Can Men and Women Be 'Just Friends'?

We're still trying to crack the code.
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We're still trying to crack the code.

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You’d think the iconic movie When Harry Met Sally would have settled the question decades ago. But, much like those two characters, the question of whether men and women can be friends is persistent and stubborn.

Perhaps that is because this question is relatively new. For much of human history, men and women lived mostly distinct and separate social lives—from primitive times, when men spent most of their time with other dudes on all-day hunts, to the modern era, with its male-centric workplaces and colleges. All the while, women devoted their days either working among other women or staying at home with children.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that cross-sex friendships became a thing. As women joined the once predominately male workforce and university system, they gained innumerable benefits. But they also inherited a novel task: finding a way to engage in opposite-sex relationships that are neither romantic nor sexual. It’s been nearly a hundred years, and we’re still trying to crack the code.

What Research Says

When it comes to this burning question, everyone has an opinion and an anecdote to share. So let’s first find out what bona fide scientists have discovered on the subject.
Social psychologists have spent a good deal of time researching opposite-sex friendships, only to find that Harry’s doubts were well founded. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin brought eighty-eight pairs of opposite-sex friends into a lab. The pairs were separated and asked a series of questions to gauge their romantic feelings toward their opposite-sex friends.

Researchers found that while women were generally not attracted to their male friends and saw the relationship as strictly platonic, the men usually had romantic feelings for their lady friends. Not only were the guys more attracted to their female buds, they also mistakenly believed that the feelings were mutual, and they were more willing to act on their perceived mutual attraction.
The study concluded that women generally think guys and gals can just be friends, while men secretly hope the relationship can become something more.

This isn’t to say that truly platonic male–female friendships aren’t possible. Sociologists have documented that men and women can indeed be friends in some instances and that such relationships even offer some benefits that are unobtainable from same-sex friendships—learning from the opposite sex how best to attract a mate, for instance. These same sociologists, however, qualify those conclusions by noting that cross-sex relationships are typically more complicated than same-sex ones, requiring far more communication and transparency.

A Man’s Advice on the Issue

Keeping in mind the large, obvious caveat that every person’s situation is different, I humbly submit, from my perspective as a man, two general guidelines for cross-sex friendships.
First, having cross-sex friendships becomes progressively harder as one progresses from elementary school through adulthood. The less people are looking for serious relationships, the easier and more carefree male–female friendships are to navigate.

Second, cross-sex friendships become increasingly difficult when one or both of the friends have romantic partners. In other words, if you’re single, you can have all the guy friends you want; just don’t underestimate your male friends’ potential physical and romantic attraction to you. If the status of your relationship comes up in conversation, even in a subtle way, take the opportunity to be as up-front and transparent as possible about your feelings and how you view the relationship. It might make for an awkward conversation, but it will be less awkward than the moment when your bro-friend goes in for a kiss after a night of supposedly “totally platonic” bonding.

And while opposite-sex friendships can provide benefits, those benefits really only apply to singles. Your guy friend can provide insights into how the male mind works, which may help you navigate your romantic life more successfully. Or—perhaps an unexpected benefit—an opposite-sex friendship could evolve into a fulfilling romantic relationship. Many solid marriages begin from a solid friendship.

But if you’re married or in a committed relationship, tread more carefully. I recommend that, after you’re married, you don’t spend time with an opposite-sex friend without your spouse.
This opinion is unpopular, I know. “I’ve got a great guy friend I hang out with all the time!” many proclaim. “My husband doesn’t mind, and we both know nothing will ever happen!” The problem with such proclamations is they are typically made when one’s marriage is rock-solid and going great, when your love is so strong that the idea of having romantic feelings for your friend seems utterly impossible, as does the prospect of adultery.

But you simply never know what the future will bring. Marriages hit rough spots. When they do, people often turn to their friends for emotional support. If those friends happen to be of the opposite sex, there’s a chance that a nurturing hug can turn into something more physical without either party’s having intended it.

Sadly, my wife and I know a few people—both men and women—who ended up cheating on their spouses with a close opposite-sex friend when the above scenario played out. These people were ardent proponents of the idea that men and women can still be friends, even while married . . . right up until those friendships destroyed their marriages.

Once you get hitched, the safest route is to spend your alone time with same-sex friends and, if you feel the need to catch up with an opposite-sex friend, have your spouse join you. Certainly not every cross-sex friendship with a married person will lead to an affair, but no one ever thinks hers will be the one that does. As a married man myself, I believe in stacking the deck as much as possible in favor of a happy, long-lasting marriage.

So, can men and women be friends? Sure. With caveats. Caveats are, after all, what make this issue so interesting—and what gave When Harry Met Sally ninety-five minutes of plot. They also guarantee that this question will last another hundred years.