Can men and women really be friends?

It’s the age-old question. Debated amongst many.

I caught “When Harry Met Sally” on cable the other night (it was a Monday, the only night a week I am home by myself, sans boyfriend or work events).

I guess the movie “proves” that men and women can never be 100% friends – the potential for them to be more is always there, regardless of platonic behavior. The curiosity of what it would be like to date your friend ducks in and out of the edges of possibility, whether you intend to act on it or not.

It got me thinking about all of my past significant relationships. Every single one of them, including my marriage, started with friendship. My ex-husband and I were good friends for three years in college before we started dating our senior year. Neither one of had a crush on the other previously; we both agreed our feelings had been strictly platonic. And they were. But the potential for the chemistry to shift with the wind was always there, whether we knew it or not. My ex-cub and I were friends first too – but with some benefits (perhaps therein lies the…uh…rub).

With both those relationships, my sister had said, “It’s like ‘When Harry Met Sally!’” implying that those relationships were sure to last. It gave me comfort, and the assurance that relationships that begin with friendship are the best kind. You already know one another, and since you’re not trying to woo the other person you are free to be yourself.  So naturally a relationship that starts in that manner trumps a relationship that starts where romantic options are in plain sight, where you calculatedly reveal parts of yourself over time.

But does it? Does starting a relationship with friendship actually insure its longevity and strength?
I wrote a post supporting this theory just a few months ago. My ex-cub and I had just broken up and I was braving the dating trenches. I couldn’t figure out how I could enter into a relationship with someone where our agendas distorted our perception of one another. I believed that I’d have better luck falling in love with someone I already knew, or met in a platonic fashion. I thought I would need to discover that I loved them over time, the way it happened for Harry and Sally.
My boyfriend and I had an intense talk the other day, where we discussed deeper issues and what is important to us long term. Afterwards, it dawned on me that this kind of conversation might never have occurred had we been friends first. We would have assumed we knew those things about eachother already. But are those kinds of assumptions a short cut around really digging deep into what makes the other person tick? Are they detours around the hard work that inevitably makes your foundation stronger, and your love for one another heartier?
After our talk, I felt a newfound surge of love, one that felt more expansive and sustainable than what I had felt before. I realized that in this relationship, one in which we were not friends first, our friendship gets to grow alongside, or inside, our romantic one.

This time, no one can exclaim, “It’s like ‘When Harry Met Sally!’”

And I’m a lot more comfortable with that.

Why do we care about the marriages of strangers?

In the early years of my marriage, and even before that, when my ex husband and I were dating (ie. when things were good) I would open the New York Times style section to read the Modern Love column.  The “vows” section, a two page spread of wedding announcements, didn’t interest me, although for some reason I’d quickly glance at the couples’ last names to locate inter-faith marriages (foreshadowing?).  Sometimes I’d read the feature story to learn how the couple met, or what they did for a living. The feature story seemed to be reserved for power players or socialites, and I must have been intrigued by how they were able to “have it all” – a successful career, good looks, and of course, true love. 

During the period when my marriage was on the rocks, I found myself perusing the vows section more closely. I did this when my husband wasn’t around, to avoid detection (some people sneak porn; I’d sneak wedding announcements).  I’d study the photographs of the happy glowing couples and would experience a brief pang of yearning.
After my divorce, I didn’t even think to read this section, and when I did happen to come across it I’d roll my eyes. Sounds bitter I know, but at that point I saw things differently. Or rather, I felt I saw through things – I saw past the shiny idyllic surface and guessed there was more going on than meets the eye.  It strengthened my view that the media – books, movies, magazines – glorified marriage, and presented is as some fairytale illusion.
I considered blogging on this subject last week,  and then something in today’s vow’s section sealed the deal. The feature story was about the marriage of a guy named Matt Kay to a woman named Sascha Rothchild. Ms. Rothchild is the author of the book ‘How to Get Divorced by 30.’  
Yep. She got divorced, published a memoir about it, and then married again – announcing it in the vows section.  How’s that for irony?
It made me question who actually reads this section. Women who have never been married and hope to someday? Or is it women in unhappy marriages who read it? Do men? If you don’t know the people in it, how is it any more interesting than reading the classifieds when you’re not job hunting? Or stock listings when you’re broke?
You might be wondering why I found myself reading it today. It was the feature story that drew my attention. If a woman who has experienced divorce (a kind of shattering of the wedding fantasy) is able to re-embrace the joys of marriage, come full circle, and announce it to the world,  then maybe the vows section has a purpose. Perhaps its staying power is as strong, and as hopeful, as a long lasting marriage.
Do you ever read this section and stop to wonder what it says about you?

Meet the Fockersteins.

My parents know I’ve been seeing someone (I’ll call him “John”). Immediately after my divorce, they were the drivers of the “Cougel needs to find another husband” bandwagon, but that was almost four years ago, and since then I’ve had my share of bungled dates, breakups, and experiences that seemed to have stemmed their concern. Or rather, they’ve seen me navigate the single path and grow, and at this point, they just want me to be happy.

Note: For those of you that don’t have a Jewish mother, or parents to whom their children and grandchildren fill their days, thoughts, and hearts, you might think I “worry” what my parents think waay too much. That dedicating a post to their involvement in my love life is immature or misdirected. That’s okay. But if you do, I hope you keep reading.

My parents’ trust in my decisions shows. They take my lead. I’ve mentioned John in passing, when relevant, but mostly, unless I bring it up, they don’t ask. By “they,” I really mean Mom. She’s done a 180 as far as the nudging goes. And for a Jewish Mother (especially mine), that’s huge. I’ve been busy and immersed in my new job so I haven’t actually had the opportunity to talk about him to Mom, but also, I’m taking things with him day by day. I’m not forcing my future or collecting people’s support as forward momentum.

I haven’t been quite ready to have John meet my family anyway. My family is a lot. There are many of us, yes, but we are all close, break into Hebrew randomly, and talk over each other. There is a lot of hugging, complimenting, hair touching, and eating. It’s no small feat for someone who cares what I think, and what my family thinks of him – not to mention him being culturally and religiously different –  to meet them for the first time. I’ve been home for countless Sabbath meals since John and I met, and bringing him with me wasn’t a consideration.

Until this past week. Something shifted. Our relationship is growing, as all things should with time. My mother planned a BBQ dinner in honor of my sister’s birthday. I didn’t ask anyone what they thought about my inviting John – if it was too early, or what they felt about it. I just asked him to come. He was pleased. We didn’t make a big deal about it. I didn’t feel like it was a big deal. If I did, then I suspect I wouldn’t have invited him in the first place.

My dad called to ask me if “The Him” was coming to dinner (translated from Hebrew: “Ha-hoo”). It basically means “the guy” but with less weight. My father is notorious for “forgetting” the names of his daughters’ significant others, until they become truly significant. I laughed, “Yes, Dad. I’m bringing The Him.” And then he surprised me by asking me to spell my boyfriend’s first and last name for him. (His real name is more complicated than ‘John’). “What do you need his last name for?” I said. “I’m sure Mom already Googled him.” (I know for a fact that she has but I wasn’t sure she told my dad.)

Dinner was great. John had plenty of things to talk to my brother in-laws about (by things I mean, I overheard phrases like “interest rates” and “economic reform”). My nieces didn’t flinch when introduced to him, which I had been worried about. Just last month my 2.5 year old niece asked me where “the boy with the black T-shirt was,” referring to my ex-cub. This time, she interrupted the mortgage rate conversation to look me and John in the eye and ask us, “Is there a baby in your house?”

When we checked the NJ transit schedule, we realized we had ten minutes to get to the station to catch our train back to NYC and scrambled to get our coats. Every time I see my parents, my mother asks me to send her a list of things I need. I can easily get all of these items in NY (almonds, avocados, advil, socks), but I send her the list anyway, because it makes her happy.

Mom was thrown by our abrupt departure. “But wait! Cougel! What about your things? I didn’t have time to collect them for you!” She ran to the cabinets, opening the refrigerator to toss coffee and muffins into a bag. I told her it was OK – that I’d get everything in the city, no problem. On my way downstairs she pushed a ziploc filled with ibuprofen into my hands (Mom only buys generic).

Goodbyes and thank yous were exchanged amidst the flurry, and John and I, along with my cousin and his girlfriend, packed into my dad’s car in the garage and got ready to pull out. And then I saw Mom. She was standing at the car window holding a four-pack of toilet paper. “You need some?” she asked, pulling a roll out and holding it up to me.

I don’t know if I felt worse rejecting the forlorn roll of toilet paper, or my mom, so I took it.

The train was pulling up as we got out of the car, and John turned to thank my father for the lovely evening. I overheard him say: “You have a beautiful family…and a beautiful daughter.”

“You’re welcome. Nice to see you,” My dad said.

And then my father called my boyfriend by his name.

Do women want to marry their dads?

This is a common question. Many books have been written about it. But I wonder if the question is open ended and its answer varies for everyone.

Some therapists claim that a woman who marries a man like her father probably had a difficult relationship with him (or he was absent) and she spends her life looking for someone who can fill that vacancy. Others say that a daughter’s relationship with her father is naturally more complicated than the relationship she has with her mother, and that dynamic informs her choices later.

Is the notion that we are looking for a man like our father something we women adamantly refuse to accept, or think we can get away from?  I know many women – myself included – who when they embarked on that search for their future spouse (usually in their early 20’s), refused to give this conceit much thought.

I know I did. Looking back, my ex-husband’s character was nothing like my dad’s, nor was his physique. I wondered, even after we divorced, whether the fact that he was the opposite of my dad, and the men that I was surrounded by growing up (my somewhat macho, tall, strong and silent Israeli uncles and cousins), played a large role in my choice to marry him. Rebellion? Attraction to someone “different”? Or an adamant refusal to acknowledge that deep down, I needed someone with the wonderful qualities that my father possesses? What did I know, as a twenty one year old girl thrust out of college and into the real world, about what I really wanted? Or what was really good for me? 

I’m one of three girls – no brothers. My parents are happily married (still!) and I wonder if my dad being the only male, surrounded by four women, intensified our impression of him as strong and omniscient, and reinforced the male imprint he had on us. It might have been diffused had I had brothers. I will never know. But does it matter?

My friend asked me the other night how things were going with my new boyfriend, and said he wondered whether I was with this guy because he “checked all the boxes” for me. I found that question odd. “No way, I said. It’s the opposite. He’s nine years younger than me, not Jewish, and figuring out his path career wise.” This is not the obvious or optimal check list for a career-driven Jewish divorcee in her late thirties. And on the surface, it’s the opposite check list that my ex-husband possessed (age appropriate, Jewish, nice Jewish family, etc).

But I no longer concern myself with such things.  Check lists, at least for me, are now about character. Does the guy possess inner strength, patience, kindness, ambition, and a propensity to be a leader?  In assessing the traits of my new boyfriend, the answer is a resounding yes.

Does he fit the bill physically? Well, he looks nothing like my father (that would be creepy), but he is tall – not just taller than the guys I’ve dated, but as tall as a basketball player. I can sit in his lap. I get to feel like Carrie did with Aidan. When my best friend from high school heard how tall my boyfriend was, she texted me: “Cougel, it’s about time. I remember how you used to say you wanted to date a manly guy… tall and strong like your Israeli relatives.”

This dawned on me yesterday (and consequently inspired this post), when my new boyfriend, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when we could have been outside brunching and drinking, helped me set up a system of organization for my new job, which requires thorough record keeping. I’m a techtard, and have been anxious to get the appropriate methods set up that work for me. My new boyfriend understands this. With my computer in his lap, and excel open, he morphed into a teacher, before my eyes.  He asked me what I needed, and then walked me through Excel-hell, step by step. I got frustrated and impatient, not knowing exactly what I needed and wanting to get outside.  I felt like a little girl. I went back in time to when I was in the ninth grade cramming for a math test (I sucked at math), and sitting with my dad in the dining room as he tutored me (he was an accountant).  I would throw little “I don’t want to be here” fits, which my father didn’t indulge. 

Just like my boyfriend.

I think that us women, in some small way, like to feel like little girls with the men we are dating. We don’t want to be the boss – even though we act bossy. We want a man who takes charge, who can teach us about things we don’t know (or have the patience to learn), because sometimes they know what we need better than we do. I don’t care if this sounds anti-feminist. I think that women are wired a certain way, as a result of how we were raised, and it’s just the way it is. Rather than rejecting this – which might lead to poor choices (ie. partnering with the wrong guy), don’t you think we should embrace it?

It’s not important to over analyze it, or attempt to track back the exact thing about our fathers that we want or don’t want in a man. It’s not going to be obvious. It’s going to crop up in random moments and interactions, when the man we are with does something that just feels comfortable and familiar, in all the good ways. 

It just feels like home.