Opposite-Sex Friendships: Can We Just Be Friends?

Opposite-Sex Friendships: Can We Just Be Friends?

Can a man and a woman just be friends? It’s a question that gets asked every day, in real life and in the movies. It’s a question I’ve been contemplating recently. 

We have this assumption in our culture that men are always on the prowl. The commonly accepted belief about opposite-sex friendship is that it will inevitably turn into a sexual or romantic situation. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have tried to test this theory; in a study reported in Scientific American, 88 sets of opposite-sex friends were interviewed about their friendships and feelings of desire.  

“…these studies suggest that men and women have vastly different views of what it means to be “just friends”—and that these differing views have the potential to lead to trouble. Although women seem to be genuine in their belief that opposite-sex friendships are platonic, men seem unable to turn off their desire for something more. And even though both genders agree overall that attraction between platonic friends is more negative than positive, males are less likely than females to hold this view.”

OK, so men think about sex and sometimes they want to insert sex into the relationship. But to reduce all male-female interaction to a preamble to sex is unfair. It discredits men and it assumes that women don’t have equal measures of sexual desire. 

Men aren’t encouraged to have the same kind of intimate, soul-baring relationships women have. Our cultural notions of masculinity limit the roles men play in relationship to the opposite sex and we become suspicious when men initiate friendships. Sexual desire is presumed to be at the base of every relationship between a man and a woman—even when it’s not present.

“He just wants to get in your panties”. Heard that one? If we approach all opposite-sex friendships with the idea that men can’t control themselves, that all they want is to f*** us—we are missing out on the richness of friendships.  That is exactly what happened to me a few weeks ago. A year ago I met this guy in a restaurant. We spent a pleasant hour or so chatting and several months later he wrote to ask me a question about blogging. I heard from him again a few weeks ago and he asked me to meet him for a drink. I wondered if he was just interested in sex (he is reading the blog) but I set that aside and agreed to have a drink. It was easy conversation, we have lots in common, and there was no hint of sexual tension. We talked about his kids and his wife, our mutual interests, etc. At one point I asked him why he wanted to see me, trying to assess his motives. It seemed a fair question and his answer was honest and spoke to the complexity of friendship. I was the one who was making assumptions about his motives. 

Of course men and women can be friends. And, in those friendships we have to accept that sexual attraction might arise. People are attracted to each other in many ways. We meet someone who shares the same taste in mystery books, or collects good wines and there is a bond.  We connect and relate to people on various levels and one of them is sexual.  Is it possible to hold the idea of finding someone attractive and not feel the need to act on that? To simply notice the attraction when it arises, as we do when we have other emotions, and then let go?

I’m processing my thoughts and feelings as I write this. This is my atonement. And an opportunity for me to look at how I view men, in relationship to my single status and my work.  Because I write about sex men have started contacting me via social media to start conversations, to get to know me. Harmless, but occasionally disconcerting even though I rarely reply. 

This is also a musing on the complex topic of friendships and sexual attraction. We are schooled to assume that most man-woman relationships are about sex. We pretty ourselves up, he finds us desirable and wants to bed us. Old story, oversimplified. A story that puts the burden on men to control themselves because our culture would have us believe that men are sexual predators. The truth is that women have desires just as men do. Maybe the answer is to stop over-thinking this topic and build open strong relationships with people we enjoy. Clear boundaries, good conversations and mutual respect—key components of any relationship—allow two people to be present and engage in a way that is mutually beneficial to both parties. 

I want to continue exploring the male-female dynamic as it shows up in my own life and as it affects us on a societal level. How do you feel about opposite-sex friendships?  

 

33 Comments
  • Carol Cassara
    Posted at 10:58h, 27 January Reply

    We’re accustomed to our roles & it’s easy to fall into them without thinking. It’s been my experience (and I’ve had many male friends) that sexual tensions almost always enters into it, even when we think it doesn’t. We either sense it or are afraid we’ll sense it. I think that’s why so many of us find friendships with gay men so refreshing–it’s the one time we know for sure it’s not there. There’s also a double standard. I have several close male friends but I’m not so sure I’d like it if my husband had the same kidn of friends of the opposite gender. That’s a gut level response. Good post!

    • Walker
      Posted at 11:04h, 27 January Reply

      I’ve always been drawn to male friendships, my husband never seemed to care. But I find it a bit more challenging in this phase of my life for some odd reason. I do think the sexual attraction bit is always lurking but acknowledging it is one way to lessen the impact, I think.

  • Ms. Quote
    Posted at 13:23h, 27 January Reply

    Throughout my life I’ve always had male friends … from the time I was a preschooler (we had LOTS of kids in my neighborhood, most of them were boys) to the present day. Rarely has there been any sexual attraction on either end. We have different connections for reasons other than sex … work, books, politics, food, etc. I’ve also found I’ve often felt like a sister/confidant with men. They can talk to me about things they may feel embarrassed to talk about with other men.

    • Walker
      Posted at 14:01h, 27 January Reply

      I am finding that similar situation of men feeling comfortable talking about sex to me…and it’s fun. I’ve worked in a female-oriented field for a number of years so the opportunity to build friendships with men has been limited in that arena.

  • Linda Crowe
    Posted at 14:10h, 27 January Reply

    I have a number of wonderful men friends. This may be because I was in what was once a non-traditional field for women. I’m a forester. I still value the friendships I developed with my fellow foresters (most of whom were male).

    • Walker
      Posted at 14:41h, 27 January Reply

      Talk about a male-dominated world! I have a couple of good male friends who I absolutely enjoy. And, I’ve remained friends with a couple of men I dated only to find that we didn’t have that kind of romantic chemistry.

  • Carol Moore
    Posted at 15:09h, 27 January Reply

    Ah, Walker, I love this particular discussion. There just is no one right answer for anyone because we’re all so different and attracted to people, same or different gender, for such a variety of reasons, sexual not being the least, but maybe not the strongest.

    I have a lot of male acquaintances, but two really close male friends (one is married/one single). With one, there did have to be a talk about sex because it was not a mutual attraction, but the relationship, though strained for a little while, is still thriving.

    So do I think men and women can be friends? Yes, I do, as long as the boundaries are clear (in a natural way) that it is a friendship and you, a responsible party in the relationship, are clear on your own intentions. My two cents.

    • Walker
      Posted at 16:22h, 27 January Reply

      Carol, like you I think it’s about boundaries and intentions. Love to see your input on this, thank you. I think having a variety of friendships is vital to a well-lived life.

  • Martin Rice
    Posted at 16:51h, 27 January Reply

    Great post, Walker. Really made me think about my friendships with women over the years.

    I think that there was always some sort of sexual interest — or maybe curiosity is the better word — in the beginning. When I/she/we realized that the curiosity wasn’t going anywhere, we almost always drifted apart.

    But I have had good friendships with several women that lasted for many years in spite of the initial sexual curiosity. In almost all those cases these women were colleagues at work.

    There was a solid core of mutual interest (work) that formed a basis upon which we were then able to discover additional (and non-sexual) reasons for our friendships to become more solid and enduring.

    Just by coincidence I read a really sad commentary on this topic in the NY Times today titled The Friend Till I Was Widowed. You can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/booming/the-friend-till-i-was-widowed.html?_r=0

    Again, thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    • Walker
      Posted at 19:02h, 27 January Reply

      Martin,
      I read that article and was saddened and a bit sickened by it. But, it does prove the point, in the extreme! Maybe the sexual energy is woven through all aspects of our lives and the challenge is to embrace the joyful sensation, acknowledge the power of our sensuous nature, and then let go as needed? Food for thought! Love having your voice here.

      • Martin Rice
        Posted at 05:55h, 28 January Reply

        Walker, your statement, “Maybe the sexual energy is woven through all aspects of our lives and the challenge is to embrace the joyful sensation, acknowledge the power of our sensuous nature, and then let go as needed?” is a perfect expression of what I strongly believe.

        Wish I could have expressed it so well. But I also believe that this is a phenomenon closely tied to the fact that procreation might be the only purpose of our existence.

        • Walker
          Posted at 06:34h, 28 January Reply

          Thank you Martin. From a biological, evolutionary point I agree with the procreation notion. But, surely there is much more to living a full life than procreating? It’s a topic we could discuss at length and maybe some day we will!

  • jerry myers
    Posted at 17:50h, 27 January Reply

    It is always easy to categorize the opposite sex as having ulterior motives. Clearly, in my much younger years, I generally developed friendships with women that I found attractive. Some developed into much more. Some developed into a relationship for a while and then into long term friendships or not. Some developed into lasting friendships where total honesty and caring between the parties was the basis.

    Women generally like to be friends with me that they find to be attractive also. I have known situations where my “friends” have tried to take our friendship to places that I did not want them to go… so it is not just men or just women…

    In a nutshell, men and women can have totally non-sexual friendships… I have too many friends of the opposite sex to have it otherwise…

    • Walker
      Posted at 19:13h, 27 January Reply

      I agree that it is not just men… both genders experience sexual attraction and desire. So nice to have you here, thanks!

  • Beverly Diehl
    Posted at 17:50h, 27 January Reply

    I had one opp-sex friend *I* pined after – of course, the dynamic is different when you’ve shifted from dating to “just friends.” I have several very good men friends I’ve never even kissed (and that says a lot!).

    I think all friendships are invaluable, and I don’t think we should assume someone else has a motivation (wants sex) because *some men* have that motivation.

    • Walker
      Posted at 20:26h, 27 January Reply

      Beverly, I agree with your last statement. When we make those assumptions we risk losing a valuable friendship. I’ve had friends who I identified as being pretty hot too!

  • Helene Cohen Bludman
    Posted at 19:44h, 27 January Reply

    Interesting discussion, Walker. In my experience the sexual tension is almost always there and can be distracting. I’m pretty sure my married girlfriends would look askance if I had a special friendship with their husbands. I do have several close gay men friends and cherish hose relationships.

    • Walker
      Posted at 20:27h, 27 January Reply

      Helene, having a friendship with a married guy is a bit touchy, I agree. I’d want that wife to know that her husband was my friend!

  • Kim Jorgensen Gane
    Posted at 19:44h, 27 January Reply

    I attempted to strike up a friendship with an old school mate for professional reasons. I thought it was fun, included my husband for lunch and another social occasion (thinking that was a pretty clear *just friends* message), but eventually he broached the topic of sex. He claimed that in his experience, that’s what married women are looking for. I was offended and disappointed that he was so jaded. Not the guy I thought he was, clearly. :/ I wish the story had gone otherwise. I have friendships I value with husbands of close friends. Not one of them has ever crossed any lines. Although we all tend to be a bit flirtatious, there are boundaries I don’t think any of us would ever risk breaching.

    • Walker
      Posted at 20:28h, 27 January Reply

      Yep, all about the boundaries! The just friends thing can be tricky… I think communication can help but sometimes people have a different agenda and there’s not much to be done about it.

  • Kathy Radigan
    Posted at 19:47h, 27 January Reply

    I have found them to be complicated. I totally agree that the desire doesn’t just have to come from the man, and I know it doesn’t always have to be acted on, but for me, as a married woman, I don’t do them. Of course I’m friendly, but having a real friendship with a man seems like a dangerous zone. Not just because of the sexual tension either, there is a lot of intimacy in a friendship and that can make things fuzzy. Of course this is just my experience and my opinion. Great topic and great comments!

    • Walker
      Posted at 20:31h, 27 January Reply

      Kathy, thanks. It is complicated, isn’t it. And, I think many people do the same thing you do, which is to avoid the ‘danger zone’. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  • Lois Alter Mark
    Posted at 00:08h, 28 January Reply

    I always had close male friends growing up and even when I first got married. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’m sad to say that I don’t think you can be married and have really close friends of the opposite sex without someone getting upset. I haven’t felt comfortable with some of my husband’s female friends and vice versa. I think it’s too hard to keep the flirting out of it and, like Helene said, the sexual tension is always there. I agree with Kathy that, at this point in my life, it’s more of a danger zone and not worth the risk to my marriage, which is sacred.

    • Walker
      Posted at 06:40h, 28 January Reply

      Lois,
      I think most partners would question a close friendship, maybe even one that had its origins in college years or younger. The sexual tension, that we all acknowledge is present, is worrisome even when it’s not there and leads to concerns. I agree. But I don’t think one should shut out the possibility of friendships, just be aware and alert to the parameters of the friendship. For me, as a single woman, relationships with married men are fraught with issues! I find myself on guard and I’m sure that many wives feel similarly. But, in all relationships the key is trust, communication and honesty, don’t you agree?

  • Sheryl
    Posted at 17:09h, 28 January Reply

    This is such an interesting discussion from so many angles. When I worked in an office, it was natural and fairly simple to have male friendships. But now that I work at home, I find those opportunities to be far less than what they once were – actually, non-existent. And I miss it, although I’m happily married. That said, though, I do think that opposite-sex friendships can be a bit dicey if there is any hint of sexual attraction/tension from either side, or if the respective spouses are not comfortable with it.

    • Walker
      Posted at 20:22h, 28 January Reply

      Sheryl, thanks for your take on this. I enjoy having male friends and think it is possible if we can be alert to possible attraction and address it. But, it really is an individual matter. The married part does put a challenging spin on things. I had a single female friend say that any possible partner who couldn’t deal with her having male friends wouldn’t be the man for her. I sorta get that.

  • Lisa Froman
    Posted at 12:59h, 29 January Reply

    I enjoy having male friends. It’s always cool to get a male’s perspective on things. At my office, I have a “work-husband,” who helps me with car-related issues, male advice, etc. It’s awesome. (I do the same for him…except for the car help. LOL)

    • Walker
      Posted at 18:22h, 29 January Reply

      Love that idea! I’ve often said I wanted a wife… a work-husband or maybe a faux-husband would be a great idea!

  • Janie Emaus
    Posted at 23:12h, 29 January Reply

    I have many male friends and value their friendship.

    • Walker
      Posted at 07:47h, 30 January Reply

      Somehow I knew that you would embrace that. I think it would be a pretty lopsided world if opposite-sex friendships didn’t exist. My new goal for 2014 is to dig in and make new friends!

  • Nicola Lucas
    Posted at 15:21h, 26 February Reply

    I’ve been friends with a guy for a few years, most of that time he was in a relationship but is now single. I want more than friends he does not.

  • Alun Strange
    Posted at 07:18h, 31 July Reply

    I’m wrestling with this on a daily basis… my wife has few friends, no real ones of note really having been a stay at home mum for over 10 yeas. After 6 years back at work she changed jobs and was able to decouple work with taking our eldest to high school, she got a job in the city and began a friendship with a male colleague after one month.

    She kept it secret, knowing I wouldn’t like it, and I found out 2 and half months into the two of them having daily conversations via Whatsapp. It had started pretty much turning into an emotional affair – reflecting back now we both see we had drifted apart emotionally and weren’t connecting well while notionally getting on…. After a difficult month we put it behind us and by about 5 months had got more emotional and communication closeness than I can remember….

    Everything’s great… BUT… I found out she’d started talking to him again via their private email addresses…. she didn’t tell me because she knew I wouldn’t accept it… this guy’s married himself and has apologised for anything inappropriate beforehand. My wife assures me it’s just a friendship and that she needs a friend… People reading this will be sceptical because of the deception but I’m the one who knows her I guess and my gut tells me otherwise… However, a friendship of this nature is very hard for me to accept, I’ve tried,, I’m trying… we occasionally fall out about it when I can;’t bottle up the feelings it evokes… I get the point that there isn’t necessarily attraction but it’s another thing all together when there’s ‘history’, however minor it was… (although, in my view, he was very much trying to escalate things). it’s made me interested in this subject though… life is a complex thing, not everything can be pushed into a jelly mould… but it’s hard as I’ve pointed out several times how it hurts me and my wife’s really reluctant to not be friends with him. Being a philosophical person I challenge myself and ask if I’m right to feel the way I do… At times I’ve been labelled as controlling for having an issue with it but, generally, I think she understands it’s an unusual situation and, of course, we have Corona too….

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 11:29h, 04 August Reply

      Thank you for being willing to share your experience here. I would say first up that we are all entitled to our feelings and this is a complex issue. It’s a good thing that you and your wife has talked about this and keeping the communication open is important. I’m not a therapist so I can’t tell you what to do or to speculate on your wife’s motives. But I can offer a couple of suggestions or thoughts. the topic of monogamy and infidelity is a topic that Esther Perel talks about often and she addresses why spouses/partners seek more in relationships. She has a lot of information on her website, in her name. Have you and your wife talked about therapy? Many couples therapists are doing remote work these days and this might be a useful place for the two of you to examine how you’re both feeling right now.

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