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Platonic Plus : He’s Chummy Yet Flirty, Touchy Yet Distant; He’s a Lite Lover

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every morning, shortly after 9, Deborah Fluker’s office phone would ring. It was always the hunk of a runway model she’d met in a costume store, asking if she’d gotten to work OK.

Later she’d call him back to find out what he wanted for dinner, wondering if he’d surprise her with some silly trinket or card to add to those that already cluttered her Manhattan apartment. Chances are, they’d spend the evening falling asleep cuddled up in front of the TV.

Trinkets, costumes, cards, cuddling--evidence of a young couple in love. But cuddling was as far as it progressed, much to Fluker’s bewilderment.

“We did a lot of touching, dropped popcorn into each other’s mouths, held hands walking down the street--physically intimate things I would never do with a friend,” said Fluker, a 36-year-old market research consultant who grew increasingly frustrated as the months went by. Did he just not find her attractive? Was he gay? “He told me, ‘No. I don’t want to have sex now because it always messes everything up and I want you in my life forever,’ ” she said.

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He’s one of a new breed of single, heterosexual males that might be called the “lite lover"--flirtatious yet chummy, physical yet platonic, possessive yet stalwartly uncommitted as he navigates that swampy gray area between romance and friendship.

“Mama never told me about this kind of guy,” Fluker complained. “She said, ‘Watch out for the wolf or the man who’s too nice.’ I had to go to therapy over this.”

“I think it’s an increasing trend,” said David Eyler, who co-authored, with Andrea Baridon, “More Than Friends, Less Than Lovers” (Jeremy Tarcher, 1991). Considering the growing number of women in the workplace, Eyler sees “lite love” as a necessary alternative to the office affair. “We’ve always had the platonic relationship; this is the platonic plus. We’re not talking about the blotto, can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other kind of chemistry. You start out with a resistible attraction and that’s key.”

Anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of “Anatomy of Love” (Fawcett Columbine, 1992), said the trend transcends the business setting. “I’ve certainly seen a lot of this,” said Fisher, also a research associate in the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “There’s so much turnover these days, people are finding something that’s comfortable while looking for the next true love. . . . Sex complicates relationships.”

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But why, some women wonder, are men all of a sudden paying so much attention to “complications”? Fear of AIDS is a factor, experts say, but only in a small percentage of cases. Is it that so many women are running with the wolves, men are running for cover?

Getting warmer.

“Men, deep down, feel confused,” said Dr. Mark Goulston, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and founder/president of Direct Conflict Resolution Group. “They hear the ‘don’t, don’t, don’t’ and in an effort not to be aggressive, they often throw passion out with the bath water.”

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Certainly in the recent decades of sexual integration--at the office and school, in music and sports--men have been learning to see women as colleagues as opposed to conquests. And in the process, they’re doing some soul-searching about their own relationships, trying to be more intimate with people in general without depending on sex as the bonding agent.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” said Playboy magazine’s James Petersen. “Guys finally figure out what women want and it scares (women) to death.”

From his vantage point as “the Playboy Advisor,” columnist Petersen adds with irony that women are missing the very renegade lust of men that they’ve been criticizing for 20 years.

But if lite love is fabulously PC, its G-rating may take some getting used to. In the meantime, many women are still reeling from rejection.

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“This has thrown me for such a loop,” said Cathy Harris, 36, a Los Angeles writer, after six months of spending affectionate evenings with Scott, a good-looking 40-year-old. “Growing up Catholic, the nuns all drummed into me that, with the exception of your husband, men don’t like you if they want to go to bed with you. Now that I’ve met one who doesn’t, I’m thinking: What’s wrong with me? Aren’t I pretty, smart or sexy enough?”

Scott is mystified too.

“I don’t have an answer for it,” he said. “Cathy is an oasis in this city. She’s not only beautiful and intelligent, but there isn’t anything we can’t discuss. . . . You ask yourself, ‘Why don’t I move forward with this person?’ And that answer changes from time to time. (But) it has nothing to do with her.

“People would say the guy is afraid of intimacy. That is as far from the truth as anything could be. I crave it and experience it with her on many levels, but not on the sexual level. . . . I think it has more to do with maturity in the sense of really making sure this is the right thing. To take it to a sexual thing, the responsibility becomes huge. I can take sex lightly with somebody else, but not with her.”

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Judith Davenport, a Santa Monica psychotherapist, said that despite all the rhetoric, it’s still very hard for a woman to value herself if a man doesn’t desire her sexually. “It’s certainly a cultural thing but it’s so pervasive, sometimes I wonder if it isn’t genetic.”

It’s especially hard for the marriage-minded. Dr. Robert Kolodny, medical director of the Behavioral Medicine Institute in New Canaan, Conn., who has written several books with Masters & Johnson--the latest titled “Heterosexuality” (HarperCollins, 1994)--reported a “litany of despair” from commitment-seeking females who “sense the lite lover uses sexual abstinence to regulate the relationship so it doesn’t go over the speed limit.”

But for some women, a slow drive is just what the doctor ordered--as in all the walking wounded who have been burned, divorced, or who are trying to break out of abusive patterns.

“This gives somebody a place to calm down and re-experience the male or female as something other than scary or negative,” said Davenport, adding that lite love is also great practice for anyone who’s simply rusty in the relationship department. “You’re not dominated by your fusion fantasies so you can see this other person as a human being. And you get a great perspective into the word of the opposite sex.”

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Of course, lite love can get heavy (after all, Harry met Sally that way). Bernadette Cummings, who is celibate and considers massages and hand-holding signs of serious intent, hopes that will happen. Suddenly interested in intensifying a platonic friendship of seven years, the 29-year-old San Fernando Valley resident explained: “If we start going out, we wouldn’t have sex but I’d want more physical contact, like the lite love situation. I’d be seeing if I wanted to marry him.”

For both sexes, living in a place like Los Angeles, where disconnected singles commune with “Seinfeld” and hopscotch between mates, a lite lover can be a remedy for loneliness.

“You get a family feeling--the sense that this person is going to be there for you no matter what,” said Tina Tessina, a Long Beach psychologist whose most recent book is “True Partners: A Workbook for Building a Lasting Intimate Relationship” (Jeremy Tarcher/Perigree, 1993), co-authored with Riley Smith. “For people with dysfunctional or widely scattered families, the lite lover can be a replacement.”

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Maybe that explains the story of Eileen and Ted, who met three years ago and have been living happily ever after. Apart.

The 31-year-old, self-described soul mates are in contact daily. And, even though both have had other relationships on the side, they say their psyches are so in sync, when they walk down the street their heads inevitably turn at exactly the same moment.

So why don’t they just . . . you know?

“I value my relationship with Eileen so much, I don’t want to jeopardize it by getting closer and becoming critical of her,” said Ted, the one who wants to keep things lite. “It’s like saying I won’t drive the Rolls-Royce I have in the garage because I’ll get a dent in it.”

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Eileen, who is willing to suffer a few dents, stays in the relationship because she can’t imagine not having Ted in her life. “I think the closeness we have,” she said, “a lot of married people will never have. It’s very comforting. I know there’s somebody who loves me unconditionally.”

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Could there be a biology lesson in all of this? After all, an important boundary is being crossed here. Until recently, a woman who wanted to cozy up without getting sexual was labeled a “tease.” Now men are getting into the snuggling act.

Helen Fisher proposes that there is actually a comfort chemistry at play--the kind of good feelings lovers get from each other after the sexual chemistry wears off. “There is a science looking at the brain chemistry of attachment,” she said, pointing to two hormones--oxytocin and vasopressin--that have been identified in association with bonding behavior in certain animals.

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“In humans, the attachment drives are very strong. With long-term relationships, the first stage of crazy, euphoric love is followed by a more permanent phase of attachment, which offers a sense of tranquillity, warmth and peace. People who can’t find the first stage are going for the second.”

The trick, of course, is not to get so blissed out on a cuddle buzz that you close yourself off from meeting Mr. or Ms. Right.

Deborah Fluker had to go cold turkey after a year of waiting for her runway model to figure out what he wanted. Nevertheless, she said that year was one of the most exciting times in her life and she grew tremendously. “I got in touch with what I wanted in a mate,” she said. “Bryan was such a child and I realized I needed someone more mature.

“My husband is an adult. He’s responsible and knows what he wants from me as a woman. But . . . I do miss my playmate.”

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