Can Men and Women Be Friends? Definitely Yes
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Relationships

Why Men Friends Can Be Just as Fabulous as Girlfriends

How relationships change after you hit 50.

male hand and female hand fist bump
Joshua Dickinsion

One of my first post-divorce acts of freedom involved asking a friend from high school to join me on a three-day work junket to Alaska. A male friend. A married male friend.

Driving along Alaska’s windy roads, we blasted country music, talked endlessly about my failed union, indulged our gum-a-holic habit and marveled at the state’s absurdly spectacular glaciers, moose and eagles. Every night, we retired to our separate hotel rooms. I felt free, safe, hopeful about my future and loved for exactly who I was — emotions I had long forgotten. I’ve always been grateful to him for joining me and for his wife for understanding why we both needed the trip.

Over my 55 years of life, I’ve accumulated about six close male friends from elementary school, high school, college and work life. These men watched, from afar, as I tackled two very traditional, extremely unhappy marriages. The type of submissive relationships where I never even asked my husband whether I could go on a trip with a male friend. I was trying, desperately in hindsight, to be the perfect wife, rather than simply myself.

I believed our societal messages that husbands feel threatened or less masculine if their wives have close male friends. I actually don’t know for sure if my husbands would have minded these friendships because I never even tried to spend time alone with these men, except for a few phone calls a year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, matrimony eventually felt like a jail cell, despite my efforts and love of parenthood.

My marriages to men both ended. My male friendships survived. Not one of my male friends ever asked me to give up anything or change who I was. Perhaps there was a relationship truth hidden in this conundrum.

At midlife, I was determined to design a more practical relationship model. My goal was to achieve enduring happiness, whether I was alone or coupled up. I was determined to be exactly who I was in front of my kids, my friends and any potential romantic partners. I abandoned the concept that “a good wife does XYZ.”

This chucking of perfectionism applied to many things. I gave up all my fancy, but pathetically underutilized cookbooks, for instance. Why on earth had I thought that distancing myself from my male compatriots would make me a better wife?

I make it clear to men I date now that I’m not giving up male friends. Dating me includes accepting — and valuing — these friendships. If a boyfriend doesn’t like it, or can’t accept it, that’s a deal breaker for me. I’d rather get that straight before we move in, comingle finances and get close to each other’s spawn. Better for him, too. I couldn’t love a man who wanted me to hide or dump my male friends.

Male friendships have been among the richest, most comforting relationships I’ve had. Stay at home dad JJ helps with parenting. Phil curated my first TED Talk. Jim advises me on work conundrums. Pat is a skilled negotiator. Matt gets me to laugh when I want to cry. Sometimes the stark male-female differences between us enable the most priceless connections. They’ve made me and my other relationships stronger, not weaker. Sure, at times I’ve felt a fleeting attraction or awkwardness in these relationships. Nothing I couldn’t handle or let go of. My life would be a paler version of itself if I sacrificed these friends. Why is it that our society, many of our religious teachings, our cultural strictures outlaw or discourage friendships between men and women? The obvious reason — sex — strikes me as absurd at this stage of life. We’re mature adults practiced in controlling our impulses. (Plus, more sex is the last thing most married women I know want.)

Perhaps a perk of passing our 50th birthdays should be a loosening of the old, outdated “rules” that close male-female friendships are verboten if one or both friends are married to other people. Maybe we should come up with a whole new set of guidelines for people over 50, reflecting our wisdom, self-possession and life experience.

I’m now in a committed relationship with a divorced man my age who also has three kids. I’ve known him for 15 years. We trust each other. I recently spent five days touring the Southwest with another male friend, my bestie from business school, whom I’ve known for 30 years. I rarely had cell service or private time; I was focused on being in the moment with my dear friend. BF and I talked for hours. We quibbled over whether I closed the car door too hard. We ate Thai food and ran through pink desert sands laughing at each other. My partner was OK with all of that because he’s secure in himself and the fact that I’m coming home to him.

The mistake of jettisoning male friends in my quest to be the “perfect wife” left me a gift of clarity: I realized it’s a codependent trap to try to be who you think your partner wants you to be, instead of who you really are. I’m loyal and faithful. To my close male friends too! It’s one of my best qualities. And I don’t kick any friends — male or female — to the curb just because I’m sharing a bed, or a lifetime, with someone else.

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