Can Men and Women Ever Truly Be Friends?

The pseudo-question is asked by iffy science, popular culture and real people. If one of these real people asks and you’re not up for the foundational claims of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, skedaddle. Now.

When a human forms “Can man and woman be friends?” in their mind, then propels it through the air with their body, what they hope to hear is some version of “men and women are not just from different planets but different galaxies!” or “who knows how the ancient sexual energies of man and woman collide at the Victorian Bridge Association”.

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When a human forms an interdisciplinary approach and pops the word “evolution” somewhere inside their academic specialty, they get very similar answers. We are destined to be separated as friends by “prehistoric urges!” or “galaxies!”.

Just a couple of mates dancing on a sun-dappled woodland path? Or something more? (Image: Unsplash/Scott Broome)

Maybe Oxford’s Robin Dunbar didn’t hope to find that men and women have different “friendship styles”. I could hope to find his work persuasive if not for (a) my most stress-tested bond being with a bloke whose “friendship style” has been compatible with mine for 28 years, and (b) the word “evolution”.

To offer an evolutionary account of people as we find them is not only to offer it post hoc, but to turn the theory of evolution inwards and on its head in an effort to explain mass society only as the consequence of a past. Which strikes me as a bit non-evolutionary, as it excludes the fact of society, a mass organism that mutates.

Maybe it is true that most women in the world have “intense close friendships” and most men prefer “a group of four guys that they do stuff with” then promptly forget them for weeks. Maybe, women are compelled to preface any report on cross-gender friendship with a nod to When Harry Met Sally. Maybe, blokes are, too. Maybe, they shouldn’t have sacked all the copy editors, because this Harry-Sally stuff is starting to grate: taciturn men who don’t give a crap if you call them and prefer the football to close conversation; women whose “friendship style” is to share lady-secrets in pyjamas as they, “bolster your fertility”. Harry. Sally.

My oldest bloke friend is in Sydney so we talk on the phone about food, comedy and how much we love each other. My best friend, a woman, is a menace. She is very, very dear to me, but so true to the work of forming ideas that this close friendship attends to that activity before itself. My newest bloke friend is a philosopher, but the chief work of our friendship has not become the formation of ideas. It is establishing a closeness.

I think about these friendships, the friendships of others and the friendships my parents had or retain. I can’t think of a friendship that conforms to the sexed Dunbar description. Which is not to say his work is folly or does not represent certain tendencies, even though I’m yet to meet people who have them. It is to say that friendships, like love relationships, are only understood by the people in them, and if they could be seen by others, they would be considered odd and nonconforming.

But, the male-female friendship is immediately considered nonconforming, and is even a bit of a threat. If we can be friends, then sex cannot remain an insoluble mystery or a reassuring division to others.

Meantime, the Gwyneth Paltrow newsletter doesn’t rate the chances of “clean” male-female friendship, and we are reminded that the US Vice-President doesn’t take that dirty chance at all. Then, Pence appears again, prefaced by a When Harry Met Sally complaint. As though the great and now deceased writer of romcom, Nora Ephron, was making a case, and not a perfect escape. As though Pence shows that cross-gender friendship is improbable, when it is improbable that anyone of any gender wants a friend like Pence.

“Can men and women be friends?” When asked by younger people in its newer Me Too context, the question is better. They take it as read that men and women form close friendships. These have been changed by the immeasurable matter of consent, which is quite the mutation. But evolution in its merest context brings us mating dances.   

Attraction in cross-sex friendships occurs. Big whoop. So does attraction in same-sex friendships — surely several thousand of Dunbar’s lady-on-lady pyjama friendships have aroused something other than fertile endocrinology. Frequently, there is no attraction at all in friendships and now I think about it, no bastard friend has ever had the decency to fancy me. But within the entire arc of a friendship, surely, two or zero hornivore moments will count for almost nothing.

The assessment of friendship as a cost-benefit analysis to human reproduction cannot be worth much at all. Friendship has its own utility, which scans can neither capture nor predict. The difference or the sameness may be inscribed in two friends by God or genes or Gwyneth. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the bond that saves you from the estrangement of everyday life. Which makes all good friendships truly nonconforming.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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