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What Drives Friendship Between Men and Women?

Compelling new research on "heterosociality."

Friendship is highly important for most people. While the research on friendship has lagged behind that on romantic and parent-child relationships, and developmental research, we know that having good friends from a young age—experiencing lifelong friendships—is of tremendous value. Enduring friendship is a source of stability and growth, pleasure and remembrance–a way to enrich one’s life and be fuller as an individual.

In many ways, friends are closer than spouses, equally intimate if not more so, perhaps by virtue of spending less time together and generally avoiding romantic complications. While many assume that cross-sex friendship is really about sex, or having a side- or back-up beau, those may not be the only reasons. Sex may complicate some friendships, but for people of all sexes and gender identities, friends simply are compatible. What is that compatibility about?

Friends with Benefits

The existing research on friendship, according to Tobias Altmann in the Journal of Individual Differences (2022), suggests that friendship is associated with resilience, well-being, life satisfaction and perhaps even enhanced longevity. Friendship comes in a few different types, based on how close people are, the function of the relationship, and shared characteristics such as age, interests, or other traits.

Most people prefer to have same-sex friends–but most people also have a significant subgroup of cross-sex friends. Women mainly have women friends, and some male friends (up to 30 percent), and similarly for men. Cross-gender friendships is a phenomenon psychologists call “heterosociality," an area of research little explored.

It’s important to know what factors drive friendship in general to look at cross-sex friendship. Prior research has shown that the Big Five personality traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism are not big predictors of who befriends whom (Altmann, 2019). However, core beliefs—values—do predict affiliation, a finding from studies using the Portraits Value Questionnaire.

How Do Personal Values Influence Cross-Sex Friendships?

To research how values, sex, and heterosociality interact, Altmann recruited over 1,300 participants, 68 percent female, to participate in survey-based research. To measure heterosociality, subjects made a list of all their friends, scrubbed it of family, acquaintances, and sexual partners. Researchers counted up the number of women and men to derive a score for analysis.

Personal values were measured with the Portraits Value Questionnaire, which defines 10 personal values clustered into four groups. The overarching four groups are: Conservation, Self-Enhancement, Self-Transcendence, and Openness to Change. The `10 specific values are self-direction (including freedom of thought or action), stimulation (need for thrills, novelty, change), hedonism, achievement, power, security, tradition, benevolence and universalism (seeking welfare for all people and the environment). Analysis looked for significant relationships between degree of heterosociality, sex, and clusters of personal values.

Both men and women valuing tradition and conformity had lower heterosociality—such men had more guy friends, women more gal friends. Regardless of personal preferences (e.g. a woman who might actually want to have more guy friends), such values incline people to follow expectations, even if it might mean suppressing authenticity. Breaking the mold by having cross-sex friends would be too uncomfortable emotionally, psychologically, and socially off-limits.

For women only, self-direction predicted greater cross-sex friendships, suggesting that greater autonomy can overcome conventional prohibitions. Other values—including the need for stimulation and novelty—were not associated with heterosociality for women or men. Demographically, women in relationships had more male friends than single women, and older men had more women friends than younger men.

More Questions than Answers

The strength of these associations was significant but not strong enough to explain the whole story of cross-sex friendship. Evolutionary psychological theories suggest that cross-sex friendship would be driven by reproductive and survival needs, to provide expanded mate choices and protection. Having cross-sex friends, for heterosexual people, could provide a back-up mate in case the primary mate is no longer available.

While sexual tension is common though perhaps not universal in cross-sex friendships, stimulation was not associated with heterosociality in this study. In addition to replicating the findings in future research, the authors point to the need to directly assess factors such as dissatisfaction in romantic relationships as a driver of cross-sex friendship, and infidelity, as well as whether factors such as sexual frustration or dissatisfaction play a role. in the current study, openness to change was not correlated with heterosociality, although it might be expected to play a role, especially when change is desired.

Self-enhancement and self-transcendence were not associated with heterosociality in this study, though they might be expected to play a role in seeking a greater breadth of relationships and experiences. Only for women, greater self-direction was associated with having more male friends.

Friendship in general is good for survival, both in terms of enhancing health and tying community together. Future research will continue to explore friendship between women and men to see what factors are important. It may be that the either/or categorization of gender as female or male obscures factors that account for who decides to become friends with whom. Understanding how sex and gender relate to friendship may require a looking at a continuum of gender identity.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

References

Altmann, Tobias. (2019). Distinctions in friendship research: Variations in the relations between friendship and the Big Five. Personality and Individual Differences. 154. 109727. 10.1016/j.paid.2019.109727.

Altmann, Tobias. (2022). Sex Differences Partially Moderate the Relationships Between Personal Values and the Preference for Cross-Sex Friendships. Journal of Individual Differences. March 11, https://doi.org/10.1027/1614-0001/a000367.

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