Can Men and Women Ever Really Be Just Friends? Science Weighs In!

If you’re like a lot of 80s and 90s babies – or even if you’ve just been awake and alive in the past few decades – you’ve probably seen your fair share of romantic comedies. After all, they’re everywhere, with new ones popping up all the time. And we seem to keep avidly consuming them, despite the fact that we all know how every single one is going to end: the lead man and the lead woman are going to get together (most of these movies are still focused on heterosexual relationships, to be clear). And in many of these movies, the lovers start out as friends (or maybe frenemies), but are eventually so drawn to each other that their friendship falls by the wayside as they fall in love. 

The friends into lovers, or “will they/won’t they?” theme is so common that it seems like it’s even started to shape how we think about friendships between men and women IRL, right? But what came first in this scenario – the chicken or the egg?  Has the male-female dynamic that we’ve seen over and over on the big (or small) screen, shaped how we feel about the possibility of “real” platonic friendships between men and women? Or is art just imitating life, meaning it’s really true that sexual feelings (or the possibility of them) will always get in the way of a true friendship between heterosexual men and women?

We could probably debate these questions endlessly and never come to an agreement! But now what about the question at the heart of the matter: can men and women ever really be “just friends”? Ah, well science thinks it might have the answer to that one – and here’s a hint: it’s not looking good (unless you’re a hopeless romantic comedy addict, and aren’t looking for a lot of platonic friendships!) 

The Study

2 men and a woman looking at one of their phones

How many close friends of the opposite sex do you have? Probably quite a few, right? Our lived experience seems to tell us “Of course men and women can be friends!” We spend a lot of time with people of different genders, and most of our days don’t end in us spontaneously sleeping with each of them (for better or worse). Buuuuut…is all of that friendship just a facade? Are we all just pretending, and suppressing all of the sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface?

Inquiring minds want to know. So science has decided to weigh in, namely researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. These researchers set out to prove that, in their words, “because cross-sex friendships are a historically recent phenomenon, men’s and women’s evolved mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences.” In other words, we’ve only just recently (in the grand scheme of things) started being friends with each other, so we’re all still hard-wired to try and get it on with each other, friendship be damned. 

In order to try and prove that we might think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” will often get in the way, the researchers performed two “experiments”:

  • In the first part of the study, researchers spoke to 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends. They made sure that they kept everything as private as possible, so there were no fears of revealing unrequited romantic feelings between friends. In addition, to ensure honest responses, the researchers followed standard protocols regarding anonymity and confidentiality and required both friends to agree (in front of each other) to refrain from discussing the study, even after they had left the testing facility. The friend pairs were then separated, and each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) toward the friend with whom they were taking the study.
  • In a follow-up study, 249 adults (many of whom were married) were asked to list the positive and negative aspects of being friends with a specific member of the opposite sex.

The results? Maybe not super surprising, but definitely suggestive of differences between how heterosexual men and women view friendship.

The Results, Part 1

man hugging a woman
The study shows that men are much more likely to act (or want to act) on their romantic/sexual feelings for friends.

When the researchers got those pairs of friends separated and ready to talk, what they found was that the men perceived their friendships with the women differently than the women did. First of all, it turns out that men are generally much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Not only that, but they are also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends are attracted to them, no matter what the real state of affairs is. In fact, for men, according to this study, estimating how attractive they are to their female friends really doesn’t have anything to do with how their female friends feel, and almost everything to do with how they themselves feel.

In other words, in this study, the men assumed that any romantic/sexual attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. And it seems to work the other/opposite way, too: when the women weren’t attracted to their male friends, they tended to underestimate the level of attraction felt by the men, even as the men overestimated it. 

In addition, the study suggests that men are much more likely to act (or want to act) on their romantic/sexual feelings for friends of the opposition sex, no matter what the situation. While both the men and the women in the study were equally attracted to friends who already had partners, the men were much more likely to consider the possibility of a romance between them and a “taken” friend, while the women seemed uninterested in pursuing anything romantic or sexual with someone who was already partnered.

So what does this mean, and why is it interesting? Well, the results suggest that it’s, uh, men that seem to have trouble keeping things in the friend zone. And that’s exactly what the authors of the study predicted. The authors, after contemplating if what we’ve been shown in popular culture might have a big impact on what we think relationships between men and women should be (i.e., romantic/sexual), seem to decide that it’s really evolution, what the authors called “evolved mating strategies,” that are at play here, and that’s why the results are different for men and women. 

According to them, “under the assumption that experiences between cross-sex friends reflect men’s heightened short-term mating desires relative to women’s, we predict that men will experience more sexual attraction to their female friends than women will to their male friends.” In other words, they went int thinking that men are programmed to look for sex at every opportunity, and their assumptions were certainly not proven wrong.

And as Scientific American points out, “What makes these results particularly interesting is that they were found within particular friendships (remember, each participant was only asked about the specific, platonic, friend with whom they entered the lab). This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation—one that is actually platonic.”

The Results, Part 2

So what happened when the researchers asked all of those other people in the follow-up study about the pros and cons of being friends with their opposite-sex comrades? Those 249 people seemed to confirm what we’ve been suspecting since we read the first part of the study: all of those sexy feelings towards friends swirling around could lead to some uncomfortable complications. 2 women and 2 men sitting next to each other laughing

The participants were asked to list the positive and negative aspects of being friends with a specific member of the opposite sex, and when they did, all of that doubt about romantic feelings came out. Variables related to romantic attraction (e.g., “our relationship could lead to romantic feelings”) were five times more likely to be listed as negative aspects of the friendship than as positive ones. 

But again, there were differences between men and women, and maybe more surprisingly, between men of different ages. Not only were men more likely to list romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships than were women, but young men were four times more likely than females to report romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, while older men were ten times more likely to do the same.

Turns out men might have a slightly different view of their so-called “platonic” relationships with their female friends than those female friends do – and the older the men are, the more interested they might be in seeing if they can turn “just friends” into an ending worthy of a romantic comedy. So what do you think? Does this study confirm what you’ve been thinking all along? Does it make you look at your friends in a different way? Do you think it’s conclusive, or are you ready to do some research of your own? Or maybe you’re just ready to fire up Netflix and rewatch an oldie but a goodie…(and we also want to know your favorite romcom guilty pleasure!)

About The Author:
Cassandra Love

With over a decade of helpful content experience Cassandra has dedicated her career to making sure people have access to relevant, easy to understand, and valuable information. After realizing a huge knowledge gap Cassandra spent years researching and working with health insurance companies to create accessible guides and articles to walk anyone through every aspect of the insurance process.

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