I recently found myself deep in my middle school email account. Amidst the hilarious email addresses and melodrama, I came across hundreds of digital letters between my best childhood guy friend and me. The emails span seven years, detailing our friendship from the day we met until the end of college, when our correspondence slowed to a stop as he moved in with his girlfriend and I moved across the country for work.
While zeroing in on the archaeology of our relationship, I noticed the absence of such a friendship in my current life. I fill my time with work, my boyfriend and girlfriends. I have male friends, but there’s no longer a non-boyfriend dude with whom I am answer-my-calls-or-die, no-secrets close.
This made me wonder: would someone like my childhood BFF even have a place in my adult life, or do you have to outgrow close relationships with people of the gender you’re attracted to in order to mature, like a rite of passage to becoming a real adult?
Clinical psychologist (and my married sister, so she knows what’s up) Dr. Kathleen Boykin McElhaney feels that this kind of relationship exists less in adulthood simply because friends aren’t your priority, and you don’t have as much time to go around.
“The focus of your life and how you spend your free time changes significantly as you get older,” she says, especially if you ultimately marry and have children. “If you are putting a lot of your time into friendships in general, it could easily threaten the quality of your home life.”
In other words, now that I have a job, a grown-up email address (no more firstname.lastname@example.org, even though I do) and a boyfriend, there are literally not enough hours for another close, time-consuming relationship. Adding a new one could jeopardize the time and energy I have to give to my other priorities.
However, Dr. Julia Sheehy, a clinical psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at Columbia and Barnard, is of a differing opinion. She feels that the ability to maintain relationships with the gender you’re attracted to does not vary with time, age, or your differing commitments, but with individual personalities.
“People who are impulsive or insecure are likely to have difficulty maintaining opposite-sex friendships (if attracted to the opposite sex) and tolerating their partners’ opposite-sex friendships,” says Sheehy. Meanwhile, the ability to maintain these relationships comes down to self-determination. “People who can enjoy feelings without acting on them, and who are secure in their attachments can more easily maintain opposite-sex friendships and encourage their partners to have them, too.”
Ultimately, what both Sheehy’s and McElhaney’s answers to my variation on “Can Men And Women Ever Really Be Friends?” show is how dated the question has become — it’s not a question of “can,” but one of choice. While I’m nostalgic for the time I spent with my old best guy friend, when I really think about it, it was neither socially-ingrained taboos nor repressed emotions that broke up our friendship. We both simply made choices that led us away from one another and towards the lives we live now.
There is no When Harry Met Sally rule that says you can’t stay friends with someone of the gender you’re attracted to — if you want to, you can. Hello 21st century! We live in a world that is slowly shedding itself of conventions and gender identity, where people have open marriages, live in separate apartments, or never get married at all. We choose the people whom we make time for, and we can choose how we decide to feel about them.
In fact, I think I’ll crack open that ineedmorenaps account and draft up an email to my long-lost best friend tonight. For old times’ sake.
Photographed by Can Dagarslani