The Raphael Remedy

When Harry Met Ally: The Benefits of Having Friends Without Benefits

by | Feb 10, 2016 | Relationships

Age old debate: Can men and women be friends and not wind up in bed together? Will men only befriend women to whom they are attracted with the hopes of a romantic or sexual relationship? This was the big question is the classic comedy When Harry Met Sally. Harry, attracted to Sally, asserted that men and women can’t be friends and will always wind up in bed together. Sally disagreed.

Over time Harry and Sally develop a true friendship – no sex. They become really good friends. Eventually they wind up in bed together. Hmmm….

So, was Harry right? Well, actually, yes and no. He was attracted to Sally. But they did become true friends. They eventually did wind up in bed…which nearly tore them apart. After plenty of angst they get married…and live happily ever after we can safely assume. Now the reason I say we can safely assume they live happily ever after is because of the fact that their romance grew out of their genuine friendship, the best foundation for a lasting marriage. But of course it was just a movie…

In our consumeristic culture, it’s easy to be a consumer of the opposite sex. Now I’m sure what immediately jumps to mind when I say that are people who are only looking for sexual relationships and just use others. Sadly, that’s common. But I think it can happen for the marriage minded as well. You have an agenda – marriage and you relentlessly seek a mate to fulfill that goal and toss aside those that don’t fit the job description. Now there’s nothing wrong with that goal and perseverance toward it but too often people miss golden opportunities along the way to develop real friendships.

I was single for a long time…a very long time. Not by choice but because God had other things for me to do before he blessed me with a husband. Being single is not easy in this world that is pretty much geared toward couples and families. It’s especially challenging for a Catholic serious about his or her faith. It’s lonely and there are a LOT of people in that boat these days.

One of the saving graces for me during my long sentence in sing-singleness was having male friends. My first best friend was Brian who I met in high school. He was like the brother I never had and I was like the sister he didn’t have. I had a boyfriend. He had girlfriends. But, our friendship was the rock that got me through my teens and all the angst of dating and heartbreaks.

I developed quite a collection of male friends over the years. Names started to repeat themselves – two Bobs, two Pauls, two Mikes. Some even started as blind dates. They gave me perspective, like the brothers I never had and always wanted. They were there for me during tough times, helped me move, accompanied me to weddings and parties, and I did the same for them. There’s something so free about having an opposite sex companion to whom you are not attracted – no worries, no masks to wear. You can just be yourself and comfortable in your own skin.

Personally I think not having opposite sex friends may actually compromise your chances for a successful marriage later on unless you’re blessed to have healthy relationships with opposite sex siblings and cousins that fill in that gap. I had no brothers and my male cousins were at least a decade older than me so having male friends was a saving grace.

Many people can’t conceive of a man and a woman being friends with no sexual or romantic component. Instead we hear about having “friends with benefits” these days. For those not familiar with this: it is people who claim to be only friends but also have a sexual relationship with no strings, no commitments, and for many, no conscience; yet another pyrrhic victory of feminism, in my humble opinion. (We’ve come such a long way…)

I had heard the term bandied about but I’ll never forget the first time someone told me she was in such a relationship. I hadn’t seen Melanie in a long time when I ran into her. A beautiful blonde in her late 30’s, perhaps early 40’s by then. She wanted to get married some day but when I inquired if there was anyone new in her life she feebly smiled, nervously giggled and said “yes…well, you know, we’re friends with benefits.” After her previous commitment-less relationship with a selfish guy with a truckload of issues, I felt so sad that she’d once again settled for something that her sad smile admitted she knew would never lead to happiness for her. Friends with benefits ultimately offer no real benefits at all, especially for a woman who in her heart wants some day to marry.

So somewhere between the two extremes of casting aside any and everyone who is not marriage material and giving yourself away sexually to keep from being alone, most people would do well to consider the tremendous benefits of having friends without benefits.

Now let’s be clear. Sometimes it’s not possible to be “just friends.” If one has romantic feelings and the other doesn’t it is often best to go your separate ways. You don’t want to lead someone on with the hopes that something may eventually develop. Sure sometimes it does, but too much time can be wasted on that gamble and taking advantage of a situation when you know someone’s heart can get broken is selfish.

But frequently two people are mutually unimpressed with each other romantically but can see good in the other. In those cases it’s smart to invest in developing a friendship.

Having friends of the opposite sex has several advantages:

1. Companionship

Now this one seems the most obvious. Rather than being home alone dreaming of the right one, get out and enjoy the friends and blessings you do have.

2. Demystifies the opposite sex

Let’s face it, the popularity of books like Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus has some basis in truth. For so many of us, the opposite sex is confusing. That’s part of the attraction but can also be a huge source of exasperation. Men and women are simply different, notwithstanding 40 or so years of social indoctrination to the contrary. We think and react differently to stuff. This amusing story of Roger and Elaine says it so well.

Getting to know someone of the opposite sex and listening to their ideas and thoughts and heart felt desires gives us some important perspective to be applied when eventually we date someone we are attracted to. When you do meet someone special, especially at the beginning phase of a relationship, having someone of the opposite sex to bounce things off of can be really helpful. It’s also great to have backup plans to avoid falling into the pitiable trap of waiting for the phone to ring and accepting last minute dates.

3. Balance

Opposite sex friends can give us some balance. It’s always amusing to listen to a bunch of women talk about men or vice versa. They often don’t have a clue…but think they do. Balancing your same sex friends’ opinions with opposite sex friends’ opinions can reduce the angst in your relationships. It also helps you to be more sympathetic to the stressors and issues they face and not be so focused on your own needs and agenda.

4. Builds a great foundation for future romantic relationships

Building a friendship with someone is no different than building a friendship with a future spouse. The same steps apply:
• Getting to know them.
• Learning to listen to see what’s important to them.
• Sharing activities.
• Revealing more about oneself gradually.
• Sharing secrets and sorrows.
• Sharing dreams and goals.

When we meet someone we’re very attracted to, it can be tempting to reveal it all at once, to jump in bed to solidify the bond, to hide the secrets and sorrows and just put your best face forward in the hopes of sealing the deal. If our only experience of the opposite sex is romantic, often we don’t even think about developing a friendship. Developing friends to whom you are not attracted is great training for developing a friendship with “the one.”

5. Keeps “romance” in its place

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on romance. It’s wonderful and certainly has its place. But it’s often highly overrated. It’s so easy to get enamored with the knight in shining armor who sweeps you off your feet, or the guy who sends obscenely large floral displays to win your heart, but that fades quickly once you start living real life. For the long haul, romance is a shaky foundation. It’s the icing. Friendship is the cake.

When you have best friends of the opposite sex, it helps you to know what a secure foundation is in a relationship. When you meet a “consumer” on a mission to marry, you’ll be more likely to weed out those who either can’t be bothered being a true friend or don’t know how to be. The great Disney film Enchanted comes to mind. Cast out of a fairy tale into the real world, Giselle learns there’s more to marriage than most storybooks lead us to believe. Real friends can help ground us.

Now those are some of the perks…but of course, there are some critical caveats to keep in mind.

Watch for my next post when I’ll discuss when to pursue an opposite sex friendship, when not to, and how to keep it healthy.

Allison Ricciardi, LMHC
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