Can men and women just be friends?
You’d think When Harry Met Sally would have already settled this question a quarter century ago, but you’d be wrong. The debate continues to come up again and again.
A big part of the reason we still haven’t definitively answered this question yet is that it’s actually a relatively new one. For most of human history, men and women basically lived in homosocial worlds until they got married, meaning men only hung out with men and women only hung out with women. Even after marriage, men and women for the most part continued to have distinct and separate social lives — men would hang out with other dudes all day on the hunt in primitive times, and at work or in male-only colleges in more modern times; women stayed at camp or at home and hung out with their gal pals. It really wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that cross-sex friendships became a thing. As more and more women entered the once predominately male workforce and university system, men and women had to figure out how to have relationships with each other that weren’t romantic or sexual. A hundred years later, we’re still trying to figure it out.
What the Research Says
When it comes to this burning question, everybody’s got an opinion and an anecdote to share. So let’s first find out what bonafide scientists have discovered on the subject.
Social psychologists around the world have actually spent a lot of time researching what’s referred to as “cross-sex” friendships, and what they’ve found is that old Harry may have been on to something when he quipped that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”
In one study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin brought 88 pairs of cross-sex friends into a lab. The pairs were required to promise in front of each other that they would refrain from discussing the study after they left the lab. They were then separated and asked a series of questions to gauge their romantic feelings towards 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 supposedly platonic female buds, they also mistakenly believed that the feelings were reciprocal, and they were more willing to act on their erroneously perceived mutual attraction.
Thus, the study suggests that women generally think that guys and gals can “just be friends,” while men are secretly hoping there’s a chance their relationships with their female friends can be something more. Basically, this study gives us the scientific explanation for the “friend zone.” Women and men are often on completely different wavelengths when it comes to their cross-sex relationships!
This isn’t to say that truly platonic male/female friendships aren’t possible. Sociologists have documented that men and women can indeed just be friends and that there are actually benefits that come with cross-sex friendships — like learning from the other side how to best attract a mate — that you can’t get from same-sex friendships. However, these same sociologists qualify those conclusions with the caveat that cross-sex relationships are typically more complicated than same-sex ones and require much more communication and transparency.
So Can Men and Women Be Friends or Not?
So it seems the answer that emerged from the research is one confirmed by most everyone’s real-life experience: it simply depends.
Every person’s situation is different, and the number of opinions on this subject are numerous (and often heatedly held!). But I will nonetheless humbly submit that the best way to gauge the viability of cross-sex friendships is by using a sliding scale, girded by two general guidelines.
The first is that having cross-sex friendships becomes progressively harder from middle school through college and finally into adulthood. The less people are thinking of getting into serious relationships, the easier and more carefree male/female friendships are to navigate. Cross-sex friendships in elementary school? No problem. In high school? Usually pretty natural and easy. In college? Still pretty easy, though more misunderstandings arise about whether or not you’re really “just friends.” Cross-sex friendships when you’re older and more and more folks in your circle are married or getting married? Then things start to get sticky. And that brings me to my second guideline: Cross-sex friendships become increasingly difficult the greater the commitments one or both of the friends have with their romantic partners.
So if you’re a young, single guy, have all the lady friends you want. As mentioned above, opposite-sex friendships give you insight into how the female mind works, which can help you successfully navigate the dating scene and just make you an all-around more perceptive guy.
And of course another benefit of opposite-sex friendships is that they sometimes lead to fulfilling romantic relationships. Many solid marriages began from solid friendships. But keep in mind what the research says about the likelihood of your cross-sex friendship taking this course: it’s far more likely that you’ll develop feelings for her that she doesn’t reciprocate. This can often lead to anger and frustration about being friend-zoned. But it doesn’t have to, if you manage your expectations and realize that this mismatch is a very common thing that’s been demonstrated in the lab. As to the nuances of when/if you should tell a female friend about your feelings in order to see if they’re mutual? We’ll have to dive into that in another post.
Now if you’re older and/or married/in a committed relationship, tread much more carefully with opposite-sex friendships. I personally would say that after you get hitched, you shouldn’t have an opposite-sex friend you spend time with without your spouse. I realize this is an unpopular opinion with some. “I’ve got a great female friend I hang out with all the time. My wife doesn’t mind and we both know nothing will ever happen!” they proclaim. The problem with such proclamations is that they are typically made when one’s marriage is rock solid and going great — your love is so strong that the idea of having romantic feelings for your friend seems utterly outside the realm of possibility, as does the prospect of adultery. Yet 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 a nurturing hug can turn into something more physical without either party intending it to.
Sadly, Kate and I know a few people — both men and women — who ended up cheating on their spouse with a close opposite-sex friend when the above scenario played out. They were ardent proponents of the idea that men and women can just be friends, even while married…right up until those friendships contributed to the break up of their union.
That’s why I believe in only hanging out with same-sex friends once you get hitched, or with opposite-sex friends along with your spouse (outside the work setting, naturally). I certainly don’t think that every cross-sex friendship a married person has will lead to an affair, but I don’t think it’s wise to take that chance. Instead, stack the deck as much as possible towards having a happy, long-lasting marriage.
So, can men and women be friends? Sure. With caveats. The caveats, after all, are what make this complicated issue so interesting and ensure we’ll still be discussing the question for another hundred years!
A version of this article originally appeared in Verily Magazine, a lifestyle website for women.
Last updated: October 17, 2016