In an article I recently read, an author who studied male sexual habits said that he thought our contemporary hookup culture is due largely to the fact that it is normal for men and women to be friends as opposed to 30-plus years ago. As this has become the norm, the former practice of dating in order to establish relationships with the opposite sex has fallen away, and those old rules governing how conventional relationships develop have gone out the window.
To me, this seemed obviously applicable to Macalester. Especially in a small social setting like Mac, the likelihood of hooking up with and/or falling for a friend is pretty high, but the rules to determine how that process happens are often unclear. It is the age-old question of When Harry Met Sally: can men and women be just friends? In some cases, certainly, but in other instances when two friends are attracted to one another, how do we handle these situations? And perhaps more pertinently, how should we?
There seems to be a chemistry that can evolve between friends who spend a lot of time together when both happen to be single, which can often lead one to wonder, what if? In such instances it can be hard to determine whether saying something or making a move is worth potentially ruining a valued friendship. In these cases I have found it best to make decisions after giving oneself a few weeks to determine if the chemistry is really there or if it was just a passing thought. Then, secondly, it is necessary to evaluate how much altering the friendship would change one’s day-to-day life.
In my three and a half years of college I have seen a range of friendships that became something more. These have done everything from ruin friendships, to pick up a person when he or she is feeling relationship blues, to break hearts, to sustainably continue for years as successful friends-with-benefits. Regardless of which of these outcomes friends encounter when venturing down Hookup Lane or Relationship Way, it is quite unlikely that the journey will be entirely smooth.
Part of the problem may be the way in which two people arrive at such a relationship status. Most other romantic relationships develop in certain settings that foster a specific sort of connection, such as two people meeting at a dance and enjoying a hookup-based relationship or two individuals meeting in a class and getting to know each other until they decide to start dating. These sorts of encounters follow a certain trajectory based on how the couple met, what they are willing to invest in a relationship and the time frame that accompanies those circumstances.
Friendships, on the other hand, develop based on other factors, disregarding relationship styles as they are usually irrelevant for two people to be friends. When friends find themselves thinking about a more romantic connection, however, approaches to dating or hooking up have to fall in line with one another for any hope of success. Too often I have seen friends-with-benefits situations where one friend is more than happy with occasional sex, while the other wants a relationship entailing commitment and companionship. This is clearly problematic, and while communication is important, it is perhaps more essential to know what you want and what your friend wants before taking that leap past friendship, which can be difficult to return from should things not go according to the desired plan.
Whether discussing general views on dating or considering a matter of timing (for example, one friend just got out of a serious relationship and wants something casual, while the other is looking for a more formal relationship), being on the same page could not be more crucial to continuing a healthy relationship, be it amorous or not.
I know many people who believe they are good at compartmentalizing their feelings in various areas of their lives. It is indeed an important skill to have, but a difficult reality to obtain when attending such a small school and living in an environment where friendships are inextricably connected to meals, living arrangements, social life and even study sessions. Perhaps in another time of our lives or at a different college this would not be the case, but it is the case at Macalester. When deciding whether or not we want to see if a friendship could be a relationship, everything connected to that friendship needs to be taken into account.
What I have found most important from my own experience is to not entirely avoid making something more of the friendship where chemistry is obvious, but to recognize that such decisions need to be truly thought through and discussed, regardless of how unsexy that conversation might be. The good news is, when friends-with-benefits fail and the necessary few weeks of awkwardness have passed, in all my experience and observation, a real friend will remain your friend.