Can Men And Women Really Just Be Friends?

I am writing this while on holiday in France with a man I love, and the three 14-year-old sons we have between us. (I have one, he has two.) When we checked into our last Airbnb, the host had prepared four bedrooms for the five of us. When we asked for a fifth to be made up, she was baffled. We raise more eyebrows by not sleeping together than if we did.

I could have lied and said Gabriel is my brother. But we share our lives more closely than any brother and sister that I know; the depth of affection, and the focus on each other, is that of a love affair. So I didn’t think of that. And “friend” isn’t the word either. The best word I’ve found to describe Gabriel is my ally.

It’s been four years since we met – our sons joined the same football team – three-and-a-half since my long relationship with my son’s father ended, and about two-and-a-half since what I remember as the first “we”: we could go to the house of friends for New Year’s, Gabriel said. I’m not sure he noticed the “we” but i marked it: the assumption that we would celebrate holidays together. Since that time, we go out as a couple on a case-by-case basis: to dinner or to the movies.

We are two of a kind in the town where we live: we’re both writers, both have complex, bohemian backgrounds – the children of partly American parents brought up between the two continents – and share a broad cultural landscape. He has an academic’s mind and a fanciful imagination, and is one of the best-read people i’ve ever met; I’m a dilettante, full of random bits of information but far more literal-minded. We’re complementary: he generates something out of nothing; I organise, develop, embellish, polish.

Love without sex

Still, many people who know us find it hard to believe that we can be as close as we are and not be lovers. My family knows he’s my close friend and ally, and some of them are maybe a little baffled, but are happy I have someone in my life I can rely on.

So why aren’t we lovers? There are no moral or physical barriers in the way, and neither of us is gay. If I had been single when we met, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been long before we fell into bed. But I wasn’t, so friendship was all that was possible. If we changed the ground rules now, we’d have too much to lose.  

When you bring passion into play,, everything is more charged. The highs and higher, the lows are lower. What may have been mildly irritating in a friend can build into a deal-breaker because if you’re monogamous, a lover is always on trial. Is this The One?

You don’t have to break up with a friend in order to make a new friend, but a lover is either in or out – at least,for me. though I’ve stayed friends with some exes, I’ve never been able to make the
“friends with benefits” thing work. Probably my monogamy switch is set too high. I can’t help it. That’s the factory setting. 

I can be myself 

What Gabriel and I have feels rare and precious. It has to be protected. We value and trust each other. Best of all, we feel seen, each by the other. Instead of feeling the old strain of wanting to look good in a lover’s eyes, with him i am entirely myself. We bring out each other’s best selves.

He sees me as valorous (his word); I find in him a moral clarity that shows me true north. It’s like having a strongly rooted tree nearby that i can hold onto when things get stormy – or I can breathe out and feel him steady behind me. He gives me shade. I enjoy the way his thoughts, like leaves, play in the breeze. 

He brings me firewood unasked, and cuts the grass around my house. I lend him my car when his breaks down. We live barely half a mile apart, and we go in and out of each other’s houses unannounced; we speak on the phone several times a day. 

He kisses my forehead when I’m worrying about something; now and then we even hold hands. We have shared dreams for the future; we feel like we’re in this together. But we’re both at an age where we’re not looking for a mate;
hormones aren’t driving us to reproduce. Stability is what we want from each other, not excitement. We’re playing the long game.

Gabriel is a handsome man: he’s tall and slim, with dark hair and green eyes. I based the character of Micajah in my new novel, Say My Name, on him, a love story between a woman nearing 50 -as I was when I wrote it – and a much younger man. Micajah is how I imagine Gabriel would have been at 28. The novel is intimate and explicit – but it’s not about Gabriel and me.

In fact, I doubt I could have written it if i’d been in the throes of a love affair myself. Being in love suffuses your consciousness. It hijacks your thoughts and your energy.

What’s unusual about our alliance is not its quality, but simply that we’re open about it. One friend, who has always made a speciality of falling passionately in love, confessed to me that her current, happy relationship is more about affection and comfort and shared living than it is about sexual passion – in other words, that it’s like the one I have with Gabriel.

Another, who shared a house with a man before ending up sleeping with him, told me she thought it was social pressure that sent them to bed.

Sex permeates our culture so completely that it’s almost shameful to confess that it’s not always that important. Sex is something we’re supposed to do well, with imagination,energy, and flair. It’s beset with expectations. And expectations are the root of is appointment. 

Romantic ally 

Don’t get me wrong; this is not an argument against having sex. I certainly don’t intend to be celibate for the rest of my life. But I’m coming to believe that splitting the roles of sexual partner and ally might be a really good idea.

Sexual interest tends to wear off with time, and your eye starts roving. But true allies are hard to find. I’ve lost count of the newly divorced women i’ve overheard in coffee shops, exulting about how wonderful it is to be single.

Studies show that men past middle age have better health and longer life expectancy if they’re married; for women, it’s the opposite. I told Gabriel this, and he laughed hard: that shows, he said, that the men are sucking like parasites on the lifeblood of the women.

One of the things I love about him is that he is instinctively a feminist. We’ve talked about what might happen if Gabriel or I hooked up with a lover. It’s a possibility, and of course it would be a tricky adjustment. We’re humans, not angels. But what I know is that there would be a ground of understanding between us that our alliance would survive. 

What does Gabriel think? 

There was a slow inevitability to my friendship with Allegra. In 1964, before she was born,
I went on “baby dates” with her brother Danny.

In 2003, I found myself in Taos,New Mexico, a father to newborn twins. Allegra’s infant was eight months older. Two fields away from where my sons ate their first solid food, her house was going up.

In 2013, after three moves, the blind man’s bluff of chance landed me across the field from her in the opposite direction. It was as though happenstance were bracketing like an artillery piece to introduce us.

Our 10-year-olds played for the same football team, and I became aware of the London transplant who – like me – had led a nomadic life, and now lived with her family just across the road.

At the very outset of our friendship came another delay: the fireworks of her splintering “marriage” caused me to regretfully take my distance for a time.

When we resumed our acquaintance both as friends and as collaborators, I really had to remind myself that she had not always been there. It was, and remains, as though a close family member reappeared – a touchstone of identity. It seems implausible today that we were not always friends. 

If you loved reading this story check out the rest of the Woman & Home magazine. This month’s copy is on sale now. Pick it up at all major supermarkets and good local stores.  

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