Four Myths About Friendship Between Women and Men

It wasn’t that long ago friendships between men and women were thought of as unseemly. As more women leave the role of homemaker behind to work beside their male counterparts, this separation between the sexes starts to feel really…silly.

During my formative years, I was surrounded by men. I learned to play tennis in high school by cajoling the men’s team to teach me. In college, I attended the Air Force Academy, where the ratio of men to women was 10 to 1. Then I became a chemist, joining yet another male dominated field.

There are pluses and minuses to spending so much time with the opposite sex. One thing’s for sure: relegating men to the role of boyfriend or future husband would have left me mighty lonely.

After literally hundreds of platonic relationships and far fewer romantic ones, I feel pretty qualified to say men and women can be friends. The problem is there are so few role models for these kinds of relationships, men and women often don’t know what to expect–of if they can trust themselves to keep their end of the friendship bargain.

What’s the secret to making it work? It’s probably not what you think. In my experience, here are 4 myths that might be preventing you from reaching across the chromosomes in your search for companionship.

Myth #1: You can’t be friends if you’re physically attracted to someone

You might not trust yourself with a good-looking man, but avoiding the friendship may be even worse.

I’ve always had a weakness for men with foreign accents. So when a good-looking German arrived in the lab next to mine in grad school, I thought it best to steer clear. But I found the more I kept my distance, the stronger the attraction became. My imagination was gifting him with qualities he didn’t actually have. When I finally allowed myself to chat with him, the mystery disappeared, along with the spark between us. Often, friends are a lot safer than forbidden fruit.

Myth #2: Once you feel that “spark,” it never goes away

If you spend enough enjoyable time with someone from the opposite sex, you’re bound to wonder if there might be something more lurking between the two of you. This is exactly where most women get spooked away from friendships with men. Hang in there. The truth is, most of your male friends are not well suited to be your spouse–something you may not discover if you bolt at the first sign of attraction.

For example, a co-worker and I, who very much enjoyed each other’s company and had engaged in some mild flirting, were asked to organize the company picnic. When we went to the grocery store to stock up on supplies however, we started bickering like crazy. It became clear he and I had very different approaches to life which would preclude us from ever crossing that friendship barrier and living happily ever after. While it was great having a beer together, I’m really thankful I don’t have to share a house with him.

Myth #3: Friendships only work if both are single

When you’re both single, navigating the boundaries of a friendship can get pretty tricky. In my experience, those “friendships” were much more likely to include an romantic undercurrent. If something beyond friendship didn’t develop, the friendship itself eventually petered out as well.

I made a list of all my male friends, noting our relationship status when the friendship began. In every case but one, the friendship started when at least one of us was already involved in a happy, committed relationship with someone else. This is, in my opinion, the cornerstone to healthy cross gender friendships. I’ve never seen a healthy relationship ruined by a friendship with someone of the opposite gender. But the reverse is also true–avoiding cross-gender friendships won’t prevent a bad relationship from falling apart (or even infidelity).

Of course, a little common sense and transparency go a long way towards keeping the trust with your significant other. What works with a girl friend cannot be equally applied to those of the opposite sex. I wouldn’t hesitate to have lunch with a male friend, but I probably wouldn’t schedule a dinner without my husband’s permission. And while business trips with male colleagues are inevitable in my field, I certainly would never vacation with a male friend without my family along.

Myth #4: Your male friendships will damage your relationship with your spouse

While many claim their spouse is their “best friend,” no one really expects your significant other to be your sole friend. And there’s good reason to expand your circle beyond your own gender.

As Camille Chatterjee of Psychology Today explains, friendships between men and women provide each different benefits. Men appreciate having someone they can safely share their feelings with, while women enjoy men’s more direct conversational style, without worrying if anyone’s feelings got hurt. And sometimes, you need the perspective of the other gender, just not from someone who’s emotionally invovled with you.

This is important to remember when your boyfriend or spouse suggests the only reason a guy pursues friendship is because he’s hoping to have sex. After all, is sex the only reason he starting daing you? Of course not. You don’t have to visit the bedroom to enjoy spending time in the kitchen or living room.

I’m lucky to know so many wonderful men, including a husband who understands their in my life, without seeing them as a threat. And maybe that’s because, as much as I enjoy spending time with my friends, I always come home grateful for the man who became something much, much more.

If you find yourself disagreeing with me, check out Julie’s post in which she explains why men and women just can’t be friends. It’s interesting and might resonate with you!

image: photographer padawan
Follow author Jennifer Gresham on Twitter here: @jengresham
26 Responses to “Four Myths About Friendship Between Women and Men”
  1. Thanks for the counterpost, Jen! Just for the record: I didn’t say that men and women CAN’T be friends, only that it’s highly tricky if one harbors feelings of attraction for the other…

    “My imagination was gifting him with qualities he didn’t actually have…” True enough. But just because a guy would make a lousy friend/spouse, how does that make him any less sexy or diminish the attraction on either side? I’ve had crappy boyfriends who’ve remained spectacularly attractive to me, in spite of being obviously crappy!

    I wonder if any of your guy friends are secretly attracted to you… Does any flirting go on? It would be great if all platonic friendships were honest and existed on level playing field. If yours do, then you are one lucky gal.

    • Julie, I had to laugh at this: “But just because a guy would make a lousy friend/spouse, how does that make him any less sexy or diminish the attraction on either side?”

      I don’t know how I got to this point in my life (there was a time it wasn’t true for me either), but I’m glad I did. :)

      Thanks for starting off this conversation and my apologies for a delayed response!

  2. Lisa

    I like the way you organized this post into common myths. They definitely strike a cord.
    I think a lot depends, as you suggest in your own background, on where each person in the relationship is coming from. I grew up with more women friends in high school and then in grad school. Those are the relationships I have maintained and they also work as “models” for new friendships. It’s interesting how past friendships pave the way for present and future ones, I guess.

    • Lisa,

      Very true! We don’t realize at the time we’re making those decisions the implications they have later. I do believe we can change models consciously if we choose to, but like any change, it requires commitment and effort.

  3. Great post, Jen. I also believe that some women and men can just be friends particularly if it’s friendship that they need. Maturity and age produce sets of conditions that help men and women distinguish between romantic attraction and friendship based on common interests, shared experiences, and intellectual curiosities.

    I have wonderful,long time men friends both married and single. There are a lot of factors that can throw a friendship into something else like disatisfaction with one’s love life, the inability to compartmentalize relationships, and weak self-awareness. Our definitions of friendship and our expectations when we have it determine how well it lasts whether friends are different sexes or the same.

    This was a terrific discussion and I loved both blogs. Well done, ~Dawn

    • You know, it’s true, I didn’t call out maturity specifically here, but I should have. One likes to think that helps anyway!

  4. This was a great post! I really love how there are two articles on the site that provide both sides to the argument. I really enjoyed how you debunked things I’ve heard all my life. Once in high school I went to the movies with two of my guy friends. When I got home, my mother erupted “What will people think, you being the only girl out with two guys?” I answered, “That three friends went to the movies together?” The notion that only sexually or emotional attraction causes male/female friendships really needs to be replaced.

    Thanks once again for this great post!

    • You’re welcome. Very glad you enjoyed it. Battling perception is another issue all together, and sadly, not as easily addressed. Glad you went anyway!

  5. Can anyone be just friends? My experience has been that people find intimacy strange and simply don’t understand how intense friendships can be platonic.

    If you want a close friend, you have to accept that there will be a perception of entanglement. I think this is why I’ll have a close buddy at work right up until the moment I meet his wife. Still the complication is gender neutral.

  6. Can anyone be just friends? My experience has been that people find intimacy strange and simply don’t understand how intense friendships can be platonic.

    If you want a close friend, you have to be able to accept that there will be a perception of entanglement. does’t matter if the friend is man or woman, this complication can close down a great connection in a flash.

  7. Marco (Italy)

    Thanx for your post. I believe you are absolutely right. An ex girlfriend of mine is actually one of my best friends. As lovers, we were so demanding for each other. None of us was a perfect lover, of course. As friends, we do not expect perfection from each other.
    We do not have sex together anymore, as it was a sort of anxious reciprocal test of the intensity of our passion and not a nice way to say ‘I love you’ with our bodies. We wanted to be the perfect couple.

    I have to say that, if it weren’t for sex, I would be more happy for my friendly relations with women then for my love affairs. But sex is so important for me. Sometimes, when we both are singles, I have sex with an old schoolmate. One day we’ll fell in love together, so I do hope.

    But that’s the only exception, all the other women who are friends of mine are just friends. Some are singles and some are not.

    Of course, an important reciprocal help is when there are troubles in our relationships with our partners and we need advice (same sex friends’ advice is usually less valuable). But that’s the only “special” role of my female friends. For the rest, they are just like my male friends. NO SORRY: I forgot when I have to buy a gift for my gf, mom, sister, other femeale friends. It is incredible how much women like to buy gifts for other women.

    • I agree, Marco. Getting the perspective of the other gender is a real benefit. Before I married my husband, I asked a bunch of my male friends their opinion. I felt they were more likely to give me a honest opinion rather than just tell me what I wanted to hear. And they gave me good advice. :)

  8. Miss Y

    Thank you for this post! I am a guys girl, that means that in general I prefer the company of guys. We usually have more in common and I don’t really care about hair and make up and reality tv. Neither do they. Yay! However, I do have many really close girlfriends, they ones have something to talk about besides boys and “girly” stuff and sometimes the girly stuff because, well I am a girl, gosh darnett!

    I believe girls and boys can be friends but it can be a challenge and really depends on the maturity of at least one or both parties. Sure if you can’t keep your hoo ha in your pants and jump on any guy you are mildly sexually attracted to, then no, you probably can’t have guy friends. And yes, I have had some guy friends who I thought were some of my best friends, only to find out later that they couldn’t get over the attraction. I was devastated that they couldn’t “just be friends”. Wasn’t I awesome to hang out with even if there wasn’t any hanky panky? What am I, just boobs and a butt? That can be hard to deal with.

    However, I have many guy friends that are just that, friends. I even am friends with their girlfriends and wives. Usually if you get along with someone, you will naturally get along with their partner too.

    The key is to keep it plutonic. Even Innocent flirting is no big deal and can be a lot of fun. Heck, my girlfriends and I flirt with each other but it isn’t considered flirting since we are all girls, it’s just joking. I have had lots of guy friends who I have found sexually attractive and vice versa, the key is to not act on that attraction. (That’s when I have found guys have a hard time going back to “just being friends.”) Sure, I have had guys get upset because the get sexually frustrated that we are just friends. This is usually months after we start hanging out together. But as long as no one leads each other on, they get over it and settle into a nice and comfortable trusting friendship. To me, they are all a bunch of big or little brothers/cousins and it works. It’s all about setting the right expectations. As long as your honest and handle the situation in the right way, you can have some of the best relationships ever. Maturity and honesty is key.

    I like Batty’s comment on Julie’s post: “Friendship ,these days, is rare. It shouldn’t matter where you find it, as long as you do.”

    • Yes! I wanted to work that into the post, that if you like a guy as a friend, more than likely you will get along with his girlfriend/spouse as well. That’s certainly been my experience. In fact, it’s how I met many of my best girlfriends!

  9. Great post! I believe cross-gender relationships can be very healthy. One of my closest friends is a man whom I’ve known for 10 years. I appreciate the perspective he can offer that my girlfriends can’t.

    • Yep, totally agree. When I had my last promotion ceremony, only two friends came, both men. They enjoyed telling people they’d known me for nearly 20 years. :)

  10. May

    I have found as I’ve gotten older (with maturity comes a little bit of wisdom, one would hope) it has been easier for me to strike up platonic friendships with men who are not my husband, without endangering our close relationship.

    I think what should be realized is that at the end of the day, we are all just human – and once you’re confident and secure in your love relationship, then reaching out to other people – whether male or female, young or old becomes a lot easier because doing so isn’t fraught with insecurities, fears, jealousy and falsehood.

    It is an extremely life-enriching experience, and I count as great friends both women and men, and I value each equally for their distinct personalities, life experience, intelligence, knowledge, wisdoms, etc.

    It is of course important to know where the lines are (there will always be lines you shouldn’t cross simply because you want to respect the other person, or their family and loved ones), but there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting to know people on a pure friendship level, regardless of gender.

    • I particularly like this: “once you’re confident and secure in your love relationship, then reaching out to other people – whether male or female, young or old becomes a lot easier because doing so isn’t fraught with insecurities, fears, jealousy and falsehood.”

      Well said!

  11. As a man who works in a mostly female dominated industry I for one CAN safely say men and women coworkers can have a strictly platonic relationship on a professional and business level. I believe it is solely at the discretion of the individuals in question and their amount of maturity and level of mutual and self respect. Great read that just reaffirms the observations I have made. Thanks Jennifer!

    • Tod,
      Thanks SO much for your reply here. I think sometimes people believe only women are naive enough to believe this works. I really appreciate you speaking up for the other gender!

  12. This post is a breath of fresh air! So many people hold onto that staid, inaccurate perception about friendships between men and women! It’s such a narrow-minded and limiting belief.

    Very often we need the differing perspectives only gross-gender friendships bring. As with any friendship, the strength of the bond depends upon the trust, honesty, respect and maturity of all involved.

    Fantastic post, Jennifer!

    • Thanks! As you say, it all comes down to trust, honesty, respect and maturity. Those are the gifts that keep on giving!

  13. Viv

    I very much agree. i have a close male friend and am married very happily and neither impinges on the other.

  14. Janet

    I really appreciated this article. Ever since I was a young teenager, I have felt that males are nicer more reliable and most certainly more sincere than females. Indeed as a young and middle-aged adult, I have been burned and betrayed by so many women, I’ve lost count. The most loyal and reliable friend I have is my husband of twenty two years. Besides him, I know I can rely on a male friend with whom I have been friendly with for almost three years. There is a level of respect and loyalty that we have toward one another that I have NEVER felt with any other woman. Unfortunately, such a friendship has its limitations. Since I am married and he is divorced, it’s somewhat inappropriate for me to “go out” with him, so my relationship with him is limited to inviting him over for dinner with me and my husband and very occasionally meeting him at a local cafe to catch up. I want more, but I don’t want to push it and ruin a good thing.

  15. Deborah

    I resonated with this post… and read it all through before realizing you are a poet with whom I used to converse at the Alsop Review. :)

    Fwiw, I did not make any of my guy friends while in a relationship with someone else (and I am unmarried today). It does make romantic possibilities or undercurrents more prominent and sooner, but it can work.

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