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How Men and Women Can Be True Friends

It takes hard work and awareness to forge a true platonic bond.

I was surprised at the number of impassioned comments my recent post ("Why Men and Women Can't be ‘Just Friends'") generated. At the risk of getting further pushback, I thought I would elaborate on that theme and suggest how true, heterosexual, inter-gender friendships can (and do) exist despite sexual attraction.

First, as I suggested in my previous post, I feel strongly that heterosexual men and women will find it very difficult to be "just friends" if either has a significant sexual desire for the other, simply because people who are just friends do not want to have sex with each other. As I will outline below, it takes hard work and clear awareness of probable destructive outcomes if one transcends the boundary of a close but true platonic bond.

Moreover, I firmly stand by the male "sexual reflex" phenomenon as a very real fact of life. Any heterosexual man who argues against this reality is either in deep denial or has a frighteningly low testosterone level. Any heterosexual woman who disagrees is either very naïve, oblivious, or, sadly, not attractive enough to stimulate most men's sexual reflex. Sorry, but it's true.

OK, now that I've probably walked into another buzzsaw of my own making, here's the formula for unsullied, heterosexual, male/female friendship.

No sexual attraction: Problem solved. If neither member of the friendship has sexual attraction for the other the relationship can rest on a firm foundation of genuine friendship based on the standard (non-sexual) zones of compatibility. Of course, the old saying "familiarity leads to intimacy" may play out and over time feelings and desires might change. If that's the case, then the following must be considered.

Honest acceptance: Sexual attraction must be acknowledged (no, guys, you don't have to talk about it) and the "slippery slope" of even innocent sexual suggestions or innuendos must be accepted as a very real fact. As I often tell my therapy clients, "Your head and heart will follow your feet," thus distilling the cornerstone of behavior therapy into a simple but powerful truism. This means that action powerfully shapes thoughts and feelings and how one acts, so shall one think and feel. Thus, if a man and a woman are on friendly terms and then start to act more affectionately toward each other, watch out!

Impulse control: Just because a man finds a woman sexually appealing (which he'll usually determine within the first second of seeing her) doesn't mean he will automatically act on his desires. Indeed, most men have excellent impulse control and keep their urges in check. What's more, most men can move beyond their sexual desire and engage in socially appropriate repartee without being totally consumed by detailed, ceaseless sexual fantasizing. (Note I said "ceaseless.") As an aside, consider the disinhibiting effect of alcohol and how it affects people's impulse control, right?

Reality testing: Most people understand that there are consequences to their actions. When people have good reality testing, they can predict the most probable outcomes their behavior will produce. If a person acts on his or her sexual urges inappropriately, he or she runs the risk of very bad outcomes (e.g., rejection, a ruptured relationship, divorce, lawsuits, criminal prosecution, etc.). Hence, even in the face of strong sexual attraction, most people have been socialized sufficiently to think, fantasize, and imagine, but not to act on the vast majority of their sexual urges.

Boundaries: Even in the midst of mutual sexual attraction, men and women can stay friends if the boundaries that define non-sexual relationships are respected. Thus, they shouldn't flirt, or do anything physical they wouldn't do with same-gendered friends. Similarly, they should not engage in any behavior privately that they would be reluctant to do publicly (i.e., in front of their romantic partners).

So, if a man and a woman have the right ingredients to develop a friendship (i.e., various areas of compatibility, similar interests, mutual enjoyment of time spent together) they can indeed be friends if they honestly understand the power of sexual gravity, exercise impulse control, have good reality testing, and respect the boundaries of true platonic intimacy.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.