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Can men and women ever be just good friends?

By Hugh Wilson
Can men and women ever be just good friends?
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Many men still think they can't ever be true friends with women, because sex always gets in the way.

That piece of throwaway wisdom has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men and women can't be friends because their red-blooded desire is bound to get the better of them sometime. And even if it doesn't, bona fide romantic partners will come to view the friend as a potential rival, leaving one relationship or the other floundering on the rocks.

You have to admit that it's a shame. A female friend can give you things that your male friends just can't, and we're not talking about sex. Female friends can be an unrivalled source of comfort and feminine wisdom.

So with that in mind, we ask: can men and women ever really be friends? Here are the pros and cons.

The pros:

There are very few male/female friendships portrayed in films and on TV, and those that are invariably lead to romance. The friendship is just a stage the characters have to get through before realising how very much in love (and lust) they are.

Friendships devoid of lust are possible
But that's not necessarily true off-screen. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships looked at different kinds of friendships and found that a friendship bond between a man and woman devoid of lust was possible, and that was as true for men as women. A man could find a female friend attractive, but not always want to sleep with her.

Some experts also believe that the idea that men and women can't be platonic friends — which originates long before When Harry Met Sally — should be consigned to the past.

In an era when men went out to work and women stayed at home, both genders only tended to mix romantically. These days, we comfortably mix at work, at home and in our recreational activities, so male/female friendships are a natural and welcome consequence.

You can get brilliant emotional support
All of which is great, because a female friend can be a boon for men. In fact, in one study men rated their friendships with women as some of the best they had. That's because female friends give men the chance to share their feelings and get advice on personal matters, things they don't often do with male mates.

"Men might find it easier to open up to a female friend about emotional problems than they would to another man," says Kate Taylor, relationship expert for Match.com. "Women might be more supportive and encouraging than men, and less likely to tease."

Research by Kathy Werking, author of We're Just Good Friends, showed that the most positive thing both men and women get out of platonic friendships is the chance to talk one-to-one. She found that many male/female friendships are highly mutually supportive. Both parties get a lot out of them.

Cons:

One friend might start to want more
On the other hand, it's certainly true that platonic friendships with women can be more testing than all male friendships, and that's at least partly because of the possibility of unrequited sexual tension.

"It's mainly that one of the friends will start to want more than the other," says Taylor. "When this happens, things can get strained. There can be jealousy towards your friend's dates, which is often displayed as moodiness, or unfair criticism towards the third party. If you feel that one of your platonic friends seems to dislike all your partners, it may be they secretly care about you romantically."

Watching the friend you secretly fancy swan around with other men can be tough. In the study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 62% of the respondents admitted to sexual tension in their male/female friendships.

Mixed signals are always a danger
Women, in particular, disliked the fact that a supposedly platonic friend might misinterpret a supportive hug. Friends of different genders often have to walk a fine line between being playful, supporting and flirty, in the knowledge that physical contact, in particular, can be easily misconstrued.

They also have to put up with the nudge-nudge remarks of same-sex friends. If you're friends with an attractive woman, expect a relentless examination of the relationship by mates in the pub. "You're not really just friends are you?" won't be the half of it.

Girlfriends and dates might get jealous
Finally, a close female friend will most probably attract the jealousy of dates and girlfriends.

"Partners can sometimes feel threatened by a close friendship you have with someone of the opposite sex," says Taylor. "They might start questioning if it really is truly platonic."

But she also suggests a solution. "If that happens, you can erase a lot of the doubt by introducing your partner to your friend. Let them see for themselves how distinctly unromantic you are together," she adds.

The verdict:
Male/female friendships are hard work, but worth it.

So can men and women be friends? The answer is yes, of course, and as the genders mix more than ever, mixed gender friendships are becoming more common. But they take work, an acceptance of boundaries and the strength of mind to put up with the barracking of the boys in the pub. But they're almost certainly worth it. As well as everything else, says Taylor, "female friends will give you great dating advice."

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