No one will ever forget the famed diner scene in When Harry Met Sally, when women everywhere wanted to “have what she’s having.” But, the movie also rebuked the notion that men and women fail at platonic relationships. Could this just be Hollywood talking? Can men and women really “just be friends” with each other? It’s 2014 — are we still asking this question?
The singles experience has changed dramatically since Harry met Sally back in 1998, yet according to a recent Match.com poll of more than 18,300 men and women, 34 percent of respondents said that one person will always develop feelings for the other. So is it possible to have a lasting friendship with someone of the opposite sex without the romance? The answer, ultimately, is yes — but it may not be as easy as you think. Different scenarios come with different challenges for non-romantic relationships between men and women. So what do you do if you want to keep things platonic in perpetuity? First, take stock. Then, take action. Here’s a closer look at three distinct possibilities:
Scenario 1: There’s no mutual attraction
Not into each other? No worries. Julie Orlov, LCSW, psychotherapist and author of The Pathway to Love: Create Intimacy and Transform Your Relationships through Self-Discovery, says men and women can definitely be friends, and in fact, she’s had many wonderful friendships over the years with men — some of whom she’s been attracted to and some not. Orlov points out that this scenario is the easiest of the three. When two people are not sexually attracted to each other and have no interest in a romantic future together, there’s no tension, which means that a successful and supportive friendship is possible.
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According to our recent survey about platonic friendships, 55 percent of those polled said they had plenty of opposite-sex friends that they were not attracted to romantically. Ultimately, this makes it easier to maintain long-tem friendships. “I think men and women can be just friends when they share a lot of common interests,” says Josh Carter of New York, NY. “Plus, my female friends and I talk about the people we’re dating to get the perspective from the other side — it’s great to have them to bounce ideas off of and see what they think.”
Scenario 2: Only one friend has romantic feelings for the other
Attracted to your bestie? Keep your hands to yourself if you know your friend doesn’t feel the same way. Orlov explains that in order for this type of friendship to work, the person with the crush has to understand and accept that there is no possibility of a romantic future with this friend and must behave accordingly. If those feelings of hope and disappointment continue, then this friendship may not work. “The key is setting and maintaining good boundaries,” Orlov says.
For example, if the man is confronted with jealousy every time he sees his female friend date and fall in love with another man, it may be in his best interest to let the friendship go. “It takes emotional maturity and the ability to maintain healthy boundaries to make this type of scenario work,” says Orlov. An example of this comes from 24-year-old Angie Rhodes, who says, “In my closest platonic relationship, the only awkward part was a middle-school confession that he had a crush on me. I always thought his interest lingered through the years, but he went on to date one of my good friends. I was never attracted to him, and I think it’s because we got along so well and I thought of him as a brother.”
Scenario 3: Both friends are feeling the love, but aren’t free to pursue it
If you’re both down to date, but aren’t single — cool it! It’s difficult to navigate friendships where both people are attracted to each other, but one (or both) parties are currently in a committed relationship with someone else. Orlov explains that, despite this being most challenging scenario of all, it is actually possible to be friends — but only if the relationship involving a significant other is respected. It’s important to take the committed partner’s feelings into account when deciding if — and how — your friendship with his or her mate could have an impact on their romantic relationship.
Orlov says that under these circumstances, clear and consistent boundaries need to be maintained in order for the friendship to work. “I have a friend, Alan, who I’ve known for quite a while,” says Deena Pares, a 34-year-old account executive in San Jose, CA. “Alan and were friendly in high school and reconnected as adults on Facebook. We started meeting for lunches and happy hours where we would talk about work, family, and dating. He actually created my first Match.com profile for me after hearing all of my dating horror stories! A few months later, he met his now-wife on Match.com, and I met my boyfriend.”
Orlov advises including your significant other during get-togethers with your friend, as having a “secret and private” friendship outside of your relationship can wreak havoc with creating a loving and intimate bond with your mate. “Don’t share intimate details about problems in your romantic relationship with your friend — this can add fuel to the attraction and hope that a romantic future is possible,” she warns. Crossing the line from being “just friends” to engaging in an emotional affair — or worse, full-blown cheating — can happen more easily than you may think. It can also ruin a great and valuable friendship in the process. It’s important to be clear on what it is you want in the long run and act accordingly.
Anne Roderique-Jones is a New York City-based freelanced writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Redbook, Woman’s Day, The Knot Magazine and other national publications.