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I have previously published two articles on the "friend zone" - the area of mismatched romantic or sexual expectations between friends. In the first article, I shared some possible techniques to escape the friend zone and potentially turn from friend to boyfriend or girlfriend (see here). In the second article, I discussed this problem a bit more, sharing tips on how to avoid the friend zone in the first place (see here).
Both of those articles received a good deal of commentary and stirred debate. Generally, that debate centered on whether men and women, particularly, can be "just friends". Overall, the comments suggested that men and women might have very different goals and motives for "friendship". Each looks at the responsibilities in friendship and love a bit differently. As a result, they tend to co-create this friend zone confusion.
Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. So, I took a look in the research literature on men and women being friends. Here is what I found...
Apparently this "just friends" question was pondered by others beginning about a decade ago. Bleske and Buss (2000) surveyed college students regarding the benefits and costs of opposite sex friendships in their lives. In general, many of these benefits and costs were the same for both men and women. For example, both sexes enjoyed opposite-sex friends for dinner companions, conversation partners, self-esteem boosts, information about the opposite sex, social status, respect, and sharing resources. Both sexes also noted some similar costs of opposite-sex friendship, such as jealousy, confusion over the status of the relationship, love not being reciprocated, cruel or mean behaviors, and being less attractive to other potential daters because of the friendship.
Male and female responses did differ on a few key items though. Men were more likely to see sex and romantic potential in an opposite sex friend as a benefit (women primarily saw it as a cost). As a result, men were also more likely than women to say that they had sex with an opposite sex friend (22% vs. 11%). Men were also more likely to report friendship costs of lowered self-worth and giving time to help the friend, while women found their own inability to reciprocate the male's attraction as costly. Therefore, when friendships did not turn sexual or romantic, men were often left feeling rejected and used (i.e. "friend zoned"), while women felt uncomfortable with the unequal attraction. In contrast, when friendships did turn romantic/sexual, some of these men continued to label the women as "just friends" - at about double the rate of women. This leads to the "other" friend zone women more routinely face, the "friends-with-benefits zone", where sex is shared but commitment is not reciprocated.
Women also had their own unique costs and benefits of opposite-sex friendships. They were more likely to experience the benefit of their male friends paying for outings and enjoyed the physical protection of those friends (men saw these as costs of time and money). Women also enjoyed the ability to network through male friends. However, as noted above, women found it costly when those male friends desired sex or romance. They also disliked when their male friends caused difficulty in the women's other dating efforts.
The research above supports the notion that men and women may sometimes have very different goals and desires in opposite-sex friendships. Although both may sometimes be looking for a companion and nothing more, on other occasions, plans may differ. More specifically, men appear to be more likely to look at opposite sex friends as potential sexual and romantic partners. Women, in contrast, tend to prefer non-sexual friendships, which provide protection and resources.
To make matters worse, each sex sees the other's benefit as their own cost. Thus, women tend to find it costly and onerous when male friends desire sex and romance. Men, in contrast, find the time and money demands costly and frustrating, particularly when their romantic desires are not reciprocated. So, due to the mismatched desires, we have the makings of friendship difficulties.
What does this mean for the "friend zone"? As I have said before, the friend zone is essentially an unequal relationship, where the desires of both friends are not equally met. It may exist in a "just friends" context, where resources are being shared (usually gratifying the woman's needs), but sex and romance is not an option (usually frustrating the man). A mismatch can also occur in a "friends-with-benefits" context, where sex is being shared (usually satisfying the man), but resources and protection are not forthcoming (usually frustrating the woman).
Although these patterns are the most common, however, it is important to note that either sex can experience either situation. Some women may desire no-strings-attached sex with a friend. Some men may desire a long-term relationship with a hook-up buddy. The important thing to remember is the MISMATCH in goals. The trade is not equally satisfying for both friends.
Keeping that point in mind leads to the solution...
The research above (and many people's experience) shows that it may often be hard for men and women to be friends. They often have very different expectations for what that "friendship" will entail. However, there is some common ground. So, with a bit of effort, satisfying friendships can be created (at least in some situations).
1) Understand different friendship needs. It is common for people to think about what they want only. They may even think what they desire is somehow more noble, important, or urgent. That simply is not the case.
When entering into any relationship, even a simple friendship, what others desire may be different. Each person's goals for the friendship may be unique. Some people want companionship, others resources. Some want sex, others commitment. To have a friendship of any kind, it is important to respect those differences. Don't let anyone shame you out of your desires. Don't do it to your "friends" in return either.
2) Communicate your intentions. Frustration and difficulty starts when both individuals are not honest about their goals. For example, a man may claim he desires only companionship, when he really wants a girlfriend. Or, a woman may hook-up, when she really desires to be dined, protected, and dated. Without knowing, their "friends" may not take care of those needs (taking them at their word and deed).
So, if you want something specific out of a friendship, it is important to show it. That may mean a conversation and asking questions. It may also mean acting more like a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" than a simple friend from the start, making sexual or commitment requests early on. For example, some men say that "they don't pay for outings, unless a woman is looking to be their girlfriend". Some women communicate that "they don't sleep with men who are not interested in a longer relationship". Yet others talk about their pre-existing "boyfriend" or "girlfriend", letting others know that "friendship only" is available.
In any case, it is important for both parties to be clear what will and will not be part of the "friendship". It is essential to communicate your desires and listen to those of others.
3) Only stay with fair trades. Sometimes both "friends" are looking to slowly lead to love and commitment. Other times, both are looking for some sexual benefits too. Yet others share only a mutual desire for company, conversation, and mutual support. All of these are good foundations for satisfying (and frustration free) opposite-sex friends. Most often, these will occur when both individuals have the same desires for love and sex with a friend. These balanced and satisfying friendships are also likely to occur in situations where both friends have their own needs for love, sex, resources, and protection met from a separate girlfriend or boyfriend.
With other friendships, desires may not match up so well. In those situations, costs mount, frustrations rise, and hard feelings result. Therefore, it is often best to end those friendships early for all involved. When you find yourself wanting more in a friendship (or hookup) and that desire is not reciprocated, walk away. Similarly, when you don't want more, but your friend does, cut them loose. In either case, failing to act, or convincing others to stay against their needs, will only bring you costs. So, save yourself the frustration of pouring time and money into a lost cause. Or, be sure to let that love-sick friend down quickly, before they ruin your other relationships and make you feel bad.
Nothing you hope to gain from a short-term, unequal friendship will be worth the costs that eventually show up. So, when the exchange is not equal, even if it is initially in your favor, end it. Walk away before the negative consequences add up. Only stay with friends who feel the same.
Can men and women be just friends? In many cases, the answer is no. Sometimes that is good thing, when both people see friendship as a step to mutually-satisfying love, sex, and/or commitment. At other times, men and women cannot be "just" friends because only one friend desires something more. Those mismatched desires between men and women lead to unequal friend zone situations, where one person's needs are completely satisfied at the other's expense. Those unfortunate instances and the frustrations around them are the friendship problems we hear so much about.
Nevertheless, friendship between men and women is not impossible. However, it does require finding someone with friendship goals matching your own. Communicating clearly and leaving when there is not a match is key. Also, if you desire "just friends", then it may be better to pick only friends who are already in other romantic relationships. That way, you can have a satisfying exchange, a good friend, and no frustration.
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© 2013 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.