Social psychologists have long studied the differences between heterosexual men and women to help understand how romantic and sexual relationships work. They study evolutionary reasons for each gender’s priorities in a relationship and how those of opposing genders can make an intimate relationship grow and thrive or contribute to its ending. Throughout this research, some have become interested in the dynamic of platonic, or non-romantic/non-sexual relationships between heterosexual men and women and whether or not there can be such a thing! After all, as evolutionary scientists will attest to, the reason for close connection between the sexes throughout the time of the earth has been for procreation. The very fact that people report having non-sexual friendships between heterosexual females and males makes evolutionists scratch their heads. What would be the purpose, from an evolutionary standpoint? Recently, several studies have been conducted looking into whether or not it’s possible for a male and female really to be “just friends”, or if there is always some component of sexual chemistry intertwined into the relationship.
Similar to the romantic relationships between males and females, researchers went back through time to assess the phenomenon of friendship between males and females to find out how these relationships grow, form, and end. Gender-mixed friendships are seen as a thing of recent history, as it was not at all common in even the eras dating back just before the Baby Boomers for men and women to have social relationships outside of dating and marriage. With the increase of women in the workplace and women taking on more roles outside of marriage and child rearing, the availability of male-female relationships has increased. Suddenly, men and women had more shared interests and more time together outside of the home in social environments! While it’s true that this change in history also increased the ability for sexual or romantic relationships to develop, it also helped platonic friendships between the sexes to thrive as well.
A recent study took to college campuses to get some of their questions about platonic male/female relationships answered. In this study, they approached males and females walking together on campus and separated them to ask them some questions. The researchers believed that, in this study, men would report more sexual attraction to their female friend than females would, and the study’s results confirmed that this was the case, though the differences were not as large as researchers hypothesized! This research contradicts some studies in the last 20 years that showed a much larger degree of difference in sexual interest between male and female friends. While there may be reasons for this based on the way the study is conducted, the overall message of the study was that men usually report more attraction to their female friends than women do.
What does this mean about platonic friendships? Can men and women ever just “be friends”? The research shows that yes, men and women can be in relationships that are not sexual. That seems pretty obvious! Everywhere you look women and men are interacting, laughing, conversing, and getting along without sexual interaction. This does not mean, though, that there aren’t thoughts about attractiveness or the possibility of sexual interactions during these friendships by both genders, but especially by men in these relationships! Studies show that men have a much harder time avoiding their attraction to their female friends and can have misguided beliefs that their friend feels the same way, even when they do not. They also more often tend to think that even if a woman is “just their friend”, that there’s always a possibility that the platonic friendship could turn into something more at any moment… Women generally believe that they can separate sexual or romantic attractiveness from their friendships and tend to have clearer distinctions between the two.
Attractiveness is a part of evolution that we have no control over, and often times, we can (and do!) feel attracted to our friends. Sometimes, our friends are equally attracted to us and this can lead to a sexual or romantic relationship! Other times, the attraction is unrequited, either blatantly or passively. In these instances, a person will have to make the decision to either end the friendship to steer clear of the rejection this relationship could eventually cause if true romantic feelings begin to emerge, or they can not admit to the presence of these feelings in the first place or avoid them in an effort to maintain a non-romantic connection with their friend. In any case, sexual chemistry can be friendship-ending in these instances, which is a common problematic experience with male/female friendships. This does not mean that men and women cannot be friends… This just means that when they are, more often than not, it’s complicated.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events