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Friendships are a vital part of the human experience as they offer social support systems and impact our emotional wellbeing. Friendships come in many forms and fulfill a variety of things, such as our need for connection. Some friendships are short-lived, while others survive the lifetime.
When you think about friendship, what comes to mind for you?
According to Marie Claire, there are three types of friendships? They are defined as:
💛 “Friendship of utility: exists between you and someone who is useful to you in some way.”
💛 “Friendship of pleasure: exists between you and those whose company you enjoy.”
💛 “Friendship of the good: based on mutual respect and admiration.
Each friendship has an innate set of rules. Of course, some are more complex than others. Certain intricacies can impact friendship dynamics, such as compatibility, proximity, life stages and satisfaction, individual interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, as well as expectations.
Another detail that has been said to impact, if not entirely muddle friendships, is sex. Which begs the question:
Are heterosexual, opposite-sex friendships trickier than that of same-sex friends? Are they even possible?
Can heterosexual men and women hang without feeling sexual tension or catching feels?
Of course, there are some unique challenges, but this age-old question does not need to be a complicated issue! To understand the possibility of (heterosexual) opposite-sex friendships, first, we need to understand what friendship actually means.
What is Friendship?
According to experts, friendship is based on mutual trust, respect, and similar interests.
Additionally, friendship does not mean never disagreeing. In fact, being friends means creating space, even encouragement, for honest and respectful discussions and disagreements, or negotiating which topics are off-limits.
The 7 Types of Friendships & Factors
Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, at Psychology Today, says there are 7 types of friends:
💛 Lifelong Friends
💛 Best Friends
💛 Close Friends
💛 Social Group Friends
💛 Activity Friends
💛 Friends of Convenience
💛 Acquaintance Friends
She goes on to explain that friendships require a kind of harmonization that may feel immediate or increase over time. Some factors that can produce and enhance this harmonization are similarities in:
💛 World view (i.e., values, sense of humor, etc.) [Source]
Diversity Amongst Friends
Although seemingly contradictory, certain differences between friends can benefit personal development as well as have greater social impacts.
Centerstone, a not-for-profit health organization, encourages diverse friendships as crucial for the development of “social competence.” In this context, the term diverse refers to friends of different races, ethnicity, gender, cultural, and/or religious backgrounds.
Centerstone states that:
“…Diverse friendships can give you a better context for different people’s lives and help you remove biases you may have before even interacting with a person. The world is increasingly global, so we will continue to encounter more people who are not like us as time goes on.” [Source]
Friendship in Mass Media & Education
Because mass media has an influence on our social climate, you were probably exposed to a specific narrative surrounding opposite-sex friendships and applied them to your own interactions throughout your lifespan (even unconsciously).
When you think about the media you've consumed, how were friendships portrayed?
Male-female friendships almost always turn into romantic relationships. Think about the classics:
💛 When Harry Met Sally: Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) and Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) share a car ride from Chicago to New York, during which they debate whether men and women can be platonic friends. The plot of the movie rides on this question, ending, of course, in them falling in love.
💛 How I Met Your Mother: Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) shares memories with his children of how he met their mother. Ted's adventures begin with him meeting and falling for Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders). This relationship does not last, but their friendship is maintained. [Spoiler alert] Robin does, however, fall for and marry, another friend within the group: Barnie Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). Inevitably, this marriage fails, and ultimately the series ends with Ted professing his love to Robin once more, which she reciprocates.
💛 Friends: With the exception of Phoebe and Joey, each character falls in love with someone from the friend group. (Were Rachel and Ross really on a break?)!
Close friendships between men and women, without romantic or sexual entanglements, are the exception. But that might not be the only source of this messaging…
Education on “Just Friends”
If you don't believe you can be just friends with someone of the opposite sex, it could be a result of how things were communicated to you during your informative years. If family, friends, partners, and/or the community in which you grew up in, built your reality around the “girls and boys cannot be just friends” notion, you may experience the following:
💛 You've never connected with someone of the opposite sex, and therefore perceive them only as potential romantic partners.
💛 You sexualize interactions with members of the opposite sex and therefore find it difficult (if not impossible) to pursue friendships with them.
💛 You don't believe you have anything in common with members of the opposite sex, and therefore, why bother?
The disappointing element is:
Paradoxically, we have more in common than not, and have so much to learn from each other!
So, let's get to it…
Can Men and Women Be Friends?
I am happy to report that, yes, platonic friendships between men and women do exist, although it isn't always that straightforward…
During a recent conversation with a friend from Western Europe, I asked him this very question, to which he responded as if offended, “Of course, you can be just friends with people of the opposite sex!”
I then followed up with, “Okay, what would you say to people who don't believe you.” To which he responded:
“I would tell them to stop sexualizing the bodies of the opposite sex.”
Through both my online research and asking around in my own social circles, I discovered that was the trickiest part of an opposite-sex friendship.
Sex in Opposite Sex Friendships
First, most sources said the presence of sexual attraction in these friendships is, at some point, inevitable. Studies confirmed this, stating that men find it more difficult to have non-sexual relationships with women. Additionally, men tend to overestimate their female friend's attraction to them. [Source].
What is interesting about this statistic is the question of cultural influence.
Take for instance, Securing Sex: Embattled Masculinity and the Pressured Pursuit of Women’s Bodies in Men’s Online Sex Advice, which describes “findings from a study examining men’s sex advice centered on cultivating masculinity markers by obtaining sex from multiple women.” Its contents discuss that “female bodies are framed as commodities to signify masculinity achievement.” [Source]
In other words, the difficulty men have in non-sexual friendships with women directly correlates with the conditioning and perpetuated pressures of the pursuit of sex and female bodies, and the impacts it has on their perceived masculinity (both individually and socially).
How then can women have guy friends?
Friendship, regardless of a person's sex, should be a pairing of equals. In friendship, there is no power dynamic or agenda that goes beyond the understanding of each party. What is important is that each person ensures the foundational elements of friendship are present – trust and respect.
Also, going back to Centerstone's initial point: the more we expose ourselves to diverse friendships, the more socially competent we become.
For men who have only sought out women for sexual proclivities, they may learn to find other forms of fulfillment in female friends.
By the same token, women can also benefit from having male friends. For example, Psych Central highlights 10 key differences between male friends and female friends. Generally speaking, males tend to be more straightforward and activity-driven, in comparison to female connections, that are based on intimate, face-to-face interactions and emotional support [Source]. Based on this assessment, having male friends has the potential to increase carefreeness and activity levels, as well as offer direct solutions to issues.
When we open ourselves to opposite-sex friendships, we embrace varying perspectives, gifting ourselves with a more vibrant world lens.
How to maintain friendships with people of the opposite sex:
Maintaining friendships with people of the opposite sex is not unlike same-sex friendships. There are fundamental steps that can be utilized and revisited, such as:
💛 Communicate your intentions, expectations, and boundaries.
💛 Continue to have interactions that maintain the friendship.
💛 Confront issues as they arise, and don't make assumptions.
💛 Show appreciation.
💛 Understand that friendships change over time.
💛 Know when a friendship has reached its expiry date.
When we get close to people who aren't like ourselves, we don't only learn about their needs and struggles, but how to adapt and best support them.
Friendship among the sexes is, in essence, a micro-political stance! As we've learned, diverse friendships can have a major impact on our social climate. When we expose ourselves to people unlike ourselves and grow to care for them, their world views become known to us. This exposure opens us to possibilities of increased empathy, which can ultimately change the social landscape of a community, a city, a state, or a country.