C.S. Lewis says that friendship has to be about something — that it’s a posture of two or more people standing side by side, discussing a truth they see in common (in contrast to lovers, who stand face to face). But what becomes clear upon closer reading is that an equally crucial distinction is between the pair of friends (what communication scholars call a dyad) and the group of friends (three or more). And if the number of friends matters, so too does the nature of their discussion.
Think of friendship like classic jazz structure. Almost all tracks you hear start by laying down the theme — what distinguishes one tune from any other (it’s not always the chord changes). This is usually followed by a solo section, where various musicians take turns improvising over so many bars of the song, which the rhythm section repeats in spare accompaniment for each solo. Finally the full band returns to close out the song in a recapitulation of the theme, sometimes with greater harmonic elaboration on the main melody.
In the opening section, the most important thing is not the individual musicians themselves, but the theme itself — the truth Lewis says bonds friends. In friendship, this “theme” could be the squash game that brings men together, the homework classmates meet to complete, and so on. Or it’s the sort of conversation I’ve heard spring up between strangers at coffee shops when they’re too unlikely to meet again to learn personal details from each other’s lives, but chat avidly on the greatness of the Mac platform, or the history of Catholicism. Topic-focused interactions happen equally in pairs and groups.
In jazz the theme is so important it’s sometimes introduced in unison. On John Coltrane’s epic “Blue Train,” for instance, he and trumpeter Lee Morgan open by playing the main theme together. A few bars in, however, they’re joined by Curtis Fuller on trombone and the three break into a repetition of the theme in tight, three-part harmony — a chord. Suddenly the focus has slightly shifted from the starkly haunting theme itself to the wealth of community there when those three articulate the theme together. This is akin to what I call the “interaction-focused” exchange in friendship.
While it can be the gateway to one-on-one, person-focused bonding (where you are ultimately committed to the relationship because you value/enjoy/care about the person aside from what he/she adds to your life), interaction-focused exchange tends to happen in groups. You often see it in families who enjoy each other, when humor plays off dynamics between personalities within the group, or between old groups of friends with a long shared history.
But no joke lasts forever; shortly after the trio repeats the theme, Coltrane breaks away to open the solo section that entails the heart of the song. Everyone steps back, except for the rhythm section, for here the focus is neither on the theme or the group’s potential but on one person — the soloist and his voice. As the soloists take turns, they sometimes “talk” back and forth in responses and echoes, even jokes, that draw on the call-and-response tradition of gospel music and other forms. This is most like the one-on-one interactions I have in mind when I talk about “male-female friendship”; the solo is most like the talk such friendships tend to foster.
Sure, two people coming together could just discuss or repeat a shared theme, but my experience is that dyads’ inherent intimacy tends to foster more person-focused than topic- or interaction-focused exchanges. By “person-focused,” I mean the sort of talking when girlfriends or siblings catch up: you describe the latest drama in your life, share about a recent hurt, even sketch your hopes for the future. Which can lead to more broad-ranging discussions about issues or art or love or politics, sure, but usually as framed in terms of the speakers’ lives.
By their nature, neither topic- nor interaction-focus talkers tend to guard the privacy of their community but rather invite new voices and thoughts. Adding more to our circle may actually improve what we’ve already started. But person-focused conversations are different. While the intrusion of another may not entirely disrupt things, it tends to drive a wedge into the bonding that would otherwise occur between the two. That’s most of the reason I want to get alone with someone, after all! To say private things I wouldn’t share as freely with the group.
And this is what I’m getting at when I say “male-female friendship.” I don’t mean the way four or five of us trade laughs and stories, I mean how a man and woman interact just one-on-one. Though we may not admit it, our friendships tend to become a kind of emotional dating. Tellingly, people in relationships usually have fewer other-sex friends they meet with one-on-one that often. Once one of the two friends pairs off, time together shifts from the one-on-one hangs of their single days to one-plus-couple, even couple-couple hang-outs. No matter what, the talk becomes less intimate.
How many single men and women have more than one or maybe two very close friends of the other sex? We might have numerous friends we see in groups, but there probably aren’t as many we seek out one-on-one — whether for drinks at the bar or midday chats on IM. Men and women in intimate friendship tend to want to give themselves deeply to each other — in other words, tend instinctively toward emotional monogamy in our deepest, most intimate — albeit platonic — friendships.
So when I say men and women can’t be friends, I don’t mean that we can never get past a certain antipathy. Rather, that a friendship heavy on dyadic interactions tends to build the kind of emotional intimacy one will presumably later share with a main squeeze or spouse — except without the commitment. Why do we think it’s less of a big deal than sexual involvement? Perhaps it’s just as sticky, something worth weighing just as thoughtfully.
Me, I’m leaning more and more toward a kind of emotional chastity until or unless I have a husband I can give myself to whole-heartedly as a friend. Maybe that’s how I’ll know him, in fact — that I want to join his “band,” hear his solos (and share my own), make music with him not just for a season or two, but the rest of my days on earth. Anything that falls short of that would be far more half-hearted friendship than what I give to all my best girlfriends. And that ain’t right.