Throughout our lives, many of us have pondered the age-old question, “Can two people who are physically attracted to each other be just friends?” Often, there is a presumptuous undertone, “No”.
Admittedly, this presumption concerns me:
- Firstly, this question is commonly posed in the form of “Can a guy and a girl be just friends?”, which is blindly hetero-normative and ignorant of the fluidity of sexual orientation.
- Secondly, it perpetuates a myopic fallacy that attraction is a black-and-white binary, rather than a spectrum.
- Thirdly, it tends to narrow the focus to the presence of feelings of attractions rather than the skill with which we relate to our feelings.
I absolutely believe two friends who are physically attracted to each other can engage in an intimate connection without sexual intimacy. Attraction does not invalidate friendship – lack of self-knowledge and unskillful ways of relating to desires/fears are what unravel relationships.
It is tempting to associate physical attraction with sexual desires, but this is just one section of a broad spectrum. While the ends of the spectrum represent complete absence of physical attraction and repeated desire for genital stimulation, there are various grades of attraction between. Some can be fulfilled by flirting and verbal copulation, others by reassuring hugs and touches, others by (non-genital) lip service (as my dear friend “Brie” avers, “Just because I want to make out with you doesn’t mean I want to make out with your vagina”).
If not for the domesticating (and sadly, punitive) effects of social constructions, I strongly suspect more people would acknowledge and embrace the fluidity of physical attraction. It doesn’t have be exclusive to one presentation of gender (even Louis C.K. has admitted an undeniable attraction to Ewan McGregor), and attraction doesn’t mandate desire for copulation. One can be attracted, in varying degrees, to friends/acquaintances, even if one has never harbored hopes to “hook up” with them.
While positions on the spectrum can change over time (e.g., enhanced or dulled by other types of attraction – intellectual, spiritual, emotional), the spectrum itself does not mandate a progression. Just because one enjoys flirtatious banter and reassuring touches from another does not necessitate continued progression into a more physically-oriented realm.
There is a tendency to lump friends/acquaintances/strangers into “not attracted to” and. “attracted to” categories, with the addendum “and would hook up with” attached to the latter. When we superimpose such a black and white framework onto a diversely-colored reality, many connections may be corrupted – e.g.:
- In the case when one or both parties are romantically exclusive with others, a mutually-salubrious connection may be truncated on the unfounded basis that the presence of attraction is antithetical to the integrity of commitments.
- In the case when both parties are available and actively searching for romantic interludes, parties may default to force-bending a relationship with flirtatious dynamics into a relationship with continued copulation, which may not be the optimal dynamic.
Just as not every sexual urge should be acted upon, not every modicum of physical attraction should be mistaken for sexual potential or compatibility.
Of course, there are many cases where the presence of physical attraction does lead to sexually intimate acts, which can cause great intrapersonal and interpersonal suffering if one or both parties have pledged monogamy. But here, I would argue that debacles are induced not so much by the desires themselves but the lack of skill with which people navigate desires.
Of course, learning to relate skillfully to sexual urges is not without effort. Even the Buddha recognized:
Sexual energy [is] perhaps the most difficult to relate to skillfully [due to] our attachment to pleasure” (Noah Levine)
(If it really came down to it, I would follow in Buddha’s celibate footsteps. Nothing gets in the way between me and zen.)
That being said, just as we have trained ourselves to adopt physical habits of looking both ways before crossing the street, we can train ourselves to build healthier mental habits of relating to our thoughts.
Recognizing that our physical attraction spectrum can be quite broad does not mean that we will somehow be more susceptible to impulsive temptations – in fact, it may help us better understand and regulate. Studies show that those who claim they are most immune to something are often those actually most susceptible (Chris Chabris & Dan Simons).
By being ignorant of or rigidly denying the fluidity of physical attraction, we don’t allow ourselves to probe the underlying desires/fears and associated causal conditions – in sticking our heads in the sand, we stymie the very response that would help us more skillfully navigate and direct our desires.
Human beings are capable of a wide spectrum of emotions, and it is our abilities to relate skillfully to positive and negative emotions that determine their constructive or destructive potential.
Guys and girls, guys and guys, girls and girls, can be just friends.
There is hope for Louis C.K. and Ewan McGregor after all.