If you treat your friends with greater respect, loyalty, and/or interest than you treat your lovers, I’d much rather be your friend.
Maybe you know guys like him.
If you’re his friend, he’s rock-solid: He’ll lend you 20 bucks or a joint whenever you need it, and he’s always on the other side of WhatsApp or Skype prepared to talk you through a crisis or just swap shit about his day at the office. He’ll watch your dog when you’re on vacation or sit in a doctor’s office waiting room when you’re ill. On nights out he’s the first to offer to take home the dude who got flat-out drunk before everyone else and who’s now hugging a toilet and moaning. He really knows what it means to be a friend.
If you’re his girlfriend, though, watch the fuck out.
Where in his cognitive friend-behavior schema he’s faithful and unshakeable as a Newfoundland, in his lover-behavior schema you can’t trust him as far as you could throw said Newfoundland. Simultaneously as needy as he is emotionally unavailable, as possessive as he is unreliable, you’re as likely to find him freaking out about that guy friend who left a flirty comment on your new profile picture as you are to discover he’s been exchanging NSFW Snapchats with a long list of exes the entire time you’ve been together.
I’d wager a lot of you probably know dudes like this: men who do way better by their friends than they do by their romantic partners.
Our culture does nothing to help with this problem, it has to be said. Society at large still questions whether friendship—that miraculous phenomenon where two people simultaneously like each other and act with solicitousness for each others’ well-being—can exist between straight men and women at all, let alone whether the features of friendships can or should be implemented into heterosexual romantic relationships.
Even our semantics limit our ability to develop a conception of friendship that crosses gender boundaries: The word fraternity, in both the dictionary sense of “the feeling of friendship that exists between people in a group” and the French-Revolution sense of fraternité as the brotherly responsibilities citizens have to each other, evokes bonds between men. Not to mention the “friend codes” of pop culture stipulating that friend-loyalty must always come before romantic loyalty—Bros before hos and Chicks before dicks—which take as a given that friend-loyalty can only exist between mates of the same gender. Google Can men and women be friends? and you’ll get 603,000 results, with the consensus among the top 10 blue links being a resounding No.
It’s clear, though, that what we really mean by Can men and women be friends? is Can men and women be friends without wanting to shag each other? This is obviously a different question altogether, reflecting the anxiety of the Monogamous Majority about whether the intimacy between friends necessarily threatens the institution of monogamy around which so many people’s lives are built.
Many of you probably know already that I’m not much of a believer in the morality of monogamy, and this is precisely one of the reasons why. As my friend Charlie Duncan Saffrey, a philosopher and standup comedian, recently pointed out on his blog, the Greeks worked out thousands of years ago that romantic love (eros) can exist right alongside friendly love (philia and agape) with no essential contradiction.
In fact the can-men-and-women-be-friends dilemma sets up a false dichotomy between friendship and romance where none really exists, leading to an erosion of the connections that have the potential to lead us all to take better care of each other. Not to mention preventing men like the guy described above from learning how to translate his rock-solid friend code among his male mates into the basis of loyalty, respect, and mutual care that should also characterize any healthy romantic relationship.
To go back to my friend Charlie’s post:
The necessary condition of all good relationships, with anyone, is that we love others first as friends: that what we feel for them is primarily a combination of philia (we actually like them) and agapē (we care, and we want what is good for them).
So there is no such thing as ‘just’ friendship—friendship is the crucial factor. It is what motivates us to treat others with kindness. It’s the condition of everything which is good with others, and it can be the answer to anything bad. It can be deep and enduring and profound, and it matters. Friendship is the most important thing.
Even non-philosophers who study romantic love are likely to agree on this point. An Atlantic article from June of this year recapped the findings of social scientists who study what makes romances happy, healthy, and durable. Psychologist John Gottman conducted a series of studies from 1986 onward on marriages sorted into what he called the masters and the disasters.
What separated the two, his research and other studies revealed, were features just as typical of supportive friendships as of romantic relationships: kindness, responsiveness to each other’s requests for attention, and enthusiastic sharing of happy moments. They also found that the so-called “masters of love” tended to view kindness as a muscle that people must exercise to strengthen and thus be able to maintain the continued generosity of spirit necessary to keep a relationship happy and healthy.
Notice that sexual exclusivity doesn’t figure at the top of the what-makes-a-good-marriage list. This indicates, to me at least, that perhaps all the agonizing over whether male and female friends fancy each other might actually be a waste of time. And it might also be depriving all of us of important cross-gender connections that help us exercise our kindness muscle and strengthen the basis of all relationships.
But—ahem—I’m not here to evangelize against monogamy. I’m here, of course, to lay out my new Friend Code for Romance, which is: If you treat your friends with greater respect, loyalty, and/or interest than you treat your lovers, I’d much rather be your friend, thank you very much. And conversely, if you’re interested in sleeping with a woman who has a bit of self-respect, perhaps your best tactic is to try to get into her friend zone yourself.
After all, what reasonable person wouldn’t choose that higher standard of kindness?
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.