Thu. Sep 28th, 2023


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Opinion | Why Platonic Friendships Are So Hard to Keep

5 min read

The show “Platonic” is about a pair of old friends, Sylvia and Will, who reconnect after years on the outs. Sylvia (Rose Byrne) is a stay-at-home mom of three kids, Will (Seth Rogen) is recently divorced and child free. In the first episode of the Apple TV+ series, we learn that their close friendship had broken up in part because Will’s ex-wife didn’t get along with Sylvia. Sylvia reaches out when she discovers they are no longer together.

Will and Sylvia don’t just casually re-establish their bond — they start spending a lot of time together, going out till all hours, drinking copiously and causing general havoc (there’s a lot of kicking over electric scooters). Will is trying to rebuild his personal life and take his career to the next level, while Sylvia is having regrets about giving up her career to stay home with her children. The show gets the rhythms of family life spot on: I have never seen the morning chaos of getting your children out the door rendered with such accuracy. (Less believable: 40-somethings waking up looking fresh as a daisy after their late-night escapades.)

Though Sylvia and Will’s friendship doesn’t seem to have sexual tension, by the eighth episode, which aired this week, Sylvia’s husband is suspicious. During the same episode, a business associate of Will’s makes a pass at Sylvia, suggesting that because she’s on a trip with a guy who’s not her husband, she must be down for whatever.

The show’s central question isn’t the age-old “When Harry Met Sally” question — whether men and women can be friends without “the sex part” getting in the way. As my newsroom colleague Chris Vognar put it in an article about “Platonic,” the central question is: “Why is it so difficult for people — especially married people — to maintain friendships with members of the opposite sex?”

It wasn’t until watching the show that I realized that all the close male friendships I had in my 20s have sort of fallen away. I still text and DM with those friends, but I see them in person maybe once a year. Gone are the days playing Tetris Attack for hours or going to see art house movies at grimy cinemas. I have had a veritable harem of office husbands over the years, including one who wrote about our difficult-to-replace bond, but I’m not out on the town with them after work hours. My husband has similar relationships to his opposite-sex friends.

I have some fairly obvious theories about why old hetero married people, especially ones with children, have trouble maintaining these kinds of relationships. Much of it is practical; when you have young kids at home, there just isn’t much time for in-person socializing, so there’s some triaging going on. If I see my best girlfriends for dinner more than once a month, it’s a miracle. There’s also a lot of sex-segregation that happens when you have kids, which I wrote about last summer in a piece about why moms tend to do most of the household scheduling. Among other things, dads often feel uncomfortable giving a “strange” woman their email, even to coordinate for a kid’s birthday party, because they feel it might come off as inappropriate.

Part of this perception is because opposite-sex friendships are so new, historically speaking. As William Deresiewicz wrote in an essay for Times Opinion in 2012, “Friendship between the sexes was more or less unknown in traditional society. Men and women occupied different spheres, and women were regarded as inferior in any case.” Platonic friendships between men and women only became commonplace in the 1960s and ’70s, after men and women began to meet on more equal terms in the classroom and in the workplace, Deresiewicz argued.

But part of the perception that there might be something untoward going to between heterosexual, opposite-sex friends is grounded in psychological reality. Aleksandra Szymkow, who is an associate professor and the head of the Center for Research on Biological Basis of Social Behavior at SWPS University in Warsaw, told me that it’s a consistent finding in the academic literature that many opposite-sex friends feel some sexual attraction to each other.

For single people, there is a robust friends-to-lovers pipeline. According to a paper published in 2021 in Social Psychological and Personality Science, “In a meta-analysis of seven samples of university students and crowdsourced adults, two thirds reported friends-first initiation, and friends-first initiation was the preferred method of initiation among university students.”

Studies have also shown that heterosexual men and women look for different qualities in their opposite-sex friends, which suggest that they are perhaps treating those friends as potential backup mates as a byproduct of evolutionary mating strategies “being activated in a novel social context,” Szymkow said. It’s called “mating activation hypothesis” in the academic literature.

One hilarious experiment published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology 2011 involved giving men and women limited budgets of “friend dollars” to spend on qualities or characteristics they valued. As the study explains, “Because participants must allocate constrained, fixed budgets to multiple desired characteristics simultaneously, the budget allocation method forces participants to make trade-offs for those characteristics of greatest priority.”

The results? After “personality,” men prioritized physical attractiveness in their opposite-sex friends, while women prioritized economic resources and physical prowess.

Szymkow was the lead author of a study that looked at the opposite-sex friendships of 146 heterosexual people in committed relationships. The results echoed earlier findings that men place higher value on the attractiveness of their female friends and women place higher value on perceived financial resources of their male friends. But interestingly (or maybe not surprisingly), “current partner’s attractiveness, provided support, and relationship satisfaction moderate” attraction to opposite-sex friends for women, but not for men.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that everyone with opposite-sex friends is destined to cheat on their partners, nor does it mean that every person is attracted to their opposite-sex friends in the first place, Szymkow said. But the residue of attraction does help explain why having very close opposite-sex friends when you’re married is still slightly unusual.

When you’re married, there’s such a huge cost to a transgression or a breakup that many people might be wary of a platonic relationship that could potentially threaten the romantic bond. Perhaps as the youngs, who seem less attached to rigid definitions of sex and gender, come of age, we’ll see an easier mode of friendship among heterosexual men and women in later life. But for now, an opposite-sex best friend in middle age is still unique enough to build a whole show around the tension.

Want More?

In The Atlantic this week, Olga Khazan writes that people are quicker to dump friends these days for perceived slights. She counsels the aggrieved to accept the fact that not every friend can meet every need, and instead of dumping old friends, just make new ones.

One of my favorite stories of this year is by Jennifer Harlan in The Times: “It’s Never Too Late to Travel the World With Your Best Friend,” which is about 81-year-old pals Eleanor Hamby and Dr. Sandra Hazelip, who went “from the icy shores of Antarctica to the rocky majesty of the Grand Canyon” together.

In Opinion in February, Spencer Macnaughton wrote about what the world can learn from gay-straight friendships.

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