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December 19, 2013

Platonic Friendships

Grim has tempted me to bloviate with this post about men who have numerous friends of the opposite sex:

Via Thought Cloud, I learned that it's problematic for a man to have too many female friends.

But the author of the linked post doesn't actually seem to be complaining that her new boyfriend has female friends. She admits having male friends herself. Her summarized concerns seem pretty valid to this happily married woman: the problem seems to be more with the nature of the friendships than the fact that they exist. To hear her tell it (and we have only her word for this), when her boyfriend's with her, he's not really "with her":

He’s constantly texting these people and returning their phone calls when it’s like, “Hello, I’m right here.” Mind you, he never does any of this behind my back- it’s always right in front of me. Sometimes, I wish that it would be done when I’m not there because you know, ignorance is bliss.

And, though he thinks there's nothing wrong with his having female friends, he's not fine with her having male friends:

Personally, I know if roles were reversed, he’d have my head. He already hates the idea that I have male friends to begin with and he claims that they’re all trying to flirt with me. Really?

But wait! There's more insanity where this came from:

I don’t have a problem with most of those girls that he’s constantly talking to. They seem pretty cool and most of them seem to respect our relationship. Operative word being most. When some of them are calling at midnight wondering where he is, they’re taking it way too far.

One of the rewards of an exclusive romantic relationship is that the person you're involved with is supposed to occupy a special place in your life. Why limit your options and give up your freedom for a lover/husband/boyfriend who considers you no less (but no more) important than everyone else in his life? There's a reason these lines are so often read during marriage ceremonies:

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother,
and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

That "one flesh" thing is intended to be limiting. Then there's that bit about forsaking all others and keeping only unto your spouse. That doesn't only apply to people of the opposite sex - it also applies to parents, friends of your own sex, our own children, and a whole array of other people and things that can and will (if you fail to put your spouse first) eventually come between you.

I dated my husband for only two months before we both went away to college. For the next two years, we were in a long distance relationship. We lived apart for nearly a year right after getting married. Then he joined the Marines and we spent even more time apart - four 1 year unaccompanied tours and countless shorter deployments and field exercises. So the blog princess could hardly be called a clinging vine. But if I ever got the idea that I was no longer number one in his life, I'd be gone so fast it would make his head spin. And I suspect the same is true for him.

The expectation of exclusivity - that no one is more important to your husband or wife than you are - is what makes marriage so special. The reciprocal agreement to put your partner first in your life really the only thing that makes all that sacrifice worth it.

Grim writes:

Is this right? When I was a boy, my elementary school did something that was at the time actually illegal: it took our standardized test scores on reading and used them to sort us into levels. We had an "advanced" class, a "medium" class, and a slow class (which wasn't given a name). Now girls mature faster than boys, especially in terms of academic work, so as a consequence I spent my formative years in a class with 26 girls and 4 boys, of whom I was one. Since we were sorted alphabetically, I was perforce surrounded by girls all the time except at recess.

Was this really illegal? Tracking was the norm when I was in school, and standardized testing was how it was accomplished. Of course these days, such horrid Othering of Boys by feminized public schools is simply not tolerated :p

And yes, I'm yanking Grim's chain because he does it to me all the time. Also, it's just plain fun. The part of his post that I love is this:

From my perspective this has always meant that I learned early how to like and talk to girls, which has been a tremendous benefit. It turns out (boys, I am talking to you here) that girls are interesting, and have markedly different perspectives on life. If you're curious about big-T Truth, it's good to hear what other people with different perspectives have to say. If you're not interested in big-T Truth, you should rethink your life. As Aristotle rightly suggests, the contemplative life is one of the best ones available for our limited time here on Earth.

The same is true for women: we gain so much by talking to the men in our lives; by trying to understand them and allowing them to glimpse the world through their eyes, however imperfectly.

I understand Grim's point about learning to live with temptation, but people are weaker than we like to let on and marriage lasts a long time. That's why character is so important, whether we're talking about a man choosing a woman or a woman choosing the right man. It concerns me that we seem to have so little appreciation for the dangers of walking too close to the edge.

In the ancient legend of Tristan and Iseult, there is a wonderful image of the lovers sleeping in the wood with a drawn sword between them. I've always thought that a good metaphor for friends of the opposite sex: there should be a carefully drawn line that may not be crossed because the danger is real. Something in our polar opposites calls to us. A mother feels a special tenderness for her sons and a father for his daughters. And the male-female friendships I've known have been qualitatively different from friendships with other women. Perhaps this isn't common to everyone, but it seems sensible to me.

The trick is not to deny the danger, but to keep it always in mind. We are, after all, only human.

Posted by Cassandra at December 19, 2013 01:11 PM

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Comments

And yes, I'm yanking Grim's chain because he does it to me all the time. Also, it's just plain fun.

Another reason to like women: they love to pull your chain. :)

Was this really illegal?

According to my mother it was; she was a teacher in Georgia at the time. I gather it had to be done somewhat quietly, but parents didn't complain to the authorities because it benefited all of them -- the parents of slower children because their kids got more help, and of better readers because their kids could move at a faster pace. I think it's totally normal now, but at the time for whatever reason it wasn't acceptable practice here.

It's interesting that you chose to call this "Platonic" friendships. I talked a bit about Aristotle's view of friendship (and Aquinas' commentaries on it), but Plato wrote about the subject too. (It's in the Symposium, a Greek word that translates roughly as 'wine-drinking party,' and is one of the more amusing dialogues.) Socrates defends the principle that sexual attraction is a kind of love of beauty, but that it's an inferior beauty to the beauty of a virtuous soul. It's so inferior, in fact, that it ought to fall away as a love-relationship (including friendship) develops: the real beauty you should come to see in your friend, and want to cultivate in them because you love them, is the beauty of virtue. That doesn't actually happen, of course, but you can come to value their character to the point that you wouldn't want to damage it.

Aristotle distinguishes between 'friendships of pleasure or utility' and friendships that come from love of virtue in the beloved other. This latter is the kind of true friendship that he extols as so important to the good life.

In any case, opposites attracting as they do, my female friends are all of excellent character and moral virtue. It's what I like about them, and why I want to spend time with them. They're people one can admire as well as enjoy.

Posted by: Grim at December 19, 2013 06:40 PM

"... my female friends are all of excellent character and moral virtue..."

Well, hell, that leaves me out.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at December 19, 2013 09:19 PM

According to my mother it was; she was a teacher in Georgia at the time. I gather it had to be done somewhat quietly, but parents didn't complain to the authorities because it benefited all of them -- the parents of slower children because their kids got more help, and of better readers because their kids could move at a faster pace.

That's bizarre. Tracking really was the norm when I was a girl - even in kindergarten we were in reading groups by ability. Maybe Georgia is different, or maybe it's just that you're younger than I am and things had changed by then.

As a kindergartener, I was in with the 3rd graders, which was really weird. I felt very out of place. I don't remember my reading group being unbalanced as far as sex but maybe that was because they were all older?

I only used "platonic" because that's the term most commonly used to describe such friendships. If we talked about Aristotlean friendships then I suppose I would have used that term.

I'm not sure sexual attraction is always a response to beauty. I think often it's also a response to something essential in a person of the opposite sex: masculinity, if we're talking about a female. Or femininity if we're talking about a male.

Posted by: Cass at December 19, 2013 09:24 PM

I'm not sure sexual attraction is always a response to beauty. I think often it's also a response to something essential in a person of the opposite sex: masculinity, if we're talking about a female. Or femininity if we're talking about a male.

That -- much like the Tristan and Iseult story -- could hardly be phrased in a way more likely to garner my agreement. :)

But it didn't occur to Plato or Aristotle to talk about that, because they were thinking about this kind of friendship/love as between men.

Not that they weren't sexually attracted! Socrates in particular sometimes swooned over young beauty in a male (see, e.g., the opening of the Charmides). Charmides himself is a good example: he doesn't have anything like virtue about him. It's only physical beauty that he possesses, not internal beauty.

(It's Alcibiades Socrates is talking to in the Symposium -- a more complex character, who would go on to prove that he had some virtues but also some very serious vices. The Socratic lecture on the need to go beyond the physical beauty he possesses, and learn to love the virtuous beauty to which he claims to aspire, is pointed given the history of his life that would have been known to Plato's audience.)

It's the mark of our later, Christian society to locate that kind of love/friendship chiefly in marriage. But our marriages look a lot like the kind of true, deep friendships Aristotle is talking about (including holding property in common). There I think you are right that there is something essential about the masculine/feminine division that allows for an even deeper union between souls.

Posted by: Grim at December 19, 2013 10:11 PM

Well, hell, that leaves me out. O>;~}

It's true that you are sometimes given to saying things that aren't strictly true... like just now. :)

Posted by: Grim at December 19, 2013 10:12 PM

Tristan and Isolde

Posted by: CAPT Mike at December 21, 2013 12:39 AM

That spelling is preferred in Ireland, of which she (the most important of the two Isoldes) is supposed to be a native; but the story is really French, so it is right in a way to prefer Cass' spelling. I share your preference, Mike, but she isn't wrong.

Posted by: Grim at December 21, 2013 12:44 AM

Tristram/Tristan, Isolde/Iseult, Marc/Mark.

There are many variants. I don't happen to have a preference. Iseult just happened to be the version I pulled up when I googled the bare sword story to be sure I wasn't misremembering it.

It's been a while, and I try to check things I post when there's time.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 21, 2013 08:59 PM

I think we've managed to raise a generation where many have not begun -- and may never -- grow up. These relationships do not strike me as being "friendship" in a healthy adult sense. Dependency seems to be the chief feature of these friendships. I'm not sure that any of what I think of as labels for friendship would fairly apply.


The passion corner of the triangle of love seems to strike without reason. Women I've known for a year or a decade or not at all -- Bzzt! -- there's desire (at least on my part.) Look at it, admit it (to myself, to her sometimes), and let it go. From conversations, some seem unable to do that (both male and female.) Seeing the damage they do to their relationships then ... perhaps that's why I can (at least so far) manage to let it go.


Some of the women friends I have might be considered "romantic" -- there's a romance there that might have been, and if the circumstances come about, might be explored. I don't want to hurt my wife, them, their husbands, or myself. I've seen too much of that, had my share of those pains already. Neither do they want that. Maybe we're really having very very slow, yet or never to be consummated, love affairs. It doesn't feel like that, though. "Girl friend", "next girl", and "lover-wanna-be" are feelings I had many times before committing to Marti, and these relationships don't feel like those, they're "close | intimate | dear friend, girl". There are other friendships with women that I'd classify as "friend, girl", which are probably platonic friendships.


Strange how the phrase "friend, boy" sounds so ... no.

Posted by: htom at December 22, 2013 03:41 AM

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