Why can't we just be friends?


Ekaterina Tikhoniouk wonders if there’s truth in the opinion that men and women can’t ‘just be friends’

All of us have probably heard the words ‘just friends’ used in some context or other, usually describing a purely platonic relationship between two people of opposite sexes. Similarly, most have heard of the myth surrounding this matter: that men and women simply cannot be friends. According to Harry Burns, an affable character from the film When Harry Met Sally: “Men and women can’t be friends – the sex part gets in the way.”

These famous words reflect the countless debates on this topic since time immemorial. Whether between relationship psychologists or drunken students crowded into a bar, the debate rages to this day.

One side of the argument states that men and women were destined to have purely romantic relationships, and that all existing cross-sex friendships are based purely on lust. On the other hand, some believe that in this modern day, men and women are capable of having purely platonic friendships.

There are probably grains of truth in both arguments. The way we view our relationships is still influenced, to some extent, by past times: in the previous era, society held the romance-only position; in fact, it was a scandal for a married man or woman to befriend someone of the opposite sex at all. Back then, men and women lived in different worlds: the women stayed at home while the men went off to work, so the main attraction was often purely a romantic one.

But changing times now mean that men and women stand on an equal ground – they live, work and relax together, often keeping sexual involvement and friendships separate.  But in modern society, to quote Harry Burns, does the ‘sex part’ still get in the way? According to Hollywood, it certainly does.

It seems that modern pop culture is veering towards an old-fashioned stance – nowadays, television teaches us that every male-female friendship will inevitably blossom into romance. This message is obvious in many romcoms and in chick flicks like Maid of Honour, When Harry Met Sally, Sex Drive, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Just Friends, 13 Going On 30… the list goes on and on. In fact, even the Harry Potter series isn’t immune to the trend, as evident in the changing relationship between Ron and Hermione. It seems that according to Hollywood, men and women just aren’t meant to have purely platonic relationships – and that being ‘just friends’ simply doesn’t happen. On the silver screen, friendship is merely a barrier that must be overcome in order for the pair to live happily ever after.

This sort of mindset has crept into everyday life – in the real world today, when a man and woman stand talking together, people can be quick to jump to conclusions. Many people point-blank refuse to believe that such men and women can be ‘just friends’, and in a recent online survey, over a third of participants admitted to feeling jealousy over their boyfriend or girlfriend having close friends of the opposite sex.

Another mindset in today’s culture is the belief that male-female friendships are based on one person (often the man) nursing an attraction, with the other person dutifully ignoring it for the sake of the friendship. Online surveys and unofficial research have shown that many women, in fact, experience a friendship with a man regardless of whether they find him attractive or not, though men are more likely to strike up friendships with a woman they find attractive. Although these findings can’t be fully verified, at the very least they highlight a predominant trend. But culture is one thing: what do the real experts think?

Psychologists agree that there are many barriers, both psychological and social, to men and women being able to remain as platonic friends. These divides and biases manifest themselves early in life – from the age of five or six, boy and girls begin to play mostly with others of their gender, with the sexes only meeting again at the start of adolescence.

In juvenile society it was – and still is – seen as somehow inappropriate for a girl to be friends with mostly boys, and vice versa. Each sex is required to fit its own gender stereotype – a girl shouldn’t go haring off with a group of boys to climb trees, while a boy shouldn’t show interest in girls’ games. While this situation has certainly changed in the past years, an echo still remains.

Another substantial barrier to male-female friendships is the fact that the deeper the feelings of friendship between a man and woman, the greater the chance of them being more than just good friends. This means that friendship can often turn into a romantic relationship – a survey by Match.com showed that 62 per cent of participants have had a platonic relationship that had crossed the line and became romantic or sexual.

But no matter how long relationship gurus and psychology enthusiasts drone on about sexual tensions and secret desires, it must be admitted that there are also numerous exceptions to the rule. There are some friendships that are based purely on platonic love – as too many of us know, not every friendship winds up turning into romance.

Another interesting exception was discovered by a study by J.W. Shepherd. Do you remember the neighbour’s boy who used to swim naked in your paddling-pool with you? Or the best friend you’ve known since Junior Infants, whom your parents always secretly wished you’d marry, despite his acne, scrawny chicken legs and his aversion to personal hygiene? In most cases, you won’t be able to think of such childhood friends in an amorous way, no matter what, and this reaction has a deep-seated psychological importance behind it.

Through his research of a kibbutz community in India, Shepherd found that if children, whether related or not, are reared together or in close proximity, it will act as a sexual aversion, preventing them seeing each other as potential lovers later. Thus, Shepherd concluded that prepubescent friendship acts as a mental deterrent against future romances between two parties.

More than a decade of research has passed since the release of When Harry Met Sally, and yet we still have no conclusive result about whether men and women can be ‘just friends’ or not. Looks like it’s up to you all to decide for yourselves!