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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Can a Man and a Woman Remain Just Best Friends?

Well, after ruminating over this topic and putting it through the Miller Lite marinade, I am going to tackle the question of "Can a man and a woman be best friends, sans romance?" I must admit, I enter this search with some serious doubt that romance can be contained in these situations because of the obvious attractions, both physical and psychological, of both sexes. However, I am seeking an answer that transcends my own prejudices to find the answer that is most plausible to experts (at least those who claim to be experts).

First of all, let's consider the obvious: (1) sexual tension almost inevitably exists between any red-blooded, heterosexual man and woman, (2) jealousy plagues many rational people when a significant other makes a close confidante of someone of the opposite sex, and (3) inherent differences between the sexes threaten close familiar friendship.

In addition, everyone understands that rules are already in place for how to act in romantic relationships (flirt, date, get married, have kids) and even same-sex friendships (boys relate by doing activities together, girls by talking and sharing). But there are so few platonic male-female friendships on display that many experts are at a loss to even define these relationships. Not much solid research exists.

Who Is Friendly?

Let's look at some demographics. According to Lee Rainey and Mary Madden (February 13, 2006) of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "Among all singles, just 16% say they are currently looking for a romantic partner. That amounts to 7% of the adult population. Some 55% of singles report no active interest in seeking a romantic partner. This is especially true for women, for those who have been widowed or divorced, and for older singles. Yet even among the youngest adults, the zest for romance is somewhat muted: 38% of singles ages 18-29 say they are not currently looking for a romantic partner, compared to 22% in that age cohort who are looking for partners. The rest say they are in committed relationships."

So, the numbers seem to say that people of all ages seek friendship without romance. Human nature dictates politeness, civility, and friendship between the sexes, but what about the possibilities of remaining best friends with someone of the opposite sex and keeping that attraction from becoming intimate? After all, obvious reasons for allowing a person to fill the role of a best friend must exist in their appeal.

The Pew study concentrated on sexually coercive behavior, between partners, that is not premeditated but purposeful and on men’s ability to distinguish sexual interest from platonic interest. The study showed, "Men were more likely to perceive more sexual intent in a woman’s behavior but this gender difference may be attributed to a small sub-group of males at high risk for sexual coercion or men more supportive of sex-role stereotypes." (Lee Rainey and Mary Madden, February 13 2006)

Some situational factors were correlated with an increase in men’s estimates of women’s sexual intent. (C. Farris, T.A. Treat, and R.J. Viken, "Sexual Coercion and the Misperception of Sexual Intent," Clinical Psychology Review, 28, August 2008) Most literature assumes that men are prone to perceive sexual intent where it does not exist and that women’s perception of sexual intent of other women is the standard to measure interest.

 Times Change

Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, New York stated, "The belief that men and women can't be friends comes from another era in which women were at home and men were in the workplace, and the only way they could get together was for romance." Sapadin explained  "Now they work together and share sports interests and socialize together." Though it may be tricky, men and women can successfully become close friends. What's more, there are good reasons for them to do so. (Camille Chatterjee, Psychology Today, September 1 2001)

But that's only one of the major barriers. Don O'Meara, Ph.D., at the University of Cincinnati-Raymond Walters College, published a landmark study in the journal Sex Roles (1989) on the top impediments to cross-sex friendship. "I started my research because one of my best friends is a woman," said O'Meara. O'Meara lists these challenges to present-day male/female friendships.

1. Defining the Relationship: Friends or Lovers?

Heidi Reeder, 2007 Idaho Professor of the Year at Boise State University, confirmed that "friendship attraction" or a connection devoid of lust, is a bona fide type of bond that people experience. But, a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found, "People don't know what feelings are appropriate toward the opposite sex, unless they're what our culture defines as appropriate." What is this kind of love without intimacy and marriage? (Don O'Meara, 1989)

2. Overcoming Attraction: Let's Talk About Sex

A simple, platonic hug could instantaneously take on a more amorous meaning. "You're trying to do a friend-friend thing," said O'Meara, "but the male-female parts of you get in the way." Unwelcome or not, the attraction is difficult to ignore. Another study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found, "62 percent of all subjects reported that sexual tension was present in their cross-sex friendships." (Linda Sapadin, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Vol. 5, 1988) Gender differences in same- and cross-sex friendships remain strong, despite new career roles for women.

3. Establishing Equality: The Power Play
Women are at risk of subconsciously adopting a more submissive role in cross-sex relationships.Friendship should be a pairing of equals. But, O'Meara said, "In a culture where men have always been more equal than women, male dominance, prestige and power is baggage that both men and women are likely to bring to a relationship."

4. The Public Eye: Dealing with Doubters

Society may not be entirely ready for friendships between men and women that have no sexual subtext.This is especially true of older adults according to O'Meara.

5. The Meeting Place

Sexes are mingling more as the workplace and other social environments open to women. But, men and women continue to have few opportunities to interact. Boys and girls form gender groups early in grade school, so when they get together socially, they see each other as dating partners, not as friends. Monsour says this continues into adulthood.

If men and women are to work, play and coexist in modern society, researchers believe men and women must learn to understand and communicate with each other.

A Practical View

DeAnna Lorraine, a dating expert and life coach in San Diego, writes the following about the possibility of coexistence and communication from her practical knowledge:

"Not if one or the other is interested romantically because as humans; sexual beings, we have the temptation to cross over to the romantic side. It’s like having a sizzling steak put right  in front of you. You may not 'need' it, but you might take a bite just because it’s right in front of you, and it’s human nature to be take action on those urges—just like when a romantic prospect is right in front of you. I’m all for platonic friendships, if you can make it work. The truth is: even though a lot of women may end up having feelings for their male friends, they are usually the ones who don’make the first move. It’s the men that will act on it and risk the friendship."

Love, Care, and Attraction: A Difference In Meaning For Both Sexes

Ani Ram (, March 23, 2009) believes that to be friends, a man and a woman would need to share genuine love and care for each other without any feelings of attraction. Ram contends, " Love and care happen to be two of the three most important components of a relationship (the third being attraction). It's so easy to fall for a friend when you already have most of the feelings towards that person that you would for a boyfriend or girlfriend. All that's missing is attraction. Attraction, however, is much more important for men than it is for women."

Ram believes that for men, attraction is something they either do or do not feel from the start, and it manifests itself in the desire for sex. Because a man's desire for sex is so strong, it’s not difficult for him to feel attracted to a number of women. The third most important component of a relationship is attraction. What about the first and the second - love and care? The man grows to love and care for the woman for whom he feels a lot of attraction.

But, Ram says for women, attraction is something that builds over time. It builds much faster when they already have strong feelings of love and care for someone. For example, a woman might meet someone to whom she is immediately attracted, but a relationship will never build from there because she might feel completely incompatible and incapable of loving that person. Ram believes attraction is not enough for a woman.

So finally, according to Ram, in a situation where a man and a woman are friends, the woman becomes more and more attracted to the man because of her feelings of love and care towards that man. The more her feelings of attraction grow, the more she feels for her friend. At the same time, the man is already feeling a strong desire for sex.

And One Left Field View From a Blog Comment

"I’ve never had problems getting girlfriends, mainly because I’ve never been a woman’s best friend first. Anyone who is best friends with a woman and then wants the relationship to turn romantic is in left field looking at right.
My rule of thumb is if a woman physically attracts you do not try to be her best friend first because that’s all she’s going to think of you as, her best friend or more specifically, “her gay best friend”, which I do not mean as an insult to Gays. She simply won’t think of you as a man... with a sex drive for women."  Anonymous

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