A few years ago, as 2007 was coming to an end, I had a revelation of sorts. A male friend was visiting from out of town, and though he and my husband are also good friends, we had the opportunity to spend a little time alone together, just the two of us, talking and catching up. And it was while hanging out with him that I was reminded how important his friendship had been to me over the years, and how important it is to cultivate and nurture friendships with members of the opposite sex. But as you get older, this is not so easily done.
As one half of a happily married couple, my socializing consists mostly of hanging out with other couples, or breaking into gender-determined groupings: the men go out and partake in some sort of male-bonding activity, and the women, at least in my circle of friends, tend to stay in and make dinner. Sure, there are some among us who have been fortunate enough to carry old male/female friendships forward from earlier days, or who have been able to forge new relationships in situations where the boundaries are already clearly-defined, such as those that develop in the workplace or in a creative collaboration. But things can get a little tense when one partner in a committed relationship decides to seek out a new friendship with someone of the opposite sex. For no matter how innocent the intentions, there are manifold opportunities for misread signals, miscommunication and jealousy.
And so, on the eve of 2008, I put forward a kind of new year’s proposition, that as a group of friends, we spend the next twelve months collectively engaged in an experiment of cross-gender, cross-couple platonic dating: I hang out with your partner, and you hang out with mine. It seemed a perfect solution to the problem, for here, as in the workplace, all the boundaries would be clearly drawn and so there would be no opportunity for jealousy or weirdness. Yet, when I tried to sell my idea to the various men in the crowd, it was met with a mixture of curiosity and what can only be described as terror. When I asked one of them to explain just exactly what he found so frightening about the concept, he looked into his crystal ball – which in truth, was actually just a beer bottle – and laid out a future scenario as he feared it:
We would go out, he and I. And since we don’t know each other very well, it would be awkward. And so we would order some drinks. Once the alcohol kicked in, the situation would become more comfortable, and we would start talking. Realizing that we were enjoying ourselves, we would order some more drinks. And this is where things would start to go wrong. Feeling that we were sharing a bonding moment, I would start asking the hard questions, which would inevitably lead to tears on his part, followed by embarrassment. Just what those hard questions would be, he did not specify. But it was clear from the expression on his face that I was never going to convince him to go on a platonic date with me.
He’s not the only one to raise concerns.
On a website for Islamic teenagers, a young man has written asking if he can go on a date with a young lady friend if they avoid engaging in any inappropriate activities: a platonic date, if you will. The answer is an emphatic no. For dating – which the site describes as a “non-chaperoned encounter, often in an enclosed space” – creates situations in which physical contact, however innocent, is likely to occur. This contact may inflame the passions, making the platonic varietal a very risky proposition, indeed. Wikipedia also raises alarms, arguing that dating is, by definition, “a form of courtship… undertaken by, typically, two persons with the aim of each assessing the other’s suitability as a partner in an intimate relationship or as a spouse.” If we take these views to heart, then are we not forced to acknowledge that platonic dating – in addition to being undesirable and/or unwise – is actually semantically impossible?
The obvious solution to this conundrum is to simply find a new name for this particular form of friendship-building encounter, yet time and time again, the aforementioned date is revealed as the only suitable choice. To support my thesis, I offer this scenario for reflection:
A few months ago, a male friend who happens to be quite happily involved, went out for beers with a female acquaintance. The impetus for the encounter was business, and for the first hour or two, this was indeed the focus of the meeting. But then something happened: professional matters aside, and with every good reason to go home and spend the remainder of the evening with their respective spouses for it was only 8:00, the two decided to order another round. Now at this point, you might be uttering a mighty whatevs, but let me continue. Third beers finished, the two were faced with another decisive moment. Glancing at their watches and making the mental calculations necessary to form a response, they decided to extend their evening once again. But this time, they took things to another level. They changed locations.
At this point in the telling it became clear that this male friend was starting to feel a bit defensive, the reason for which was immediately clear to me:
2 people + 8 beers + change of location = date
Yes, what he was finally allowing himself to acknowledge and seemed terrified to say out loud was the fact that he had been on a date with someone female who was not his girlfriend. That this date was platonic seemed beside the point, and did little to lessen the sneaking feeling that he had maybe done something wrong. This despite the fact that he was deeply in love with said girlfriend and fully, even eternally, committed to the relationship. My final question put the proverbial nail in the old coffin. “When did you get home,” I asked. His response was muffled to the point of inaudibility. “Three. In the Morning.”
But then we talked further. Was said girlfriend upset? No. Should she have been? No. Was any harm done by spending the evening on a platonic date? No. Would she be okay if you did it again next week? Difficult to say. Would you be okay if she went on a platonic date? Theoretically… yes. Theoretically? Yes.
And so I submit the following for your consideration: there is nothing wrong with platonic dating as long as everybody involved is clear on the parameters. For some, these parameters may be very broadly drawn, for others, there may be a little less wiggle room. But for those with a desire to expand their circle of friends, platonic dating may be a perfectly benign and delightful option. And if you are in that camp, but uncertain as to how best to proceed, may I suggest a task-based approach.
For details: platonic dating: practical solutions.