There is a scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” where Harry (played by Billy Crystal) tells Sally (played by Meg Ryan) that Men and Women can never be friends. Sally, of course, is insulted that he would say such an awful thing and rejects the notion. Ironically, they end up being friends for years before sleeping together, which changes everything. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending for you.

Does Harry have a point? The writer of the movie, Nora Ephron, poses a question through this dialog that few people consider: Do intimate but purely platonic male-female friendships exist or are we just kidding ourselves?

I would assume that most people, especially women, agree with Sally and take for granted that they do exist. I, on the other hand, see some truth in what Harry is saying. While I am not so naïve as to believe that these types of friendship have never existed, I would be willing to bet that they are much less common that most people think.

Before I offend the entire readership of this blog, lets define “intimate but purely platonic friendships” for the sake of this article. I am not talking about friends who hang out occasionally or share laughs together at work. I am not even talking about people who count on each other in a time of need. I am talking about people who fit these three criteria:

1) They spend a lot of leisure time alone together, not just a few lunches every now and them.

2) They trust each other to the point where they share private information with each other that few other people know.

3) They share an emotional bond but neither is sexually attracted to the other.

This definition describes most “best friends” of the same sex, but how frequently does this definition describe a male-female relationship?

In my experience, I have seen many examples of women who enjoy keeping male friends around because they like being able to access a “man’s perspective” without the complications of sexual attraction. Some women actually prefer to have male friends because they can avoid the cattiness and social competitiveness that exists in some female friendships. Even though these women are perfectly happy with their intimate relationships with men, I wonder how many of their male “friends” would sleep with them given the opportunity.

On the other hand, I have also seen many examples of men who, after failing to get a favorable response from their advances toward a woman, continue their pursuit by befriending her. The befriended woman doesn’t realize that by carrying on the charade, she is slowly ripping his heart out.

I know a woman who used to take a guy friend shopping with her every week to tell her how she looked as she tried on dresses and swimsuits. She thought that he was just a really great friend who was sharing some great insight with her on how she looked to men.

He finally couldn’t take it anymore. One night after having some wine, he broke down. He told her that she had been slowly torturing him, he was secretly in love with her, and this so-called friendship was driving him crazy! She was completely blindsided. She never considered that he was sexually attracted to her. At least he had the courage to say something. Many men never do.

To all the women out there who are shaking your heads like Sally and are listing all the men that you have as friends as proof against this notion; I would just say that you might be surprised as to how many of these men are attracted to you.

You see, when men look for someone to be friends with, we look for someone with whom we can watch TV, play sports, go fishing, or have a barbecue. Men bond over activities. We tend not to talk about our emotions, ask each other for advice, and we certainly don’t go shopping with each other if we can avoid it. You might be thinking that these are the very things that are wrong with us (and you might be right) but this is the way we are.

On the other hand, many men mistakenly befriend the women that they are secretly in love with only to get hurt emotionally. Since sharing emotions with someone is not something that comes naturally for us, when we do share our emotions it takes an enormous amount of energy. Sharing our feelings leaves us feeling vulnerable, so we save this sacred gift for the woman we want deeply. Women often mistake this emotional exchange as an act of friendship, because that is what comes naturally for them.

To all the men out there who have spilled your guts out to some woman in the hopes that she will someday see that you are meant to be together: I’m sorry. Although I empathize with you, I must tell you—she’s never going to come around. While emotions come naturally for women, sharing activity doesn’t, so a woman tends to only share activity with the man she wants. I think you know what I’m talking about when I say, “share activity.” Basically, if you have a purely emotional relationship with a woman that you want, without any activity, you’re probably not the one.

“Swingers,” my favorite movie of all time, has a scene where Trent (played by Vince Vaughn) is trying to give some advice to his friend Mike (played by Jon Favreau). Mike made the mistake of getting emotional right away with a girl that he was interested in. Instead of being clear that he was interested in her, he spills his guts out to her about his ex. Trent warns him of ending up on the “friendship tip,” meaning that once she sees him as a friend, she will never see him as anything more.

This brings up an interesting view of how men get hurt in relationships. Everyone is familiar with a common way that women get hurt: a man sleeps with her and never calls. While women get hurt by sharing something that is sacred to them, their sexual activity, men get hurt by sharing what is sacred to us, our emotional energy. While I am not trying to make excuses for men, or convince anyone to feel sorry for us, I do think that people should be aware of how this works.

Understanding the fundamental differences between men and women can go a long way to promote communication between us. Men and women operate in completely different paradigms. I recommend reading a book by John Gray called “Women are From Venus, Men are From Mars.” It helps to explain the differences in thinking between the sexes. When it comes down to it, we really do seem to come from different planets!

A man who doesn’t know this information will just assume that women think the way he does. He might go around sleeping with them like it’s no big deal, leaving a wake of scarred women. On the other hand, a woman who doesn’t know this information will just assume that all men think the way she does. She might go around befriending men to make up for her boyfriend’s emotional void. She saves her sexual activity for her boyfriend and gets to express her emotions to her guy “friends.” While this seems perfectly acceptable by societal standards, she doesn’t realize what she is doing to these men.

When I was in college one of my favorite classes was on interpersonal communication. The class really opened my eyes to the different ways that people think. As you can imagine a class on human relationships tends to breed close friendships within the class. We formed a tight-knit group of friends and continued the discussions after class.

I made an especially strong connection with an attractive girl in our group. We would take long walks and spend hours on the phone discussing what we were learning and sharing our beliefs with each other. Even though she had a boyfriend, I was absolutely convinced that we were meant to be together. At the time, I felt like she was the only person in the world who completely understood me.

The more we talked, the more I was hooked. This went on for the rest of the semester. It started to get really ugly when she began to bring up her relationship and ask me for advice. We could both agree that he was a jerk and that they shouldn’t be together but she continued to stay with him. As we talked I felt like we were on the same page, but when we hung up I was no better off than before.

When I look back on the situation, I realize that she had no incentive to leave him. All her needs were being met. He was fulfilling her physical needs and I was fulfilling her emotional needs. I was incorrectly projecting my own paradigm on her and thinking that we were on the same page.

When I finally figured out what was going on, it was a huge relief. While I still hung out with her from time to time in the group, I stopped spending the intense, emotional, one-on-one time with her that was killing me. In fact, I wasn’t even angry at her anymore. I was able to see past the situation and realize that she really wasn’t even my type.

These types of stories are very common, in fact, I know many men who have been in the same situation. These experiences foster the impression that nice guys really do finish last. Some men get hardened by these experiences and decide that the only way to get the girl is to be a jerk.

I am not advocating the “jerk” mentality, but I am suggesting that there is a duality that exists between nice guys and jerks. The “nice guy” mentality hurts men, and the “jerk” mentality hurts women. The answer, as in most dualistic situations, is not somewhere in between, but above. Men should be advised to take the emotional part of relationships slowly. Just as women are often advised to hold off until they get physical, men should hold off until they get emotional. I am not saying that men should never open up, because that would sort of be the “jerk” mentality. I am simply suggesting to ease into it.

Taking it slow has several advantages. First of all, it creates a little mystery. Women like the challenge of finding out who a man really is and if he tells her all at once the mystery is over. Second, a man who plays all his cards at once, by law of attraction, comes off as desperate. By trying so hard, he is simply reaffirming the fact that he doesn’t have her. Law of Attraction states that a person gets more of what he thinks about, so as he is dwelling on not having her, he continues to experience that result. Third, he is protecting himself from ending up on the “friendship tip.”

Most of all, men need to learn how to be tough. If a woman isn’t interested in you, move on. If you are interested in a woman, be clear about your intentions. Don’t try to sneak into a relationship by befriending her first. This just leads to confusion and heartache down the road.

To women, I would just suggest being aware of this phenomenon. Most men aren’t looking for a woman to go shopping with. This especially applies to exes. A lot of women have the idealistic view that no matter what happens in their relationship, they will always be “friends” with their partner. They break up, enter a new relationship, but keep in touch with their ex.

Many people will disagree, but can’t think of anything positive that comes out of maintaining an intimate friendship with an ex after you move on to a new relationship. There are a million reasons why this might not be practical, such as kids or shared property, but holding on to an ex tends to only complicate things.

First of all, in most cases men have no reason to remain emotionally close with an ex except to keep the door open. We don’t like to spend emotional energy, and only do so for someone we want to be with. With exes, the emotional energy spent is multiplied exponentially and the man has even less reason to remain close unless he has other intentions. This at best is unfair to her new partner.

Secondly, remaining close with an ex only increases doubt and mistrust in the mind of a new partner. This is especially true for men. We know how other men think, so we can see right through the ex’s attempts to be “friends” with her. This can be extremely painful for us because we know what is going on, but she is oblivious.

Lastly, it diminishes his sense of manhood when his partner spends excessive time with an ex. We feel best about our relationships when our partners make us feel useful and powerful. While we have come a long ways since men went out and killed the food while women stayed home to cook it, we still instinctively have strong feelings about being able to provide for our partners. Spending time with her ex makes us feel like the ex is fulfilling her needs instead of us.

Remember the woman who used to take the guy shopping with her? She revealed that story to me after a long conversation on this topic. At first, she reacted like Sally. She started naming off all the men that she considered friends; but after explaining my theories to her, a light went off in her head. She realized that of these friendships had ended after they made an advance on her. Learning why this was happening was a huge relief. Now she makes sure that her intentions are clear when entering relationships with men, therefore avoiding confusion.

In this article I have used a very dualistic tone, making it sound like every man thinks a certain way and every woman thinks another. Relativistic people will point out that there are not only exceptions to every rule, but often many shades of gray between black and white. Of coarse examples exist of intimate but purely platonic male-female friendships. Again, I am just suggesting that they are less common than people think.

While I understand that a relativistic perspective is an important part of critical thinking; I find that the best way to understand a situation is to start by looking at it dualistically. After I identify the two opposing forces at work, I then use relativistic thinking to help me understand the gray areas in between.

The most obvious exception is the gay and lesbian community. I can only write from a heterosexual perspective, but it would be interesting to know if any of these principles apply to the homosexual world. (Comments, anyone?)

Maybe men and women will never understand each other. Maybe women will continue to think that they can be “just friends” with men and men will continue to think that these friendships will turn into romances. One thing I know for sure is that not understanding each other helps keep us attracted to one another. The excitement in a relationship comes from continually learning about each other and growing together. Someone once said, “If two people agree on everything, then one of you is unnecessary.” It wouldn’t be as fun if we all were the same.

Good reading by other authors:
Guidelines for Platonic Friendships