March 7, 2007

When Harry Meets Sally...

... will it be friendship at first sight? After a few chance tête-à-tête, when they have found out that they shared likes and dislikes, will there be friendship in the air? Will a quiet dinner, where they exchange intimate details of their successes and failures, mark the beginning of "a beautiful friendship" that matches the one between Rick and Louis?

Not a chance, says Harry, adding that the ever-present sexual tension between a man and a woman precludes the possibility of a platonic relationship between them. Sally is more circumspect, and doesn't think it is impossible. In the end Harry is vindicated. He and Sally discover that they are great together in bed, and get married, intending to live happily ever after as husband and wife. That, in essence, is a synopsis of When Harry Met Sally..., a popular Hollywood comedy from the eighties. In the side box, I reproduce a conversation between Harry and Sally on the subject.

Is a heterosexual friendship, as Harry says, doomed to failure, because of this sex thing between them? Psychologists and sociologists seem to disagree. Camille Chatterjee, writing in Psychology Today, reports that in a survey of 1450 members of, 83% of the respondents believed that men and women could be "platonic friends". The survey also said that women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to keep sex out of friendship. No wonder that Harry's views on the subject are so different from those of Sally!

When Harry Met Sally

Harry: You realize of course that we could never be friends.

Sally: Why not?

Harry: What I'm saying is - and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form - is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

Sally: That's not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.


Harry: You only think you do.

Sally: You say I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?

Harry: No, what I'm saying is they all WANT to have sex with you.


Sally: How do you know?

Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.

Sally: So, you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?

Harry: No. You pretty much want to nail 'em too.

Sally: What if THEY don't want to have sex with YOU?

Harry: Doesn't matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.

Sally: Well, I guess we're not going to be friends then.

Harry: I guess not.

Sally: That's too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.

--- Excerpts from IMDB

I have cherished — and continue to cherish — friendships with women of different ages. Admittedly, several faded away after one or both of us got married. Does this imply that the sex thing interrupted these friendships? I think not. My wife is my best friend, but let's say she is a die-hard fan of indy movies, but hates the Bollywood romances that I invariably love. She should not mind if I went to movies exclusively with my friend, Kalpana, who shares my passion for such movies. She might even prefer that, as it spares her hours of agony in the movie hall. And, if I may add, it doesn't diminish our marriage in anyway. After all, I enjoy the long hikes with my wife in Yosemite as much as I enjoy the Bollywood melodramas, if not more! Jealousy, it is said, prevents strong ties between men and women, barring the conjugal one, but I don't think it is impossible for reasonable adults to exorcise jealousy from marriage.

Perhaps sex is a biological imperative in any relationship between a man and a woman. I cannot honestly say that the possibility of sex with some of my friends didn't cross my mind. The thoughts did occur occasionally, but were quickly dismissed. I don't believe that a few neurons instinctively firing at times means anything. I had no intention of fulfilling these fleeting desires. I wouldn't dream of risking what I had for what little more that I could have had. A random poem on Friends into lovers that I came across on the web declares,

The fear of hurting and hearing the,

"I didn't expect this from you!!!"

is nothing compared to the loss

of missing out on a lover

who you kept just a friend.

Really? That's a sweeping generalization that only a fellow who is still wet behind his ears would make!

Having said that, I believe it's quite possible that some friends will venture beyond the thin line that separates friendship from sex. Does it mean that their friendship is doomed? I don't think so. Affirming this, Ms. Chatterjee quotes from a study by Walid Afifi of Penn State University of more than 300 college students that "67 percent reported having had sex with a friend. Interestingly, 56 percent of those subjects did not transition the friendship into a romantic relationship, suggesting that they preferred friendship over sex."

Does age add any new wrinkle to the relationship between a man and woman? The same society that is skeptical about the claims of heterosexual friendship takes an about turn, when it considers intergenerational relationship. What is natural between a couple of twenty-somethings becomes unnatural between a fifty-something and a twenty-something. What is doubted as implausible becomes the only acceptable norm.

"Cradle robbery" or "gold digging" as it is derisively called sometimes, sexual relationship between a young woman and a much older man, as well as that between a young man and an older woman, is frowned upon in most cultures. To wit, the recent controversy in India over the screening of the film, Nishabd, which deals with the love between a teenager and a man 40 years older than her. Here's how a politician fishes in the troubled waters:

"The release of ‘Nishabd’ on the soil of Prayag [holy confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna] can't be tolerated. Through this film, Amitabh Bachchan is propagating western culture in our youth, which is disgusting. We will not let the movie hit the halls. Indeed, Amitabh Bachchan should take a voluntarily retirement from film industry," said Mukund Tiwari, a local legislator.

Sure, Mr. Tiwari, it's the same western culture that corrupted King Dasaratha into marrying Kaikeyi, who was decades younger than him! Politician's peccadilloes apart, Nishabd is not the first film to portray love between older and younger persons. American Beauty, Last Tango in Paris, Lolita, and, in Tamil, Apoorva Raagangal, are a few other movies that I recall as dealing with this subject. Famous real life couples with significant age disparity are Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi, Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel, and Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Brandon, to mention a few.

Does this mean that every Radha is in love with her nephew, Krishna, and every teenager should expect a pass from her friend's photographer dad, as she steps out of water? I hope not. In a previous post, Eyes Wide Shut, I have argued that not every thought, desire, or dream translates into action, or even intent. Reason intervenes, pros and cons are weighed, and consequences are evaluated, before action results. Evolutionary biologist, Helena Cronin, cautions against determinism of any kind, biological or otherwise, when predicting human behavior:

"These are statistical generalizations," says Helena Cronin, co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. "Not all women are X, not all men are Y. We're talking about dispositions and potentials - not there's a gene inside that you will robot-like perform its will... For humans, what natural selection did was build very large brains with a lot of potentialities and dispositions. We are very sensitive to the environment - far from being rigid, we're the opposite. If I find myself in this position, I do this, in that position I do another thing. There is no particular reason why genes should be more deterministic than environmental factors."

It would be a pity if friendship between a man and a woman were biologically or socially condemned to self-destruct. There will be so much less to live for.

  1. Oh its a great movie..I have seen it and enjoyed it too :) what all movies do u like to watch and what all movies have u watched on friendship??

  2. I am no psychologist but from my experience, it seems to me that is we did not make so much about this sex thing, most of the heterosexual dealings would just be platonic by choice. It is all this talk about how it is impossible for a man and woman to be so close and yet not be sexually involved that makes it all difficult and complicates the relationship. You begin to wonder if every feeling of warmth or affection for the friend is in fact a sign of sexual attraction.

  3. The last two lines say it all :)


    Shouldn't my spouse be my best friend irrespective of how many ever friends I have of the opposite sex?

    I see a lot of people these days, who say that their friends will remain closer to them than their spouses forever. I wonder what conception of marriage these people have!

  4. Why should gender play a part in friendship? A person who one spends enough time with to be promoted as a friend could probably be never looked upon as a likely candidate to 'fall' in love with or have physical intimacies with. Why then would a friend ever become a 'man' or a 'woman'? If they do, wasn't something wrong with the other in the first place? Like u have said, if the friendship mattered enough, then the realization of the friend's sex would only be a fleeting thought forgotten even as it occurs.

  5. Naren said ..
    "I see a lot of people these days, who say that their friends will remain closer to them than their spouses forever. I wonder what conception of marriage these people have!"

    Most of the marital relationships are based on factors other than friendship, especially in traditional societies like India. Spouses become sort of friends over the years, and learn to share and depend on each other, but it is not necessary that they start understanding each other as well. Its a friendship born out of compulsion, not choice. I also do not understand why spouses have to be best of friends. Having friends other than one's spouse makes people emotionally independent of the spouse, and hence only strengthens the marriage.

    PS : I have been reading the blog for quite some time now, and enjoy it immensely. Could not help but comment on this one :).

  6. Shivani,

    If it is out of compulsion, then why should it exist?

    What exactly is your concept of marriage? Just living together?

  7. Naren

    I am talking about arranged marriages. People who enter such relationships, do so with a knowledge and expectation that it will last forever. They try to make it work and so level of acceptance is higher. I have seen many such successful relationships where people are not friends to start with, but eventually become so. But in the beginning phase and all over, the contribution of family and friends cannot be denied.

    I would say, one's spouse being a friend is rather a new concept. People used to marry also for reasons other than companionship and love. I am not suggesting that all marriages used to be loveless but commercial, social and political reasons played a big role. Tell me, how many youngsters could actually choose their life partners only a couple of decades ago :).

    With most of us being in nuclear families, we do not have anyone else but our spouses to fall back on for emotional support. We need them to share our interests and views generally. The expectation from this relationship has become higher, which I feel is asking for too much. We expect our spouses to be the perfect match and answer to all our questions, and when it doesn’t happen, we get disappointed.

    My concept of marriage is being in a relationship where two people are constantly growing together. They might do it with each other or different people in bits and pieces, it should not matter. The moment it starts becoming an issue, the relationship starts showing signs of strain. Marriage is not only about having a companion and friend for life, but also being a functional social unit for rearing the young, and tending the elders. It is more an association of two families rather than two individuals :).
    But that is just my view, and I might be wrong. And I have taken too much space on this comment box, so I shall stop now.


Leave a Comment