Can men and women ever be 'just friends'?
As the late Pope's relationship with a woman makes headlines, our reporter explores an age-old dilemma
Published 18/02/2016 | 07:00
Michael Bolton famously crooned "How can we be lovers if we can't be friends?" but surely the real question has to be can a man and women really be friends without being lovers?
Platonic friendship between the sexes is up there with Yetis, the Lough Ness Monster and healthy chocolate cake, in the great unanswered questions of our time and the debate wages on about whether it does or does not exist.
Certainly the celebs seem to think it's possible. The most popular celebrity BFF couple du jour has to be Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. While their onscreen romantic relationship sank in the icy depths of the Atlantic, the Titanic couple have gone on to be best buds for the last 20 years.
They goofed around at the recent Baftas where Leo hailed Kate as his "homegirl". She reckons he's her "closest friend in the world", and bar that moment when he painted her like one of his French girls, there's never been a whiff of attraction between them.
Other famous friends include Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt who reckons it's "just fun to have conversations with her and stuff," and finds rumours of anything else "awkward".
Katy Perry's relationship with Robert Pattinson sounds more frat house than infatuation. "I fart in front of him, properly fart," she told Elle magazine. "And I never, ever fart in front of a man I'm dating." In other interviews she's described herself as his big sister and stated a sense of pride in never having slept with him.
Most recently it's emerged that Pope John Paul II had an intense 30-year relationship with a married woman, American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
While there's no indication that the Pope, who was declared a saint two years ago, ever broke his celibacy vows, recently uncovered documents raise the suggestion that Ms Tymieniecka may have declared her love for him.
The Pope's letters also hint at an internal struggle over the relationship. He asserts that she is a "gift from God", writing "if I did not have this conviction, some moral certainty of Grace and of acting in obedience to it, I would not dare act like this."
Which begs the question, is there really any such thing as a wholly platonic relationship between members of the opposite sex or is there always some level of attraction that goes beyond 'just friends' even if no one acts on it?
I'll hold my hands up. In every major friendship I've had with a man there's been some level of attraction and, more often than not, a drunken kiss.
Sometimes I lived in hope that being their gal pal would eventually get me out of the friendzone and into their romantic affections (can't say this 'long game' tactic ever worked) other times I suspected they secretly fancied me and that was a nice ego boost.
But even if it burned away and a genuinely platonic relationship emerged, the frisson of attraction had always been there to begin with.
Screen examples tend to bear out the futility of male/female friendship. In the 2005 film Just Friends Ryan Reynolds ends up in a passionate kiss with his high school chum (sorry for the spoiler, but you'd 10 years to watch it). Friends' Monica and Richard's attempts at being racquetball buddies ended up in bed and My Best Friend's Wedding revealed the tricky love triangle between female friends and fiancées.
A few years ago researchers in the States looked into the issue of opposite sex friendships and found that in many cases, where the females interviewed reckoned their relationship was purely platonic, men were more likely to be attracted to their female friends, believe that their female friends found them attractive, and list 'romantic attraction' as a positive to the relationship.
Interestingly in the Katy Perry example, while she might think of him as a little brother, R-Patz has reportedly told his mates that he thinks she's 'so hot'.
"I secretly fancy loads of my female friends," confessed one chap I know, who refused to let me publish his name. "My problem is I've plenty of girl friends, not enough girlfriends. If they decided they'd like something more, I'd jump at the chance."
Andrew Trees is the author of Decoding Love, a non-fiction book that examines the latest research on love and human attraction. He reckons friendship just isn't men's default setting.
"Women are actually much better than men at being friends with the opposite sex," he explains. "Men are much more likely to interpret female friendliness as sexual attraction and they're twice as likely to be interested in their female friends as possible sexual partners."
Basically it comes down to biology - female=possible offspring.
Trees explains: "Because of the way evolution has shaped men to "spread their seed", they have been designed like a faulty alarm system, which goes off at the slightest warning - from an evolutionary standpoint, much better to suffer from false alarms than to miss an opportunity for a sexual encounter."
Or as When Harry Met Sally famously put it, "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way".
But best mates Rick Murphy (35) and Martina O'Neill (32) from Cork totally disagree. "One of us is married and the other is in a serious relationship so there's never been any notion of our friendship being anything more than a friendship," says Martina.
The pair have worked together in an IT department for two years and clicked as chums.
"We have a lot of laughs, chats and aren't afraid to compliment or take the mick out of each other," says Martina. "He's very straight talking and good to get level-headed advice from."
For Rick's part, he says their relationship is based on "friendly banter" and that they both know where they stand with each other.
"A good friendship relies on knowing when there are lines not to be crossed and being comfortable in your own relationship," agrees Martina.
Cork-based psychotherapist and counsellor Sally O'Reilly who also runs the advice website, Two Wise Chicks, agrees that it's completely possible for men and women to be friends, even if you do give their bottoms the occasional appreciative glance.
"We might look at our friend and idly wonder what sex would be like with them, but that doesn't mean we want to sleep with them, it doesn't even mean we're attracted to them!" she says.
"I think it's completely possible for men and women to have a 100pc platonic relationship, all it takes is for them to not fancy each other and want a relationship. It needed be any different to a friendship with a member of the same sex."
The fact that we tend to question friendships between men and women boils down to cultural issues.
"As a society we are becoming more and more sexualised," explains Sally.
"But we're also naturally curious and fun-loving creatures and when we see the potential for a story we love it. The idea that two people might just get on is deeply uninteresting, sometimes it's more titillating to invent an attraction!"