Can Men and Women Be Just Friends?
- Sunday, April 13, 2003
For many people, the idea of a man and a woman being friends is charming but improbable. "It always leads to something else," they argue, meaning that the relationship eventually becomes romantic or soon fizzles out.
Perhaps they are right. After all, in contrast to the countless love stories we see in the movies, male-female friendships are rarely acclaimed or depicted as an ongoing, freestanding bond. How many stories can you think of that richly portray or endorse the lasting, devoted friendship of a man and a woman as an end in itself?
Even the acclaimed film "When Harry Met Sally," which got a lot of people talking about cross-gender friendships, ultimately proved to be another tale of romantic love. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan's tumultuous and endearing friendship is only a stage in the development of the more celebrated attachment of falling in love.
On the other hand, there are those who are seemingly surprised by the question and argue that of course male-female friendships are possible; why wouldn't they be? These people's persuasiveness almost makes the romantic pull of such relationships seem unusual. They ignore it altogether. "One of my best friends is a woman," the male proponent of this perspective insists. "And it's never crossed my mind to consider her in a romantic way." Well, that takes care of that, I think. "My friendships with men are far less complex than my relationships with women," a female with this position might say. "We can play sports and just have fun."
In our informal survey of people who are "just friends" with someone of the opposite sex, we heard a number of positive remarks. Over and over, men spoke about how a woman's friendship provided them with a kind of nurturance not generally available in their relationships with men. They said things like, "I don't have to play the macho game with women. I can show my weaknesses to a woman friend and she'll still accept me." When we asked women about their friendships with men, we heard comments like, "He is a good sounding board for getting the male perspective, the kind I can't get from my women friends."
Interestingly, women do not report the same level of intimacy as men do with their cross-gender friendships. Even women who count men among their close friends feel barriers between them. Women will say things like, "I have fun with men, and they can even be supportive and helpful about some things, but it's just not the same. If I try to talk to my male friends the same way I talk to my female friends, I'm always disappointed." At first glance the payoff for men seems to be bigger than the payoff for women in cross-gender friendships, but that's not necessarily true. Women report great enjoyment from the diversity their friendships with men bring to their lives.
So, does all this mean the answer to the question about men and women being friends is yes? Few relationship issues are that plain and simple. The real answer is "it depends." So, you say, let's cut to the chase and get to the bottom line: What do these relationships depend upon? They depend upon how much each person in the relationship is willing to stretch and grow.
These friendships, you see, require both men and women to call upon parts of themselves that are usually less accessible when relating to their typical same-sex friends. For a man, a woman friend allows him to express his more emotional side, to experience his vulnerability, to treat himself and his friend more tenderly than is permissible with male friends. What is typically missing for him in this cross-gender relationship, however, is the kind of rough camaraderie he can have with another man.
For a woman, friendship with a man helps her express her independent, more reasoned, and tougher side-the harder edge that's kept under wraps in relationships with women. The downside for her is the relative absence of emotional reciprocity and intensity she normally shares with a female friend.
So, okay, twist our arms for a yes or no answer to this question and the answer will be yes. But we will quickly qualify it: men and women can enjoy friendship together, but not at the same level they do with friends of the same sex.
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