Men and Women can be Friends, but Should They? Study Looks at Opposite Sex Friendships

It’s long been established that men and women can be friends. But a new study suggests the more compelling question is: Should they?

In two studies, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire plumbed the opposite-sex relationships of more than 400 adults, ranging in age from 18 to 52, and found attraction was both common and potentially costly.

It would appear that the true danger arises because at least one friend is ‘almost’ always attracted to another.

Attraction in friendship is happening, and it’s persistent.” – lead author April Bleske-Rechek, associate professor of psychology

“I’d venture to say, based on all our data, that in the majority of (opposite-sex) friendships there’s at least a low level of attraction. And if it’s coming more from one friend than the other, it’s probably the guy.”


Why Men and Women Can’t be Friends

Because opposite-sex friendships are a novel concept, evolutionarily speaking, Bleske-Rechek believes people’s hardwired mating instincts get in the way. Notably, this seems to occur even when both parties claim genuinely platonic intentions.

To put it in When Harry Met Sally terms, “the sex part” gets in the way.

The second of the two studies draws from two samples: “emerging adults,” aged 18 to 23, and “young and middle-aged adults,” aged 27 to 52. Individuals were asked to spontaneously list the benefits and costs of their opposite-sex friendships, as well as rate their satisfaction with their current romantic partnership.

Across every demographic, people listed more benefits than costs; however, attraction was named as a cost, or at least a complication, five times more often than as a benefit.

An interesting observation is that even if people are in serious relationships, they didn’t mention attraction as a cost any more than any one else. For every demographic, except emerging adult males, the more attraction a person felt to a friend, the lower their satisfaction with their romantic relationship.

For now, Bleske-Rechek says the direction in which the latter effect occurs is unclear.

“Is it that attraction in cross-sex friendships has a negative influence on romantic relationships? Is it that people who are dissatisfied in their relationship actually seek solace and mate-affirmation in their friends? Or is it that people who are prone to short-term mating styles are less likely to be satisfied by committed relationships, and more likely to be attracted to other people?”

Realistically, this question is probably more important to the researchers. Even as most people recognise that there is an inherent risk to opposite-sex friendships, they feel that the benefits outweigh them.


Is It Possible To Be “Just Friends” With The Opposite Sex?

What do you think? How are your friendships mixed and how would you feel if your partner had a good opposite-sex friend?

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