Can men and women be friends – just friends, with no expectations, no strings attached? It’s an age-old question that has remained relevant through the changing eras, even as men and women navigate the maze of cross-sex friendships. If you’re drawing your inferences from pop culture, you’d be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that platonic friendship between man and woman is, in fact, impossible.
From When Harry Met Sally to My Best Friend’s Wedding, from Monica and Chandler in Friends to Robin and Barney in How I Met Your Mother, from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na – the stories of greatest cross-sex friendships always end up with a romantic twist. Even though these bonds come with their own sets of boundaries and challenges, a pure friendship between man and woman isn’t as unlikely as it made out to be.
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Can Men and Women Be Friends?
The question has intrigued psychologists and sociologists alike, inspiring generous amounts of research on the subject. While different studies and surveys throw up different numbers, the broad takeaway is that sexual attraction, different expectations and societal perceptions often get in the way of such friendships.
A survey indicates 22 per cent of the men and 11 per cent women had sexual relations with a friend of the opposite sex. Another study carried out in 2016 finds that men are more to base friendships with the opposite sex on sexual attraction and with the expectation of immediate ‘sexual success’. Yet another study corroborates this trend, finding an incidence of sexual attraction even case of platonic friendship between man and woman.
To understand can men and women be friends, we need to examine these friendships through the prism of the many challenges that define their course:
Challenge 1 – Difference in expectations
A platonic friendship between man and woman can exist, and many people establish a strong bond devoid of any lust or ulterior motive. However, more often than not, cross-sex friendships run into troubled waters because either the two friends have different expectation right from the beginning or one of them develops romantic feelings toward the other during the course of the friendship.
Human emotions are complex and often hard to compartmentalize, making it difficult for the people involved to differentiate between friendly, romantic and sexual feelings.
Challenge 2 – Strong sexual attraction
The possibility of sexual attraction invading a pure friendship between man and woman can never be ruled out. A casual hug can quickly take on sexual overtones, a peck on the cheek can give way to deep, passionate kisses. Once that attraction takes hold, it is difficult to ignore. From here there are only two ways forward – either the friendship is ruined or transforms into a romantic relationship.
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Challenge 3 – Lack of equality
Friendship is a bond shared by equals. However, our deep-seated patriarchal conditioning gets in the way of such equality being established in cross-sex friendships. Even when neither of the two friends consciously conform to the notions of patriarchy, the men may subconsciously assume a dominating positing while women take on submission role. This power play can be detrimental to a long-term friendship.
Challenge 4 – Societal perceptions get in the way
Even though a man and a woman are in a completely platonic relationship, societal perceptions can force them to reassess their equation. People in close cross-sex friendships often find themselves at the receiving end of scepticism, all-knowing winks and nudges. When this happens repeatedly, it can stir up romantic feelings that ultimately get in the way of the friendship.
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Types Of Friendship Between A Man And A Woman
Contrary to the monotone that movies and sitcoms paint male-female friendships in, these equations are not all cast out of the same mould. Some of the common types of friendship between a man and a woman include:
1. Platonic friendships
Platonic friendships between man and woman are the most uncomplicated and simple manifestation of this equation. In such friendships, the man and woman share common values and interests and are on the same page about their expectation from each other. Such friendships are no different from their same-sex counterparts and are most likely to succeed.
2. Professional friendships
These friendships stem from a professional relationship between a man and a woman and originate in the workplace. These equations are based on common professional goals, issues, milestones and thrive of mutual admiration of each other’s skill.
3. Friends with benefits
These are friendships with a sexual dimension, minus the paraphernalia of a relationship. This kind of cross-sex friendship stems from a latent sexual attraction between two people. The friends with benefits equations take a messy turn more often than not, as one of the friends develops romantic feelings, and in case, the other gets into a new relationship, the equation can become riddled with jealousy.
4. Friendships with a romantic ending
In this case, both friends develop romantic feelings and a palpable sexual attraction toward one another. They mutually decide to take their relationship to the next level. These often turn out to be long-term, committed relationships and last a lifetime.
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Can A Married Man And A Woman Be Just Friends?
As established, the dynamics of men-women friendships are already complex. What happens when you throw spouses in the mix? Can a married man and a woman be just friends? Or are such friendships a harbinger of infidelity? And can men and women be friends after one or both of them finds a significant other?
Owing to the rampant perception that men and women can’t really just be friends, striking such friendships when you’re already in a committed, monogamous relationship can raise a lot of red flags for respective partners and become a contentious issue in the marriage.
A lot of people agree that while maintaining old cross-sex friendships after marriage is acceptable, building new ones can mean inviting trouble in the marriage.
Besides, the answer to ‘can a married man and a woman be just friends?’ also depends on the kind of equation these friends share with your spouse. If your friend and your wife can get lunch together, or your friend and your husband can watch a game together, you are on solid footing to build a lasting, enriching friendship that doesn’t come at the cost of your marriage. On the other hand, if your spouse ‘picks a vibe’ or ‘has a gut feeling’ that there is a hint of attraction in your equation, you have a storm brewing.
That said, you can make such friendships work without jeopardising your relationship as long as you austerely sticking to some basic male-female friendship boundaries:
1. Appreciate new boundaries
When it was just you and your friend, perhaps you did everything together. Now, that one or both of you has a partner that is bound to change. So, the first step toward keeping a friendship going without letting it hamper your relationship is to accept that. Then find new things to do together where you can hang out without worrying about boundaries being crossed. For instance, instead of drinks on Saturday night, you could meet up for lunch on a weekday. Or you can communicate via texts rather than indulge in long phone calls.
2. Hang out in a neutral territory
A friendship between a married man and woman is a balancing act where closeness in one relationship doesn’t hamper the other. Start off, by acknowledging that your friend’s spouse takes precedence over you and cut back on the time you spend together. Don’t expect them to accompany you for lingerie shopping or make plans to get a spa together. Find more neutral territory for hanging out. Getting coffee, going to watch a game, an outing with your extended circle of friends are more apt choices.
3. Be careful with gifts
Let’s say it’s your friends birthday, and you get her an exquisite piece of jewellery while her husband gets her a dress. Or you buy him a camera, while his wife gifts sunglasses. Ouch! Even though you don’t mean to, you can end of bruising egos and rubbing your friend’s spouse the wrong. So, don’t go all out with your gifts just because you can and always have.
4. Strike a friendship with their spouse
Can a married man and a woman be just friends? Yes, as long as it is platonic. What better way of reassuring your friend’s spouse of that than by making an effort to build an independent relationship with them too. Take them out for a coffee or shopping, try to get to know them better so that they can rest assured what you share is just pure friendship between man and woman.
5. Don’t hold grudges
There may have been a time in life when you were part of each other’s every day and now you haven’t heard from your friend in weeks or maybe months. Don’t hold grudges. It’s part of growing up. Life happens, you get busy and you drift apart. If that happens, don’t hold grudges. You and your friend will always have a special place in each other’s heart.
Cross-Sex Friendships Are Possible
So, can men and women be friends? Yes, they can. Sure, there are caveats to this equation, which is what makes it so intriguing yet compelling. As long as both the people involved share platonic love and are on the same page about what their wants and expectations, men and women can build and share enduring friendships.