Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Gradations ~ or ~ the male/female "friendship" issue...

This is bound to get me in trouble. It came out of a recurring pub conversation, and I know I am biased because of my wretched romantic history, and I know the issue is controversial – my female friends would (and do) strenuously disagree, and shake their heads at my hopelessly male perspective. It’s the Harry met Sally conversation - you know, that a man and a woman can't just be normal close friends without romantic complications.

Just a couple of points to make clear before we start, to head off any awkwardness the below may raise in my circle of friends and acquaintances:

1) I am not talking about light, well-established, casual friendships, rather the more emotionally intimate sort.

2) There is no passive-aggressive subtext here – I mean only what I say, and it’s not aimed at anyone – it’s precisely because I am, for once, currently, thankfully, free of any of this kind of emotional weirdness (to my conscious knowledge at least) that I can talk about this kind of thing openly, freely and dispassionately. Amen.


I’m fascinated by these unspoken things that go on between people of the opposite sex – because, while we like to think in black and white that “these two people are together in the romantic category” and “these two people are together in the friendship category”, and there is no possible cross over between the two, in the hidden, dank corners of people's brains there are often all kinds of gradations.

The line can be a deceptive one - you think you know where it is, but then, one day, suddenly it's hazy and shifting. After all, isn't that the romantic ideal - an intimate friend who we also find hot?

As if all friendships are exactly the same and emotionally equivalent; as if, because there is no overt romantic activity, or because these two people aren’t sleeping together, that means your gender is irrelevant and there’s no frisson there at all. Male/female friendships are nearly always of a different quality, have a different dynamic.

Ok, maybe not so much in distant, casual friendships or in friendships where the boundary is rigorously clear and strictly imposed, in thoughts as well as actions (very important)but what about those acquaintances where the “what if” hovers in the air? That, even if you have no intention or even much attraction towards it, you know you could get together, if only briefly, if you just ignored any emotional fall-out: Maybe, if the circumstances were just right and you were weak and needing affection and decided in a moment of madness “what the hell”...

That knowledge changes everything about the dynamic of a friendship. I’ve seen so many male/female friendships that clearly don’t act like same-sex friendships – where he acts as the strong, fatherly protector, where she’s happy to snuggle up to him when in need of a bit of affection, where there’s a crackle of mischievous flirtatiousness as the bed-rock of the thing, where they tease and show off to each other – and it’s simply naive or disingenuous to maintain these are totally bloodless and identical to every other friendship you have.

And I’ve also seen the surrogate boyfriend/girlfriend thing happen too much, where at least one party is getting all the benefits of having a devoted member of the opposite sex to lavish them with attention, talk deep with, respond to their beck and call and even go on pseudo-dates with – knowing they can walk away at any time and that there is no binding, overtly-stated claim to emotional commitment.

This isn’t necessarily unhealthy – if both sides are happy with that kind of relationship as it is, and take comfort from it; if both understand what it is and have no buried yearning towards anything more, then fine. But in reality, it’s rarely that evenly balanced or well understood. Someone is usually more interested than the other, and that someone is, even if it's not conscious or deliberate, being used.

The “friend trap” – where you get locked into a thing that you think is going somewhere, only to be told that you’re “just a friend”, by which point it's too late and you are smitten – is a well known phenomena amongst my male friends, and something that’s happened to me, admittedly, too many times for comfort (which has perhaps jaded me... sigh. Ok then, has very clearly and definitely jaded me).

It’s not specifically a male affliction – it’s just as possible for women to be on the receiving end of that, but it does seem to happen to men more – maybe it's my soft friends, but I’m not sure I know a guy it hasn’t happened to at some point. Because there is a tendency for men and women to view male/female “friendships” differently...

If a single heterosexual bloke suddenly becomes a girl’s “new best friend” and starts going out of his way to spend loads of time with her, then 95% of the time he is sweet on her. It’s that simple - sad, but in my experience, true. Other blokes can see this a mile off. Many women apparently can’t – or at least won’t consciously acknowledge it or think about it, because that would complicate a nice, pleasant situation.

The difference between close same-sex and male/female friendships is that the attention of someone of the opposite sex that you recognise as hypothetically eligible and reasonably attractive (even if you don’t really fancy them yourself) is flattering.

Everyone likes to be a sun with planets orbiting them, and your sun does not like to lose one of those satellites, even if you had no intention of doing anything with them. I’ve been as guilty of taking pleasure in this in the past as anyone else.

When a friend you suspect has “a thing” for you, that you keep at arms length because of this (but nevertheless keep) suddenly finds someone else and stops talking to you so much – well, in a small, barely registered way, it still smarts a bit. You feel just a tiny little bit less attractive and important and a tiny bit more alone in the world – a slight slight against the brightness of your sun.

When you are at a low point yourself, starved of affection and slightly insecure – whether long-term single, or just coming out of a failed relationship, or stuck in a stale and "complicated" one – these weird, repressed, need-feeding attachments resonate all the more.

But none of this is ever acknowledged. Such things are rarely thought about clearly, spoken about out loud or discussed amongst friends unless they are extreme and obvious and causing problems. Many close male/female friendships feed a need that same-sex ones don’t, but everyone pretends – for the sake of avoiding awkwardness and complications and repercussions that no one wants to explore – that they are just the same.

Which is not to say close but bloodless male/female friendships aren’t possible – they clearly are, and I have some myself – but in order to happen they have to involve at least one of the following:

A) that neither party finds each other remotely physically attractive;

B) both parties have very clear boundaries, with very good reasons for them, so that there is absolutely no possibility of even imagining in your most wild, futile dreams that it would ever cross into sweet and tender romance;

C) both parties share a long history, a lot of water under the bridge, so that roles in each other’s lives are firmly established and any early attraction or question of romantic involvement has been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

B) and C) are things that take time to establish – they are not in place with recent acquaintances, and therefore any so-called “close friendship” that suddenly springs up between a bloke and girl is quite understandably a bit suspicious and inappropriate.

This is why properly close non-romantic friendships between the sexes are comparatively rare; and why the term “friends” is viewed by a million guys as a cruel and baffling card that women will sometimes play to tear a bloke’s heart in two.


  1. can't argue with any of that, except the categorisation of "surrogate boyfriend" as "not necessarily unhealthy." You know better than that.

    Couple of points this has brought to mind - incest, for one. When siblings have been separated at childhood and meet later on as adults, there does often seem to be a strong sexual attraction. It appears that history between brother before and through puberty is crucial in breaking the sex thing. Friends of different sex don't stand a chance.

    Also bisexuals. Those cheats of the relationship world must have thought they had it made. But try making a friend when there's ALWAYS the possibility of making the dirty sex. Sounds like a lonely life in the end.

    Oh bloody hell this is Joe. Does anyone know what's going on with blogger comments?

  2. I was giving the benefit of the doubt with "not necessarily unhealthy" - ie. It usually is, but I guess theoretically, IF (and only if) there really is no trace of romantic desire on either side, then why not? It fills a void. But I should stress I'm not convinced I've ever come across such a 100% functional, "healthy" scenario in actual real life...

    Incest is not the first thing that would've sprung to my mind, you massive weirdo. But I get the point - it's the shared history and established roles (ie. option C in the above) that stop alarming and uncomfortable sexual weirdness more than it is rooted in biology...

  3. You may well wish to reject the following idea out of hand because it sounds semi-mythical, but being the type of person who analyses everything I have come to the following inescapable conclusion:

    I think people kind of get what they ask for.

    One way of interpreting the above scenario in light of this mystic titbit is that if you find yourself locked in safety mode in a relationship, it's because the last time you put an order into the universe (i.e. the last time you thought about it – however briefly), in your heart you were still reluctant to take your training wheels off for whatever reason.

    So the seasons roll on, as they do, and you meet someone interesting but you soon find yourself in the relationship equivalent of the Territorial Army – there's the smallest thrilling chance that if you keep showing up you might see some action, but it's not likely.

    You think not? Then why not take up the check list challenge! Make a list over the coming months (casually in your head, or written down – whatever pleases you) in which you clearly state exactly what you want in the opposite sex.

    The only rule for the list is you must actually want everything you put on it. Don't constrain your requests with notions of what's available, or what you think you can get. Don't worry about what other people might want if they were making such a list, or even whether cross-species relationships are moral. Just make a list which is pure 100% what you actually want.

    It's okay if you don't believe for a second you're gonna get any of it. That bit's not necessary. Just fess up as to what you're actually after.

    Then forget about it. Put it to one side and get on with your life. That bit should be easy. This is just some crap quasi-psychological mind game after all.

    Let me know how you're getting on in 6 months or so.

    X TP

    PS, be careful what you ask for, but not too careful :)

  4. Does it have to be about what someone wants?
    Couldn't love be about giving, commitment to someone else and the wonder in something that despite centuries of poetry and effort, we still can't fully understand?

    Because you might think you love someone does it mean that something has to happen between you? Surely a one sided relationship can result in more unhappiness than being single? Is personal happiness really the right thing to aim for? Why not give happiness rather than take your own?

    There's also the morality issues; if someone loves you, then they have unconsciously given you a part of them that it pretty fragile, and if you are in love with someone already in a relationship there is a whole minefield of what might be right and wrong and possible affects.

    I like the idea of strangers meeting on a train and falling in love. Even so a touch of realism seems sensible - we can't all go round hoping for a 'meet cute' and to live a life out of a hollywood film, so I might be making a list tonight, even though I do think there has to be some magic there too.

  5. Well, I'm going to steer clear of trying to define "love" for the present - that's one hell of a labyrinthine topic.

    I should point out that the above is not really about love at all, but rather those shades of grey that gesture towards some for of need for attention and affection from members of the opposite sex, without ever getting to full blown romance or even sexy sex.

    My aim was only really to suggest that the reality of things is actually a fair bit more complex and subtle than we usually consciously acknowledge with our stereotypes, tropes, glib assumptions and black and white labelling of things, with particular reference to:

    1) Calling out that, in response to the "Harry met Sally", as I see it there IS an extra layer of complexity - or at least difference - in close male/female friendships that it strikes me as naive to deny exists.

    2) An attempt to understand why and how these strange psuedo-relationships and attention attachments happen, because they very clearly do - while evidently my past experience is a weighty presence in there, this is not supposed to be me bawwwwing about it and it's not supposed to be judgemental - I'm very glad to be out of any such situation and I understand it, everyone's human and subject to urges they don't quite grasp or control. It is as much driven by years of nosy observing and conversing with others on their experiences of such dynamics (I could quote you multiple case studies, but I'd really better not) - and the realisation that, horror of horrors, I have been on BOTH SIDES of it without realising, and it has happened just the same to other otherwise-sensible people I know every so often aswell, if you just know what you're looking for and get them to talk about it.

    Pembo: I love the line "the relationship equivalent of the Territorial Army – there's the smallest thrilling chance that if you keep showing up you might see some action, but it's not likely." - I chuckled with recognition at that. And when I'm feeling whimsical and mystical I may try even just try your suggestion - but be warned, I passed the point a few years back where I stopped taking advice: While I'm always very grateful for people's perspectives and actively seek them out, I realised at the end of the day no-one has analysed me and the various situations I've been in more painstaking detail and from more contrasting angles than... myself. And all I really wanted when things went tits up was someone to say "Yeah, I understand - that's rough. That's a pretty shitty situation" rather than "Well, what you're doing wrong is..."

    I think Morrisey said something like that.

  6. " if someone loves you, then they have unconsciously given you a part of them that it pretty fragile"

    I'd like to question just what part this is, and why it is necessarily fragile?.

    In my view, what you 'give' in any relationship with another human being is energy. That energy is 'yours' only in the sense that before you expended it on the wellbeing of another (through telling them a joke, or making love to them, or doing a little dance to cheer them up) it was destined to be used sustaining only your own life. But before it was 'yours' it was just a tuna sandwich, or a bunch of sunlight.

    It most definitely is not, nor has ever been 'you', or a part of you. It's renewable, and can be generated within yourself if you give yourself adequate means to do so. If it wasn't there would never be any hope of loving someone for a lifetime, as each person you 'loved' would, presumably, mean another 'part' of you has been lost (unless it's the same part, in which case you'd only ever be able to love just once and once only by the same logic.)

  7. And I'll quickly clarify that I'm not using the word 'energy' in some new-age mystical way (although thinking of it in more than a literal sense can be helpful.)

    In short, I have no idea how one should go about finding someone to love (or be loved by), but I'm pretty darn sure that if you've found them and want to have a happy relationship then you should start by making sure you eat a good breakfast, exercise regularly, and sleep well :-)

  8. I think it's a metaphor Ali - maybe you don't physically "give" any thing as such, (although you can certainly expend an exhausting amount of mental energy on angsting about/working out what is going on between you which could be better expended on other things, like Zumba dancing or difficult Teutonic metaphysics) but you certainly open yourself up, let down the defences and put yourself in a vulnerable position - by revealing your flaws and neediness and then tying your emotional wellbeing to the whims, behaviour and responses of someone else, which when it's one-sided, can be massively destructive.

    To speak metaphorically, it is a bit like entrusting your soft, felshy interior to someone in the hope that they'll handle it with care and respect - and if they don't, it can leave a quite a mess of scuffs and scars - or at least a lasting boot-print.

  9. In general of course, it's all about sex.

    Every human being faces that instantaneous decision, triggered unconsciously and developed over thousands of years of evolution, whether the member of the opposite sex they've just laid eyes on is a suitable mate or not.

    How strongly this decision makes itself know to you through the phenomenon of 'fancying' someone is weighted by factors such as:

    a) How fertile you consider yourself to be.
    b) How fertile you consider your potential mate to be.
    c) How much of a shit you give about procreating in the first place.

    Obviously these are all things you still don't need to consciously worry about. Your body simply dumps a load of hormones on you that make you feel horny/lovestruck/smitten/ambivalent and it's over to you to handle the situation as well as you see fit based on mess of 'feelings' that you're now convinced you're er, feeling.

    Also obvious is the fact that the three points combine to mean that just who you desire most can vary, subject to the additional fact that males and females of our species have different rates of sexual maturation and periods of fertility. Older, childless men chasing younger woman being the first example.

    But hang on, we're modern humans, we've gone beyond just all those primal, instinctual sexual selection techniques surely? Well yes of course. Nowadays there's factors to consider such as the salary, education, dress-sense, and god knows what else people tell themselves is important before they ask someone out on a first date and ultimately tell themselves they've found 'the one'.

    And these factors are important too, given the inconvenient fact that human young have the longest childhood of all mammals and require a good decade and a half of rearing at least until they can 'fledge'.

    How much an individual's tendency to have 'romantic' feelings towards someone is swayed by 'primitive' sexual selection factors and how much by learned cultural factors I wouldn't like to say. In my view 20 or 30 years of life must have a tough job to influence a few hundred thousand years of evolution. Let's just agree that both elements come into play to a mixed degree in each unique snowflake of a person.

    So where does this view of things leave friendship? Well, pretty clearly same sex friendships are very different from those between man and woman. Neither is better, and both is better.

    Friendships between same sexes is so wonderfully comforting. After all, 'they' (insert the name of your best friend) are essentially a competitor, and yet through your shared love of post-punk music or the works of Dickens you find yourself friends! And without any complications of you wanting to fuck them, oh lord the blessed relief!

    Now, what was it Thomas said about opposite sex friendships, ah yes:

    "The difference between close same-sex and male/female friendships is that the attention of someone of the opposite sex that you recognise as hypothetically eligible and reasonably attractive (even if you don’t really fancy them yourself) is flattering"

    This is surely correct. For even if that someone of the opposite sex doesn't turn out to be a mate, just their recognition of you is some form of validation as a member of the opposite sex. You may not be the alpha male, but maybe if you keep up this witty banter you can move up the line and maybe one day you'll be the top dog.

  10. I said I wasn't going to discuss the nature of "love" - I really do think tomes could be written on that, but I agree that a massive amount of it is biological and unconscious - but I would add, that you'd be surprised what 20 or 30 years can do, ali: While the initial raw attraction is probably heavily biological, or at least set very early in your development (I'm aware I have a couple of "default" types which have not really changed over the years) romantic tastes are like any other - how those urges are interpreted and played out is very much influenced by where you're at at that point in time.

    Take musical taste - you have certain preferences (I mean very basic things like a preference for mid-range resonance, syncopated rhythms or major/minor chord changes) that run through your CD collection like a stick of rock, but at the same time your tastes will have drifted developed and expanded, so that what you like now you may not have liked 10 years ago, because there are steps along the way. Also, what you're currently into or want to listen to waxes and wanes with the seasons - and the situation you first hear a band can determine whether you will take them up or not.

    This musical taste analogy has quite disturbing connotations for romantic taste, I know - for example, while there are bands that I've retained from my youth, there are others that don't really do it for me anymore, and there are also bands I was obsessed with for a few months and now rarely listen to, even though I still like them, because I exhausted them. Hmm-ha. Now, while I'm sure I don't treat people like that, I am aware that my tendency is to go through successive phases where I totally immerse myself in a band, ignoring most other music, and I've got to say that has a resonance with my (always) intense and exclusive focus on one romantic interest or another aswell. I do tend to be all-or-nothing. Sheesh. I don't like where this is going. But I think I should write a thing about the global nature of tastes - I think your tastes and how they function do say alot about your personality and behaviour in general...

    Whether learnt or biological, however, it's still sub-conscious. You rationalise it, yes (oh, they're so like me, we're soul mates/opposites attract ect. ect.) but I really don't think you have much control at all over WHO does it for you or not, who you fall for or who you don't. It's often not sensible and logical at all - but at least what I have, painfully, learnt is that you can to some extent regulate it - you may not control which types of music have an instant and affecting impact on you, but you can choose not to keep playing that record every day, or to spend more time listening to other records to give them a chance. Um. Right?

    On a totally different note, I should also say that blokes nights out can get very boring, with the same old conversations. Nowadays I do prefer mixed company, 'cos the subject matter tends to be more varied...