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Can Men And Women Be Friends Without Benefits?

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Courtesy of WBUR
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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the hosts consider whether men and women can truly be platonic friends. First, one woman writes that her boyfriend believes that "attraction will eventually get the better" of any straight male and female friends. Next, the Sugars hear from a woman wondering if all men are uninterested in having deep, emotionally-probing conversations.

Dear Sugars,

I am a young woman in a tight-knit, male-dominated, creative industry. I have a few close male friends I am deeply connected to, and I mean true friends with whom I share strong, but platonic, emotional bonds. I love the richness these relationships bring to my life.

My partner does not. He's convinced men and women can never truly be friends — that attraction will eventually get the better of one or both parties, turning disastrous for all. He's always suspicious of my male friends and frustrated at my investment in them.

Naturally, this irks me, but Sugars, is he right? Is it just unrealistic to believe real male/female friendships are sustainable? Am I being naive to think we're not chemically bound to develop romantic feelings, and that if such an attraction did occur, we could recover without losing the friendship?


Platonically Puzzled

Cheryl Strayed: Steve, I think we are proof that the answer to this question is yes, men and women can really be friends. Platonically Puzzled, I'm actually concerned that your partner doesn't think this. This tells me he's not really opened himself up to relationships with women without always making sex and attraction part of the equation, which I think really limits his life. I do think there are some things to consider when you're straight and friends with somebody of the opposite sex, and you certainly want to respect your partner and make your partner feel valued and sometimes included in those friendships. But you can really develop true, emotional connections with people for whom you have absolutely no sexual desire and with whom you purposely don't allow that into the equation.

Steve Almond: This is part of the problem with patriarchal thought and, more broadly, our relentless gender hang-ups. People have complicated lives, and because we get so confused about romantic intimacy and emotional intimacy, oftentimes there's an occluded view of what is perfectly natural. What your boyfriend is jealous of is that you have really powerful friends that you feel deeply connected to and you invest in those friendships and your emotion in them. And good on you! And if he can't get with that, then you need to get with somebody new. It's so amply clear to me that taking the posture that male-female friendships are impossible is an adolescent view of gender relationships.

Cheryl: When I think about the closest male friends I've had, I've always pulled them into my life in a whole way. Maybe that's part of the problem here. Maybe introducing your boyfriend to these guys — meeting them for drinks, for example — will diminish his sense of feeling threatened.

Dear Sugars,

I have formed several friendships with my male opposites throughout the years. Friendships that I treasure for their hilarity, sincerity and lack of soap-operatic drama. However, recently I have found myself at a crossroads with these male friendships. I, a textbook extrovert, take great care to get to know my male pals. I ask frequent questions about their families, jobs, romances (or lack thereof) because I love them and want them to know I am interested in their well-being.

My issue here is that it feels one-sided. I can count on two fingers the men, aside from my husband, who will message or call me to check in and say hello. These two fellas devote time to knowing the "real me" instead of the "surface-level me." The others don't bother.

So I suppose my question is, is this a guy thing? Or is it just my guy friends? Do men truly not take the time to think about these things and ask the in-depth questions? Can I chalk it up to gender differences? If not, how can I continue to pursue these friendships without feeling emotionally exhausted all the time?

When it comes down to it, each and every one of them has qualities I admire and I truly enjoy spending time with them. Yet, I'm left to wonder if I should be pouring myself into more fulfilling friendships for my sake. Is it only female friends from here on out? Because I don't think I can handle that, either.


Girl Friend

Steve: Two male friends who call you and really want to know how you're doing — that's not bad. Women, in my experience — speaking in generalization — are more considerate, more empathic, more apt to ask how you're doing than to just want to joke around and not get into that deep, heavy stuff. I think a lot of friendship is in triage — figuring out which friendships supply which things that you need. If you have two friends who are considerate in this way, great. Nurture those friendships.

But if you have friends who you goof around with and who just aren't constitutionally ready to be the kind of friend who is going to look you in the face and say, "How are you doing?" you just have to recognize that that's not who they are in the context of this relationship.

Cheryl: I, too, have noticed this about my relationships with men, and I've sometimes felt really annoyed and angry. But one of the most enlightening experiences for me when it comes to watching men in friendships and women in friendships is the close-up view that I've had watching my husband with his friends.

We're really good friends with this couple, Peter and Dorothy. We recently went hiking in Vermont with them. As we're hiking, Dorothy and I go through the whole thing: the family, the children, the marriages — all the emotional, deep stuff. And then we get to the end of this walk and I'm saying to my husband Brian, "What'd you and Peter talk about?" Books, basketball, music. What I've come to realize, though, is that this is Brian's way of having intimacy with his friends. If he ever really needed to have that emotional talk that I have every day with my female friends, Peter and his close circle of friends would be there for him.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more answers to questions about friendships, including how to end a friendship and whether it's possible to go back to being platonic friends after being in a relationship.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email and it may be answered on a future episode.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.

Copyright 2016 WBUR