Can a Man and Woman Just Be Friends?

This article will be included in my book “Inside Out Marriage” to be released in 2015

Here is a question to ask that will heat up a boring dinner party. Can a heterosexual man and woman be “just friends?” Hollywood has posed this question countless times, and often the man and woman end up becoming romantically involved, that is, unless that man is the token gay guy at her wedding.  But Hollywood scripts do not pass as quantifiable research, no matter what the box office profits are.

After listening to the stories of several couples who were experiencing problems in their relationships due to a third party man or woman who was “just a friend” I decided to see if there has been research conducted on this subject. As it turns out, there is plenty of information from various studies. Some of the studies were conducted in a laboratory setting and not in a real world environment. From these “love lab” findings we learn general lessons of human behavior. But do not be discouraged because there is also an ocean of rich data that is based on true to life situations that have already occurred. In these studies the research looks at patterns of what has already happened so we get a firm grasp of what others have gone through, and thus we can learn from their good and bad experiences. Afterall, we have all heard some version of the saying, “Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.” Well, let’s learn so we do not make the same mistakes, because these findings were shocking to me.

After pouring over as many scientific journals and articles I could find on this subject, several themes and surprising findings emerged. Generally speaking, men and women experience opposite sex friendships very differently. It was found that they do indeed become attached to each other, but in different ways at different points in the relationship. For instance, in a male/female friendship the male is attracted to the female much more often than the female is attracted to the male. It was somewhat humorous to find that the male friends had the mistaken idea that the female friends were not only attracted to them, but that the feelings were just as intense.  Conversely, the female participants who felt little to no attraction naively believed that the men also felt little to no attraction. Basically, each friend had the mistaken idea that the other friend felt the same way, but the opposite was true.

The following data show just how far apart these feelings of attraction between man and women friends can be. It was found that if the male friend was already “taken” (involved in a romantic relationship with someone else) the female friend was generally not interested in pursuing a romantic relationship, whereas the man still saw his female friend as a potential romantic partner even if she was already “taken.”  These findings strongly suggest that men have a difficult time being “just friends” with women, whereas women are more likely to be uninterested in a romantic relationship and would rather just keep it platonic. In fact, when 249 adults were asked about the positive and negative aspects of having a friend of the opposite sex, women perceived the question, “Our relationship could lead to romantic feelings” as a negative possibility, whereas a significantly higher number of men viewed that possibility as a positive benefit of the friendship and even a reason for initiating the friendship in the first place. Researchers wondered if this attitude toward female friends was just a result of the way younger males think, with all of that testosterone pumping through their body. Shockingly the answer was, No! The studies showed that younger males were only four times more likely than females to report romantic attraction as a positive benefit of being friends with a woman, whereas older men were astonishingly ten times more likely to feel that way.

Researcher Don O’Meara, Ph.D. studies “cross sex” friendships and concluded that the ability for a man and woman to distinguish between romantic, sexual, and friendly feelings can be exceedingly difficult. He added that even a simple friendly hug can have sexual implications for the man, partly for the reason that the breasts are inevitably in the way. Is it fair or right that the female breasts have been so sexualized in our society? Maybe not – but it is just the plain reality of a male to female hug at this time.

Throughout human history the inherent nature of friendship has mostly involved men befriending men, and women befriending women. Even in childhood children most often gravitate toward their own sex as they have different play styles and goals in mind, only to befriend each other in the teen and young adult years for the purpose of finding a mate. Typically speaking, men tend to be group and activity oriented while women tend to desire a more intimate setting with fewer friends of the same sex where talk is more inclusive of feelings and personal reflection. When the man is able to freely talk about feelings and personal reflections he may be more prone to uncover and notice underlying romantic feelings. For him, their innocent friendship may have progressed into raw, uncharted territory with new emotional trusts being created. This is where his idea of the possibility of romance between the two progresses from “harmless” ideology and fantasy to engaging in active strategies to grow his new secret romance. However, amidst his whirlwind of anxiety and hormonal suppression many women do not feel the same way and are on a completely different page in their relationship because the woman has been talking about feelings her whole life, so she sees nothing new, unique, or inappropriate about the their friendly interactions.

Men aren’t the only ones who experience something new and exciting in a male/female friendship. Women can benefit from the “detached” part of being friends with men. They are able to joke around and have a lighter type of interaction with men more often than they are with women, which can be a welcome change for her. This, like what the males experience with new feelings can also introduce romantic attraction toward the male that may not have previously been there.  Of course, there are millions of women who will say, “I don’t like that touchy feely stuff anyway, and I have always gotten along better with boys.” What does a man think of a woman like this? He may view her as “being the whole package.” She is able to be trusted, is fun and exciting, has a sense of humor “like one of the guys,” is sexually attractive, non-committal in some ways, easy going, and is someone he can confide in when the moments are just right.

The part that rolls over marriages like a semi-truck they never saw coming is the part where one of the friends begin to make covert advances on the other. Sometimes the one doing the flirting does not even realize it. Flirting can be as simple as a glance and a smile, or a gaze that is held a little longer than expected, or an invitation to do something with just the two of them that makes the heart flutter with excitement and anticipation of what that moment might have meant. Suddenly, the woman begins to feels things she has not felt since… well, dating her husband.

Up to this point there are several factors that have been at play. The first is called the Exposure Effect. This is A psychological phenomenon whereby the more a person is exposed to another person, the level of preference for that person increases over time. I told my psychology students once that if you want a person to date you, and you haven’t got a chance in Hades, just increase the frequency in which they are exposed to you. Eventually that person will probably become friends with you and romantic feelings may develop. Exposure can include face to face interaction, email, text, voice to voice, or anything that reminds one person of the other. This is especially powerful when exposure becomes a type of reward for the other person. At that point the brain begins to produce “feel good” neurochemicals every time a text is received or sent, or when the she sees something that reminds her of him. Imagine how often these triggers come up if the two friends have spent a considerable amount of time together. Once the brain starts producing these drug-like neurochemicals at the very thought of the other person there are so many psychological things going on that the ability to think straight about the situation is compromised by both friends and it may take an outside person, such as a therapist, or an upset spouse to call attention to what is obviously happening. It is at this point that the two friends often circle their wagons and defend each other and their actions, causing further strife and discord in the marriage.

This sounds like a lot of drama, doesn’t it?! Well it is. Some ask – “So if the marriage is not that great, and you fall in love with your best friend, what is the problem?”  Dear Abby once wrote, “If you marry a man who cheated on his wife, you will be married to a man who cheats on his wife.”  Ask the question again: So, what is the problem with a friendship turning into a romantic relationship? Nothing… if it does not destroy a family or other relationship. I could go on asking and answering this question all day. The fact is 97% of single people surveyed stated that they thought crossing the line from friendship to romance was possible and 71% indicated that they would welcome it. The next statistic is not surprising then, because 62% of single people surveyed said they already have crossed that line.  But does marriage create an impenetrable barrier to opposite sex friends crossing that line too? No. It has been reported that 25% of married men admit to having had an affair. Consider what that number might be if all of those men surveyed actually told the truth. I can only imagine it being a much higher number than 25%. Among first time divorcers, up to 90% of them involved infidelity, many of which the spouse did not know about until after the divorce was finalized, yet 80% cite a lack of intimacy as the reason for divorce. I do not know how many of those people who cheated did so with an opposite sex friend, but we must ask ourselves: if a person is going to cheat, would they do it with someone they know well, or with a complete stranger?

Most people say they would never cross the line into having a physical relationship with their friend, yet some let that friendship wreak havoc on their marriage anyway. These are called emotional affairs. An emotional affair is a non-sexual relationship between a person and someone other than their spouse or committed partner that creates a negative impact on their level of intimacy, increases emotional distance between the married couple and disrupts the overall dynamic and balance in the marriage. The sad news is at that at least 20% of marriages experience emotional affairs, which can devastate a marriage and family.  Unless the problem is dealt with in a healthy way, even though there may have been no inappropriate touching, the disruption can lead to a divorce that never needed to happen. Internet and text message relationships are an enemy to marriages. Emotional affairs can slip into any marriage because many people view affairs as having a physically sexual component to it. Even religious couples who guard against sexual advances from others can unknowingly fall victim to an emotional affair.

There is an unfounded expectation today that unless a marriage is a constant romantic love affair in which both are 100% committed to nurturing their relationship and every argument ends with passion and being more in love than ever before, then the marriage is not worth keeping. The truth is, most every marriage has tough, and I mean tough times in which at some point both people in the marriage have wished divorce upon themselves so that they could move on to greener pastures (those pastures are usually not greener, by the way). I know. It sounds awful, but a happy and successful relationship does not exist if people head for the hills when things get really tough. No happily married couple of 50 years has gone without their fair share of major problems. But working through them, not giving up, not shutting down, and not shutting the other person out is key. Respect, even if the other does not give it is key. Of course, when abuse is present, kick that can to the curb and get the heck out if you are in danger.

So, I ask the question one last time. Can a man and a woman be friends? My answer – yes!  Allow me tell you about the successful friendship between me and my female friend. By the way, my wife knows about her, and I am open and honest with her about it. I have known my friend since I was 14 years old. We dated once when I was 18, but that was short lived and we did not become the best of friends until several years after I was married. We are very different, yet we complement each other well. We look for every possible opportunity to go hang out together, and she has introduced me to new things that I love doing now. My friend and I occasionally argue, and we don’t see eye to eye on some things, but that is okay. I trust her with my life, and she is special to me. Her sense of humor is awesome and she is the kind of woman you can just relax and do nothing with if you want. We have been through a lot together and she makes me a better person.

As with the research above, my friend and I became romantically involved after a while. We could not help it. Before you begin hating me, let me explain that in reality my wife is my friend. When my wife and I first married we were “friends”, but we did not know each other very well, yet we still loved each other.  The friendship that we now share took years to develop and it came naturally. I think most strong relationships are like that. Now, I am so happy that we are bonded by marriage, AND friendship, and bonded by our three boys that we conceived.

Our friendship is SO much more than any man and woman friend could ever experience, because our friendship contains highs and lows, romance, tests of patience, major joys, raising children together, and apologies. In it is 19 years of nurtured faith in each other. We are totally different than we were when we started out 19 years ago, which is to be expected. I have heard people say that their marriage is bad because they grew apart. If you grow apart that is because you did friendship wrong. You never bothered to nurture your friendship and you focused too much on being married. Yes, you will grow to be different in a marriage, but the true happiness in life come to those who grow together like branches that intertwine and are stronger for it, rather than growing in separate directions only to be taken out by the next wind storm that comes along.  Happiness is thinking about being 90 years old with my wife and still taking walks with our walkers and holding hands as we watch Wheel of Fortune. I look forward to our cruises in the future, and to seeing our children get married and have their own children. I look forward to my friend and I climbing Mount Saint Helens this summer. Together. Our friendship is stronger because we are romantic and we do not have to hide it or be ashamed. As with any friendship, it can wane, but we take precautions so that we build ours up rather than let it fade away.

So, if you must be friends with a member of the opposite sex, just make sure all of that time, effort and emotion is put into being friends with your own spouse. You will be so glad you did in the future.

Dr. Service’s Ten Tips for making your spouse your friend and making your friend your lover

  1. Try to never be alone with someone of the opposite sex unless absolutely necessary. If you have to meet someone of the opposite sex for lunch, take your spouse. Imagine how much trust and friendship that will build between the two of you.
  2. Do something nice. Friends do nice things for each other. Even if your spouse is being a butt head, holding a grudge, or is in a bad mood, do something nice that will derail the problem. Come home with flowers or her favorite take-out. Get his favorite candy at the store with a card that says something about farts. He will love it. Trust me.
  3. Share an interest together and do it. Make it one of your passions so that you can experience a passion together rather than apart. Make your brain neurons fire like crazy for each other.
  4. Save your friend. If your friend was in danger of being hit by a garbage truck, would you stand there on the side of the road just watching, trying to be careful not to offend, or fearful that she might get mad at you for intervening because you don’t trust her? No! You would jump out there, risking your own life to save hers. If your spouse is going down the “friendship” road with a member of the opposite sex and you see some problems developing, then say something. Have her read this article. Let her know that she is worth fighting for and you will not give up for any reason. You won’t let your friend’s life get flattened by all of that garbage.
  5. DON’T DELETE – I REPEAT – DON’T DELETE. Trust is not something that is automatically given. It can be earned and it can be lost. If you or your husband is deleting text messages or emails from a friend, be advised that those behaviors are not okay or innocent. A husband and wife should have no problem knowing each others passwords and scrolling through each others messages. If you have nothing to hide, then you have no reason to oppose the other looking. This is for your safety; because often times when an advance is made by a friend it goes unnoticed or is passed off as “oh, that’s just him being him.” If an opposite sex friend is comfortable enough with you to send you text messages with things you would not want your spouse to see, then know that the friendship has already gone too far and needs to be reined in, opened up to others, or terminated. Deleting messages is one of the fastest ways to rightfully lose the trust of your spouse. Don’t do it. It could save your life.
  6. Imagine life without her. If problems have been persistent and thoughts creep in of divorce, ask yourself what life would really be like without her. If you fantasize about having a relationship with someone else, do you really think that a year or two later your relationship with that new person would be as solid as yours was with your wife? You are taking the same baggage with you that bogged down your current marriage. Do you think that will somehow magically disappear? Then consider that your new friend has a cargo load of baggage as well. Did you know that the divorce rate for second marriages is 67% and 74% for third marriages? If you have grown apart or fallen out of love, then do something about it and fall back in love and grow together again. There is no rule that says if you have fallen out of love then you will never be able to reclaim that. Make it new and better than the first time. Go see a marital counselor, but do not think that quitting and running for a new relationship will make anything better. It will likely only complicate things and cause a future full of regret. Finally, also consider that you are affecting more than just the marriage. Children are usually involved, and being selfish is no good excuse for destroying a family and affecting generations to come.
  7. Talk about what will make your friendship stronger. My wife told me, point blank, that I needed to spend less time with her. I wanted to spend every moment with her, but I was unknowingly suffocating her. I guess I needed to give her a chance to miss me. So, I do that more now. I never would have known if she was not able to be open and honest with me without feeling like I would be mad at her. It hurt, sure, but we are different people with different ideas of what we need. Respect it and thank your spouse for the directness, then go cry like a little baby in your pillow.
  8. Make plans. Every great friendship has adventures together. It is what keeps the friendship strong. Nothing is better than my wife and I bonding while telling a story together about an adventure we had. We are a team when we do cool things like discovering a new waterfall, making beach bonfires, or trying out a new restaurant. Make plans to do something fun and awesome EVERY MONTH and make it an adventure.
  9. Take the time to open up and disconnect – Remember what takes the guys from “just friends” to “romantic partner”? It was being able to share feelings and be open and honest about things. For the women, let her just have fun without trying to be the wife or mother for a while, allowing her to disconnect and be “just friends” without the groping and innuendos that many women get from their husbands.
  10. Take your friendship to the next level. If it is natural for a friendship to progress into romance, then take your wife out and make that your goal. Really wow her. Get a nicer restaurant with a nicer view, and take her someplace afterward that will create a memory. Of course, act like the kind of guy she and any other woman would dream about. Help her fall in love with you again and again.