More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Can Men and Women Be Friends?
Camille Chatterjee
Psychology Today

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, it may explain at least one of their shared beliefs: Men and women can't be real friends. Blame the sexual tension that almost inevitably exists between any red-blooded, heterosexual man and woman. Point to the jealousy that plagues many rational people when a significant other befriends someone of the opposite sex. Boil it down to the inherent differences between the sexes. It just can't be done. Right?

Wrong, say relationship experts. "The belief that men and women can't be friends comes from another era in which women were at home and men were in the workplace, and the only way they could get together was for romance," explains Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Valley Stream, New York. "Now they work together and have sports interests together and socialize together." This cultural shift is encouraging psychologists, sociologists and communications experts to put forth a new message: Though it may be tricky, men and women can successfully become close friends. What's more, there are good reasons for them to do so.

Society has long singled out romance as the prototypical male-female relationship because it spawns babies and keeps the life cycle going; cross-sex friendship, as researchers call it, has been either ignored or trivialized. We have rules for how to act in romantic relationships (flirt, date, get married, have kids) and even same-sex friendships (boys relate by doing activities together, girls by talking and sharing). But there are so few platonic male-female friendships on display in our culture that we're at a loss to even define these relationships.

Part of this confusion stems from the media. A certain 1989 film starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal convinced a nation of moviegoers that sex always comes between men and women, making true friendship impossible. "When Harry Met Sally set the potential for male-female friendship back about 25 years," says Michael Monsour, Ph.D., assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of Women and Men as Friends: Relationships Across the Life Span in the 21st Century (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001). Television hasn't helped either. "Almost every time you see a male-female friendship, it winds up turning into romance," Monsour notes. Think Sam and Diane or Chandler and Monica. These cultural images are hard to overcome, he says. It's no wonder we expect that men and women are always on the road to romance.

But that's only one of the major barriers. In 1989, Don O'Meara, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati-Raymond Walters College, published a landmark study in the journal Sex Roles on the top impediments to cross-sex friendship. "I started my research because one of my best friends is a woman," says O'Meara. "She said, 'Do you think anyone else has the incredible friendship we do?'" He decided to find out, and after reviewing the scant existing research dating back to only 1974, O'Meara identified the following four challenges to male-female friendship: defining it, dealing with sexual attraction, seeing each other as equals and facing people's responses to the relationship. A few years later, he added a fifth: meeting in the first place.

Defining the Relationship: Friends or lovers?
Platonic love does exist, O'Meara asserts, and a study of 20 pairs of friends published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships lends credence to the notion. In it, Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Boise State University, confirms that "friendship attraction" or a connection devoid of lust, is a bona fide type of bond that people experience. Distinguishing between romantic, sexual and friendly feelings, however, can be exceedingly difficult.

"People don't know what feelings are appropriate toward the opposite sex, unless they're what our culture defines as appropriate," says O'Meara. "You know you love someone and enjoy them as a person, but not enough to date or marry them. What does this mean?"

Overcoming Attraction: Let's talk about sex
The reality that sexual attraction could suddenly enter the equation of a cross-sex friendship uninvited is always lurking in the background. A simple, platonic hug could instantaneously take on a more amorous meaning. "You're trying to do a friend-friend thing," says O'Meara, "but the male-female parts of you get in the way." Unwelcome or not, the attraction is difficult to ignore.

In a major 1988 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Sapadin asked more than 150 professional men and women what they liked and disliked about their cross-sex friendships. Topping women's list of dislikes: sexual tension. Men, on the other hand, more frequently replied that sexual attraction was a prime reason for initiating a friendship, and that it could even deepen a friendship. Either way, 62 percent of all subjects reported that sexual tension was present in their cross-sex friendships.

Establishing Equality: The power play
Friendship should be a pairing of equals. But, O'Meara says, "in a culture where men have always been more equal than women, male dominance, prestige and power is baggage that both men and women are likely to bring to a relationship." Women are at risk of subconsciously adopting a more submissive role in cross-sex friendships, he says, although that is slowly changing as society begins to treat both genders more equally.

The Public Eye: Dealing with doubters
Society may not be entirely ready for friendships between men and women that have no sexual subtext. People with close friends of the opposite sex are often barraged with nudging, winking and skepticism: "Are you really just friends?" This is especially true, says O'Meara, of older adults, who grew up when men and women were off-limits to each other until marriage.

The Meeting Place: Finding friends
As the workplace and other social arenas become increasingly open to women, the sexes are mingling more and more. Still, men and women continue to have surprisingly few opportunities to interact.

"Boys and girls form their own gender groups in elementary school," explains Monsour. "They learn their own ways of relating to each other. So when they do get together, inspired by puberty, they see each other as dating partners because they've never really known each other as friends." A surprisingly major factor in this phenomenon is the kids' own innate interest in children who act like they do. Called "voluntary gender segregation," it continues into adulthood. "You see it at cocktail parties," says Monsour. "Men go off to one corner, and women go to another."

These obstacles may seem numerous and formidable, but male-female friendship is becoming not only a possibility but also a necessity. If men and women are to work, play and coexist in modern society, researchers believe men and women must learn to understand and communicate with each other. To that end, social scientists like Sapadin, Monsour and O'Meara have begun studying how to do just that. The field of research is still in its infancy, but they are now beginning to understand some basic truths about male-female friendship:

Friendship is not equal opportunity
Not until high school does puberty really draw boys and girls together, which then continues into college. But as people develop serious romantic relationships or get married, making and maintaining cross-sex friendships becomes harder. "Even the most secure people in a strong marriage probably don't want a spouse to be establishing a new friendship, especially with someone who's very attractive," says Monsour.

The number of cross-sex friendships continues to decline with age--not surprising, because most older adults grew up in an age where consorting with the opposite sex outside of wedlock was taboo. According to Rosemary Blieszner, Ph.D., a family studies professor at Virginia Tech and author of Adult Friendship (Sage, 1993), elderly people rarely form new friendships with members of the opposite sex. Her research shows that only about 2 percent of the friendships elderly women have are with men.

Men benefit more from cross-sex friendship than women
There are proven--and apparent--distinct differences between female friendship and male friendship. Women spend the majority of their time together discussing their thoughts and feelings, while men tend to be far more group-oriented. Males gather to play sports or travel or talk stock quotes; rarely do they share feelings or personal reflections. This may explain why they seem to get far more out of cross-sex friendship than their female counterparts.

In Sapadin's study, men rated cross-sex friendships as being much higher in overall quality, enjoyment and nurturance than their same-sex friendships. What they reported liking most was talking and relating to women--something they can't do with their buddies. Meanwhile, women rated their same-sex friendships higher on all these counts. They expect more emotional rewards from friendship than men do, explains Sapadin, so they're easily disappointed when they don't receive them. "Women confide in women," notes blieszner. "Men confide in women."

...but women benefit, too
All that sharing and discussing in female-female friendship can become exhausting, as any woman who's stayed up all night comforting a brokenhearted girlfriend can attest. With men, women can joke and banter without any emotional baggage. "Friendships with men are lighter, more fun," says Sapadin. "Men aren't so sensitive about things." Some women in her study also liked the protective, familial and casual warmth they got from men, viewing them as surrogate big brothers. What they liked most of all, however, was getting some insight into what guys really think.

Cross-sex friendships are emotionally rewarding
Although women dig men's lighthearted attitude, most male-female friendships resemble women's emotionally-involving friendships more than they do men's activity-oriented relationships, according to Kathy Werking, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communications at Eastern Kentucky University and author of We're Just Good Friends (Guilford, 1997). Her work has shown that the No. 1 thing male and female friends do together is talk one-on-one. Other activities they prefer--like dining out and going for drives--simply facilitate that communication. In fact, Werking found, close male-female friends are extremely emotionally supportive if they continuously examine their feelings, opinions and ideas. "Males appreciate this because it tends not to be a part of their same-sex friendships," she says. "Females appreciate garnering the male perspective on their lives."

It's not all about sex
"In reality, sex isn't always on the agenda," says Werking. "That could be due to sexual orientation, lack of physical attraction or involvement in another romantic relationship." After all, even friends who are attracted to each other may also recognize that qualities they tolerate in a friendship wouldn't necessarily work in a serious romantic relationship. And after years of considering someone as a friend, it often becomes difficult to see a cross-sex pal as a romantic possibility.

Of pairs that do face the question of lust, those that decide early on to bypass an uncertain romantic relationship are more likely to have an enduring friendship, says Werking. One study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships by Walid Afifi, Ph.D., of Penn State University, showed that of more than 300 college students surveyed, 67 percent reported having had sex with a friend. Interestingly, 56 percent of those subjects did not transition the friendship into a romantic relationship, suggesting that they preferred friendship over sex.

Male-female friendships are political
Men and women have increasingly similar rights, opportunities and interests, which can make cross-sex friendship very political, notes Werking. "It upsets the agreed-upon social order," she explains. "Women and men engage in an equal relationship, or they aren't friends." For one thing, new generations of kids grow up believing that boys can play with dolls and girls can take kickboxing, and they're crossing paths more frequently as a result.

Men and women are also becoming more androgynous as their societal roles become more similar. "Men are more willing to have feminine characteristics, and women are a lot more willing to admit to traditionally masculine characteristics, like assertiveness," says Monsour. His dissertation showed that women and men categorized as androgynous had twice the number of cross-sex friends.

Whatever the challenges of male-female friendship, researchers agree that to succeed as friends, both genders have to openly and honestly negotiate exactly what their relationship will mean--whether sexual attraction is a factor and how they'll deal with it--and establish boundaries. In Afifi's and Reeder's studies, the friendships that survived--and even thrived--after sex or attraction came into play were those in which the friends extensively discussed the meaning of the sexual activity and felt confident and positive about each other's feelings. Once they got past that, they were home free.

"If sex is part of the dynamic, addressing it explicitly is the best strategy" for making sure the friendship survives, says Werking. "The issue will fester if friends try to ignore it." So in the end, male-female friendship does have something in common with romantic relationships: To work, communication is key.
Interesting read, but I'm not so sure I agree with this. The article's thesis states that men and women can have platonic friendships, yet spends most of the time demonstrating just how much of a social minefield the whole thing is. From my personal experience, cross gendered friendships tend to be more volatile and transient than same sex friendships.

Given the fact that there are so many potential pitfalls, does this not indicate that it is not actually the normal way of doing things, vis-a-vis natural patterns of behaviour?

I suppose my biggest problem with the article revolves around a fundamental belief of many sociologists that human interactions are merely an artificial byproduct of paternalistic societies, therefore "human nature" does not really exist. In my mind, humans are animals, and although they do have a higher level of reasoning and ability to alter behaviour than others, they are still animals. Societies are formed because of innate human tendencies tied to survival and propagation. The reason males naturally group with other males and same with females is because we are biologically predisposed to doing so, especially if you look back towards our hunting/gathering roots.

In the end, I must conclude that the division of the sexes in social spheres is an advantage to society as it helps preserve the family unit, thus ensuring a stable future for offspring. Also, at least from my experience, when you have an open and healthy relationship with your spouse, you not only get the sexual relationship, but you also get the benefits that come from "platonic" love, thus avoiding all the trials and tribulations that come from trying to make a male-female friendship work.

<time to run for shelter in anticipation of inevitable flaming>

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
No flaming but I must say that throughout my life the majority of my friend have been female, even as a child -- perhaps it was growing up with eight sisters or maybe it's just a temperament thing but whatever the reason it always was and still is true. I have a relationship that I am completely happy with and the majority of my friendships with females throughout my life have not been sexual at all.

So not only is it possible... it's rewarding. And it has not generally interfered with my romantic relationships at all.
I think that is what really makes the difference. I never played with girls as a child and in my family I have two brothers and only one sister, so perhaps you are right in that sense.


Oddly enough, my closest friends have always been men. I don't have a ready explanation for it, since my brother and I are the only children of my parents, but I've just been able to build more comfortable relationships with men than with women. Like David, my friendships have never interfered with my romantic relationships.
I wonder if people who more readily make friends with people of the opposite sex do so because they dislike the pecking orders or competition, if you will, that inevitably arises in groups of the same sex. I observe this happening both in groups of males and females, although manifested in different ways. From personal experience, when I was in high school, I had many female friends (at one point more than male friends). When I was with them, I felt I did not feel the need to compete so hard to establish myself in a hierarchy of sorts. This I found refreshing, especially since I had difficulties with my peers in elementary school. Unfortunately, when they ended up more and more into relationships with other guys, and I tried (and failed) to win the affections of one of them, I ended up on the "outside" so to speak, and we drifted apart.



I agree with the "animal model" too. Although it may be the case that once you *get past the sexual issues* the relationship sits in the platonic field it has not been my experience. Once the sexual issue is there it changes the relationship. There is nothing more frustrating than thinking that you are just going to watch a movie and then having to peel someone off of you.

I have given up on the idea that firendships can happen with the opposite sex.
I have always had female friends. I have had friendship *experiences* with men but no where near the kind of friendship relationships that I have with my female friends.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
I suppose there may be different reasons and different motivations. In my case, I found the things most of my peer age males talked about growing up bored me to tears. It was simply more interesting talking to females because, at least for the boys and girls I knew, the girls generally had a broader range of interests. A few minutes a week talking about cars and last week's hockey game were about all I could stand.

That is of course a generalization and I did have some close male friends, but they tended to be people who were interested in music and poetry and that sort of thing.

I had the same problem with my father, incidentally -- he would (and still does) watch every sport there was on TV, from hockey to arm wrestling. I enjoyed playing a couple of sports but watching them on TV, night after night, week after week? No thanks...
I am exactly the same way in my friendship circle.

I never used to make friends with girls very easily, as the girls in my schools always seemed to 'look down' on me constantly, that and I've always been a bit of a tom boy. I have a g/f now that is kind of 'teaching' me the ways of the female, i.e., make up, shopping, etc. Which I love, because - firstly its all in the name of fun, and secondly - does make me feel a little more feminine, you know?

But predominatly all of my friends through out life have been male, as i enjoy things that alot of them understand (i.e., i know this is a generalization, but woodwork, t.v. games, computers, etc - just to be clear). However, saying all of this, I did have sexual relationships with some of them, yet still managed to be friends. So really .... i don't know where I fit in
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