Can men be friends with women? It sounds like a simple question. And your first response as a modern-thinking person is probably, “Of course.” However, the science shows that it’s not quite that simple. When it comes to male-female relationships, platonic friendship is actually really rare, and it may be even more rare than we think we observe in daily life. So let’s take a deep look at cross-sex friendships! We’ll see what the latest studies show about sexual tension, relationship expectations, self-awareness, and delusions within male-female friendships. Let’s get to it!
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Can Men and Women Be Friends?
Is there really a pure friend zone between heterosexual men and women? Is there a place to be just friends without sexual attraction? For years, we’ve been programmed to think that men and women may start out as friends, but that eventually, if they spend enough time together, romantic feelings will evolve between them. This programming comes from various arenas. They come from Hollywood and prominent teaching that it’s improper for men and women to be friends, especially once one or both are married. It comes as no surprise to any of us that social expectations play a huge role in how we approach relationships… and everything else. So, has this conditioning tainted our opposite-sex friendships?
The Hollywood Syndrome
This question is an age-old one. Billy Crystal told us in When Harry Met Sally that members of the opposite sex cannot have platonic friendships because sexual tension always gets in the way. While Meg Ryan (Sally) protested, in the end, Harry was right. The trend of platonic friends succumbing to romantic attractions pervades through Rachel and Joey and Monica and Chandler in Friends. It happens in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Love and Basketball, Maid of Honor, Just Friends, 13 Going on 30… all stories of platonic relationships that end up sexual. It’s a predominant theme, and we love it. We eat it up every time. Is that because there’s something so true and relateable about it?
Horny Men, Naive Women
We’ve all had it happen or have seen it in our high school circle: Someone goes through a breakup, and she says, “I think we should be good friends.” Or, a guy finally gets up the nerve to ask out the girl he’s been hanging with for months, only to find out that she has no interest in a romantic relationship. How does this happen so frequently?
According to a recent study by Scientific American, women and men view their relationships with friends of the opposite sex in very different ways. Both lean toward delusional. Women consistently stated they had no sexual feelings for their male friends. They underestimated their friend’s sexual attraction to them, as well. They stated repeatedly that their male counterparts had no sexual feelings for them.
The overwhelming majority of these same men, when interviewed separately, admitted that they not only had romantic feelings for their female friends, but they overestimated their friend’s sexual interest in them. They assumed the women felt the same sexual tension they were feeling.
Harder for Men
These results suggest that men, more than women, have an especially difficult time being “just friends.” Men tend to look at sexual attraction within friendships as a positive sign, while women often see it as negative. Men are more likely to pursue a friendship with a woman in the hopes that it will eventually turn sexual, as well.
Women, on the other hand, have less difficulty having platonic relationships with no sexual component at all. They also routinely think they are in platonic relationships when, in reality, the male friend is playing the long game, waiting for a chance at more. Part of the reason this occurs is that in some ways, men benefit more from being close friends with someone of the opposite sex.
The Nature of Opposite-Sex Friendships
What do we mean by men benefit more from opposite-sex relationships? When we take a deep look at platonic friendships between men and women, they often resemble female-female relationships much more than male-male ones. The guy friend is a shoulder to cry on. He’s an opposing view to bounce ideas off of. He’s a big brother. Therefore, he’s allowed to share his most intimate thoughts, cry if he wants to, and talk about difficult situations.
Due to traditional masculine roles and the nature of male friendships that evolve out of them, men don’t do feelings with each other. They are much freer to discuss emotions and speak freely with a female friend than they would be with their circle of dudes. Therefore, men often feel a much more intimate bond with their female friends. This phenomenon of the lack of intimacy in male friendships and the increasing isolation of the American male is discussed at length in “The Importance of Men’s Friendships.”
Females do benefit from having guy friends. But it’s not on the same level. They already have emotional support from their mom, sister, and besties. Women excel at intimate conversation for the most part. They aren’t bound by social constructs to refrain from it. Therefore, that connection isn’t a rarity or an anomaly for the female in a platonic friendship. In fact, females often state the emotional simplicity and lack of drama with their male friends as the major perks.
It needs to be said that some of these traditional notions about male-female friendships are falling by the wayside, though. Societal norms for traditional male and female traits are changing. For instance, it’s far more common today for a heterosexual male and female to go hang out at a baseball game together because they both enjoy the sport or go shopping for shoes because they both enjoy fashion. Neither sports nor shopping is seen as exclusively masculine or feminine any longer. Therefore, shouldn’t the dynamics between men and women change in future decades to reflect these social changes?
When One or Both People Are Taken
Research by Scientific American also showed that men and women were both equally sexually attracted to “taken” friends. However, they differed in their interpretation of it. For women, men who were in a relationship were generally off limits, and most had no interest in being a home-wrecker. Men, on the other hand, didn’t allow the fact that their female friend had a significant other to deter the possibility of that friend becoming a romantic partner.
Positive or Negative
In a subsequent study, 249 more adults were surveyed. Many of these were married. They were asked to make a list of both positive and negative aspects of male-female platonic friendships. Topics related to romantic attraction were five times more likely to be listed as a negative aspect by both groups. But women listed it as negative far more than men did. Men listed romantic attraction, even among their married female friends, as a positive aspect of friendship far more often. It isn’t just young, horny men, either. The statistics showed that young men were four times more likely than women to rate sexual attraction as a positive while older men were ten times more likely to do so. This stat is likely skewed by generational norms for male/female interaction.
But maybe you won’t have to worry too much? According to the survey on friendship from the Survey Center on American Life, for both men and women, the number of opposite-sex friends drastically decreases once they are married. Men consistently list their spouses as their primary emotional support. That gives them less reason to seek female friendship. And women turn to their girlfriends for that support. Friendships between married men and women exist, but they aren’t common.
The Gray Area
It’s also fair to declare here that not all science agrees… at least not completely. In a study done on 20 heterosexual friend pairs, Heidi Reeder at Boise State University found that participants did list “friend attraction,” a connection without any lust or romantic entanglement, as a legitimate friendship type. However, the article does state that these relationships often alternate between four types of love, sometimes quickly and without warning. In a separate article from the same journal, it was reported that 62% of all subjects reported sexual tension within their opposite-sex friendships.
According to an article by Psychology Today, even for pairs who report their predominant emotion as “friend attraction,” there are numerous challenges to conquer. Among these, we have the aforementioned assumptions of society and dealing with those who doubt your relationship as “just friends.” Other challenges include the centuries-old power play between men and women, difficulty defining the complex feelings attached to these situations, and the ever-changing nature of these relationships over time.
As we’ve outlined, heterosexual male and female friendships are generally more intricate and complicated than we assume at first glance. The miscommunications and misunderstandings of the nature of friendly love can often lead to intense pain on the part of one or both friends. If the man does make a move towards romance, he risks not only rejection and being dramatically embarrassed but also causing offense. When the woman finds out that her long-time friend has been harboring sexual feelings for her, she often feels betrayed and doubts the legitimacy of any of their prior connections. Both walk away hurt.
How to Prevent Heartache
You love your friend. You obviously don’t want the consequences we just discussed to happen in your friendship, but how do you avoid it? Should you even worry about it if you’re pretty sure both of you have only platonic feelings? Well, from what we’ve seen so far, it seems obvious now that you should have a plan in place when embarking on a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex. Here are some steps to take to protect your relationship.
Just like any relationship, communication in an opposite-sex friendship is of utmost importance. The terms of the relationship need to be discussed from the get-go, and they need to be revisited if either party begins to have a change of heart. As we’ve seen from the research, platonic love can often mutate into something more without notice, but it’s also often asymmetrical. If you truly want to maintain your friendship, honesty is a must.
As a woman who has been in this situation more than once, here’s what I can tell you as truth, fellas. Though it is immensely uncomfortable when your friend, whom you have no sexual interest in, tells you they want more, it’s far better than the jealousy, fights, and ultimate sense of betrayal that happens when they don’t tell you. It will eventually rear its ugly head, so you might as well come out with it.
If those tables are reversed, it’s certainly better to come out with it. Chances are that even though you may think your male pal has no sexual interest in you, most studies show that he likely does. So, you might get lucky! Either way, if you love this person and you respect them, tell them the truth. If sex is a factor, discuss what you each want out of it. Make sure you’re on the same page. The relationships that survive a go at romance are those that have clear expectations, effective communication, and mutual respect.
Depending on the depth of your friendship and the relationship status of both parties, you may need to place limits on your interactions. In a perfect world, no husband would be jealous. No wives would be suspicious, and women could spend alone time with platonic male friends with no consequences. However, this is not a perfect world, and if we’re honest with one another, we’ll admit that this circumstance rarely materializes.
When one or both of you enter a serious romantic relationship, it’s important to take in the feelings of your partner. Again, communication is key. You need to discuss your friendship with your partner and discuss your romance with your buddy. You may need to meet as a group and discuss comfort levels. Group hangouts may be the best bet for a while until your love and your bestie are cool with each other.
This doesn’t need to be a limiting factor. The only thing better than hanging out with your best friend is hanging out with both of them. If both relationships are meant to stand the test of time, they will likely love one another, and the transition will be fairly easy. It might take time to build trust, but with good communication, an effort to make everyone feel included, and a no-secret policy, you will be on the right track.
While men and women can be friends, there’s an overwhelming probability that one or both of them is experiencing a desire for more. Therefore, when it comes to preserving a marriage or serious relationship, barriers may need to be put into place to prevent jumping the fence to greener grass. From personal experience, if you’re all married, close friendships with the opposite sex tend to be far more successful when everyone is involved.
For instance, my husband and I have a very close relationship with another couple. The man and I are far more alike, enjoy the same things, and have easy conversations. The same goes for his wife and my husband. When we hang out together, we are often split along these lines, and I can genuinely say that none of us feel sexual attraction for each other. But science has shown that I might be naive about that. For that very reason and due to the many failed relationships we have all witnessed, we don’t spend time with one another when our spouses aren’t around. It has nothing to do with trust—we just know the stats. Would anything happen if we did? 99.9999% not, but why chance it?
So… can men be friends with women? The muddy answer is yes, but not without difficulty. There will almost always be sexual tension. There will often be social barriers to overcome. It will often be asymmetrical, and very few will stand the test of time once marriage and children enter the picture. Will this change as our social norms continue to evolve? Perhaps. People are delaying or even skipping out on marriages these days. Who knows what the future holds? However, for now, it seems that if you want a successful friendship with someone of the opposite sex, you should expect some barriers to jump over and have a good plan in place to protect your relationship.
To improve your communication and bond with your besties, check out these “130+ Deep Questions to Get to Know Friends Better.”
Frequently Asked Questions
While men and women function as casual friends every day, research shows that close friendships rarely exist without one or both parties harboring romantic feelings.
While each marriage and friendship have different rules, the research shows that opposite-sex friendships amongst married people decline rapidly compared to the single population.
A heterosexual man can have a female best friend. However, these friendships come with immense difficulties, ranging from sexual tension to hindering social and marital norms.
When a man and woman are friends without benefits or sexual interest, it’s called a platonic friendship. In order to prevent heartache later on, be open about your feelings as they develop!