Men and women can be “just friends,” but the circumstances dictate whether or not they remain platonic friends.
Scientists have discovered that not only is platonic friendship possible, it is beneficial to both individuals in the friendship.
- Psychologists and their research on the purpose and function of inter-gender friendships
- Evolutionary psychology and the meaning of sexual strategy
List the counter arguments you will need to address as well.
- Men and women often have difficulty remaining friends
- Women sometimes approach relationships differently from men
- Differences between the way men and women approach relationships
- Sexual identity and the meaning of sexual identity in relationships
- Jealousy and infidelity in relationships
Cross-Sex Friendship: The So-Called “Impossibility” of Inter-Gender Platonic Love
There is an old adage that suggests that men and women cannot possibly be friends-- that any relationship between a man and a woman invariably becomes “something more,” a nebulous, unclear concept that plagues the nightmares of insecure couples everywhere. However, the research done into the matter of inter-gender friendships is much less conclusive. Can men and women become friends? Certainly, research suggests-- but they can also develop feelings for each other. Rather than answering the question with a clear, black-and-white yes or no answer, it is important to take into account the many facets of the answer. The laws of gender, sexuality and attraction are not rigid; they are complex and malleable, and thus, the answer to the question of whether or not men and women could ever be “just friends” is complex and ever-changing as well.
Before delving into the complex psychological issues that surround the question of inter-gender relationships, it is important to define the idea of a friendship for the purposes of discussion here. A friendship is a bond of mutual affection, upon which neither party has acted on any sexual impulses (Chrisler and McCreary 201). By excluding sexuality from the definition of friendship, it is easier to draw a line between two people who are platonic friends, and two people who have and have aced upon sexual impulses towards each other.
Different psychologists have different approaches to the idea of sexual identity, sexual desire, and inter-gender friendship. Obviously, inter-gender friendship between people who are not attracted to each other-- a lesbian and a straight man, for instance-- becomes much easier and less rife with the potential for sexual and romantic attachment (Chrisler and McCreary 201). For instance, evolutionary psychologists-- psychologists who believe that human psychology is heavily influenced by natural selection and the forces of evolution-- believe that cross-sex friendship was developed because of a process they termed “sexual strategy.”
Sexual strategy is defined as the way in which an individual maximizes his or her interests in terms of sexuality, reproduction, and child-rearing. Buss and Schmitt write, “Both men and women are hypothesized to have evolved distinct psychological mechanisms that underlie short-term and long-term strategies. Men and women confront different adaptive problems in short-term as opposed to long-term mating contexts. Consequently, different mate preferences become activated from their strategic repertoires Adaptive problems sensitive to context include sexual accessibility, fertility assessment, commitment seeking and avoidance, immediate and enduring resource procurement, paternity certainty, assessment of mate value, and parental investment” (Buss and Schmitt). This begs the question: if evolutionary psychologists are correct, then there does seem to be a pressing reason for men and women to be incapable of platonic friendship. However, there are many real-world examples of it-- platonic friendship does exist between men and women, but the circumstances dictate whether men and women remain “just friends.”
There are good reasons for men and women to stay in platonic friendships, even from an evolutionary standpoint. Sexual strategy does not actually contradict the idea of inter-gender relationships. It does posit that men are more likely to seek out large numbers of women to engage in sexual relationships with in the hopes of spreading genetic material. However, human beings are much more complex than their base desires. Humans are capable of feeling many complex emotions, and are similarly capable of recognizing the benefits and potential pitfalls of a situation. Evolutionary psychologists, when they fail to recognize this, are greatly underestimating human beings as a group. One such psychologist, Dr. Selterman, writes: “men are motivated to mate with an increased number of women due to the low cost of sperm and lower parental investment, whereas women are motivated to be choosier about who they mate with, due to higher costs associated with childbirth and inability to reproduce with someone else when pregnant” (Selterman, 2011). While this may be true on its face, it thoroughly ignores a wide variety of other situations in which men and women are perfectly capable of being friends. Indeed, if men and women were so driven by their base, underlying desires, would a man and a woman ever be able to maintain a friendship? Offices would be in chaos, and government would cease to function. The fact that humanity can build institutions like governments and businesses is testament to the fact that we, as a whole, are not driven entirely by base desires, but also some higher form of consciousness.
In terms of individuals who are single, the existence of inter-gender friendships places a stress only on that individual. A female with many male friends, for instance, may have problems if many of them start to have romantic feelings towards her, especially if those feelings are not returned. In addition, if that same woman gets into a relationship with any of those individuals, the others may slowly fade from her life because their primary interest in her was a romantic or sexual interest. According to the studies and research done by Walid Affifi and Sandra Faulkner, out of more than 300 respondents surveyed, 20% of men and women revealed that they engaged in a physical intimacy with at least one friend (Affifi). Just because it is difficult for men and women to be friends-- and because they approach friendship differently-- doesn’t mean that it is impossible or wrong for men and women to be just friends.
There are even differences in the way men and women view inter-gender friendships. For instance, Greif writes, “Researchers found that while women were generally not attracted to their male friends and saw the relationship as strictly platonic, the men usually had romantic feelings for their lady friends. Not only were the guys more attracted to their female buds, they also mistakenly believed that the feelings were mutual, and they were more willing to act on their perceived mutual attraction. The study concluded that women generally think guys and gals can just be friends, while men secretly hope the relationship can become something more” (Greif). However, the issue of inter-gender friendships becomes even more complex and problematic when partnerships are involved.
Greif suggests that one way to offset the existence of (perhaps inevitable) jealousy in relationships is to balance one’s inter-gender relationships by becoming friends with another couple. In this way, the “danger” of the inter-sex relationship is offset by the presence of the other individual’s partner. Whether this is true or not depends, more than likely, on the relationship that exists between the individuals in question.
The deeper the question is investigated, the more it seems that the answer to whether or not men and women can be “just friends” is an answer based on individual personalities, situations, and sexual identities. As previously stated, individuals with no attraction to each other can easily be platonic friends. There is no difference between a friendship between a homosexual man and a homosexual woman and the friendship between two straight women or two straight men. Because these individuals are not attracted to each other-- or even their gender-- the likelihood that these people are going to become “more than friends” is very low. However, men and women who are friends and not attracted to each other seem to be able to carry on friendships without any difficulty as well.
The problem arises, Newcomer suggests, when there is a shared, mutual attraction. A woman who is not attracted to a male friend will never allow things to cross the boundary of platonic friendship; however, once that mutual attraction is shared and acknowledged by both parties, it becomes much more likely for individuals to act upon these instincts. Men are more likely than women to find their female friends attractive, but when men and women do find each other attractive, the likelihood for shared sexual experiences increases significantly. Perhaps, Newcomer suggests, this innate knowledge that men find their female friends attractive is one of the driving foundations for the idea that men and women cannot, in fact, be “just friends.”
There seems to be a trope in modern culture-- common in romantic comedies, for instance-- that the man in a relationship is a down-to-earth, relaxed guy and he has a wife or girlfriend who is controlling and needy. Given what scientists have discovered about inter-gender relationships, it is no surprise that many women are uncomfortable about the fact that their partner has a number of female friends-- men are more likely to find their female friends attractive than women are. This does not, of course, suggest that all men will cheat on their partners with their female friends; however, it can be difficult, in a cultural context, to separate the fear of betrayal from the knowledge that one’s partner will not cheat. And indeed, cheating in relationships is disturbingly common. It is no wonder that many people are very afraid of the existence of an inter-gender friendship in their partner’s life.
However, Felmee, Sweet and Sinclair suggest that inter-gender relationships-- particularly friendships-- can be extremely helpful and supportive for the individuals involved. They suggest that having platonic friendships with members of the opposite gender provides the individual with a constructive, enlightening worldview. This is not to say that two people in a friendship will never begin to develop feelings for one another. This is clearly not the case, as many successful relationships are built on this idea of mutual friendship that develops into more. When both parties emotionally invest in the friendship, it is something that is shared between them and can be supportive for both individuals.
Some research also seems to suggest that the reason that men and women can have platonic relationships is that women are very unwilling to cross the boundary between platonic and sexual relations. Women, it seems, become more emotionally invested in their friendships, and are unwilling to cross boundaries that would potentially end the friendship. Men, on the other hand, are very willing to cross these boundaries, as they do not invest in their relationships in the same manner that women do. This is not to suggest that men do not value their relationships and their friendships, but instead to suggest that they value these relationships in very different ways and for a wide variety of different reasons. Indeed, Newcomer writes, “platonic love does exist, some experts maintain. There are various reasons for keeping a relationship platonic, but the most common include a lack of physical attraction, fear of disapproval from friends or family, third party involvement and not wanting to disrupt the relationship. Studies find both men and women benefit from cross-sex friendship (be it through protection or simply learning from the opposite sex how to best attract a mate), which might explain why people are sometimes reluctant to rock the boat” (Newcomer). In short, experts do maintain that there is such a thing as platonic love, and that this type of loving relationship is extremely beneficial to all individuals involved.
At the same time, there is certainly a cause for concern for partners when an individual starts becoming too close to a friend of their preferred sex. Temptation is very real, and mutual attraction can be very strong when emotional connections are present. Infidelity in a relationship is a very real problem, and can be devastating to individuals who experience it. As a result, some people go too far and assume that every individual their spouse or significant other speaks with is someone that they are interested in, which can lead to the eventual destruction of the relationship via jealousy (Chrisler and McCreary 207).
Men and women can be “just friends.” Just because a friendship between a man and a woman sometimes develops into something more does not mean that every instance of an inter-gender friendship will develop; as previously stated, there are a lot of different areas in which circumstance and personality play a large role in the development of a romantic relationship between two individuals. Circumstances often dictate the parameters of friendship, whether it is inter-gender friendship or same-sex friendship. People become friends for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes friendships change and evolve over time. There is nothing wrong with allowing a friendship to develop into something more-- sometimes this is how relationships are started. However, jealousy issues within relationships when one of the partners has a significant interest in a friend can be incredibly devastating.
Buss, David M., and David P. Schmitt. 'Sexual Strategies Theory: An Evolutionary Perspective On Human Mating.'. Psychological Review 100.2 (1993): 204-232. Web.
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Chrisler, Joan, and Donald McCreary. Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology Volume 2. New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2010. Print.
Felmlee, Diane, Elizabeth Sweet, and H. Coleen Sinclair. Gender Rules: Same- and Cross-Gender Friendships Norms. New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012. Print.
Greif, Geoffrey. “Opposite Sex Friendships in Couples.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 20 April 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.
Newcomer, Laura. “Can Straight Men and Women Be “Just Friends”?” Greatist. n.p., 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Sept 2014.
Nicholson, Jeremy. “Can Men and Women Be "Just Friends"?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 30 April 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.
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