondents:
“I’m of the ‘crossed the line’ variety…big time. During college, I became friends with my roommate’s boyfriend after seeing them frequently as a pair, and gradually began to realize how much we had in common, and how many laughs we seemed to share together. I didn’t (or tried not to) give this chemistry a second thought. But a few years later, there came in a time in our lives when we were both single, and decided to transition our friendship into something more. Two years later, it’s worked out wonderfully! Our dating did present some issues initially, though, to mutual friends of both my former roommate and me. She was not agreeable to us dating, and I was forced to make the tough decision of him or her. I chose him, and while I feel confident in my choice, I’d advise others who are considering making a similar move to consider what sacrifices and hardships they’re willing to endure for their potential mate. Make sure the person is worth it!”
“Having male friends can make real romantic relationships hard. My husband really doesn’t believe that men and women can be friends—but he has women friends.. (wives of people he’s known and hung out with for a long time and colleagues) — or women he sort of talks to .. I wouldn’t call them friends.. he’s a hard nut .. but when I have male friends… unless they are gay, he’s ballistic. He doesn’t trust that situation because “something” might happen. Obviously there are some trust issues and it is causing some problems with our marriage. I don’t let it stop me from having [male] friends, I just talk to then when he’s not around. Or we talk via email. What’s really funny is that one friend who is back East. There was a time that if he had said anything to me about [starting a romantic relationship], I would have said yes. But I didn’t think he was interested. Last year when I was having dinner with him, he told me there was a time before he got married, that he thought about seriously getting involved with me. Had I only known…had he only said something… my life would be very different today. But it didn’t and that’s all there is to say. Now I am more like his sister.”
Different situations breed different results, but the overwhelming data point is this: To maintain a successful platonic relationship with a member of the opposite sex, open communication is the key. And that means communication with all parties: your friend(s), as well as anyone in your romantic life. Everyone’s feeling needs to be taken into account.