“He’s a boy. He’s my friend. But he’s not my boyfriend!”

Since I was a girl, I have heard other girls say this time and time again. First they were my peers, then my patients, then a variation of this said by my own daughter. The last time I read the research literature on the subject (ahem, awhile ago), I learned that children will play and interact with both sexes equally until about age 3, at which time same sex preferences become the norm.

I have had close male friends since I was a teen. And since I was an adult, men have been among my very closest friends. My husband is my best friend and has been for 28 years. I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about my platonic male friends.

I suppose this is somewhat unusual. At least, most of my women friends do not have non-related close male friends. At my core, it’s felt natural to me. I grew up with five brothers and my mom has had male friends through choir for many years. I am interested in people and men are people.

I have to admit, though, that making and keeping male friends requires hard work. The easiest way to have a male friend, or any friend, really, is to work together. I don’t have any male colleagues at my office. Most of my close male friends don’t even live near by. Most of them live on the east coast.

I had a sad epiphany last week. I was talking to a close male friend and asked him a question. I don’t remember what the question was but I realized after asking it that I already knew the answer and I had been asking out of irrational anxiety and seeking reassurance about the stability of our friendship. I commented on this to him and noted that I needed to think about why I had asked the question in the first place.  Then the answer came to me. “I’ve lost every close male friend I’ve ever had.”

I didn’t mean that I’d fought with them or that I no longer considered them to be friends at all. People move. I’ve lived around the country. So have a good number of my friends. Men get married and get busy with family. They tend to work longer hours. On top of that, men are less likely to be taught how to maintain friendships across distance, how to make phone calls, emails, send Christmas cards, etc. Whenever I happen to see these friends, however, they are thrilled to see me.

Are you surprised that the reasons were not because of the man/woman thing? There is research showing that men tend to sexualize friendliness from women whereas women just think they are being friendly. And I also recall many hours as a research assistant reading essays by men and women who were asked to pretend that they had met God and to describe the encounter. As part of the research, men were told that God was female and the women were told that God was male. The women tended to describe God as an ideal friend, a great listener, kind, and someone who understood them. The men’s essays included a lot of sexual fantasies. But these studies were conducted long ago and the men and women studied were college students. People have a way of growing up.

It is true that I have had a couple of close friends try to cross friendship boundaries. But they were not crazy and I was clear about the relationship. They got an earful from me, I let my husband know what had transpired, and the relationships survived. And yes, sometimes I flirt with men to whom I am not married. It happens. I never found myself in hot water over it but maybe in luke warm water.

The main impediments I have found are logistical. And yes, I can reach out. I have, many times. There are only so many times I will call, email, or write with no reply. I don’t take this personally but I find it very sad.

Later this week, I will be in North Carolina for my graduate program reunion. I am spending a good part of the day with one of my male friends, who was one of my very closest friends for 3-4 years. We have not spoken to each other since I last visited NC eight years ago. We have texted 2-3 times since then. I know that we will have a marvelous time together. He will be thrilled to see me. But I also know him and he will feel guilty for not keeping in touch. He’s that way, plus when he disclosed recently that he missed me a lot, I did not let him off the hook. “If only there were some communication tools we could use to solve that problem”, I asked. (Yes, I know. I can be an ass kicker. But sometimes people need a light ass kicking from their good natured friend. This was one of those times.)

Friends are so very important. There are a source of love, joy, silliness, and solace. They are only a phone call, a Skype, or a text away.