It started when I was 24, over dinner in the Meatpacking District near the club he owned. “I love you,” he said, “but I promised I would never have kids with anyone but her.” It was so ludicrous, and he was so French, so ce n’est pas ma faute, there was nothing I could do but wish him well. We parted as friends. When she arrived from Paris, he suggested we become friends, that she practice her English, that I show her around town, which never happened. And then a few months later, after they were officially engaged, he suggested something else:
“What would you think about being my mistress?”
This was my first inkling that staying friends with men after they’d gotten married would not be as simple as I had hoped.
That turned out to be relatively easy to resolve, after a little academic questioning about whether this was actual French relationship policy. I said no, he said he understood, he hoped I’d change my mind, and I never did, committing to the inevitable drifting apart. But even the friendships that didn’t peak with a proposal of philandering have been inevitably, painfully complicated by marriage: not mine, but theirs.
On the question of “Can men and women really be friends?” I’ve always come down squarely in the middle of Harry and Sally. The sex part gets in the way, unless you resolve the sex part, in which case friendship is more than possible. And whether it’s a confirmed mutual lack of attraction, or an attraction that has sparked and then fizzled out, resolution is definitely possible. My male friendships have been a particular joy in my life, different from my female friendships, but valuable, delightful, and joyful in their simplicity and ease, surprising in their occasional depth when jobs were lost or bad dates shattered my confidence. But then, they arrived:
A few at a time, then several at once: great first dates, college friends, coworkers, turned into girlfriends and fiancées. For the most part, the bumps were few, but awkward: my spare bedroom deemed an inappropriate sublet for a guy I’d been friends with for six years because of the three months we’d dated, dinners canceled as his schedule is packed with events for two, and worst of all, the drinks dates full of mournful looks and expressions of fear and uncertainty about his relationship’s future, generally followed within three months by a proposal announcement. I’ve gotten better, with time, about recognizing these before they happen, because sometimes, people really aren’t your friends after all.
Some of this is the classic single girl’s lament: it’s not just tax benefits you lose by failing to couple off. There’s a certain safety, a seal of social approval that’s incurred upon you when you’re part of a couple. You can be couple friends, if that’s the only way to see your friend, while your significant others make polite small talk and get to know each other with time. And like any woman, I understand the fear of the ex-girlfriend, the other woman. I feel the same way that you do about my boyfriends, despite my feminist heart. I hear that little voice that says, “Sure, it’s up to him to stray…but SHE doesn’t have to make it easy for him.” We worry that if they crossed that line once, it’s easier to cross it again, even though the opposite is just as true: once we’ve tried it and decided we’re over it, why would we go there again? Your man has no sexy mystery left for someone who’s already said goodbye; best you worry about someone who doesn’t know how annoying he can be. And even when there’s no romantic history there, there’s always that lingering question: what does she have that I don’t? Or rather, what does he get from her that he doesn’t get from me?
The answer, ladies, is as banal as what your guy gets from all his friends. We play a sport together that you don’t play, or we go see weird movies together that you don’t want to see anyway, or we simply talk shit endlessly about people we’ve known for years while simultaneously loving them with a fierceness you don’t feel for them (because honestly, they are kind of lame). And it’s this that I miss the most. Whether they’re old friends or just great friends, we only get so many of them in life, and you’ve just taken one of mine somewhere I can’t always follow.
So why should you care? Because what I do that his male friends don’t (or at least, I do it better) is KEEP him in your relationship. Whether he’s flirting or panicking or simply in the mood to geek out, the female friend is the safety valve you didn’t know your relationship had. Because I am a safe space: I will not touch him, I will not encourage him to do anything stupid, and I will send him right home after we’re done talking about the same stupid things we always talk about because I have a date to meet afterward. Because I know you make him happy, and I want to see him happy—because I love him, too.