Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Platonic Relationships

This post is in response to Coralcap’s post “Just Friends” about whether it’s possible for a guy and a girl to be only friends and nothing more. My comment started getting long so I turned it into a post.

To quote Coral: "So what do you think? Is it possible to be just friends? Is it worthwhile to keep and/or form friendships with members of the opposite sex when on the Shidduch scene? Are there permissible boundaries or is the platonic relationship as mythical as the Tooth Fairy?"

My response:

When I was in 9th grade, Rabbi Orlofsky came to my school and gave his famous speech on Platonic Relationships, where he states that such a thing is impossible because males think about sex a lot and therefore in the back of their minds always want something more. He advised all girls to “break up” so to speak with the guys who they are “just friends” with. The speech didn’t really affect me one way or the other since I didn’t have close guy friends, but I remember girls thinking he was extreme for telling them to write break up letters to male friends. Being the goody two shoes that I am, I believed most things my teachers and Rabbeim said in high school, and what he said made a lot of sense so I concluded that it was impossible for a guy and a girl to have a platonic relationship.

My views have changed slightly since then. In general I still don’t think it is possible to have platonic relationships, but there are cases where it is possible. Even in those cases, however, I think that both people at some point think about dating the other person. There is always that question of "maybe this will become something more?" hanging between the two people.

Also, from my experience (not personally, but witnessing friends' experiences), what ends up happening is that one of the two people begins to develop deeper feelings for the other person. I know plenty of people who would claim to be in platonic relationships, but the same way one of the girls on the video said that there are people who she calls "friends" who she would agree to date, usually one of the people involved hopes for something more. Unlike what Rabbi Orlofsky said, it is not always the guy who is the one secretly hoping to one day date the girl, just as often it is the other way around.

How does this affect shidduchim? I always learned in school that guys and girls should not interact because this may lead to friendship. The reason I was always told it is bad to become friends with a member of the opposite gender is that then it has the potential to become something more and if you are in high school, when hormones are crazy, it is difficult to keep the halachot of negiah. So, if this were the case then one would logically conclude that this does not hold true when one reaches the stage of shidduchim, because if the friendship becomes something deeper, then the two people can just get married. Right? Why not start becoming friendly with lots of members of the opposite gender when you’re ready to get married, with the purpose of marriage in mind?

My view on this relates to how I see relationships in general. To me relationships aren't something you can just start and end whenever you choose like turning on a song on your iPod that you can pause and play and stop and skip as you choose. I don’t think it is a good idea to have relationships with members of the opposite gender after marriage, because that possibility of it going further exists and that could potentially be a big problem. So unless you’re just going to give up all of your friends of the opposite gender after marriage, why start up these kinds of relationships before marriage just to break them off?

If you’re a girl and you start becoming friendly with lots of guys in the hopes that one day one of them will lead to shidduchim, what do you do when you’ve found the person to marry? I know of girls and guys who are close friends, and when the guy got married he invited female friends of his to his wedding. I find that somewhat awkward, for a few reasons, but on a practical note- weddings are very separate, so the female friend probably won’t even see her friend who is the groom, for more than a few seconds. She’ll dance with the kallah, who she probably doesn’t even know at all. That’s if the guy and girl who are not getting married to each other decide to continue being friends after one or both of them get married. It gets complicated. And if you decide to become friendly with one person at a time, then why not just date? Isn’t that the same thing? So, my biggest problem with becoming friends with guys just when you’re ready for shidduchim is that you’re starting and stopping relationships.

There is another category which I didn’t mention which is “being friendly,” but not “being friends.” This is when two people are more acquaintances, the type of people you have the “Hi how are you?” “I’m good B”H and yourself?” types of conversations with that never get further than that. In my opinion that is just polite and always OK, to just have basic small talk with the other gender. The trick is to make sure it doesn’t get past that, which if one of the parties believes in platonic relationships and the other does not, could get complicated.


  1. Platonic on both ends, as you say, I believe to be impossible (anyone here has seen "When Harry Met Sally"?) If you spend enough time in another's company, you're bound to feel something. The movie begins with Harry stating that there's no such thing as platonic relationships. The end of the movie proves it.

    We all want less complication in our lives. Adults today aren't emotionally mature, so why should teenagers be? Enjoy youth without romantic relationships. Take finals without other concerns.

    Does it mean then that we should view the world through shidduch lenses? Every male is a potential? Yup, I suppose that's what I do.

  2. Funny though that we expect platonic relationships to be possible with certain contexts. Rabbanim are often expected to have platonic relationships with both married and unmarried members of the opposite gender. Most especially kiruv Rabbis and those that work in Sems, especially those sems that cater to the "year(s) in Israel" crowd.

    I guess I find most interesting that our communities typically do all that they can to discourage platonic relationships. However, once one has learned the intricacies of what makes a pot or a piece of food kosher, or not, one is suddenly expected to be able to deal with it. All to often ending with tragic results.

  3. Bookworm- just curious, since you said "every male is potential," don't you think there are some guys who you could never develop feelings for no matter what? Of course you'd never really know that until you tried, so I guess I see what you mean that you would have to assume that all males are potential.

    Mekubal- interesting point that I never thought about- that Kiruv Rabbis are expected to have platonic relationships! Although are are they really expected to become close friends with females? I think it's best if males are mikarev males and females are mikarev females. The Rabbi could just be friendly and then his wife could be the one to build the relationship with the female.

  4. Wow Sterngrad you went above and beyond. A lot of ambiguity follows the whole platonic relationship. Is it possible to be friends? To a certain extent. But I don't think it's possible for a guy and girl to be good friends without ever wondering if they could be more. More about it on the way...

  5. I don't understand the phenomenon of male Rabbis in a female seminary.

  6. SternGrad,

    The issue is that with Kiruv communities, they are typically out of town, way out of town. So you do not have all of the support systems that you do in town. So while the Kiruv work may or may not be done by the wife(especially as the number of children increases that have to be trucked hours to and from school), the Rabbi also acts as a spiritual guide/counselor. Having been a Rav in a Kiruv community for a short while, trust me that if the lady is dealing with an issue, she doesn't want to have to tell the Rabbi's wife, to have her relay it to the Rav, to given an answer to his wife, that she will finally give back to the lady.

    When you deal with a person's raw emotions and try to express empathy, as is required in any counseling situation, it is very easy for feelings to develop.

    Second to that, not all Kiruv Rabbis are married, or stay married, divorces do happen. There is a great many things that can go inadvertently wrong. When I was working in Kiruv, I was hired on as an asst Rav, and in the course of things, a lady needed counseling because she was having marital problems. Because I don't want to be too specific I won't go into all of the details, but I was single at the time and assigned to deal with the issue(this was a VERY Hareidi kiruv organization as well).

    Through the course of things a certain emotional bond emerged, after all she was sharing her deepest feelings and hurts with me on a regular basis. She eventually started suggesting/insisting that we go on what I would call a shopping date. That was when I threw the whole thing into full stop.

    I actually eventually needed to move out of the community to put physical distance as well between us, as she wouldn't stop being forward no matter how direct I or the head Rabbi were with her. Trust me, learning what is and isn't kosher(and a bit more, but that was because I wanted semicha through the Israeli Rabbinate) did not prepare me for that, yet it was still expected.

  7. Rentsy,

    What don't you understand?

    Sems are religious schools for girls in more of a post-highschool pre-college(or in place of college if you are in Israel) educational environment.

    As such there is limud kodesh which, many believe, is better handled by a Rav. Also there is the issue of young girls needing counseling, because their issues could involve serious and complex halakhic issues many would prefer that Rabbanim fill those roles.

  8. Rentsy- I was going to say something similar to what mekubal said- that they need a halachic authority. In addition, the unfortunate matter of fact is that most women aren't as educated as men when it comes to halacha (and of course in halachos that don't apply to women) because most women do not learn gemara, which is the source of halacha.

    Mekubal- Wow! Thanks for sharing that story. I never thought about it that way at all. Maybe that is why many Rabbis get social work degrees- they need to learn the counceling and inter-personal side of things.


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