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Platonic Plus : He's Chummy Yet Flirty, Touchy Yet Distant; He's a Lite Lover

August 29, 1994|LIZ BRODY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every morning, shortly after 9, Deborah Fluker's office phone would ring. It was always the hunk of a runway model she'd met in a costume store, asking if she'd gotten to work OK.

Later she'd call him back to find out what he wanted for dinner, wondering if he'd surprise her with some silly trinket or card to add to those that already cluttered her Manhattan apartment. Chances are, they'd spend the evening falling asleep cuddled up in front of the TV.

Trinkets, costumes, cards, cuddling--evidence of a young couple in love. But cuddling was as far as it progressed, much to Fluker's bewilderment.

"We did a lot of touching, dropped popcorn into each other's mouths, held hands walking down the street--physically intimate things I would never do with a friend," said Fluker, a 36-year-old market research consultant who grew increasingly frustrated as the months went by. Did he just not find her attractive? Was he gay? "He told me, 'No. I don't want to have sex now because it always messes everything up and I want you in my life forever,' " she said.

He's one of a new breed of single, heterosexual males that might be called the "lite lover"--flirtatious yet chummy, physical yet platonic, possessive yet stalwartly uncommitted as he navigates that swampy gray area between romance and friendship.

"Mama never told me about this kind of guy," Fluker complained. "She said, 'Watch out for the wolf or the man who's too nice.' I had to go to therapy over this."

"I think it's an increasing trend," said David Eyler, who co-authored, with Andrea Baridon, "More Than Friends, Less Than Lovers" (Jeremy Tarcher, 1991). Considering the growing number of women in the workplace, Eyler sees "lite love" as a necessary alternative to the office affair. "We've always had the platonic relationship; this is the platonic plus. We're not talking about the blotto, can't-keep-your-hands-off-each-other kind of chemistry. You start out with a resistible attraction and that's key."

Anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of "Anatomy of Love" (Fawcett Columbine, 1992), said the trend transcends the business setting. "I've certainly seen a lot of this," said Fisher, also a research associate in the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "There's so much turnover these days, people are finding something that's comfortable while looking for the next true love. . . . Sex complicates relationships."

*

But why, some women wonder, are men all of a sudden paying so much attention to "complications"? Fear of AIDS is a factor, experts say, but only in a small percentage of cases. Is it that so many women are running with the wolves, men are running for cover?

Getting warmer.

"Men, deep down, feel confused," said Dr. Mark Goulston, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and founder/president of Direct Conflict Resolution Group. "They hear the 'don't, don't, don't' and in an effort not to be aggressive, they often throw passion out with the bath water."

Certainly in the recent decades of sexual integration--at the office and school, in music and sports--men have been learning to see women as colleagues as opposed to conquests. And in the process, they're doing some soul-searching about their own relationships, trying to be more intimate with people in general without depending on sex as the bonding agent.

"Wouldn't you know it," said Playboy magazine's James Petersen. "Guys finally figure out what women want and it scares (women) to death."

From his vantage point as "the Playboy Advisor," columnist Petersen adds with irony that women are missing the very renegade lust of men that they've been criticizing for 20 years.

But if lite love is fabulously PC, its G-rating may take some getting used to. In the meantime, many women are still reeling from rejection.

"This has thrown me for such a loop," said Cathy Harris, 36, a Los Angeles writer, after six months of spending affectionate evenings with Scott, a good-looking 40-year-old. "Growing up Catholic, the nuns all drummed into me that, with the exception of your husband, men don't like you if they want to go to bed with you. Now that I've met one who doesn't, I'm thinking: What's wrong with me? Aren't I pretty, smart or sexy enough?"

Scott is mystified too.

"I don't have an answer for it," he said. "Cathy is an oasis in this city. She's not only beautiful and intelligent, but there isn't anything we can't discuss. . . . You ask yourself, 'Why don't I move forward with this person?' And that answer changes from time to time. (But) it has nothing to do with her.

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