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When Harry Met Sally is right – men and women can’t ever be friends

You may not agree, but just wait until your male friend tells you he loves you right at the start of a 30-hour car trip

Olivia Petter
Saturday 13 January 2024 12:54 GMT
When Harry Met Sally - trailer

Ask yourself whether men and women can really be friends and chances are you’ll hear the gravelly voice of Harry Burns arguing why they objectively cannot. “The sex part always gets in the way,” he famously explains to Sally Albright in Nora Ephron’s classic romcom, When Harry Met Sally

Albright, played by Meg Ryan, staunchly disagrees: “That’s not true,” she replies. “I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.” But, after some back and forth, Burns (Billy Crystal) insists: “No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.”

Their conversation highlights a perpetual predicament, one that is regularly analysed across dinner tables and opposing sides of the bed. Can two heterosexual people of the opposite sex ever really maintain a meaningful friendship? Can they really be vulnerable with one another in the way good friends are without sparking envy in their respective partners? And, if they’re both single, can they avoid the awkward inevitability of a drunken fling?

Statistically, they can. At least, that’s according to this survey from YouGov, which found that 84 per cent of Britons think straight men and women can be friends. Anecdotally, though, things aren’t quite as clear-cut. Take the recent viral TikTok clip in which a woman revealed that her best friend “confessed” he was in love with her at the beginning of a 30-hour road trip.

In the clip, Rachel Foster, from Atlanta, Georgia, asked her followers for “help”, writing in the caption: “POV: Your best friend just confessed his love to you and you still have 28 more hours left of the drive.” The video has since garnered more than three million views and thousands of comments from users identifying with the scenario. “Same. Before a 10-hour drive home. Next week is our 15th wedding anniversary,” wrote one person. “My best friend did this five years ago, we just got married this month,” added another.

So far, Harry’s side of the argument is looking pretty strong. And after spending years trying to side with the more optimistic view of Albright, I have to say I now agree with everyone’s favourite acerbic, knitwear-obsessed cynic. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of male friends. But my friendships with them are nothing like the ones I have with the women in my life. We’re close, sure, but in a more detached, arm’s length kind of way. I think where we often go wrong when we discuss this issue is that we take too broad a view of the word “friendship”. Of course, men and women can be friends on a surface level. You can go for dinners occasionally, walks in the park, take trips to the cinema, and so on. But I think those friends can only ever stretch so deep until someone winds up getting hurt. 

That someone could be you, your friend, or, more likely, one of your partners (if you have them). And it isn’t your fault, either. Think about it: if you’re really being emotionally intimate with someone in the way you are with close friends, there’s a limit to how far you can take that until your feelings for them metastasize into something beyond the platonic. It doesn’t make you a sex-crazed, romance-obsessed lunatic. It just makes you human. 

We’re wired to crave connection. And in today’s hyper-online, somewhat socially inept society, that’s a fleetingly rare commodity. So the second we find it with someone who happens to be the gender we’re attracted to, well, we’re going to cling to it. And there’s nothing wrong with that; some of the healthiest relationships start as friendships. 

Just ask Harry, who winds up proving his point because – spoiler alert – he and Albright end up together, marking the magical conclusion to a film that is often hailed as one of the greatest romcoms ever written.

When he confronts Sally in the film’s climactic scene, at a party on New Year’s Eve as the clock counts down to midnight, he tells her that “when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible”. It’s a perfect romantic gesture – the kind of scene that could only exist in a film. For most of us, when our male friends confess their love for us, we don’t expect a big romantic monologue – we just pray that it doesn’t happen five minutes into a 30-hour car journey.

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