By Sandy Burgham
*Best Male Friend Forever
Looking back from the viewpoint of my now-fabulous early 50s, the most overrated decade of my life was my 30s, which is a big call given the fact that this was the decade when my husband and kids turned up. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on what was irritating about it, but now I know — I was in the heart of gendered living, because I was married with small kids.
It was the barbecue years, where men gathered around talking about sport, cars and work; and women made salads in the kitchen and talked about their kids. Because as a woman I was doing the lion’s share of everything (the research is in, don’t even try arguing with me) I surrendered to the role of doing the kids’ fish fingers as well as our dinner. Besides, I was exhausted from living the double life of a careerist and mother of young children, which when I look back, was still not that common even 20 years ago.
Along the way there were coffee groups, girls’ nights out and escapist chick flicks with my female friends in a similar life stage. I followed the expected tropes and trotted out the mantra, “I can’t get by without my girlfriends”. And don’t get me wrong — I couldn’t, and still couldn’t, priding myself in possibly the most interesting and eclectic bunch of girlfriends imaginable. But one thing was missing and that was my “boy friends”. They only came back on the scene when I came up for breath in my 40s. What I mean is platonic, male buddy pals (the academic term is Opposite Sex Friend, or OSF) — men whom I went to school or studied with, or have worked with during my career. Guys who probably have a high value on the marriage market, but in whom I have zero sexual interest. And I am sure the feeling’s mutual. Maybe, maybe not. Who cares? Not me, not them.
These platonic friendships are rewarding in a way that is completely different from my female friendships. We talk about different things, share different experiences and they are supportive in a way that only blokes can be. We share a different history. A couple of them bailed me out of appalling relationships in the early years in a big-brotherly way, and I’ve definitely helped them too. Because in the yin and yang of a platonic friendship, a whole different perspective is opened up.
A couple of OSFs have said to me over the years “this is great Sandy, it’s just like talking to a bloke.” Ha! Of course it’s not. That’s the point. And it certainly isn’t like talking to your spouse, because the truth is that spouses always come with a loaded agenda, they/we just can’t help it. The wives of my OSF buddy ol’ pals are a little tense when I have a drink with their husbands, particularly the younger wives. I wonder if the jealousy and concern is that one’s spouse is opening up to another woman in a way that is unavailable to them. But that is the whole point. I always say to my OSF, “can you reassure your wife that I’d sooner sleep with a goat, no offence”.
There is an invisible, lovely, playful tension with an OSF, because it’s a whole different dance between men and women, which immediately means the friendship has a dynamic unavailable in a same-sex relationship. I do have gay male friends too (and females for that matter) who provide a safe halfway house for those embarking on increasing their OSF numbers! But the goal in your second act is striving for a real variety of friendships to balance your viewpoint and experience in the world. OSFs can deliver on this.
And what does my husband think? Well, one of my newer BFFs is an early girlfriend of his, and she’s coming to stay in a couple of weeks. Perhaps it is only when one fully embraces their second act, and explores who they are aside from being one half of a marriage, that the joys of an OSF can be fully and platonically appreciated. We hear a lot about gender diversity in the workplace, and gender diversity in leadership, but gender diversity in friendship is probably the easiest place to start.
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson June, 2016