Can men and women really be just friends?

Published: February 10, 2014 / 7 Comments


…Or does sex always get in the way?

“It’s possibly one of the most difficult questions of all time,” admits psychologist Tammy Epstein. Do platonic opposite-sex friendships really work?”

And, according to Epstein, who conducts the Introduction to Psychology and Counselling Methods modules that form part of both the Bachelor of Psychology and Bachelor of Applied Social Science degrees at SACAP, it’s a question to which there exists no hard and fast answer.

“Each cross-sex platonic friendship needs to be taken on an individual basis,” says Epstein. “While there are certainly many examples of such relationships that do work, there are as many cases where some form of sexual tension – whether acknowledged or not – is really the glue that holds that friendship together.

When it comes to answers, then, the obvious place to start is to explore the nature of friendship itself. Studies in the evolutionary psychology of relationships show that cross-sex friendships are, in fact, a historically recent phenomenon. Consider the animal kingdom, for instance, where most mutually supportive alliances are either between genetically related individuals (kin) or reproductive partners. Does this mean, then, that men and women’s evolved mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences?

In a research project published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Dr April Bleske-Rechek, Associate of Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, attempted to answer this age-old question. The two-part study, which first surveyed opposite-sex undergraduate friendship pairs, showed that that men reported higher levels of physical and sexual attraction to their cross-sex friends than women, and also showed a tendency to overestimate their level of attraction to their female friends. In fact, men reported moderate levels of attraction and desire to date their female friends regardless of either their own or their female friends’ current romantic involvement.

In the second part of the study, which measured attraction in cross-sex friendships between young and middle-aged adults between 27 and 55 years, most of whom were married or in a committed relationship, participants were asked to spontaneously list the benefits and costs of their cross-sex friendships and rate their level of satisfaction with their current romantic relationship. The results showed that this group generally reported less attraction to their cross-sex friends than their undergraduate counterparts did; however, single men across both groups reported high levels of attraction to their cross-sex friends, and single women across both groups reported moderate levels of attraction. Interestingly, participants were much more likely to list sexual attraction as a cost than as a benefit and, perhaps attesting to the possible challenges posed by attraction to a friend, middle-aged men and women who harbored feelings of romantic attraction toward their cross-sex friends also reported lower levels of satisfaction in their marriages.

“This is the most interesting finding from the study,” says Bleske-Rechek. “And it is open to further study, because correlation doesn’t imply causation. It could be that men and women who are dissatisfied in their romantic relationships turn to their cross-sex friends or even develop new friendships; or it could be that attraction to a cross-sex friend leads to dissatisfaction in their romantic relationship.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum that can be debated ad nauseum, admits Epstein, but, vital to successfully navigating the murky waters of your partner’s opposite-sex friendships is honesty and communication. “Boundaries need to be established upfront so that both partners are comfortable with the terms of the other’s friendship,” she advises, adding that consideration of your partner or spouse’s feelings should really take priority in this regard. “It’s highly unlikely that your partner will feel threatened by the friendship if there really is no reason for him or her to do so. This is where honesty comes in: If there is even the slightest hint of sexual attraction on one or both sides of that friendship, it is not a feasible relationship to have when there is a spouse or partner involved.”

And, it goes without saying, that physical contact between cross-sex friends is one of the most elemental of the boundaries. “There is a fine line between what is appropriate and what is not,” says Epstein. “Physical contact can so often be misconstrued and, really, in a platonic relationship, should not extend beyond a brief hug or a kiss on the cheek.”

Of course, like any friendships, those that traverse the gender divide can be equally beneficial. In fact, there is an argument that having friends of the opposite sex helps to round out one’s social dynamic and provide a counter to societal gender-entrenched views – after all, it’s difficult to argue the fact that men and women often have quite different ways of looking at situations. Essentially, though, says Epstein, the benefits of a platonic cross-sex friendship should not be markedly different from those of a platonic same-sex friendship: “If you look at this way, you’ll quickly determine if there’s more to your friendship than just, well, being friends.”

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Your Comments on “Can men and women really be just friends?”

  1. Chesty

    100% Believe that women and men can have friendships.have faith and belief in yourself and the opposite sex.

  2. Richard Sbongile

    For me it helps but dont last longer.

  3. solace

    Well…it really possible to know that men-women friendship last longer than same -sex friendship… I ask some couple of ladies, and they told me they prefer different sex friendship to same sex friendship in terms of keeping their secrets save and not using it to hurt them even in a bad situation

  4. Lara Davies

    My partner of 18months is unhappy that I am not comfortable with him having a platonic friendship with an ex girlfriend of 8 years (she is now married but still likes to send him messages ending in hugs and kisses). He e-mailed her and told her I was unhappy that they remain close friends (I felt totally undermined and felt that he should have just told her that he wishes her well and that the contact would no longer be a regular occurrence – that includes drinks, odd meals etc.) She sent me a message stating that they had a history and that they WOULD stay in touch and see each other occasionally and that I should understand! He feels disappointed that I feel this way and sees it as totally unrealistic and shows jealousy. I have no problem with any of his other exes staying in touch or getting in touch with him as they have not been ‘in my face’ and tried to manipulate him. When I eventually met her, she told me that she had decided to back off….wow, how patronising and generous of her. It hangs over us constantly and even though he has refrained from contacting her, I feel that he would like to. He says when I’m ‘over’ this silliness, he will consider marrying me! Sooo disappointed! What to do?

  5. S.N.S

    Had a cross-sex friendship for 11 years until sex got in the way. We discovered and decided to pursue these “feelings” at a time when I was being proposed marriage to, I lost that engagement as a result. The friendship ended also, on the other hand I do have a friend and our friendship is truly platonic, been there for the past 20 years now. No feelings or sexual attractions at all, he has become a very vital member of my family as I was born with 5 brothers but I grew up with 6 because of him. Interesting topic indeed.

  6. D

    I am from the old school where friendship between opposite sex was questioned! I do not believe in it either and have problems accepting it. I have seen many that end up into a sexual relationship, our emotions are at different levels unfortunately. Yes interesting topic!

  7. Nkateko

    I have male friends whom I cherish and adore. These friendships have been I existence for years, one spanning 24 years. Am I attracted to them? No. Are they a threat to my marriage? No. I see them as friends and that’s it. Hopefully they feel the same way about me, but I will certainly be asking them the question today.
    interesting article