When Platonic and Romantic Worlds Collide

messy bedWhen I was first licensed as a marriage therapist, more than 30 years ago, I didn’t plan on obtaining additional training and certification as a clinical sexologist. Back then, I was fascinated with who we are and how we are in relationship with others—especially those we become intimately involved with and marry. (How wonderful that, these days, more and more same-gender couples also have the option to marry!)

I returned to postgraduate education when I realized that my previous education, although thorough, had not prepared me to help individuals and couples deal with sex. I quickly discovered that sex therapy as it’s usually practiced is performance-oriented, devoted almost exclusively to manufacturing orgasms. Sex is not primarily about performance at all; it’s more about intimacy—the shape our relationships take and the boundaries we create about “friendship.”

Most people seek sex therapy because they have great difficulty trusting intimacy (into-me-see!). It’s difficult for them to truly allow another person to touch them, to become truly close, skin to skin, face to face. (Perhaps this is why so many of us close our eyes when we’re sexually intimate with another person.) Of course, there are times when sexual intercourse can become an escape from intimacy, but that’s another article.

As children and teens, we usually learn that the only truly valuable male-female relationships are those with romantic potential. As a result, many heterosexual guys and girls approach one another as potential sex partners rather than as friends. (In this article, I’m focusing on opposite-gender relationships, remembering that LGBT folks have their own challenges when it comes to romance.)

Platonic male-female friendships can be fulfilling, but they often become endangered if one person starts to feel sexual and the person’s feelings are unrequited. Knowing that a friend wants romance when you don’t can be uncomfortable, as most of us know. If given the time and understanding to cool down, this nonsexual friendship might flourish for years to come, which is often not the case with romantic affairs, for all their drama. Scary stuff!

Over the years, I’ve worked with numerous people filled with shameful fear about the fact they are virgins past 40 or 50 years old. The shame? Based on the idea that no one “wanted”  them. The fear? That they will always be alone. Many of these folks can benefit greatly from relationships that include touch. All of us, male and female, sometimes need to be held.

Have you ever initiated sex when what you truly wanted was physical tenderness and comfort? I certainly have. Fortunately, the desire for sex and tenderness often overlaps, allowing us to receive both simultaneously. But sometimes we need more of one than the other. Hopefully, we can develop ways to communicate what we need, assuming we’re able to recognize those desires.

So what about friends with benefits? Everyone seems to know someone who has enjoyed buddy sex (getting together for sex only). The media make it seem that this is all the rage. But how many of us know someone who has successfully maintained a long-term relationship of this type? I can’t think of anyone.

Perhaps friends with benefits is one of those things that works better on paper than in real life. Or maybe some people tried buddy sex but the dynamic changed when they fell in love and ended up as a committed couple. Or perhaps it’s something people resort to when they’d prefer romance but fear they can’t have, or don’t deserve, it.

Friendship, for all its glory, is often much maligned. Most of us have had the experience of feeling hurt when we overhear someone we care for talking about us: “Oh, her/him? They’re just a friend!”

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sally

    January 21st, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    I have had several relationships where it could have easily crossed that line from friends to romantic intimates but I am so happy that in all cases we both decided to put the breaks on it. I never would wish to lose a really good friend all for a good time or not in bed! I have decided that my friendships are way too important to me and for me what works best is to keep those relationships separate.

  • Rob

    January 21st, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    The friends with benefits could work but only if both people are in the same exact mindset and are okay with being friends one day and lovers the next.

    I don’t know about most of you but I have never quite been able to manage that. One person always ends up feeling something a little more than the other person does, and that can only spell doom.

  • Brittany

    January 22nd, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    There are times when this can really work out for people. It did for my boyfriend and me and we started out as just friends but eventually it evolved into something more for both of us. I won’t say that it happened at the same time but eventually I think that both of us came to realize that this was who I was depending on more and more for care and support so why not take that next step? It was hard because we were and still are such good friends that neither of us wanted to lose that. I would like to say that even if we broke up now that we would still be able to have that connection with each other, not sure. But this can happen and it can be about so much more than the sex.

  • Jimmie Rose

    January 22nd, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    What would scare me would be that I was with someone who only knew how to relate or connect with someone of the opposite sex with sex itself, that they don’t really know how to be just friends in the platonic sense.

  • martin

    January 23rd, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    Most of the time I think that we think that women are going to be the ones more naturally wanting to cross that line from friends into something more, but I am guilty of that as well. I sometimes mistake simple friendliness for flirting I suppose and so I then start trying to take things to the next level, even when this isn’t something that I would have considered before or that the woman is even interested in. If I could find a way to be satisfied with just being friends then I think that I would have more relationships like this but I always seem t0 mess it all up by looking for something more. As I type this I recognize that this must be about something being missing within me, something that I am searching for in other people…

  • Carolyn

    January 23rd, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    I have never seen FWB (friends with benefits) work out. If someone initiates it, they are usually too afraid to tell the person they care about them and cover it up as an ” I only want sex” thing. This is even worse when you are dating someone but FWB with someone else. If you want a relationship, SAY SO!

  • Lisa D

    January 24th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    I’m like the writer- I have seen couples give this buddy sex thing a try and then try to go back to being just friends. Never works.

    So I think that from the get go you either have to be all in and pursue a real relationship with someone or you have to make that type of progression totally off limits and stand your ground.

  • ryan r

    January 25th, 2014 at 4:43 AM

    collide, explode, this is exactly what it can feel like when you are meeting the right person and yet it feels like this shouldn’t be the person for you for what ever reason. But sometimes fate has a hand in all of this and doesn’t ask us about it. It is what it is and we are attracted to who we are attracted to and it doesn’t matter if we have just met or if we have known them for years. Sometimes these things just happen overnight and then others take time to grow but I don’t think that it is healthy to ignore what you could be feeling. Wouldn’t it be healthier to explore these feelings together and seeing if there is something there that could possibly become more?

  • sandy

    January 25th, 2014 at 5:20 PM

    So when one fears intimacy one needs a sec therapis?

  • Wyatt

    January 26th, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    Afraid it’s looking like I’ll end up being one of the forever-alone types the author mentions. I’m not afraid I’m undesirable, self-confidence isn’t much of an issue for me.
    However, I despise the concept that sex and romance/intimacy/love are one and the same. I hate sex and yet I naturally have a deep desire for the emotional closeness found in strong relationships. Why is it that people seem to think that if two people aren’t “doing it,” they can’t be any more than friends?
    Oh, well.

  • Natalie

    February 1st, 2014 at 9:23 AM

    I had an ‘unspoken’ but sexually tension-ridden ‘affair’ at work. Obviously not an actual affair, but what do you call it when someone from the opposite sex spends a lot of time and energy talking to you, looking at you and dropping hints (or hoping you will). This man had unusually good looks and a macho, yet elegant personality. Very driven and athletic…also poetic and charming (at least with me).
    It was very flattering to be admired by such a male. Unfortunately it can bring a lot of trouble and notice. When it got noticed my fangs were ready to claw (an unattractive overweight female used her ‘charms’ on him, knew how to connect emotionally and drew him in. I was ready to kill.

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