On Friends Without Benefits: It’s Complicated, But Possible


Note: I’m sorry this post is so hetero, but I’m speaking from my experience and I’m not going to make uninformed leaps and bounds about other experiences right now. That being said, I don’t think someone’s sexuality necessarily implies that none of the below applies to their life—in fact I think a good portion of it still can (and does) especially if you simply switch out the genders or pronouns.

For my 25th birthday this past January, I invited a bunch of my friends to a bar in Williamsburg and had what was arguably my best birthday yet (despite generally hating birthdays and the anxiety inherent in throwing yourself a party). Nothing special happened, but a lot of people showed up—most of whom, however different, I have really genuine, rewarding friendships with. Afterwards, one of my best girlfriends joked that she clearly needed to get more guy friends, because I had “so many.”

I’ve never thought of myself as a “guy’s girl” (and find the term itself to be silly and cloying), nor have I made a conscious effort to hang out with as many men (if not more) than I do women. I have extremely close girl friends who I love, but—partially, I think from having an older brother who I’m close to—I’ve also always maintained really solid friendships with guys.

In middle and high school, I think that I (and other girls) offered guys an outlet for thoughts and feelings that might not have been accepted by their peers—pseudo-feminine emotions that society often colors as signs of weakness or the manifestation of being a “pussy.” I may not have always written so honestly about my life, but I’ve always tried to wield honesty in my daily life (somewhat problematically growing up—but that’s for another time) and tried to appreciate it sans judgment in other people. I think a lot of my guy friends back then sensed this, and I would imagine—even if their male pals are increasingly “woke”—that they still sense and value that in my friendship today.

What I sought in them was slightly different: an equanimity and aversion to drama that could be difficult to find in females of a certain age (myself very much included). That isn’t meant to sweep all women and all men under strict, society-laced rugs, but I think it’s disingenuous to act like certain stereotypes lack roots in reality. There is a lightheartedness in a lot of my male friends, then and now, that counteracts my own intensity. That same lightheartedness is certainly found in some of my girlfriends, but together we’re more prone to analyze our feelings than to simply laugh them off. Sometimes it’s the less-trying laughing it off that you crave.

And of course, in the same way straight guy friends have and continue to bring their problems with women to me, I’ve enjoyed unpacking all male-related debacles with them. We’re bound to offer each other something a little different than our pals of the same gender and sexuality, and there’s comfort in that (however cold the results may be at times). Frankly, there’s something fascinating in hearing the straight male analysis of their “own” behavior—it’s often quite different from a woman’s, and feels more truthful even if it’s not. Whether or not they give me better advice is irrelevant, nor is it possible to truly quantify—but they are more likely to offer a different perspective than my girlfriends who have largely gone through the same male labyrinths that I have and, collectively, fostered similar conclusions.

All of this leads to the question of whether or not straight men and women can ever truly be friends, a question I’ve wrestled with often in a lot of these relationships. I do believe they can, but I think there is often a passing undercurrent of “what if this was something more?” Many people I speak to seem to believe they can’t—unless, say, they’ve previously hooked up and shaken that tension out of their systems. I do think such an instance can make the friendship easier, or at least less riddled with “what ifs,” but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for caring about someone in a non-romantic or sexual way. In most cases, any more-than-friendly vibes are very low on the totem pole, like some inevitable result of biology that you can’t totally shake, but that you’re not trying to act on, either.

The romantic tales that Hollywood has piled on may also tempt us to complicate the narrative—to embellish these relationships as something more—but I find that if that does happen, it’s more likely to stem from a place of loneliness or current-relationship frustrations than from a blazing fire of Hallmark-scripted unrequited love. Those brief fantasies can certainly be fun, offering a mental escape and a fleeting solution to whatever our current pains are, but I find it unlikely that we’re all sitting on authentic, non-superficial passions for our friends. There are Julia Roberts exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between.

Categories: Reflection.

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