The debate about whether women and men can really ever be “just friends” has been going on pretty much forever. It’s true that sometimes male-female friendships can cause issues like jealousy, snooping and even feelings of betrayal between romantic partners, but this certainly isn’t always the case. If you’ve ever been friends with someone of the opposite sex, you probably know that while sometimes there’s a lingering attraction and maybe even temptation there (if you’re heterosexual, that is), sometimes you’re actually *just* friends. The fact that there’s so much fascination with this topic raises the question: What gives?! In fact, the debate over this issue is so intense that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the University of Alabama studied the subject. Here’s what science has to say.

friends on campus

In one study, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire researchers found that men who had female friends tended to be more attracted to their female friend than vice-versa, and that women who said they were attracted to their male friends tended to be less happy in their current romantic relationships. Men also overestimated how attracted their female friends were to them. Hmm. The researchers go on to argue that since friendships between men and women are a relatively new phenomenon, people are still learning how to do them properly.

Maybe there’s some truth to that idea, but again, if you have a totally platonic friendship with someone who isn’t the same gender, you know it’s not really that hard to keep things non-sexual. The University of Alabama survey found that most people perceive opposite-sex friendships to be pretty much harmless and aren’t concerned about their significant other having them. It seems like the academic community isn’t totally decided on this issue yet, so we sought out relationship experts to find out what the deal with male-female friendships really is.


Q: Can platonic male-female friendships actually exist?

A: In short, yes. Kelley Kitley, a psychotherapist in Chicago who treats couples, says, “They absolutely can exist if both parties are clear up front.” Right, so as long as there are boundaries, there’s no reason you can’t have a platonic friendship. Then where does the blurring of lines occur? Kitley says, “It may start as just a friendship, but if the friendship becomes deeper, one person may start wondering if the relationship can grow.” And that’s really where the possibility of crossing over into something more than friends lies.

Q: Is there anything to the idea that men are more likely to perceive a friendship as a potential romantic relationship than women?

A: It’s possible, says Wendy O’Connor, licensed family and marriage therapist. “In my experience, males are more likely to be attracted to their female friends then vice-versa,” she says. This is mostly due to the lack of clear communication though. “In my experience, women typically like to talk and process a bit more, leading to understanding the outcomes of a situation, whereas men like to ‘fix’ the problem or issue at hand.” This means that not all female-male friendships include enough discussion of boundaries, which can potentially lead one party to believe there’s a romantic attraction on both sides when there isn’t.

friends hugging

Q: How can you make sure your friendship stays in the “friend-zone?”

A:Audrey Hope, a celebrity relationship expert, says the key to keeping it friendly is to be clear about what you want. “To have successful relationships with the opposite sex, it’s best to pick a category and stick with it,” she says. It’s just a whole lot easier when everyone knows their place.”If you lose the firm boundaries and things get muddy and undefined, someone may get hurt or you could lose the great friendship altogether,” she explains.

Q: Should you worry about dating someone who has many friends of the opposite sex?

A: Sometimes, people say that they wouldn’t want to date a person who has many friends of the opposite sex, since something might be “up” with them. So is this really something you should worry about when you meet someone new? “Definitely not,” says Kitley. These friendships do need to be communicated at the beginning of the relationship though, she says, otherwise they could spark some jealousy. “It’s natural to feel envious, especially if your partner is spending time with their opposite-sex friends instead of you,” she explains. One of the best ways to make your partner feel more comfortable with this, if they aren’t already, is to to be sure they’re included in group get-togethers, which will help them feel like it’s less of a big deal.

Coffee couple friends

Q: Is everyone capable of having these kinds of friendships?

A: Platonic friendships between women and men are totally possible, “but it takes two healthy people who have done the work on themselves to handle them,” says Hope. You have to be capable of being really honest about what you want, as well as know yourself enough to identify what you truly want to get out of the relationship. “You have to have fantastic self-esteem and be able to communicate your real feelings,” she explains. “You can’t pretend to be okay with one kind of relationship and secretly wish for another. There has to be no BS and no games.” And that’s pretty much how all relationships — friendships or otherwise — should be. Right?

Do you think women and men can be just friends? Tell us why @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)