Can men and women be friends?

Jane Murphy / 02 August 2016

You'd think that men and women can be friends, wouldn't you? But some experts believe the possibility of romance is nearly always lurking somewhere in the background...



Men's friendships with women are often driven by sexual desire, regardless of whether or not they're single. That's according to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the US, which looked at the levels of attraction between male and female friends.

Scientists asked 88 pairs of college-age friends to fill in a confidential questionnaire about their feelings for one another. Men tended to be attracted to their female friends and assume the feeling was mutual – while the women themselves were often unaware of this.

However, a second survey of 140 middle-aged people in opposite-sex friendships, the majority of whom were married, revealed slightly different results. Levels of attraction were fairly equal between men and women. And men's attraction to their female friends was much lower than that of their younger counterparts, unless they happened to be single.

Read about Saga readers' experiences with platonic friendship

Burden or benefit?

So does this suggest our amorous feelings tend to mellow over time as we become far more mature and level-headed about opposite-sex friendships with age? Possibly. But the Wisconsin study also highlights a number of issues associated with these types of friendship – with many people regarding them as a burden, rather than a benefit.

The biggest burden? Nearly four out of 10 women and 25 per cent of men in the middle-aged group said their romantic partners had expressed jealousy over their opposite-sex friendships. There are plenty of ways to address these insecurities, of course – including encouraging your partner and friend to get to know one another better.

It's also important to be completely open about your friendship. If you start meeting in secret or playing down the amount of contact you have with your opposite-sex friend in an attempt to prevent your partner from becoming jealous, it will only add weight to his suspicions that you have more-than-platonic feelings for your friend.

Is your relationship under threat?

But what if your partner does have a reason to be jealous? Maybe it's obvious your friend harbours romantic feelings for you. And perhaps – if you're honest – you feel the same way about him. If these feelings remain unspoken and start to fade with time, you might just get away with it and can file the whole experience away under 'harmless flirting'.

If it gets to the point where you feel one or both of you may even act upon them, however, you have some tough decisions to make. It could be time to back away from the friendship. Or it could be sign that your marriage is in serious trouble.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Wisconsin researchers found that the more attraction people felt in an opposite-sex friendship, the less satisfied they were with their current romantic relationship. The feelings you have for your opposite-sex friend may act as a catalyst for a break-up that's been brewing for a while. Or your friendship may highlight something that's currently missing from your marriage – affection, openness or shared interests, for example. A relationships counsellor can help you understand and resolve these issues.

Find out about the risks of emotional affairs

Which type are you?

Still, let's back up a bit here. You may well be feeling incredulous by now, aware that you count members of the opposite sex among your closest friends – and it's never posed a problem for you, your partner or anyone else. Historically, opposite-sex friendships were unusual and frowned-upon – but as times change, they've become commonplace.

However, they're still a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, one of the earliest significant pieces of research on the topic only dates back to 2005. A US study, published in the Western Journal of Communication, charted 440 opposite-sex friendships for a month, and found they fell into one of four categories: 'mutual romance', where both parties felt attracted to one another; 'desires romance', where one feels attracted to the other but fears rejection; 'rejects romance', where one friend believes the other is attracted to them but the feelings aren't reciprocated; and, finally, 'strictly platonic'.

That's right: platonic opposite-sex friendships do exist, as you've probably experienced for yourself. Even so, it's worth considering the possibility that your relationship with your friend is a little more complicated than you first thought.
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