If I had just one piece of advice for women in college, it would be this: enjoy how many hundreds of platonic male friendships are available to you. Be sure to choose some guys to be your buddies, and then pay attention to those friendships the way you do to your friendships with your girlfriends. Celebrate their triumphs, listen to their sorrows, laugh together, and above all, welcome their girlfriends into your circle.
These, as it turns out, are the male friendships you will have for a lifetime. These are the easygoing, unself-conscious friendships you make when everyone is looking for a life partner, but no one has found one yet. These are the guys who will like you for yourself, and who you will appreciate for themselves. Men who enter your life at this stage may want to date you, or you may want to date them, but I’m talking about the guys who click with you and become a cross between a brother and a cousin. When a guy like this comes along, take notice. Pay attention. And hold on to these friendships for keeps. I don’t believe in the “When Harry Met Sally” tenet that men and women can never be friends. They can. It’s just that the window of opportunity to form these friendships is fairly short-lived.
I’ve been thinking about dear friends for several weeks, ever since I traveled from Cuba to Alabama and back in three days just to go to a wedding. There was only one person left in the world that I would do such a quick turn-around wedding trip for, the last of the Lee Family, and he got married, and it was a perfect day. His bride has her own version of the Lees. We were all delighted that she embraces us; we promptly began talking up the idea of a weekend retreat for the two groups. There may have even been some good-natured competition over who’s been friends the longest.
But celebrating true love and 20+ years of friendship will get you thinking. The Lees’ friendships gave our lives a richer perspective on the ways of the opposite gender – not the romantic ways, just the everyday life ways. We learned from our boy-Lees what none of the girl-Lees (brotherless, all 3 of us) had had a chance to learn growing up: how to accept and love the fine points, and the quirks, of a guy you would never marry.
In college, since everyone is fair game for a possible romantic entanglement, somehow it takes the awkward edge off of platonic friendships. I know that doesn’t seem to make much sense, but here’s what I mean. If you are still looking for someone to be The One, you are free to hang out with all the great guys who are Not The One, and since they are also looking for The One, they are free to hang out with you. Perhaps from time to time there’s an awkward moment when someone says, “Sooooo… what’s up between you two?” But for the most part, your friendships operate in a zone free of restrictions.
Sure, your close girlfriends are important, and those friendships last a lifetime, too. I would never downplay the importance of my girlfriends (not just the other Lees, but various dear women). They know everything, really beyond everything, and still love me. There’s no replacing them.
Why, then, would my one piece of advice be to find and keep close guy friends?
Here’s why. Once you enter the real adult world, the unspoken rules start to change. People start to get married. They start looking more seriously for a spouse if they have not yet married. More people get married. And then the free, easy platonic friendship zone between men and women starts to close.
Once you promise to have and to hold ’til death do ye part, a subtle shift takes place. Now making friendships with someone of the opposite sex means that your spouse needs to know about the friendship, and preferably even be part of the friendship. I think this is healthy. Certainly if you feel the need to keep the friendship a secret, it may not be just a friendship. Or your marriage may not be based on trust. Either way, secret friendships don’t sit well with me.
Still, when you add a third person to the mix, the dynamic changes. That doesn’t mean the new dynamic is bad, but it is not the same. Now both spouses need to feel that the friendship is valuable and worthwhile. If your friend is also married, then that adds a fourth person to the increasingly complicated situation. Complications are a part of life; I don’t say that we must necessarily avoid them. But it does take the spontaneity out of hanging out with your buddy when you can’t just call and say, “I’m ordering pizza; come over.” Now it’s a double-date to the best pizza place in the city. And that’s if all four of you get along well. If not, sadly, this friendship is not likely to be a long-term one.
Honey and I have been happily married for seventeen years. We trust each other; we each have nights out with our friends. When he’s out, though, he’s with “the guys,” or maybe “the guys and one of their wives.” When I’m out, it’s Girls’ Night Out, or it’s book club. When we go out together, it’s often with couple friends or whole families we get along with. He doesn’t call up a female colleague and go out for a beer. I don’t call a man in our ex-pat community and see if he wants to have dinner. There wouldn’t be anything “wrong” with either of those scenarios. Honey trusts me, and I trust him. But the possible perception of romantic interest is not worth the risk, we find. For us, new friendships with members of the opposite sex are most natural when they are part of a couple we are befriending.
Now, some might say we’re overthinking, or that we’re too rigid. Some might argue that platonic friendships are still possible for married people in their forties. I don’t deny the possibility that in some circumstances, that might be true. For us, though, since we move every couple of years, we don’t have the luxury of being able to let platonic friendships develop slowly over time, deepening naturally and without danger to the marriages involved.
To quote Facebook, “It’s complicated.”
So girls, keep an eye out for some Not The Ones while you’re living it up in your twenties. Grab one and sit together for hours at the top of the campus parking garage with a cold pizza congealing in its box between you. Go kayaking on a river you probably wouldn’t want to fall in. Stop on impulse and test-drive a car you really can’t afford. Ride a bobsled and ask what, specifically, the inherent dangers are before you sign the waiver. Just do it all with a good guy friend. You’ll be so glad you did.