A few years ago, I dated the ex of a friend. I told myself it wasn’t completely immoral—I knew the guy before she did, they’d only dated a few months, she was living with someone else by the time he and I got together—but I knew I was playing with fire. I spilled the news over lunch at Le Gamin. She said she was happy for me, then turned her mouth down and drank an entire glass of water. After that, our friendship wasn’t the same. We could never talk about our boyfriends, which eliminated 80 percent of our conversational material. Instead, we were forced to discuss only the safe stuff: eyebrow waxers, Manhattan real estate, and people we hated. A few weeks later, I realized I was one of them when she told me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. Soon after that, he broke up with me. He and I are still close, but she and I no longer speak.
In a city where everyone knows everyone, it’s not uncommon for two friends to have a common romantic interest—whether it’s the girl across the bar or your friend’s boyfriend. But there don’t seem to be any clear ethical guidelines for resolving such conflicts. Is the singles scene a free-for-all, where everyone is fair game? Is anyone you fucked off-limits to your friends? And why do girls like to flirt with two men at once?
Peter Hyman, who is in his early thirties and the author of the upcoming essay collection The Reluctant Metrosexual, developed a system with a male friend several years ago when they were going to a lot of parties. If they were both talking to the same girl and one wanted to “claim” her, he would tap the other with his foot. The second guy could tap back to contest, but the first tapper had the right of first refusal. For the most part, it worked well. “There were nights when one of us would go home thinking, Damn, she’s perfect. She should be my wife,” says Hyman. “More often than not, neither of us succeeded in the long term. It was more about our friendship.”
Unfortunately, my 25-year-old friend Matt didn’t know about the tap system when he got into his own case of three’s-a-crowd. He and his buddy John, whom he’d known since high school, had been bar-hopping in the Village and met a cute college student who gave her phone number to Matt and her e-mail address to John. Because he’d gotten her number, Matt was convinced she liked him more. John wasn’t.
“We came up with four possibilities,” Matt recalls. “Neither of us goes for her, all three of us hang out and we see what happens, we pursue her separately and may the best man win, or we flip a coin.” They flipped. Matt lost.
“How could you flip for it,” I rage at him, “when you knew she liked you more?”
“It’s all so clear in Matt’s mind: No woman is worth losing a friendship.”
“Because if we had done ‘May the best man win,’ then at worst one of us would win and we’d never be friends again.” But there was another reason he agreed to flip: “I figured if I won, he wouldn’t feel he was beaten. And if I didn’t, John would go for her, it wouldn’t work out, and when I called her, I wouldn’t be stepping on his toes.”
I find myself amazed at his sense of loyalty. It’s all so simple and clear in his mind: No woman is worth losing a friendship. “It’s like that Simpsons episode,” says Timothy, a 25-year-old real-estate investor who prefers double dates to single dates so he can hang with his friend. “The family meets that gay antiques dealer, and Marge is trying to explain to Homer that he’s gay. She says, ‘He prefers the company of men.’ Homer says, ‘Who doesn’t?’ ”
Because of their sense of loyalty (or their innate lack of respect for women), men, particularly of the twentysomething variety, tend to divide buddies into two categories: wingman and cockblocker. You’re either helping or hurting, and the difference is clear. In my own experience (and I’ve been on both sides), women are much more cutthroat, willing to play dirty to get play.
“Men go through this black-and-white process,” says Christan Marashio, the 35-year-old woman who runs the dating service LockandKeyParties.com. “Women act like they’re less territorial, but there’s always underlying competitiveness. Men don’t get into pissing matches with their friends. They do it over sports, money, or a job. They travel in packs and like to know that whoever is in their pack has their back.”
Women do get into pissing matches, she says—and they’ll sink low: “I was out at a bar with this girl from my softball team, and I was flirting with this guy who looked like Matt Damon. He was coming on to me pretty strongly. Then my friend came over and started flirting with him, too. I went to the bathroom and left my bag. I come back and my bag’s still there and they’re gone. I wasn’t mad that she wound up screwing him. I was mad that she didn’t show me the courtesy of asking how I felt. Because I would have said, ‘He’s all yours.’ ” But her tone reveals she still harbors a grudge—which isn’t surprising. Someone could have stolen her bag.
To be fair, women aren’t always backstabbers. We’re much better than men are at passing our “almosts” onto our friends, because when little or nothing has happened sexually, it’s easy to be generous. We pine less, so we pawn more.
But in a group situation, like a party, it tends to be every girl for herself. “For women, there’s more at stake,” says Hyman. “Guys have an advantage, because women are more interesting in New York. If you have to give up one, you can probably find another one at the same party. For women, it’s not as easy because we men can be idiots a good portion of the time.”
So how did my buddy Matt resolve his situation? John e-mailed the girl, but she said she was busy for a while and couldn’t get together with him, so John decided it was a blow-off. Now it’s Matt’s turn, but after all this time, he feels like he’s missed his chance: “The fact is,” he says, “even if I called her and she liked me, it would strain my relationship with John. No guy enjoys discovering that his friend has succeeded where he failed.”