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Ask Augusten Burroughs: Why Couldn't We Be "Just Friends"?

This-Is-How-Cover Over the past several weeks, Augusten Burroughs tackled your questions about handling chronically late spouses, losing your best friend, infidelity, growing up gay, optimism, irony, and anorexia.

In his last Omni column (for now, at least), he explains why people assume the worst when a married woman is just friends with a man who's not her husband.

And if he hasn't touched on the problem that's been giving you fits, chances are good you'll find fitting advice in This Is How.

Dear Augusten,

I am a married woman that developed a close relationship with a recently divorced man after I relocated for my job to a new city far away from my family. My husband was well aware of the friendship and trusted me implicitly, as I trusted him.

When my family did move up, my friend spent many hours with my husband and with the family. He became a close family friend.

What irritates me is the fact that so many people assumed that we were having an affair. Several people came up and asked me if I were having an affair. When I told them no, they then had the gall to ask me if my friend was gay! When I told them no, I could just imagine what popped into their heads and what most of them would have liked to have asked next--"How do you know?"

I was a cheerleader to my friend when it came to him pursuing romantic relationships after the sting from his divorce had eased. He has found a girlfriend, and I am very happy for him. Unfortunately, the girl friend does not want me in his life and my friend has managed to rationalize it in his head that it is all for the best. I have accepted that there will be no more contact except possibly at an occasional conference, since we are both in the same profession. He is aware that if he needs anything, my husband and I will always be there for him. I owe him a lot, because he helped me through some tough times.

Can a man and a woman just be friends? Why do people always think the worst? What do you say to people who have the gall to ask such stupid questions? Are my husband and I just weird in the fact that we trust each other? Thank you! --Anon

Dear Anon,

I’m not the least bit surprised so many people in your life assumed your friendship with this recently divorced man must be a “friendship with benefits” but why, you ask? Because we are a society that reports as news when the nipple of a celebrity becomes exposed on television, provide our children with genital-free dolls to play with, and obsess relentlessly over which combinations of people should and should not be allowed to have sex with each other.

What’s more, we are accustomed to a certain pattern whereby a person denies that a relationship is sexual in nature, and then later either confesses it, or the media exposes this truth. So, when you explained to your friends that this new friendship with a recently divorced man was platonic, eyebrows were raised.

For one thing, a lot of adults have a difficult time making new friends with other adults. Maybe that’s part of the reason Facebook exploded as it has: it re-introduced you as an adult to a friend you had when you were six and forgot all about.The mere fact that you made a friend as an adult may have run counter to the experiences of the people you told. And so they were suspicious.

As hurtful and frustrating as the abrupt end to your new friendship must be, the other side of the coin has a brilliant shine, and because I am drawn to all things shiny, this is what I would focus on: the trust that you and your husband share is thrown into sharp relief by the lack of trust between this new couple. Maybe in time, your former friend and his new girlfriend--if they stay together--will develop the same depth of trust you and your husband know.

For me, this story actually has a happy ending, because I was expecting it to go somewhere else entirely. I was waiting for the moment when you said to me, “and then all of a sudden, I kissed this divorced man, and he kissed me back, and now I feel so terrible.” Which makes me, obviously, exactly no better than everybody else you told, who listened with raised eyebrows and said, “Oh, really? Just friends?”

What I find so excellent here is that you said screw the clichés, and you became friends with the guy anyway. But then you involved your husband, and the two of you together extended your friendship as a couple. From my point of view, the whole experience seems to have sort of acted as a kind of vow renewal ceremony, you know?

I mean, the only thing better than having such a deep, faith and trust in one’s partner is having this deep faith and trust affirmed. So, I am sorry, Anon, that your grown-up friendship had to have such a childish end. But it seems to me that your consolation prize makes it all worth it. --Augusten

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