-=[ Harry & Sally on my Couch ]=-
Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.
-- Harry & Aristotle
Well, actually, Harry (the character from that intolerable movie, When Harry met Sally) and Aristotle did not say this, but, as I hope to show, Aristotle and Harry seem to sleep in the same philosophical bed (pun intended). Our sexual/ romantics relations are the way they are today not because that’s “how they have always been,” but because we live within a cultural context. Philosophy matters, my dear friends, more than we know…
When Harry met Sally begs the question: can men and women be friends and then answers it so: “Men and women can’t be friends -- because the sex part always gets in the way.”
But is this true? Are there reasons friendship between men and women isn’t possible? Or more to the point: are there reasons why friendship between men and women are more difficult to maintain than same-sex friendships?
As we shall see, most of the assumptions we carry around regarding these and other questions are established in ancient Greek philosophy and their latter day Christian interpreters. Aristotle strongly suggested that a romantic relationship can never become the highest form of friendship. He made a distinction between a bond like friendship, grounded in “exalted” character traits and involving choice (philia), from a bond based solely on an attraction (eros). And while there can be friendship between lover and beloved, he added, it would not be the highest form of friendship. It would be a friendship based not on character but in pleasure -- and therefore will likely fade. Still, Mr. Aristotle concedes (perhaps acknowledging how one form of love may grow from another), “many do remain friends if, through familiarity, they have come to love each other’s character… ”
At this point, I will concede (somewhat) that eros and philia are indeed different forms of love, even if sometimes they come together as a package deal. In making a different but related point, noted Christian writer, C.S. Lewis suggested the following experiment:
“Suppose you… have fallen in love with and married your friend… now suppose that you were offered the choice of two futures: ‘Either you will cease to be lovers but remain forever joint seekers of the same God, the same beauty, the same truth, or else, losing all that, you will retain as long as you live the raptures and ardours, all the wonder and the wild desire of Eros. Choose which you please.’”
Mr. Lewis seems to be saying we have to recognize the reality and difficulty of a choice between the different loves. We can have one or the other, but not both. He captures this difference effectively in the following sentence: “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” Friends, therefore, are more likely to be happy to welcome a new friend who shares their common interest, but eros is a jealous love which must exclude third parties.
Lewis believed that friendship and erotic love may go together, but in many respects he agreed with Harry and Aristotle that the combination is, at the very least, a tenuous one. Mr. Lewis’ contention that a friendship between a man and a woman can exist, but that it can do so only if the parties involved are not physically attracted to one another, or one of them loves another. Otherwise, the friendship will slip into the erotic realm eventually.
This is not too different from Harry’s view, who after stating at the very beginning that sex (eros) will always get in the way, later adds the qualifier, “unless both are involved with other people.” But then, in one of many convoluted pieces of dialog that damns this movie (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are two of my most hated of Hollywood actors, BTW), he adds, (and I paraphrase loosely here) But that doesn’t work because the person you’re involved with doesn’t understand why you need to be friends with the other person. She figures you must be secretly interested in the other person -- which you probably are.
Lewis is a little less gloomy than Harry. Lewis suggests that lovers who are friends may learn to share their friendship with others, though not, of course [!],erotically. Still this does not address the main point in all this: the supposed precariousness of friendships with members of the opposite sex.
Perhaps it is best to cede the point that friendship between men and women will be more difficult within the context of a culture that’s terribly paranoid and repressive about eros (desire, sex, love). Friendship between men and women (and individuals with a romantic potential) will almost always be more difficult than same sex friendships. There will always be at the least a faint sexual tension not present when only one sex is involved. However, this tension might give the friendship a flavor not easily achieved any other way. In my experience there is no conversation better that that between a man and a woman who are not in love, have no intention of falling in love, but yet might fall in love; a pair who know each other well, but are also aware that there are frontiers yet to be explored.
This point might describe what many found appealing in When Harry Met Sally. In one scene a friend expresses doubt why Harry would pursue a relationship with Sally when there is no prospect of sex. His answer is telling, “I can just be myself,” Harry says, “cause I’m not trying to get her into bed.” That sentiment right there -- the absence of an agenda (or at least being transparent about it) -- is what makes all the difference. At least it makes all the difference for me. When I decided to hold a moratorium on romantic relationships after coming to the sad realization almost all my relationships were horribly dysfunctional, it opened the gate for me to understand women as human beings. Freed of “the agenda,” I was able to be myself and in the process learn how to be with women in ways I never imagined.
Even with the sexual tension present. Eros is a problem for friendship between men and women, though it can also be wonderfully enriching. Eros is a threat because, unlike friendship, many experience eros as a jealous love that does not like sharing...
My ex-wife was my dear friend before we married. We even slept in the same bed once or twice and it wasn’t something that was uncomfortable or complicated. Once, we had talked all night at her place and we just fell asleep. Eventually, ours would evolve into a romantic love, but it was a love that grew out of friendship between a man and a woman. Today, we are no longer married but I count her as one of my most trusted and dearest friends.
So yeah, to answer the question, not only is friendship between a man and woman possible, it is imperative.