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May 15

Sex and Platonic Friendship

In Brief—An exploration of whether a sexual relationship can survive and be transformed into a lasting non-sexual relationship.


Sex or Friendship?—

“Oh, God, I’m coming!” sounds like something a religious fundamentalist might shout as death approaches. Actually, it is something gasped in passion as sexual orgasm approaches. By the way, sexual orgasm is sometimes referred to as “the little death.”

2 HeartsNow that I have your attention, I’m going to lay—so to speak—on you the issue of whether a sexual experience prevents a transition to a purely non-sexual love or friendship that allows the relationship to continue. Additionally, can an unconsummated sexual attraction alone evolve into a long-term platonic relationship?

The average love affair is said to last four and a half months. Some last for several years, some are just “one-nighters.” In sharp contrast, a non-sexual friendship can last a lifetime. The big question is whether the end of a love affair can survive and be transformed into a lasting friendship.

The question is more complex when it moves beyond a heterosexual relationship to one involving same-sex partners, marriage, age, distance or disease. This discussion will limit itself to heterosexual relationships, but reader interest and suggestions can lead to other areas. I’m not Dear Abby or Doctor Phil, so it’s entirely possible I’m missing something here. Here are simply the experiences of two heterosexual beings.

This piece arose out of a conversation that raised the question of whether a past sexual love could survive to become a lasting non-sexual friendship. My view is that it’s possible if the circumstances are right, but otherwise not likely…but that’s just my personal experience.

A platonic love or friendship has loosely been defined as the absence of physical sexual desire. The Greek philosopher Plato recognized physical desire, but believed that the unconsummated love of two people for one another would bring them closer to the deity. In short, it was a spiritual thing for Plato.

Before I relate our experiences, it is said that heterosexual males can’t have platonic relationships with a female with whom they’ve had a sexual relationship. Further, it’s widely believed that the only male/male relationship men can have involves discussing sports, politics and mechanical devices. Given the fact that all humans fall somewhere on the sexual scale of exclusively one way or the other, I am doubtful that it is completely true, but it is too often true. The bell curve, you know.

Females, by contrast, have the ability to have close non-sexual relatioships with other females and can reportedly discuss intimate personal issues without hesitation. Maybe it’s hormones or environment, but that’s my view regardless of the above sexual scale. Further, females often have the ability to have male platonic relationships even though there may be a sexual spark in the mix.

Exceptions to the Bay Rule—

Now, here are two instances where a platonic relationship has developed after the sex has ended.

My first marriage ended in divorce. Years went by with little or no contact, not least because my ex-spouse’s authoritarian husband took steps to prevent me from seeing my daughter. At the man’s death, I sent my condolences to my ex-spouse and apologized for my behavior during our marriage. She responded in kind, apologizing for her own behavior. We began a friendly exchange of messages that lasted for several years. During that time, we had one friendly meeting arranged by our daughter. Following my former spouse’s death in 2010, her son by her cop husband wrote to thank me for making her so happy during her final years. That was an instance of sexual love becoming a platonic friendship. No other genuine close platonic friendships come to mind. Close, but no cigar.

A dear friend of many years, a married woman with a family, related the story of a former love who shared a mutual sexual attraction with her that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, a spark still existed. Despite this, there were sporadic exchanges that grew fewer with his marriage. The man’s wife died recently, but my friend was torn as to whether to contact him. Could they become platonic friends in light of their history? Would that past spark get in the way? She asked me what I thought.

Two thoughts occur to me: 1) That’s an intimate question to ask of a man, and 2) The woman is a dear platonic friend of many years. No man would lay himself bare the way she has done except to a man who values his relationship with her.

What are your thoughts? Is a platonic relationship possible between a heterosexual man and a woman?

Additionally, are there other instances not dealt with here that involve a platonic friendship? I have touched on other possibilities above, and there could be instances that might be fodder for future pieces. As I wrote recently, is ”just a friend” a thoughtless response or is it more? Is a platonic relationship merely a fantasy? Let me know your thoughts?

14 comments

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  1. Kit Moorhouse

    Well, let’s see now, there are two men who come to mind with whom I have had intense sexual relationships years ago. For different reasons the physical relationships ended, but the friendships have endured, rekindled after brief lapses in communication (everyone needed cooling off time I suppose). Both of these men are wonderful friends, and although one lives far away, I know I can pick up the phone at any given moment and he would be there for me. The second lives in my community and I run into him weekly, It’s always a treat to see him.

    We share news of our lives, what our children are up to, upcoming plans. Both have great ears to bounce ideas off of. I say these are platonic friendships, but are they really? for in the case of one, the fellow I run into frequently, there is definitely still a spark there along with his confession that he wishes things for us had turned out differently, The second relationship with the friend far away, not so much of a spark, certainly fond memories of the past, but to be frank, time has not been good to him and he has lost much of his sex appeal for me.

    We are all are involved with partners, either married or otherwise which prevent these friendship from reverting into anything more, so I don’t know…are they truly platonic? One way or the other, I am happy to have them in my life.

    1. Don Bay

      The far-away friendship is easy. It can be a platonic relationship or it can starve to death for lack of communication. What’s important is whteher you two actually listen to one anther and are open to exchanging intimate thoughts.

      The second relationship sounds from the little you have said as if the spark still exists on the man’s side. It sounds as if he may be probing to see if you are open to renewing the sexual element. Could be wrong, but I’m not a psychologist and have only a few facts to go on. Some men will do almost anything to satisfy the sex urge.

      Age definitely cools the sexual ardor. The older we get, the libido fades along with the looks that attracted us originally. As I said earlier, the important element is the willingness to talk openly without the thought of a sexual reward. The tension between libido and moral behavior fades away and only the friendship remains.

      As an attractive woman, you are in a position to judge if the overtures are genuinely friendly or loaded. Look for the genuine ones. Those are the ones that are most likely to be rewarding and long-lasting platonic friendships.

  2. Susan

    Of course a relationship that is one way can change. Why would anyone think otherwise? Maybe I don’t understand quite what you are asking?

    1. Don Bay

      Although I’m a big believer that the one unchanging thing in the universe is change, seems to me that there is no certainty that a sexual relationship will change into a platonic friendship. What if one of the sexual partners is interested in the sex only and not a lasting friendly relationship? “Wham-bam, thank you ma’am! Next.” What if the the sexual spark never leads to a sexual relationship but to a long-term platonic friendship?

      I thought I was being reasonably clear, but does this help you to understand what I hoped to say?

  3. Jim Newton

    I agree with Susan. Relationships can change in a million ways, and sex or no sex and friendship can be mingled or not in another million ways. Well, at least a dozen/

    1. Don Bay

      Now, I’m the one who’s confused. I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ll have to give some examples of what you are asserting without proof.

      I agree that relationships can change, but what does that mean regarding a truly platonic relationship?

  4. Jim Newton

    Asserting without proof. You have cited your experience and now I have to have proof? For one, I had a sexual relationship with a woman, which for me was just in-between long term relationships and I thought it was for her also. Later, when we were no longer sexual but still friends she told me that she had been very broken up when I stopped the sexual relationship. Then when I was in a long-term relationship with someone else she kept trying to get me back into a sexual relatiohship, and because of that my long-term partner was not happy with the friendship.

    Now parse that into different stories for each of the three people and you get multiple possibilities. I had to end the friendship to be true to the long-term relationship, but it could have, in all possible worlds, gone many other ways.

    1. Don Bay

      A platonic relationship CAN arise after a sexual relationship, the question is…DOES it arise. That, I believe, is where the confusion arises. A platonic relationship is one that not only lasts but one in which the former lovers share thoughts on an equal basis, often at a very deep level. This, of course, is a heterosexual relationship, but I suspect that a same-sex relationship is the same. I come at the subject only from a heterosexual point-of-view.

      A platonic relationship can also arise in a situation in which there is a spark of sexual attraction that is never consummated. The key here is a deep sharing that lasts even though the spark is there.

      “Could have” is not the same as “Is.” Yes, it could have become a platonic relationship, but is it one? I read your description of your relationships as essentially love affairs that didn’t last but never became platonic relationships. That is not proof that a platonic relationship evolved after the love affair ended regardless of whether one of the parties wanted to resume the sexual relationship.

      I will add that a marriage can also be a sharing one, but every human has secrets that are not shared with one’s spouse.

      I need to reread (for the umpteenth time) my piece on platonic relationships to see if I might have been clearer. I thought I was.

  5. Dave Meyers

    You may be over thinking this. The important issue in my mind is to be ‘friends’ with the one you’re having a sexual relationship with, married or not. I believe in many cases that this may NOT be true. And if not, the relationship isn’t worth much and the sex is nothing more than animal lust.

    Is it possible?, could it happen?, does it happen?, are all fine questions, but I submit that anything CAN happen, many things COULD happen, and many things DO happen. Every love affair is different, every person is different, and so too is every combination of the people involved.

    Perhaps the better question is, Is that possible that a man or a woman can have a friend of the opposite gender without considering sex? I say YES……what say you?

    1. Don Bay

      The Quick answer to your question is…Yes it is possible to have a platonic relationship with the opposite sex free of the sexual attraction.

      I suspect that I was not clear enough in my explanation. I thought I was, but given the comments it seems there was a whole lot of misunderstanding. Sometimes, an explanation that seems simple to one person is not at all clear to another. I suspect you “got it,” but I missed the target in making it clear.

  6. shelley stockwell-Nicholas

    Play Tonic
    the perfect combo

    1. Don Bay

      Your humor is livening up this piece, but there is truth in that word-play. “Play” is part of any healthy relationship, and a good exchange between the parties is a “Tonic” worth the price. Put them both together and you have the prescription for a wonderful platonic relationship. Didn’t you once say “denial” is not a river in Egypt? I love that line.

  7. kate

    The author (Don?) Sites a clear example of a platonic after sexual relationship happening with his ex wife, then asks is it possible. Huh?!? Yes, it’s possible- you did it and in my humble opinion, that’s the most likely, most genuine scenario- with exes- because on the one hand you’re like, “dear lord, never wanna do that again!”(Sexually and otherwise) but at the same time, strong, honest, genuine bonds have developed that lend themselves naturally to a platonic relationship. It’s a no brainer.

    1. Don Bay

      Hi, Kate. You state that a platonic love or relationship is most likely with a former spouse. Would that were the case. It appears to be the case in your life, and that is good. However, in my experience and long life, the enmity and estrangement that characterized the past marriage remain operative and not only does a platonic relationship NOT arise, but the estrangement continues. I was fortunate that we both grew up over the years and admitted that it takes two to tango. A platonic relationship warmed both our lives until her death.

      Although as a lawyer who has handled divorces I’ve seen considerable ugliness, research shows that breakups—particularly where children are involved—can be a positive experience for all if the former partners behave like adults. It appears this was the case for you, Kate. If so, that speaks highly of both of you.

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