Can Men and Women Be Just Friends?

It's been decades since the witty romantic comedy "When Harry Met Sally" explored the still debatable question: "Can women and men be friends?"

Some people say "No way!" Heterosexual men and women can't be true friends. Blame the hormones! Attribute it to spousal jealousy. Point the finger at the predatory nature of men (and aggressive women) who "want only one thing". Or simply remember that men and women come from different planets, and interplanetary friendships have never worked.

Despite the naysayers, what does the research show and what do the experts say? Since I am one of the experts (this was my dissertation topic), I'd like to share my findings with you.

Despite the stories of Harry & Sally, men and women can be friends without the relationship transitioning into a sexual one. In Jane Austin's time, when men and women lived in separate worlds, their primary attraction to each other was romantic and/or sexual. In today's world, however, men and women live, work and play together.

They are fellow students, colleagues, committee members, bridge partners, tennis buddies and more. This cultural shift has created a new norm in which it's not unusual for people to keep their sexual involvement and friendships separate.

Do some friendships turn into romantic relationships? Yes. And thank goodness for that; it's been the beginning of many a great marriage. A cross-sex friendship, however, becomes difficult when friends are not on the same page with the nature of their friendship or when the friendship becomes threatening to a committed relationship.

So, when you've got a challenge in life, what do you do? Do you give up, saying this is just too difficult, confusing, or baffling for me? Do you avoid the problem? Or do you deal with the challenge?

My take on the matter is - deal with it. Here's how to do just that:

Defining the Relationship
All friendships, even same-sex ones, can have ambiguous and changing boundaries. It can be a shock to you when you view Joan as a very good friend and her behavior indicates to you that she views you as no more than a "tennis buddy". Or, a friendship that you once considered "near and dear", has changed into something much more casual. With cross-sex friendships, the ambiguous boundaries can be even more tumultuous. So, take the time to define the relationship - both in your head and in a discussion with the other person.

Dealing with the Attraction
Let's say one or both of you do feel some physical attraction to the other. Does that doom the friendship or can you learn to live with it? Is there such a thing as harmless flirtation? Innocent sexual bantering? Sexual attraction without the desire to act on it? We too often look for purity in relationships. Some people believe that the only workable cross-sex friendship might be between two homely, asexual people - a nerd and a nun (and an old-fashioned nun at that). Stop fooling yourself. You can be attracted to your friend and choose not to make that attraction the nature of your relationship. Why? The short answer: you are more than your hormones.

Dealing with Others' Feelings
Other people, particularly spouses/committed partners, may feel threatened by your relationship. Do not discount their feelings. If the shoe were on the other foot, you would probably feel the same way.

It is your responsibility to work to integrate the friendship in some manner into your committed relationship. Try including your spouse in on the friendship, either by all of you getting together at times or by not keeping the relationship secret or apart from the rest of your life.

Out of respect for your spouse, you may need to change where and when you see your friend. Lunch may be far preferable to dinner - if you are leaving your spouse feeling home alone and abandoned. Whatever you do, don't make it a secret. Betraying your spouse's trust is a serious matter.

If you've once had a romantic relationship with this "friend" - your spouse may never go for it. You may not want to be forced to choose between an old lover and your spouse.

This is where you have to grow up. For the sake of your marriage, you may have to let go of this friendship. Sometimes, there really is no going back to "just friends." As adults, we sometimes don't get to have it all.

by Linda Sapadin, Ph.D.

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