It’s verging on midnight. My husband, Shaun, is out of state on a business trip, and my friend Alex just went home. We were going to play a new video game together while my toddler slept, but because she never went to bed, Alex and I ended up talking all evening: about our waffling career goals, actual waffles, fears about aging, family dynamics and our latest music preferences.
I first met Alex through my husband. He was dating Madalyn at the time, and the four of us connected so deeply that we rarely went more than a week without getting together. We had a cheesy group handshake we’d do upon parting, and many of our conversations left me sore from laughing so hard.
When Alex and his girlfriend broke up, my husband and I mourned, too. Though I was still close with Madalyn, having her over a couple times and talking candidly about the breakup, I realized I really missed Alex, too.
If the stereotypically female response to a breakup is to hash it out with your girlfriends, my husband and Alex demonstrated that the male equivalent is to withdraw and wait. It became clear that Alex was in too much of a funk to reach out to Shaun, and Shaun wasn’t going to make a move, either.
So I asked my husband for Alex’s number, a strange thing in retrospect, because we’d known each other for nearly three years, yet I’d never called him once. I texted him, expressing that we missed him and wanted to play some Warmachine soon. We didn’t make any plans, and later when my husband spoke to Alex about it, Alex said something to the effect of, “I didn’t know if that would be OK.”
I could see where he was coming from. There’s no apparent protocol for opposite-sex friendships, and I think there was some sort of fear that any communication between me and Alex was like going behind Shaun’s back. However, after the three of us hung out a few times together, Alex and I started casually texting, and eventually it became natural to talk to one another without having my husband present.
Alex became my first male friend. Don’t get me wrong: My husband is my closest friend, we have plenty of “couples” friends and I enjoy chatting with many of Shaun’s male coworkers. There are men in my family, obviously, and I’m very close to my dad. But having a male friend with whom I’m comfortable spending one-on-one time (who isn’t family or a sexual partner) is a brand new experience for me.
I was raised in the conservative Midwest, with parents who hung out with both sexes in groups but saved their most intimate conversations for people of the same sex. I must have absorbed something in childhood about what’s proper between men and women, because even in first grade I was convinced my only boy friend, Jimmy, would one day marry me.
In high school, I had gay male friends. But friendships with cis-gender men always hit a brick wall at a certain point. It’s as if I were afraid if I got too close, the veil would come back and like Adam and Eve we’d be aware of our physical differences and be forced to either a.) date, or b.) ignore each other. Chatting with a boy about movies or music or exercise was acceptable, but to bare one’s emotions was off-limits, the stuff of relationships.
I think this unspoken rule plays a huge part in stonewalling gender equality. Although it hurts women, I actually believe it hurts men more –- and here’s why. Women are allowed to have a wide range of emotional support. We nitpick our lives with our friends, sisters, classmates, coworkers and partners. Straight men, however, often rely on their partners and mothers for real emotional support. They may occasionally open up to their male friends, but the way it looks to me is like there’s some mental time-bomb that limits them from lingering on the real grit of life.
“I don’t really talk to anyone like I talk to you,” Alex told me last night.
Though it’s tempting to credit myself for being an exceptional listener, I don’t think this is what he meant. I think the fact that I, as a woman, have been socialized to ask questions, to offer advice and feedback, makes me a kind of safe place. Like any human being, he has hopes and dreams and fears. But like most men, he’s inclined to keep these to himself around his male friends.
But this friendship is helping me grow in ways I barely realize yet. It’s still difficult for me to adjust to having male attention that isn’t rife with sexual undercurrents. It’s making me realize how I’ve become accustomed over the years to using my sexuality as bait for male attention. Honestly, I never believed I was interesting enough, or smart enough, to be of any interest to a man based on conversation alone.
Whether a man was a potential friend or partner, I would always lead with my looks, and when my intelligence eventually made an appearance, it was an added bonus.
This friendship with Alex is, to me, what maturity feels like. It’s coming to grips with my own unfounded insecurities. It’s stepping back and considering my upbringing, and what I might do or say differently to my daughter to help her forge friendships with people of all genders.
And it’s paving the way for me to feel comfortable befriending men, which, let’s face it, is half the population of the world that I have kept at arm’s reach for fear of appearing improper.
Harry and Sally got it wrong. Cis-gender men and women not only can be friends, but they must be friends. If parents keep conditioning kids to see people of the opposite sex foremost as potential mates, we’re drawing a divide that makes it hard for boys and girls to collaborate at school, at work and as friends.
Colloquialisms like “chicks before dicks” and “bros before hos” do nothing but estrange us as opposites. Ruling out close friendships with the opposite sex narrows our worldview and demotes us from multifaceted humans to mere sex organs. Is that really the world you want to live in?