This is a question I am asked somewhat frequently: Can men and women be just friends? And the answer is always somewhat unsatisfying because as much as we long for a clear-cut yes or no, we all know that the answer is more like "Yes, but...."
The Research on Cross-Gender Friendships
We have our own personal stories that count as evidence for most of us: If our best friend is a guy then we cheer on others, convinced they can enjoy these friendships, too; but if we've had a friendship end after awkward confessions of love or after one gets married then we seem convicted to whisper caution.
And the experts and research seem just as mixed. I've been following the studies, the experts, and the opinion pieces for quite some time now-- and while everyone seems to agree that the answer isn't anywhere close to "No, these friendship never work," neither is the evidence causing a resounding "Yes these friendships are for everyone!"
Here are my cliff notes:
- Yes, of course it's possible be friends with the opposite sex. If we practice the three requirements of friendship-- positivity, consistency, and vulnerability (from Frientimacy) --with anyone, we will become friends with them, regardless of gender. The more we do those three things-- the closer we'll feel to someone.
- Yes, sexual attraction is an issue when our friends are of the same gender we also want to date. A big study in 2012 showed that in the majority of platonic friendships, there was usually sexual attraction present. This was especially true from the men who were more likely to not only be attracted to their female friends, but also to assume those friends were attracted to them. There are countless stories of "friends" having to decide at some point whether to "risk" their friendship to see if there is "more," and just as many stories of friendships drifting apart once one of the individuals pairs up romantically with someone else. The relationships where there was no reported attraction do seem to last longer, and lack of sexual chemistry (or competition) is credited with the bonds that happen between gay men and women, and vice-versa.
- Just because there is risk doesn't automatically mean it's to be avoided. All relationships require some risk. Furthermore, we build friendships with heightened risks all the time even in our female friendships:
- Friendships in the workplace are crucial to our happiness even if we do need to be extra mindful of possible hazards.
- Friendships in temporary locations (while on vacation, traveling for work, or in a summer-away program) will contribute to our joy in those places, even if we know it makes saying good-bye more difficult.
- Getting to know the friends of our friends is meaningful to helping create a feeling of community or tribe, even if it does increase the chances of someone feeling left-out.
We don't need to avoid risks, we just need to be mindful and form friendships with as many healthy behaviors and appropriate boundaries as needed to help protect the friendship.
- However, the deeper the friendship, the greater the need for honest awareness. There is a big range of depth and intimacy between the guys we are friendly with at work or those who are in our social circles versus those we are calling to confide in regularly and would consider to be one of our best friends. Most of us would agree that the more meaningful the friendship (read: vulnerable and reliable) the more need there is for honest communication and self-awareness as there is also greater potential for some confusing boundaries at some point, either between the two of us and/or from our current or future romantic partners.
Be honest with yourself as you reflect on the friendship, or the potential friendship. The more self-aware we can be, the more growth we can experience and the healthier our expectations can be in all our relationships.
Reflection Questions For Personal Awareness
- What is the level of friendship (maybe on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most meaningful, deep, vulnerable, committed) that I am comfortable forming with a guy/this guy? Based on that, what boundaries might I need to set for myself or expectations I might need to shift?
- What are my honest feelings about the physical attraction between us? Is is important to me to not ever act on those feelings or am I secretly hoping/open to exploring that? Would it feel safer to me if we could get beyond that attraction or is it the attraction that keeps the relationship compelling to me?
- Even if I'm clear that I want him as a friend only, am I okay with his feelings be the same or is part of my enjoyment from knowing he likes me? In other words, if he falls head over heels with someone else, will this friendship still be meaningful to me to maintain?
- Even if we're just friends, is this friendship limiting me in any way from dating others? Is the friendship supporting me in my goals to find a romantic partner or is subtly, or blatantly, discouraging me from pursuing that desire?
- Are there aspects of our friendship that would need to change or shift, in any way, if either of us got seriously involved with someone else?
- If I'm romantically involved with someone else, am I clear what they each provide me and comfortable with the differences and boundaries of each relationship? (One study showed that the more attractive we find our friend, the less satisfied we may feel with our romantic partner.)
- Am I friends with guys because I'm uncomfortable being friends with women? If so, why is that? Is that how I want it? What am I gaining/losing by that belief?
Bottom-line: Our lives can be enhanced from all types of relationships. Our goal isn't to limit what type of love and community we can create in our lives, but rather to do so in the ways that feel the healthiest and more supportive possible. How close we each are comfortable developing cross-gender friendships will depend on a variety of personal circumstances, our ability to engage in honest conversations, our needs outside our romances, the risks we're willing to take, the opportunities that present themselves, and the motivations we're willing to examine.
Indeed, it's a question that simply has no clean and comprehensive answer other than the unsatisfying, gray, and messy answer of "Yes, but...." that we each have to wrestle with for ourselves.
What has been your experience? What tips would you give? On a scale of 1-10, what level of friendship are you comfortable developing with a man?
Want more on the subject? Medical Daily wrote up a great round-up that highlights a lot of the studies and weaves in some great expert advice!