Gentlemen Speak: Can (and Should) Guys and Girls Be ‘Just Friends’?

Is your best guy friend ruining your chances of being truly committed to your partner?
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Is your best guy friend ruining your chances of being truly committed to your partner?

When Harry met Sally, Sally wanted to know if she and Harry could have an intimate friendship and never have a little thing like sex get in the way. The answer, which for them seemed to be no, has been heatedly contested forever.

The eternal dilemma: Can guys and girls be just friends?

Of course men and women can and should be friendly—and for the sake of everyone’s dating life, I would contend that you should have a mixed-gender social circle. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you one man’s (read: my) perspective as to why men and women shouldn’t be intimate friends and why that relationship barrier is actually a good thing.

Sure, there are women I consider “just friends,” even good friends. But I’m fairly intentional about how I interact with them. I rarely spend time with my female friends one-on-one or enjoy intimate heart-to-hearts, and I certainly don’t seek these kind of interactions out. I believe that this kind of “I tell her everything” relationship—which the whole “Can guys and girls be just friends?” debate most often refers to—is just not a good idea.

Why am I so old-fashioned about this? It’s pretty simple, really. If you are someone who is dating in the hopes of someday getting married, having intimate friendships with the opposite sex outside of a committed relationship is going to complicate your dating life—and, if you get through that, hurt your marriage. Marriage requires intimacy, which is supported by physical and emotional exclusivity. Whether you are dating or married, introducing someone who could be seen as competition to that special relationship wounds everyone involved.

First, there is the matter of attraction . . .

More often than not, the interaction of the sexes is inherently charged. I’ve found that when I tell women that I don’t think men and women should be friends, some will react as if I just insulted them, as if it’s their fault or that women are to blame for this. Some are quick to point out that if men weren’t such hormonally charged pigs, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue. But I’m not sure the tension that men and women experience in their non-romantic relationships speaks to some sort of fatal flaw in either of them. Our sexuality is an integral part of who we are.

It may be that I meet a woman who shares my love of baseball and cocktails. The fact that she is a woman is going to make these commonalities that much more compelling. The truth is, I think women are the most beautiful, mysterious, and captivating beings in the universe. And it’s damn near impossible for me to be unaffected by that fact and just be friends with any such woman (especially if she prefers her martinis with a good London Dry and roots for the Twins).

I have witnessed these confusing “just friends” relationships over and over again. Here is how it goes: I’ll be dating a woman, let’s call her Lilian, and she explains how she’s such good friends with James. In fact, she even seems to perk up a bit when she talks about him. He’s so funny that she feels like she can talk to him about anything; he’s always there with an encouraging word. Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice how attractive Lilian is, and I have a hard time believing that James somehow fails to notice her attractiveness. And Lilian is not exactly describing James to be undateable. So there is tension between Lilian and James and between me and Lilian. So as not to introduce this discomfort, confusion, and potential jealousy into our romantic relationships, I think men and women would be wise to avoid close friendships with the opposite sex.

Then there is the emotional intimacy . . .

I consider my roommate’s fiancée a friend, but I know we should never become BFFs or hang out just the two of us. The reason for this is that I believe if she were to have a close male friend, apart from her soon-to-be spouse, she would effectively have to split her emotional life between two dudes, which is not exactly ideal for a healthy marriage. In fact, Zach Brittle, a fellow Verily contributor and certified Gottman therapist, explains in a previous Verily article that “in healthy committed relationships, partners have windows into one another’s lives and walls around the relationship as a whole. The walls are designed to protect (not isolate) the relationship by providing appropriate boundaries.”

Practically speaking, if I’m friends with a woman, and she starts dating someone, I take a step back in my friendship with her out of respect for the man she is dating. He shouldn’t have to be wondering who this Isaac guy is and why he keeps hanging around.

Not to mention the inevitable expiration date.

Perhaps you are not dating anyone, and he isn’t either. But if you agree that attraction and emotional intimacy can create problems when one or both of you are dating other people, you’re only going to be able to remain good friends for so long. Because you aren’t considering your friend to be boyfriend material, you will eventually find someone who is. If all goes well, your new boyfriend will one day become your spouse and will be the man who knows you the best. Then you can’t be friends anymore (at least, not like you were). In other words, your “just friends, but I tell him everything” relationship has a necessary expiration date (cue long trombone sound). Using someone as a placeholder is not friendship. For this reason, I think it’s best to leave room in your heart for only one male BFF—and that’s your partner.

So how about dating casually instead?

Instead of settling into intimate “just friends” relationships, I would propose that men and women casually date each other, especially when they like each other but are not sure they like each other enough to date. Hang out in groups, go on coffee or happy hour dates, hell, even be a plus one for a wedding or professional event on occasion. But acknowledge the fact that this isn’t just two friends hanging out. Because you’re not “friends,” you leave open the possibility that sparks might fly sometime down the road, and keeping the formality of dating will hopefully help you to avoid undue emotional intimacy.

Don’t take any of this to mean that I think men and woman should occupy separate and unmixable social spheres. Having true female friends—the kind I invite to a group outing and enjoy getting to know better in an unambiguously friend-ly way—is a good thing. I think men and women alike would do well to make room for a middle ground, where you can have mutually beneficial relationships with several different people—without the messiness of noncommittal intimacy.