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Attraction, Just Between Friends

New research reveals what really happens when Harry meets Sally.

If I tell you I am attracted to my male friend, Tim, what would you think I'm saying—that Tim is serious eye candy and I'm gearing up to drop our pointless friendship and connect with him the way nature intended?

What if I told you my attraction to Tim was like my attraction to. . . a spiritual path, a diet plan, or an architecture style? Would you believe me? Would you think that was sad? Would you shake your head and say, "Poor Tim. She's attracted to him like she is to Art Deco?"

Many people think that if an attraction between a man and a woman doesn't lead to courtship or sex, then it's either sad ("Thwarted love") or delusional ("Who do they think they're kidding?"). But the reality is that in today's world, different kinds of attraction can, and do, develop between men and women.

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I have analyzed hundreds of interview transcripts and surveys of men and women reflecting on their closest other-sex friend and found there are four ways that attraction is experienced. These can both overlap and change with time—and just because you have one type of attraction for your friend doesn't mean he or she has the same type of attraction for you. (But of course, you already knew that.) The four types of attraction are:

  1. Friendship attraction
  2. Romantic attraction
  3. Subjective physical/sexual attraction
  4. Objective physical/sexual attraction. (This one is particularly interesting, but let's explain the other three first)

Friendship attraction is not romantic or sexual in nature, but it is the kind of attraction you feel when drawn to someone because you like that person and enjoy being with him or her. It's the type of attraction that most heterosexuals presumably feel for their same-sex friends. This was by far the most common type of attraction between cross-sex friends in our survey. Nearly all the respondents, 96 percent, said they currently feel friendship attraction for their friend, and over two-thirds said that their friendship attraction has increased over time.

Romantic attraction. It's important not to confuse this with physical or sexual attraction. While the two can go together, it's certainly possible to find someone physically attractive but there is no desire to be in a romantic relationship with them. Romantic attraction is about the desire to alter the friendship into a couple's relationship. Only 14 percent of friends said they currently feel romantic attraction for their friend. Interestingly, almost half said they used to feel more romantic attraction, at an earlier stage in the friendship, than they do now. ("Now that I know what she's really like, I wouldn't date her.")

Subjective physical/sexual attraction refers to feeling drawn to the other person physically and perhaps wanting to make sex a part of the relationship. Almost a third of the survey respondents felt this form of attraction for their friend, but the strong majority (over two-thirds) did not currently feel such attraction. This feeling can change over time and is more likely to decrease (in 30 percent of respondents) than to increase (20 percent).

The last form of attraction is the one I find most interesting, in part because I haven't heard it discussed, either in the research or anecdotally. I've labeled it objective physical/sexual attraction; it refers to thinking that one's friend is physically attractive in general terms ("I can see why others would find him attractive"), but not feeling the attraction yourself. This kind of attraction was experienced by over half of the people I surveyed—one-quarter more than subjective physical/sexual attraction.

Where Do You Stand?

Friendship attraction is by far the most common type of attraction, followed by objective physical/sexual attraction; subjective physical/sexual attraction; and, finally, the least reported—romantic attraction that, even when it did occur, tended to decrease over time.

While the media, and many researchers, have focused on romantic and sexual bonds between men and women, the research into close cross-sex friendship reveals that other types of bonds can and do occur. The reality is that movies like When Harry Met Sally and My Best Friend's Wedding focus on the tiny minority of friendships in which romantic attraction grows stronger with time.

The next time you notice a man and woman together, challenge yourself to remember that men and women can connect in a variety of ways, and one of them—an extremely common one—is plain and simple friendship.

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