I’ve been struggling with this question for awhile now, but it really hit home this week. Probably one of the most influential movies that has impacted my understanding of this question came when I first watched the now classic, “When Harry Met Sally” and heard Billy Crystal’s character state in a matter of fact voice that men and women can never REALLY be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. That gave and still gives me pause. Over the years, I have tested this hypothesis and I have come to conclude that there is A LOT of truth to it. Notice that I didn’t say that it is 100% accurate, however; in my experience, it is mostly true.
Can men and women be friends? Yes. Does the sex part get in the way? Yes. Can they be friends in spite of this? Yes? Probably? Maybe? Actually, I have no valid data to confirm this. I do believe it is possible, just like I believe that faeries and unicorns exist somewhere, even though I can’t see them in this dimension.
For starters, it might be good to define what we mean when we say “friends” and to qualify it a little. Let’s check in with Oxford just to be on the safe side. A friend is:
A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.
A person who is not an enemy or opponent; an ally.
A contact on a social networking website.
To be (or become) on good or affectionate terms with someone.
After looking at all of these definitions, I am partial to the word and definition of friendship instead. It seems like a more accurate description of what I consider important. I can be “friends” with hundreds of people, but far fewer of those friends involve true friendship. This is particularly true of my friendships with men. Oxford defines friendship as:
. . . a close association between two people marked by feelings of care, respect, admiration, concern, or even love.
So why am I picking on men today? There is a reason of course, and it is fueled by a man I recently met and have been getting to know for a few months. He showed up at a time when I wasn’t looking and when I think I needed to believe that people like him exist. He was my unicorn.
I met him while I was sitting on a log, enjoying the scenery of the aspen along Kenosha Pass. Even though I enjoy group hikes, I also love being in nature alone, and such was the case on this day. I had stopped to rest and have a snack before heading back the three miles or so to my car when a single man (with no ring on his wedding finger), stopped to ask for directions. I gave them and as he continued on his way, I thought to myself, “now, that is the kind of guy I need to be with.” I thought this because he was out adventuring alone, enjoying nature in a similar way and he appeared to be single.
I was already in the process of gathering my things and continuing on my way when he paused as if he had heard my inward thoughts, turned around and headed back toward me. I looked at him and asked, “change your mind?” We started up a conversation as we walked back through the wonderland of golden leaves and mystic trees. As we neared our vehicles, he asked if I’d like to exchange numbers and go on some hikes together in the future. For the record, I have never done that. I’ve never just handed out my number to a man I just met in the woods, but the connection I felt in that moment was undeniable and friendly, so I did.
Less than a week later, he proved to be someone I could count on in a way I had never imagined. He inspired and encouraged me to fulfill my personal goal of hiking up to Gray’s Peak for my very first 14er. For a hike that started at 6 a.m. and ended almost 10 hours later, we got to know each other more quickly than usual. You don’t truly know someone until you’ve had to hide behind a rock and pee when they are nearby!
It was a few days afterward that I stumbled upon his Facebook page (Ok, fine, I searched for him). What I found was not what I expected; a recent profile photo of him posing with his adult children, and a very obvious wedding ring on his finger. I thought it strange (and alarming) that he had left out this very important detail about himself.
To be honest, I was more than alarmed, I was downright pissed. It felt like an intentional omission, and one that hit a nerve because of my own personal history. When I asked about it, he didn’t deny it and confessed that he didn’t mean to hide it from me. There was already a feeling of connection and chemistry brewing between us so it felt like this changed everything about our friendship and what seemed to be evolving between us. While it’s not like he lied, he also didn’t present the truth that a wedding ring implies. We talked about his situation, and based on what he shared, it seemed like it would be safe to continue our friendship without stepping on his vows, which he assured me were over.
Every couple of weeks, we would meet at the crack of dawn and go on an epic hike somewhere. It was nice to finally meet a man organically, without the taxing effort of online dating. We laughed so much on these excursions and realized our mutual love for nature. He was always very respectful and conscientious of honoring my boundaries, and it felt safe and solid to be around him. This was entirely new to me and I got swept up in it.
During the moments in between our hikes, there was much flirting and communicating via text messages, and a few phone calls. It was about this time that it occurred to me that I needed to clarify a few things about the status of his divorce proceedings. Being ready to sign on the dotted line is much different than just living under different roofs. It turns out that he didn’t even have a lawyer yet.
As the truth of the situation came to light, he began to pull away. Suddenly, the closeness that had been so easy and tangible at the beginning, was replaced with mild indifference and a formality that felt foreign. I started to question whether I had imagined the connection entirely. The energy between us started to yo-yo between two extremes and it left me feeling much less safe and grounded.
In an effort to be a grown-up and not make assumptions, I asked what was going on. His response was the type of bullshit answer that I have heard in various forms from a long line of men throughout my life, and it was not well-received. It sounded like a cop-out and in one swift moment, two months of budding friendship became tenuous.
In a recent blog, I shared about how I had finally managed to let go of 18 years of anger, blame and hurt from my own divorce. I know that my friend is at the beginning of this process, and that he has a long road ahead of him. How can I be friends with someone without giving in to my curiosity and attraction to him? The answer is simple.
I have come to the conclusion that this chance meeting and the challenging emotions that have surfaced within me because of it, are here for a reason. I just don’t truly know the reason right now, but I think it involves learning to allow my friends to be where they are without needing them to be where I want them to be. In other words, to accept them without condition, and focus on my feelings of care, respect and kindness.
I’ve had to ask myself some tough questions. Am I the kind of person who only wants to be friends with those who have successfully walked through the fire of change? Or do I want to be the kind of friend that walks beside them, giving encouragement and acceptance along the way? It is the latter of course, and I finally realize that in order to do this, I must stop projecting my expectations onto them, and just sit back and be grateful that they showed up at all. On this day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all the perfectly imperfect people who show up for me, and give me the support I need, when I least expect it. I hope that I can return the favor, and give back all that I have received with unconditional love and acceptance.