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Why Male and Female Friendships Are So Different

Asking little, and receiving little.

Key points

  • Friendships are as essential to our happiness and well being as family and career.
  • Men and women have different expectations about friendships and manage them accordingly.
  • The roots of these sex differences in friendship patterns may lie in the different challenges faced by males and females in early human groups.
Zaitsava Olga/Shutterstock
Source: Zaitsava Olga/Shutterstock

The research on who we become friends with falls very much in line with common sense. We are more likely to become friends with people who are trustworthy, similar to us, and who live physically close to us. We also prefer friends who are fun to hang out with and friends who like us about as much as we like them.

Friends are especially important in situations where we are living far away from family members who would ordinarily supply emotional support and assistance with day-to-day chores such as moving heavy objects around and caring for pets and children when we are unavailable. Consequently, researchers have found that changes in friendships usually accompany major life transitions such as going away to college or getting married, but if a friendship can weather these forks in the road it can help buffer the stress of life changes. In fact, friends are mentioned in studies more frequently as sources of happiness than are family, religion, or success in one’s career.

While what I have said above applies equally well to both men and women, there are some critical differences between the sexes in the way that they manage and define friendships.

Sex Differences in Friendships

Cross-culturally, men tend to report having a larger number of friends, but less intimate ones, than women. Women are also more likely than men to explicitly discuss the closeness of their relationships with their friends, more likely to identify someone as a “best friend,” and they also more easily distinguish “close friends” from people who are “just a friend.” Men generally seem to use the word “friend” more loosely than women, and they also tend to expect less from friendships than women do.

Psychologist Keelah Willams and her colleagues explored sex differences in friendships in a series of three studies published in the January 2022 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior. In the first study, 213 American college students rated how important it was for same-sex friends to exhibit behaviors or qualities from nine different categories of friendship benefits. These categories included things such as the friend offering social support, being able to help with finding new mating opportunities, and being a reliable ally during times of conflict. In a second study, 306 participants who were not college students (median age = 35.22) rated their same-sex best friend on these same categories in an attempt to see if real-life friendships mirrored the aspirations for friends expressed in the first study.

For the most part, the results of the two studies matched up pretty well. Men preferred that friends have wealth, status, and the ability to help them find new mating opportunities, while women expressed much more interest in friends who offered emotional support, who would help them hang onto the mate they already had, and who could be relied upon to “have their back” in a conflict.

In a third study, Williams and her colleagues presented 250 individuals with three different hypothetical amounts of money: $20, $40, or $60. The participants in the study were then asked to “design” a perfect same-sex friend by allocating money to the nine different friendship dimensions such that they spent the most money on the qualities that were most important to them and the least money on the ones that they cared less about.

When budgets were very generous, men and women did not differ much on how they allocated money, with everyone spreading the wealth around to get as much of the good stuff as possible. However, when budgets were limited, men invested much more in designing a friend who would be able to enhance their status and help them attract mates, whereas women spent more money on building a friend who would provide emotional support.

Evolutionary Explanations for Sex Differences in Friendships

Why would men and women have different agendas when they are looking for friends? The answer may lie in our evolutionary past.

It is believed that the day-to-day lives of men and women could be quite different in early human groups. Men traveled in groups more often than women as they hunted and engaged in raids, while women tended to stay closer to home, gathering food and supplies and caring for children.

Consequently, men came to value other men who were physically intimidating and skillful hunters and warriors. Having men like this by your side as you went into battle could be very reassuring, especially if they thought of you as a close friend. This may help to explain the lingering popularity that so often accrues to male high school and college athletes. Most modern sports give young men the opportunity to show off the very same skills–running fast, throwing things with speed and accuracy, tackling & wrestling, hitting moving targets with a club–that would have been highly prized in hunters and warriors back in the day.

Then, perhaps as now, a male could enhance his own status by having formidable friends and make himself more attractive as a mate.

Women, on the other hand, were often removed from the kinship group that they were born into because of “patrilocality,” which was the common practice of women leaving home to join their male partner’s tribe. Sometimes, this may have been voluntary, but often it was the unfortunate result of having been kidnapped during a raid. These women were thrown together in a place with no genetically related female relatives to rely on for help with child-rearing, food sharing, and mutual defense.

To successfully negotiate this challenge, women had to be quite astute in judging the character of potential friends. They should especially value friends who would be nurturing, trustworthy, and loyal. It would be important for the friends to be emotionally supportive and also for them to be a reliable source of information about the norms and politics of the new group. So, having friends who could supply useful gossip and who could be counted on to take your side in disputes mattered a great deal, because the new-found friends had to be counted on in all the ways that one would count on mothers, sisters, and cousins back in the native group.

The modern vestiges of this in female friendships can be observed in the meticulous attention paid to remembering birthdays and other life events, sending gifts and cards as reminders and reinforcers of the friendship bond, and regularly displaying cues of family-like investment as a way of advertising loyalty. Speaking from my own long experience with male friendships, these niceties are seldom of much concern among men.

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