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COMMITMENTS : Uncarnal Knowledge : For many guys, a platonic relationship with a woman is a poor second choice. But there's much to be said for plain old friendship--and staying out of bed.

May 02, 1994|CRAIG TOMASHOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Craig Tomashoff is a staff correspondent for People magazine in Los Angeles

The male mind is an amazing analytical tool. It can instantly determine whether it's best to go with a draw play or a play-action pass on third and long. It can understand the inner workings of a double-barreled carburetor. It can even comprehend the comic genius of the Three Stooges.

With all this ability, then, you'd think we'd be capable of figuring out how to maintain platonic friendships with women.

I can remember one in particular, who was part of a circle of friends I had back in graduate school. It wasn't a desire for long talks over coffee that attracted me to her. It was more her amazing resemblance to Cybil Shepherd. Still, we gradually got to know each other on a friendly level, studying together and going out in a group on the weekends.

On the last day of the first quarter, we got grades letting us know if we had passed onto the next level of the program, failed and had to leave or needed a counseling session with an instructor to determine our future. I drove over with her to pick up our grades. I passed. She had to have the counseling.

I took her back to her dorm room and we sat in my car as she cried, worried about getting kicked out. She leaned over to cry on my shoulder and, my male brain not seeing the difference between friendship and getting horizontal, I tried to kiss her. She stormed out of my car and that was pretty much the last time I ever really spoke to her.

I'd had female friends before that debacle, but they were usually girlfriends of my male friends. In other words, friendships I didn't have to make and maintain on my own. These days, I probably have twice as many female friends as male friends. Acquiring them isn't an easy process, however.

We guys have several things going against us. The first is conditioning. In the second grade, one of my closest buddies was Barb Kitzrow, until I ended up being scolded in the principal's office and told to stop making friends with the girls. Apparently it didn't look right.

From that point on, the lines were drawn. Guys were your buddies. Spend as much time as possible with them. Girls were to be treated differently. After a few years of this, we develop a male version of what it means to be friends, which creates another barrier to befriending females.

"Men are not as into having emotional conversations, and women are," my friend Bonnie explained to me. "In fact, most of our conversations are emotional."

Certainly men are capable of getting all gushy around each other, although a keg of beer and a home-team victory in a playoff game usually have to be involved. Most of the time, though, male friendships center on visceral, not emotional, experiences. You know, like ballgames, poker nights and rote repetition of the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita." That's why it doesn't matter that the most probing question you'll hear asked when guys get together is on the level of, "Man, did you see that Elle McPherson? Is she hot or what?"

Paige, a friend for more than a decade, is convinced "most men don't spend a lot of time nurturing friendships. Women's friendship are reflective. Guys just hang out."

But that's not a negative thing. We don't ask other guys personal questions about their relationships for the same reason we don't ask for directions when we're lost. It's our business, and we'll deal with it ourselves. Just because we don't talk about emotional issues with each other doesn't mean we don't have them.

That's where friendships with women come in. They are usually the subject of those issues, and therefore the most logical ones to discuss them with. Whether it's a spat with a spouse or a new girlfriend you're trying to impress, guys always need advice on dealing with women, and who better to get that from than another woman?

Naturally, the need is reciprocated. "Male companionship can be much preferred to female companionship because you get the man's perspective on relationships," Paige says.

Too bad this sexual difference is also the ultimate barrier to forming cross-gender friendships. Another female friend, Stace, told me that "women make the separation between sex and friendship much more than men do." In other words, women are more capable of looking at a guy and seeing a potential pal.

For guys, friendship with a woman is generally our second choice. If sex is absolutely not an option, we feel out of place, like Burt Reynolds at a marriage counselors convention. Since the payoff to a platonic relationship is emotional, not physical, it can take us a lot longer to appreciate its value.

Which is probably where the much-discussed male lack of commitment comes from. It's not the fear of sex with the same person. It's the awkwardness of having that person as your closest friend. Watching an evening of "Sisters" episodes seems more inviting. Still, nothing helped me finally appreciate female friendship quite like marrying Judy last year.

With one swift "I do," the whole sexual tension thing was gone. She and I could act on our impulses anytime, while all other women are clearly off-limits. That means I could finally relax and appreciate them strictly as friends.

Now I just have to wait for a graduate school class reunion to explain myself.

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