My husband, Abie, is sure that you, or at least he, can’t maintain a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex—a woman who is not me. As his argument goes: There is always tension when you’re with someone with whom you could have sex, and that tension erodes the capacity for genuine connectivity. What he means when he says connectivity, I think, is intimacy. And if I may be so bold as to put words in his mouth or ideas in his head, I wonder if, because he is so regimented—so loyal to his discipline, his personal compass of restraint—he keeps a distance.
His language of intimacy depends a lot on touch (I know this because he literally thanks me every time I run my fingers through his hair, or rub his shoulders, or reach for his hand), and when you can experience such deep connection based simply on the act of making physical contact (whether in a platonic setting or not) with another person, and you’re hellbent on Doing What’s Right (which, bless him, he is), it builds a wall that is challenging to bring down.
I’m not sure how I feel. I have only a fistful of genuine—as in, close—friendships with heterosexual men. I know a lot of them through work. The ones I don’t work with are mostly the husbands of my female friends, and this classification of “friendship” is based purely on the fact that we have text message threads in which neither of our spouses is present.
If Abie’s language of intimacy is touch, mine is big talk—the opposite of small talk, e.g. getting to the core of intellectual angst, philosophical force, emotional intelligence. No one is more valuable than the other. But the thing about big talk that is different from physical touch is that it’s much more theoretical. With touch, you have to feel it to, you know, feel it. All it takes with big talk, though, is a deep conversation that makes you feel seen or understood and then clink, you’re connected. It can rarely be fully exercised, but still forever (“forever“) bind you to another person.
Now that I’m here though, I’m starting to think that my language of intimacy should actually predispose me to more male friendships, no? It doesn’t depend on physical attraction or romance or gender, which should make it easier for me to be friends with a man. The truth is though, among my male friendships, I maintain only two that make me feel as exposed as Abie does and for that reason, I rarely see those friends. Maybe it’s only in theory that I’m evolved enough to think members of the sex to which one is attracted could be platonically close. Or maybe the problem is that it’s been challenging to come across men who can connect in an intimate way—I mean truly dish it back—without imposing their sexual predilections on the situation. Even my own husband admittedly can’t do it. So I’m at a loss.
Partially because I came here sure that you can be friends with a member of the sex to which you’re attracted but have discovered that actually, I’m not. (Sure, that is.) But also because the question still feels incredibly isolated and especially outdated—like it’s ignoring all the ways in which the public discourse that surrounds gender has and is evolving past the prototypical standards of men as men and women as women to make room for those who identify as effectively anything else. Maybe what I really want to know is multi-fold. On the one hand: What it will take for a square to change shape? I thought I believed there should be no barrier between the friendships I maintain with effectively anyone of any gender. I thought it was true to one of my core beliefs—that we are not the sum of our exteriors, we’re a collection of experiences that paint the perspectives that attract and bind us to each other—and yet have come to realize that this belief is still just an ideal. Is that discrepancy my fault, or is it a function of the way in which sexual preferences govern our capacities to connect?
On the other, I still want to know…perhaps not whether you can be friends with someone you are attracted to, but if you can be just friends with someone with whom you’ve experienced intimate connection. When you’re in a monogamous relationship, how much is too much to expose to someone who is not your person? And what makes it feel okay to show it to some, but not others?
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.