What Research Says About Whether Or Not Men And Women Can Be Friends

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group of men and women friends having fun at the beach

Can men and women be friends? Like just friends — no strings attached? No romantic feelings? No conflicted, "should I?" or "shouldn't I?" feelings? This question is an age-old one that, it seems, is difficult to answer.

I've heard many people argue their personal opinions and one would be hard-pressed to have a conversation on the matter without a reference to the late '80s classic, "When Harry Met Sally," being tossed around in there somewhere.

However, this should be a no-brainer. This question is no longer as deeply philosophical as it once was, considering how our society has evolved in some ways — while it has quite a way to go, it should exist within the certain conscience of contemporary society that men and women can be "just friends" by now, shouldn't it?

Can men and women be friends?

I can give you the answer right now: Yes.

Unequivocally, with clarity and good intentions, yes — men and women can be friends without the need for any complications whatsoever. And it’s genuinely counterintuitive for society to pretend otherwise.

Every television show, popular novel, and movie these days (along with every fond reminiscence of "When Harry Met Sally") refuses to allow their male and female protagonists from coexisting in the peace of sharing a platonic relationship. There's Otis and Maeve in "Sex Education," basically every possible relationship combination on "Friends," Ron and Hermione in "Harry Potter" (and Harry and Ginny, for that matter), Miles and Alaska in "Looking for Alaska" … I could go on.

Apart from these storylines being garishly overdone to the point of grueling monotony, they’re also unrealistic and harmful.

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I would be remiss not to at least mention the sexist notion that men and women cannot be friends. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that much of this concept stems from how society undervalues women.

Rather than being equal to men in a way that makes casual companionship a possibility, the overtone of this cultural phenomenon is that women can only exist in the male sphere through romantic or sexual means.

Obviously, contemporary media representations of strong female characters aim to dispel this kind of misogynistic thinking. However, with the continued nonexistence of full-stop friendship between men and women in media, the residue of this antiquated way of thinking is enough to make for large number of viewers' discomfort at the mere thought in mainstream media consumption.

This relentless, forced relationship-building is also harmful to male representations — they perpetuate the narrative that men are only really after “one thing”, which is unfair to half the population, making men seem one-dimensional, aggressive, and unworthy of tenderness.

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Apart from the obvious sexist significance of believing that men and women cannot be friends, this is also incredibly narrow-minded.

Take into account how we treat children and young adults when they mingle across gender, for instance. Frankly, it’s embarrassing as a child to mention a new friend and immediately have your parents ask if that friend is a crush of yours. It’s intimidating.

As a kid, if my parents, siblings, or friends teased me about a boy I was spending time with, I instantly became unsure of where I stood with that boy. It made me nervous and kept me gridlocked in friendships with other girls. That’s not to say that having female friends is bad, but it would’ve been nice to be able to branch out a little more.

It wasn’t until high school that I started really expanding my horizons to include male friends who I never even considered potential romantic interests. In fact, I’m so comfortable with these friends that we joke about being together, both on the same page about how put-off we are by that idea.

Despite our society's sexist, separatist ideologies, scientific research supports the fact that men and women can be friends. Interestingly, researchers have concluded that these mixed-sex friendships are significant because they provide different forms of support and fulfillment than both men and women receive from their same-sex friendships.

Heidi M. Reeder began by publishing an important study that was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2000. After conducting an analysis of 20 heterosexual cross-sex friendships, Reeder established that, out of four types of attraction (subjective physical/sexual attraction, objective physical/sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and friendship attraction), the most prevalent type of attraction among these friends was, in fact, "friendship attraction."

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Reeder published another study in 2016 in Sexuality and Culture, but qualified the inherent meaning of the friendship on either side for each of the sexes, respectively. In her article, Reeder asserts, "Results indicate that women most commonly construct their male–female friendship as a sibling relationship, and men most frequently label their relationship 'just friends,' and both of these ways of constructing the relationship are related to a high level of friendship satisfaction."

In a study also published in 2016, researcher Linda A. Sapadin also discussed how heterosexual men and women qualified their same-sex friendships and the ones they shared with one another: "Women's same-sex friendships were rated higher for overall quality, intimacy, enjoyment and nurturance. Men, on the other hand, rated their cross-sex friendships higher in these areas, with the exception of intimacy which was rated the same by men in both same- and cross-sex friendships. Cross-sex friendships provided both sexes with new understandings and perspectives of the opposite sex."

Now, as a college student, half of my friends are guys.

Turns out, we have more in common than divides us. Some of them have girlfriends who don’t seem to mind that their boyfriends are so close to their female friends. It’s really great, seeing as we get to talk about various world issues and concerns from two different perspectives. And understanding other perspectives is conducive to developing empathy and compassion.

In the end, traditional gender lines are becoming a thing of the past, anyway. This distinction between male and female, femininity and masculinity, is no longer as viable a one to make.

Hopefully, that means that not as much weight will be put on gender in terms of friendship.

Sapadin noted in her study, "Both sexes generally kept their friendships and sexual relationships separate though sexual feelings and tensions still existed in many cross-sex friendships."

Sure, it’s okay to be romantically interested in one of your friends of a different gender, but these feelings also shouldn’t be taken for granted. Sooner or later, each of us has to figure out what kind of person we’d like to end up with romantically. Now, that doesn’t mean that anyone who doesn’t match that description gets the boot. Sometimes, you really are just better off as friends.

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Vanessa Wolosz is a writer who focuses on feminism, sustainability, art, and media.