Platonic Love Or Lust? The Science Behind Men And Women Being ‘Just Friends’

Hollywood has shamelessly exploited the idea of guy-girl friendships evolving into romantic interests, priming us to believe this is how all opposite-sex dynamics work. But, can guy-girl friendships work platonically, or is the old adage “friends make the best lovers” true?

1. The Cross-Sex Friendship

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Males and females have been living, working, and playing side-by-side since a young age, making it inevitable that they interact with one another.

At school, we start to form our own gender groups where we take

an interest in those who act like we do. It is during puberty that boys and girls start to see each other as potential dating partners (circa awkward sixth grade school dances) because they don’t really know one another as friends. However, when placed in these social contexts, the sexes learn to understand and communicate with each other.

When we begin to look for friends of the opposite-sex, or cross-sex friendships, we are seeking “chemistry”— or that special “click” we have with someone that causes us to want to spend more time with him or her. We like how this person makes us feel when we hang out with them, and soon this individual becomes synonymous with fun.

“When looking for friends of any gender, we tend to gravitate towards others with similar characteristics and interests of our own. Commonality and chemistry between individuals is important when developing friendships,” Dr. Ildiko Tabori, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, Calif., told Medical Daily.

Little boy and little girl standing together. Pexels, Public Domain

Similarly, these are the qualities we look for in a significant other. So, can men and women really be just friends?

Friends, Lovers Or Nothing

friendship attraction, or connection devoid lust is a bona fide bond, and science suggests it does exist. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found bonds between men and women are changing, with both men and women in cross-sex friendships more often seeing each other as friends or confidants rather than romantic interests. Participants who reported no physical or sexual attraction to their friend were in significantly longer friendships compared to those who felt an attraction. The findings suggest types of bonds other than romantic connections can and do occur in friendships between males and females.

April Masini, relationship expert and author, disagrees and believes that at some point in an opposite-sex friendship, one person usually develops romantic feelings for the other.

“This idea that men and women can be friends is fraught with obstacles,” she told Medical Daily. She added: “They can’t be friends, and if they think they are, the clock is ticking. Eventually one person will have a crush on the other.”

Attraction can add fun or excitement to a friendship, but like Masini suggests, it becomes an obstacle. Physical and sexual attraction is seen even in men and women who are platonic friends.

A 2012 study found in the majority of opposite-sex friendships, there’s at least a low level of attraction. Men reported more attraction and a stronger desire to date their female friends than women did their male friends. These men were also more likely to overestimate how attracted their platonic female friends were to them, while women underestimated how attractive they were to their male friends. The researchers noted the more attracted a person was to their platonic friend, the less satisfied they were with their current romantic relationship.

Evolutionarily speaking, the researchers believe our hardwired mating instincts have an effect on whether we can truly be just friends with anyone of the opposite sex. Men tend to report more attraction to their female friends than women to males because men faced the risk of being shut out, genetically, if they didn’t take “advantage of various reproductive opportunities,” according to lead researcher April Bleske-Rechek.

“So the argument is that men have evolved to be far more sexually opportunistic,” wrote Bleske-Rechek in the paper.

The attraction men and women develop in cross-sex relationships may also be due to the repeated exposure effect. In psychology, this is when a person is exposed to another person repeatedly, and begins to let their guard down over time. Their inhibitions begin to disappear and they will start to like the other person, according to psychologist Dr. Carmen Harra and life coach Alexandra Harra.

“This is perfectly normal and happens to all of us,” they told Medical Daily.

So, what happens when sexual attraction exists in friendship?

Defining The Friendship

When we develop a sexual attraction to someone we’re involved with socially or with whom we are in frequent close proximity, we are left to decide whether or not to act on it. These levels of attraction do affect the guy-girl friendship bond dynamic, like getting attention from a really “hot” co-worker when we’re already involved with someone else, according to Tabori.

“This is when we need to set limits and maintain appropriate boundaries,” she said.

A 2000 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships showed out of more than 300 college students surveyed, 67 percent reported having had sex with a friend. However, 56 percent of these cross-sex friendship pairs chose not to take the friendship to romantic level after the encounter. This suggests these pairs valued their friendship over sex.

The success of these friendships is contingent on how well both people communicate and respect one another. Healthy guy-girl friendships need to have barriers that girl-girl and guy-guy friendships do not cross. This barrier is recognized by the comfort zone that neither friend in the friendship is allowed to violate.

“Generally, I think normalizing these feelings of attraction is an appropriate response — it’s okay to find someone sexually attractive. We are, after all, human. The important thing is to have healthy boundaries,” John Mathews, a psychotherapist in Richmond, Va., told Medical Daily.

2. Why Can’t We Be Friends? The Verdict

So, does Billy Crystal’s Harry Burns’ belief “men and women can’t be friends” in When Harry Met Sally hold any truth? Yes and no.

There will be men who will struggle to be platonic with their female friends, friends who used to be lovers, and lovers who used to be friends. Then, there are those who wouldn’t think of having sex with their friends, and those who do. Men and women can form great friendships, but like Burns said, “the sex part always gets in the way” when both partners are physically and sexually attracted to each other.

It’s better to look at it this way: sexual attraction is simply an attraction.

“It does not mean it needs to be acted upon. Weighing the consequences of acting upon a sexual attraction may not be worth the weirdness in the relationship that often follows,” said Tabori.

The idea of falling in love with your long-time best friend is the basis of romance novels, rom-coms, and even fairy tales. They ignite the possibility this can happen to us, but our life is not a scripted storyline. A best friend of the opposite sex really could be just a best friend and nothing more.

The bottom line is men and women can be friends, as long as there is no lingering romantic interest. Remember, just because we talk to someone of the opposite sex about our pasts, presents and futures, it doesn’t mean we’re meant to be lovers or soulmates. Deep love comes in a variety of forms, including friendships.

In opposite-sex friendships, we want someone we can have a conversation with, and to feel a connection without worrying about catching feelings or awkward moments.

So, for the sake of male-female platonic friendships, if we don’t let our sex drive get the best of us, it could be a beautiful thing. Now, that’s a Hollywood ending worth seeing.