The First Impression

What do you think of me?

Can Men and Women Be Friends?

How much has interaction between the sexes really evolved?

Ever since When Harry Met Sally, heterosexual men and women have pondered this fundamental question: Is it possible to be friends with someone of the opposite sex? Oftentimes, the answer you get may depend on who you ask. Women are inclined to respond with a hearty yes! We can rattle off a list of who we perceive to be our platonic male friends to back up our assertions. Males, however, appear to endorse an emphatic no, as their female friendships may reflect default relationships that developed in spite of or instead of romantic aspirations they may have had with those very same women. In fact, one male source shared with me that he would be happy to ruin a number of his friendships with the women in his life by having sex with them. Similarly, when posing the question to a female source, she gave an emphatic no, with the disclaimer of, "unless he is gay!"

Can it really be this simple, though? Do males have ulterior motives when they befriend women? Certainly the flip is also true: women may forge relationships with males in the hopes of the interaction escalating to romance. This, of course, also brings up dicey complications for individuals who are coupled but still aspire to maintain their friendships with opposite sex pals. Will one’s spouse or partner view those friendships with suspicion? Is it inappropriate as a single woman to be friends with married men, or vice versa?

It can’t all just be about sex, can it? For instance, the interpersonal attraction literature has documented for some time that both males and females appear to rate higher their friendships with other females. Friendships with women are oftentimes identified as being more intimate and accepting and less competitive, particularly in comparison to how men view friendships with other men. So there is something other than just romance that males in particular are gaining from their opposite sex friendships. So does that mean we can legitimately be friends?

Recently published research may shed some light on this subject. And in fact, it appears to lend credence to what we would expect: namely, when asked about their friendships, men report greater sexual attraction to their female friends than females report regarding their male friends (as reported by Kelly, 2012). Additionally, it appears that males overestimate how attracted to them their female friends actually are (Kelly, 2012). In other words, males are projecting their sexual attraction on to their female friends. So maybe it is a little naïve of us females who think that our male friends couldn’t possibly like us like that, because we appear to presume however we feel is reciprocated by our male friends.

These studies were developed to answer this question of whether or not it is even feasible for such friendships to form. The researchers did identify certain perils to opposite sex friendships. For instance, individuals who reported sexual attraction to their opposite sex friends also were more likely to report dissatisfaction in their present romantic relationships (Kelly, 2012). So that suspicion of one’s partner may in fact be grounded—opposite sex friendships have the potential to be hazardous to a present romantic relationship.

Despite the research, this question will likely continue to be debated for years to come. Our response to this classic debate is often reduced to whether or not we have been able to maintain platonic friendships in our own lives. But unbeknownst to each of us, there may be more brimming underneath the surface of some of these friendships than we realize.

Kelly, T.(2012). Should Men and Women be Friends? Study Looks at Opposite Sex Friendships. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on November 9, 2012 from: huffingtonpost.com/should-men-and-women-be-friends-study.

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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