The question that has plagued so many adolescents in their already trying time of moratorium, is the age old question of there being something more in male-female friendships. The universality of dealing with inter sex relationships have been illustrated via culture, religion, books and various genres of movies and media. While cultures vary even within borders than across them, when it comes to defining a relationship between the two sexes, I believe we are more alike than we are led to believe.
“So, are you two.. just friends?”
Linguistics and communication are very important in social science fields. The impact words have is not relegated to the interaction of two entities, as calling a rival clan ‘cockroaches’ is said to be what snowballed into the Rwandan genocide crisis. Thus, even when people say that they are ‘just’ friends, it has certain implications. ‘Just’ doesn’t only refer to the relationship being defined as friendship, rather than it being limited to it. This implies that deeper connections come only with romantic strings attached, and ‘just friends’ cannot enter that jurisdiction. A duality stems from this in how friendship is where there is love but no romance (and no sex) yet, where there are friends with ‘benefits’ there is friendship but with ‘just’ sex. If all that separates friendship from ‘something more’ is sex and exclusivity, doesn’t adding sex to friendship have any impact on the commitment that comes from being friends?
A friends with benefit’s situation has been explored on numerous platforms. Referring to the sexual part of a friendship without any strings attached as ‘benefits’ has linguistic implications as well. It is indicative of how sexual aspects in a relationship are the better, beneficial parts. While this on it’s own is valid, the issue arises when mainstream media portrays these various situations all culminating in romantic relationships. This leads people to wonder what the point is, and that men and women in friendships cannot end the movie as ‘just’ that. Are rom-coms like Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached deluding us when the titles do not match the endings? Movies like these illustrate why there's so much confusion in defining various types of male-female relationships. Psychologists (such as R. Sternberg) attempted to break down the components of love into commitment, intimacy and passion to define it better. Yet, he recognised how while various combinations resulted in different types of love, the effects of the three components were still interrelated. Hence, when it comes to matters of the heart, there is no ‘just’. All components tend to interact at some degree or the other. Personally on another tangent, I believe if you can be ‘just’ friends and still have sex, you can be ‘just’ friends and not have it too. It does not have to be one or the other.
“Yeah we are but…. why do you care?”
The fact that the questions are asked and people want to know is evidence of how every male-female relationship is more of everyone’s business as compared to same sex friendships. Even in the Mahabharata, Shishupal had publicly insulted Lord Krishna with regards to his friendship with a married Draupati. He lost his head for it but even then, while the Gods themselves endorsed inter-sex friendships, society wanted to condemn it and assume infidelity. If the legends of the Mahabharata were not spared from such ways of thinking, it’s naive to think that we would be. Whether women and men are friends is not only limited to their business, but also the expectations of society.
You don’t see ‘just friends’ questions or friends with benefits in same sex friendships represented in mainstream media. When we think of whether men and women are capable of (platonic) friendships, we do so under the assumption that ‘more’ is possible between them, thus making sexuality the base of the question. In today’s world, despite recognising homosexuality, there are traces of heteronormative biases in us. They say labels stick, but sometimes the glue used to stick them blur those very labels. Our sexuality and society’s expectations of them glues us to the pursuit of finding answers of if there is ‘something more’ in our inter-sex relations. However, what happens when people of opposing sexes identify with different genders? Is sexual interest the only basis of this question? While society slowly grasps whether men and women can be friends, sexuality and gender open avenues to questions branching from the main one. Is it really about a male or female, about a woman and man or two straight people being “just friends”? Societal expectations guide how we approach the question of friendship between men and women.
“I mean s/he’s just what I want in a partner but…”
Types of friendships vary across a spectrum. They could be platonic, sexual but non-exclusive, lifelong or could have one person in the friendship who’d want more. A breakdown of different types of friendships is required to answer such a broad question. However, to narrow it down, we could think of a type of friendship which everyone has witnessed either as a third person or by being in one. It is in which two people are perfectly suited to each other, and who could potentially work very well as romantic interests. I don’t even need to quote pieces of fiction to illustrate this, as the classic ‘will-they-won’t they’ is what most drama related content thrives on. As much as both entities deny it, I believe we cannot escape the temptation to explore what a romantic relationship would be like with our friends. Even if it is a brief musing, people have at some level thought about it. At the same time, I also believe there is a reason two friends are not anything more than that. I think that you cannot choose whom you fall for, as it happens at a more biological, instinctive level while friendship is more cognitive and purposeful. Sometimes those who are meant to be end up together, and sometimes they just give us friendship goals, but no two are the same. Hence, these fingerprint friendships stay that way for whatever duration irrespective of the result. Our problem lies in wanting to know the result of a friendship, while ignoring how the friendship is an end in itself. The books/movies generally stop at the big romantic gesture/wedding/ drive into the sunset and even if they don’t grow old together- their story certainly does. Thus, understanding friendships at their present status means more to me than the potential of change in the status of that friendship. I think if we are capable of feeling connection and attachment towards another human, we could have friendships irrespective of the more or less than it.
In conclusion, there are many ways to approach this question and yet no defining answer. There are as many cases for the argument as there are against. However, maybe this question on its own does not have any merit unless considered with the other factors discussed above. Can men and women be friends? In theory, and as we see around us practically they can. Does this question need to consider aspects such as gender and sexuality? Yes again, as they form the basis of the question but remain under discussed. The most important takeaway for me as I thought about this topic was that in this two person friendship, one must also recognise the third person who is unconsciously present as well. If we keep male-female friendships in a vacuum, they could reach our ideal, but as they exist in society we should accept that as well. My solution is to let the status quo be, let us find out for ourselves with each connection we make rather than operate under the answer to that question, whatever it may be. Hopefully the outside third person shouldn’t tarnish the friendship, as those two continue to enjoy and learn as much as they can from their different types of friendships.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here: https://issuu.com/beetlemag/docs/june2020
Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar