Can Men and Women Truly Be Just Friends?

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I don’t think anyone can ever have too many friends. You can certainly have different levels of friendship with people, and I would argue that doing so is healthy. For example, I have friends that I know I can turn to in a crisis. They know me on a deeper, personal level and can offer both comfort and perspective. I have other friends that I mostly socialize with at fun group events. They’re the life of the party, but I’m not going to divulge my deepest secrets to them. Having a wide variety of friends means that I also have both male and female friends (as well as some who are non-binary). No one has ever directly questioned this. However, I know some people who believe that heterosexual men and women simply cannot be friends. What’s behind that thinking? Can’t men and women truly be just friends without any kind of romantic overtones?

I want to preface this by admitting my own bias. I absolutely, 100% believe that it is perfectly fine – and even advantageous – for heterosexual men and women to have platonic friendships. However, I’m more than willing to hear others out.

Was Harry right?

If you’ve seen the 80s rom-com “When Harry Met Sally”, you may remember the debate Harry has with Sally where he insists that it is impossible for men and women to be friends. Despite my personal feelings, there are actually some scientific studies that back this idea up. One I found claimed that when men and women are friends, it seems to be due to the fact that the man actually has romantic feelings towards her. Apparently, the woman may see the friendship as fully platonic.

In defense of men, I’ve known women who had romantic feelings for their male friends that the guy didn’t share. (It happened to me a couple of times during my single life.) The study referenced above only looked at 88 pairs of friends. It’s hard to say that the results are truly indicative of real life.

Let’s go deeper (into friendship! Get your mind out of the gutter!)

Let’s say that the study’s findings are true – that men and women only seem to be friends when one person (if we follow this study’s results, it would usually be the man) has romantic feelings for the other person. This can actually tell us a great deal about how we socialize men. If they are only capable of seeing women in a romantic context, then we presumably haven’t done a good enough job of teaching them that women can offer actual, real friendship. Some may argue that it’s biology, but I’m not buying it. Think back to caveman days – it doesn’t seem like there would be a long term evolutionary advantage to considering every female that a male came into contact with as an option for procreation. It would cause a lot of discord in a group, the same way infidelity does today.

Furthermore, the idea that men and women can’t be platonic friends basically ignores the friendships of non-heterosexual people. If men are only capable of seeing people as potential sexual conquests, does that mean two gay men can’t be friends? What about two lesbian women? Of course not. True friendship relies on mutual respect, no matter the romantic preferences of the people involved.

Friendships with people of the opposite sex can be especially beneficial for heterosexual men for social reasons. Society seems to have taught men to believe that they can’t share their feelings with other men. While that attitude is slowly changing, friendships with women are there to fill in the gap. I know a great deal of men who turn to their female friends when they are struggling with something emotional. Granted, if they are married, the woman they generally turn to is their wife. But there may be time in a man’s life where he may need that emotional support, before he gets married, or especially if he never does.

Why can’t we be friends?

The bottom line is that being friends with someone requires trust. Trust in one another, and, if you’re married, trust that your partner is telling the truth about his or her friendship with someone of the opposite sex. Of course there are times when friendship leads to romance – my husband and I were friends before we started dating. But I still have several male friends who were my friends both before and after I got married. My husband has female friends. Neither of us worries about it because we are able to be honest with one another about the goings on in those friendships. It takes work on both of our parts to demonstrate to one another that we are going to be faithful.

None of this means that I don’t think friendships with people of the same sex aren’t as important. I think it’s vital to have friends from various walks of life, so you can learn more about yourself and learn more about how someone else experiences the world. If men and women can’t truly be just friends they will both miss out on an opportunity to learn about each other.

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