Can we just be friends?

Despite the complexities, some singles manage to make long-term platonic relationships work.

At the recent Grammy Awards show, actor Matthew Perry told the audience how he relished saying the words "Britney and I" as he and the teen pop star presented the first award of the evening. "Actually, Matthew," she said with a nervous giggle, "I've always just thought of you as a friend." Acting flustered, he looked away and grumbled, "Well, that was awkward."

Of course, their words were scripted and their facial expressions rehearsed. But, for many people, famous or not, their sentiments couldn't be more real.

Can men and women be "just friends" - or will one person always feel more romantically inclined toward the other, making interaction awkward for both parties?

Society has long been fascinated with this question, to which almost everyone claims to have an answer. Or at least an opinion. As with most matters of the heart, there are no black-and-white answers. After a vehement "Yes, of course, men and women can be just friends," or a definite "No way!" a "but...," an "only if...," or an "as long as..." often follows.

Common qualifiers range from "It can work, but they have to set boundaries and stick to them" to "It's possible, but difficult, especially if they've already been a couple."

Friendship or romance

The 1989 film "When Harry Met Sally" thrust this topic into the pop-culture spotlight.

While on a postgraduation drive from Chicago to New York, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) engage in a lively debate about this issue. Each character fits the gender stereotype one might expect: Sally says yes, it's indeed possible to be just friends, while Harry insists "the sex part always gets in the way."

Over the years that follow, Harry and Sally fall in and out of love with a number of different people, all the while maintaining their strictly platonic friendship. But eventually, they do ramp up their friendship to a romance.

So, in a sense, both characters were right - again proving the muddiness of this issue.

Since then, the hit TV show "Friends" has also kept the issue alive and well.

Neither Harry and Sally nor Rachel, Joey, and the rest of the gang draw conclusions - but they certainly provoke a lot of off-screen discussion. Provoking discussion is just what Leslie Parrott and her husband, Les, strive for in "Relationships 101," the wildly popular course they teach at Seattle Pacific University.

"We've thought long and hard about this issue," she says. "We've listened to many people's stories and read all the research. And we have concluded that yes, it is possible for these friendships to work." But, she adds, "It requires a maturity and a willingness to stretch and grow in ways you don't have to with same-sex friendships."

If people are willing to make the effort, she adds, the benefits can be tremendous. "Men typically talk about how they share an intimacy with women friends that they don't get elsewhere, and women talk about a sense of playfulness and rough, joking camaraderie they don't share with same-sex friends."

Friendships have benefits

Longtime friends Peter Shankman and Kristin Kulba can certainly vouch for this. They met at a freshman orientation event at Boston University almost 12 years ago, when each of their parents nudged them to strike up conversation with the other. They hit it off and have been best buddies ever since. Both work in New York, and although they see each other just once every few months, they talk and e-mail often.

"He brings out a silly side of me," says Ms. Kulba, a vice president at Grey Advertising in New York, who also moonlights as a professional singer. "We play pinball and do Monty Python silly walks.... He has great energy, thinks outside the box, and has taught me so much - like how not to be easily embarrassed."

So isn't the best foundation for a romantic relationship a solid friendship like theirs? "I won't risk getting involved with him in that way," she says. "It's such a strong friendship, I wouldn't want to lose it."

Talking with Mr. Shankman, one senses that at some point, he might have wanted less of a brother-sister relationship with Kulba, but he's had to let go of that.

"Early on, I got the message she only wanted to be friends," he says. "Some things are just better left undone. I've never pushed. I have had the privilege of being her friend all these years, and that's been incredibly special."

Despite any wistfulness, Shankman has always tried to offer Kulba a guy's perspective on dating - something that he chuckles could become a full-time job. "She's had so many boyfriends," he says. "I try to give her honest advice, but sometimes I just start counting the hairs my cat is shedding."

The women Shankman dates are often quite curious about his friendship with Kulba. "I am seeing someone now, and I've realized that no matter how comfortable a relationship feels, [his current girlfriend] still wonders what's going on."

After Sept. 11 (and before his girlfriend came into the picture), Shankman hosted what he calls a "thank-God-we're-all-still-alive" party for 20 New York friends. Even though he knew Kulba was fine, he was more pleased to see her than anyone else. "I gave her the longest hug," he recalls.

Of that moment, she says: "I got really choked up."

Speaking of 9/11, the events of that day have had a profound effect on the quality of many friendships. "People seem to value friendships now more than ever," says Ms. Parrott. "We don't take friends for granted. Even before Sept. 11, friendships were taking on greater meaning. When people live at such a fast pace, they treasure those rare friendships that are long-lasting."

Friendship to 'a sure thing'

In many cases, of course, friendships blossom into romance.

Take Sabine Gounder and Aren Sandersen, for instance. The two met five years ago at Stanford University in California. They were instantly attracted to one another, but Ms. Gounder insisted that they take time to cultivate a solid friendship before getting involved.

"Often people rush into a relationship, and then realize it's not going to work out," she says. "I wanted to get to know him really well first so it would be a sure thing."

After about a year of just hanging out as friends, Gounder told Mr. Sandersen she was ready to date him. That was three years ago, and they have been a couple ever since. He is now working as a software engineer, and she's attending graduate school.

When in college, socializing in mixed-gender groups is much more common than dating, so it's natural for relationships to progress that way, says Gounder.

She and Sandersen rent a Palo Alto home with six friends, four of whom have coupled off. One of those couples is engaged to be married in July.

"Kim and Ben's engagement has sparked a lot of discussion among us," says Gounder. "It's exciting."

Their landlord, Rob Levitsky, gets a kick out of the real-life "Friends" scenes being played out in his many rental homes in the Palo Alto area.

And he, too, chimes in with an opinion on the topic: "As for men and women being friends, it does happen once everyone is clued in to and plays by the social boundaries that are set up," he says. "The challenge is always in trying to understand these invisible and ever-changing boundaries."

Since all the pairing off at Gounder and Sandersen's home, these boundaries are more clearly defined, and the group dynamic feels even more relaxed, says Sabine.

This is perhaps why married couples typically tend to socialize with other married couples. They all know where things stand, and no rules or boundaries need to be discussed.

Where the situation can get tricky is if a married person stays close to a friend of the opposite sex who is single - and the spouse feels threatened.

"Make sure your friendship is totally inclusive of your spouse, since that is your most important commitment," says Parrott. "If not, back off of the friendship. If the friend really cares about you, he or she will support that."

In some cases, however, backing off a friendship when a significant other objects may not make sense.

For Linda and Tim Corbin, who divorced nine years ago after a 17-year marriage, it's important for their two children that they maintain the caring friendship that has developed since their split. And it's grown increasingly important to them as well. So if either of them dates someone who is bothered by their friendship, they have to work hard to protect it.

For Linda Corbin, this means first assuring any potential partner that her ex-husband is not a threat, and then stating that her top priorities are 1) her children, and 2) her friendship with her ex. "If they can't accept that," she insists, "the relationship won't go far."

"It can be difficult with new relationships," Mr. Corbin admits. "Our friendship is so unusual that girlfriends often question it."

The Corbins enjoy a friendly rapport that enables them to sit at the same table at parties and swap advice on everything from car troubles to job changes.

"Our friends kind of marvel at us," says Ms. Corbin. "And our children have certainly responded well. In a perfect world, I wish we could have stayed married, but we have made the best of the situation."

If they hadn't had children during their marriage, would the Corbins still be friends?"It's hard in general to say if two people can remain friends after a breakup," says Linda. "I'm sure we'd be civil, but probably not close since the kids are our tie."

Professor Parrott recommends friendship after a split only if both individuals are committed to other people. "Otherwise, the chance of one person auditioning for the role of girlfriend or boyfriend is high," she says. "Once people have moved on, achieved a certain level of independence from one another, and are feeling healthy and whole, that's when it can work - and greatly enhance your life."

What the gurus say

If feelings aren't mutual, the best thing a true friend can say is: 'We need to see less of each other. I don't want to mislead you. I care about you and want you to find somebody with whom you can have a relationship.' "

- Dr. Gilda Carle, author of relationship books for teens

In college, especially, male-female friendships are important. You are starting to solidify yourself. Guys and girls can help each other navigate their way through romantic relationships.

"As Rory Koslow, a sophomore at Wesleyan University, told our magazine in a recent interview, 'The friendship question really comes down to whether both the guy and girl are mature enough to respect the boundaries of their friendship. If so, yes, they can be friends. If not, the line between friendship and romance will be blurry.' "

- Susan Schultz, deputy editor of CosmoGIRL!

Male friends add richness to a woman's life. They provide the male perspective in understanding dating dynamics. Friends allow you to be yourself instead of turning you into a renovation project."

- Karla Erovick, author of 'Love to Date - Date to Love: Unlocking the Secrets of Dating'

Many men and women find platonic relationships with one another a relief because they are not there to court or impress the other."

- Dr. Helen Stein, relationship counselor

There are two types of friends: friends of the heart and friends of the road. Those of the heart are lasting ones; friends of the road are important for a certain time and stage of your life, but may fall by the wayside. Cross-gender friendships are often those of the road because other commitments come first, and people don't make decisions that allow that friendship to be central to their lives."

- Leslie Parrott, who teaches 'Relationships 101' at Seattle Pacific University

Even Harry and Sally didn't have the answers

Harry: Would you like to have dinner? ... Just friends.

Sally: I thought you didn't believe men and women could be friends.

Harry: When did I say that?

Sally: On the ride to New York.

Harry: No, no, no. I never said that. Yes, that's right, they can't be friends. Unless both of them are involved with other people, then they can. This is an amendment to the earlier rule. If the two people are in relationships, the pressure of possible involvement is lifted. That doesn't work either, because what happens then is, the person you're involved with can't understand why you need to be friends with the person you're just friends with. Like, it means something is missing from the relationship and why do you have to go outside to get it? And when you say "No, no, no, it's not true, nothing is missing from the relationship," the person you're involved with then accuses you of being secretly attracted to the person you're just friends with, which you probably are ... let's face it. Which brings us back to the earlier rule before the amendment, which is men and women can't be friends.

- From the movie 'When Harry Met Sally'

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