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Can Men and Women Really Be "Just Friends?"

Despite what skeptics may tell you, men and women can be just friends; it’s just a little bit trickier.

It seems to be the oldest question in a relationship, to be friends or something more. Can a boy and a girl stay platonic friends, or can and will something serious grow out of a simple "friendly" relationship.

The laws of attraction are perplexing at best, and figuring them out can be a risky business. In many situations, the romantic feelings of one friend remains unrequited while in others, both parties secretly harbor a wish to express their non-platonic love for the other in a 'below the belt' fashion. There are so many chances to take a relationship further, the question to ask is: should I? Here we examine the sustainability of platonic friendships and explore whether or not men and women really can be just friends. 

Man Must Mate

When Harry Met Sally

The simple answer is yes, of course, non-romantic relationships are possible between men and woman. Regardless of how our culture and film industry depicts it (I'm looking at you, When Harry Met Sally), platonic relationships can exist; perhaps the more interesting question is whether platonic friendships are the default before romance blooms, or if every "cross-sex" friendship is simply a love story gone sour. Suffice it to say, the jury is still out.

Our society has a way of planting the idea in our minds that friendships between men and women must be something more, and this argument is not without its scientific basis; from an evolutionary standpoint, men and women are wired to evaluate members of their own sex differently than they do the opposite sex. Clinical psychologist Dr. Ildiko Tabori elaborates as follows:

“When looking for friends of any gender, we tend to gravitate towards others with similar characteristics and interests of our own. Commonality and chemistry between individuals is important when developing friendships.” 

This notion is particularly relevant early on in life–gender is commonly (if increasingly controversially) used as the primary differentiating factor in many aspects of life, including that pre-pubescent stage when social groups are formed and soon-to-be sexual beings are trying to find their place in the world. However, it would clearly be inaccurate to suggest that commonality only exists between members of the same sex-there are countless other metrics besides gender that make a non-sexual relationship worthwhile to both parties (business partners, mentor, sense of humor, TV preferences, etc). Even so, these non-sexual motivations do not do much to stop our deep-rooted mating instincts to take hold: as per their 2012 study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin argue that "survival of the fittest" takes precedent in the male mind whenever he encounters a woman for the first time: 

Men faced the risk of being shut out, genetically, if they didn’t take “advantage of various reproductive opportunities,” according to lead researcher April Bleske-Rechek. “So the argument is that men have evolved to be far more sexually opportunistic.”

In other words-you can have a little bit more sympathy the next time a pushy guy at the bar begs relentlessly for your number-he can't help it! But more to the point, an innate human impulse–even one as strong as mating and reproduction–can be overcome with a little bit of discretion and mindfulness about what you want out of a particular relationship: we may be animals, but that doesn't mean we must act like them. It turns out that men and women are able to be friends and have a thriving relationship when they place more emphasis on community than sex. You may have to actively negate the sexual impulse in your monkey brain, but when sex takes a backseat cross-sex relationships can be platonic yet extremely fulfilling.

Missed Connections

Let’s turn to science for an answer. There was a study conducted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology that tackled this very topic. Researchers took a survey of 308 heterosexual students, all between the ages of 18 and 30. They were asked about their friendships, sexual attractions, and personal experiences with misread signs.

The study found that men tend to overestimate the amount of sexual interest female friends have in them, whereas women underestimate sexual interest coming from male friends. The women who participated in this study also reported that actions they intended as friendly toward male friends were often misunderstood by members of the opposite sex and interpreted as a romantic advance. It can be difficult to be friends when both parties are misreading signals.

According to the author of Date Smart!, David "The Dating Doctor" Coleman, men and women can be 'just friends' so long as they keep a few factors in mind:

"If you’re physically attracted, romantically interested, or if they can make you jealous by what they say or do with other people, you can’t be just friends.”

Coleman also lists six criteria necessary for a "true friendship", including between genders. There must be, he notes, a judgment free zone between both parties, no jealousy, a true friend is rare, neither party keeps tabs or score about anything serious, no gossip and no jealousy.

The author also warns never to negotiate feelings between each other. If the romantic interest is mutual, there most definitely will evolve something more than a friendship (enter aforementioned evolutionary "sex or die" principle). However, if the feelings are unbalanced, a relationship will not last and it’s best to keep an honest and platonic partnership. 

Tips For Maintaining Platonic Friendships

  • Be Understanding
    We all enter into relationships with our own desires and expectations in mind. But oftentimes, people only consider their own needs in a relationship. Whatever the reason for this may be, it is not a good foundation for a friendship. People may want different things out of a relationship. Our desires and goals are unique. To build a lasting relationship, we must learn to respect and be empathetic toward these differences.

  • Communicate Your Intentions
    I am sure you have heard it before, communication is a key to any successful relationship, but it really bears repeating. Be honest about your desires (or lack thereof) from the get-go. Frustration in relationships begins with a lack of open communication about needs. A man may say he only wants to be friends when in reality he wants a girlfriend. The women that he is “just friends” with will probably take him at his word. In that situation, the man will never have his needs fully met and the relationship will be unquestionably unsatisfying. If you are looking for something specific out of your friendship, it is best to be upfront about it.

  • Know Which Relationships to Follow Through With
    You have had "the conversation", you each know what the other is looking for in the relationship–now what? Wanting similar things out of a relationship is the perfect foundation upon which to build any relationship. It does not matter what that thing may be, be it companionship or something more. These relationships tend to be more balanced and satisfying for all involved.

    On the other hand, relationships with misaligned interests can be very tricky, frustrating and cause hurt feelings. Sometimes the best destiny for these relationships is to end them early on before anybody really gets hurt. When your needs are not reciprocated, the best thing you can do is walk away. Anything you strive to gain from these unbalanced friendships will not be worth the wasted time, effort and emotional turmoil. Save yourself some grief and only stay with fair and fulfilling friendships. 

What About You?

As great a question as any, relationship expert Dr. Jane Greer, author of What About Me? instructs readers to contemplate your friendship very carefully before making the decision to try and extend its boundaries. Consider the risks involved in expressing romantic interest; manage your expectations and recognize that your feelings may not be reciprocated. As a general rule of thumb to help evaluate whether the risk is "worth it", ask yourself how important the relationship really is to you; the less frequently and routinely you see or interact with your friend, the less seriously both of you already consider the relationship. If someone is not actually all that prominent of a friend in your everyday life, this probably means that something more concrete than ordinary friendship will not flourish, either.

Conversely, if you see your friend//would-be lover on a more regular basis and have a established rapport and comfortability with them, then this risk might be one well worth taking. Popping the question of furthering your current relationship could very well elicit a positive response and pave the way for your 'happily ever after'–but it may not.

Be aware that to ask this question of a so-called platonic friend can be very difficult. It’s nerve racking, and if you don’t get the response you’re looking for, you might be tempted to shut down emotionally. It’s important to listen to your friend’s voice and tone when an answer is given. A lock-eyed response means commitment, whereas laughing it off is an indicator as a clear no. And remember, if you cannot just be friends, it is sometimes best to just move on.

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