This is a question I get asked a lot by my friends and students. The answer is yes, heterosexual men and women are perfectly capable of remaining platonic friends without dating or hooking up (labeled as “cross-sex friendship” or “opposite-sex friendship” in the scientific world),1,2 and nearly all men and women have had such a friendship at some point in their lives.3 However, there are unique aspects of cross-sex friendships that can be potentially problematic or rewarding depending on your perspective.
In order for cross-sex friendships to work, people must address some challenges. One challenge is the issue of how to portray the relationship to the surrounding public.4 Despite their wide prevalence, cross-sex friendships are somewhat taboo, and explaining or introducing a platonic opposite-sex friend to one’s social network can be difficult to manage (especially if that network includes a jealous significant other).5 People are prone to assume that cross-sex friends are secretly hooking up.
Such suspicion is sometimes justified. More often than not, there is some degree of underlying romantic attraction and/or sexual tension in cross-sex friendships.3,4 This can create confusion amongst male-female friend pairs regarding the status, roles, and boundaries of their friendship. It can also lead to a brief sexual encounter (which is especially common in college students),6 a long-term romance, or rejection if the feelings aren’t mutual or if one person is unavailable.
Feelings of sexual tension, as well as the confusion and ambiguity from real or imagined romantic undertones, are cited as one of the challenges of cross-sex friendships.2 However, many people either don’t mind or even say this feature is a benefit of having cross-sex friendships.1 Research suggests this may be a function of personality–some people who are less traditional and more comfortable with ambiguity (not knowing exactly how a person feels or how they will act) are not bothered by a little sexual attraction within a platonic cross-sex friendship. They may just feel flattered that their friends find them sexually attractive.
Research has also shown that a majority of cross-sex friendships prevail over time even when there are unresolved romantic feelings.2,3 People typically either acknowledge the elephant in the room and move on with their friendship in a mature way, or in some cases decide to hook up once or twice to relieve the tension and then go back to a friendship.
Importantly, cross-sex friendships can be very beneficial to have, psychologically and socially. Like same-sex friendships, they provide people with intimacy, social support, identity exploration, companionship, and shared activities (fun hangouts). But cross-sex friendships also provide people with unique insight into the mind of the opposite sex, which can be very fulfilling and enlightening in a way that same-sex friendships are not.7 This quest for information about the opposite sex (as well as gaining their complementary perspective on the world) is a strong motivation for both men and women to be friends. In addition, through opposite-sex friends, single people gain access to a broader network of potential romantic partners.5
To summarize, cross-sex friendships are: enjoyable, taboo, confusing, insightful, frustrating, psychologically rewarding, socially fulfilling, and potentially a stepping-stone to romance. Although sometimes there is awkwardness stemming from sexual tension, people tend to underestimate their own ability to move past an awkward situation and embrace a meaningful friendship with someone they value.
For more on this topic, see this article in Psychology Today.
1Bell, R. R. (1981). Friendships of women and men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 402-417.
2Monsour, M., Beard, C., Harris, B., & Kurzweil, N. (1994). Challenges confronting cross-sex friendships: Much ado about nothing? Sex Roles, 31, 55-77.
3Halatsis, P., & Christakis, N. (2009). The challenge of sexual attraction within heterosexuals’ cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(6-7), 919-937.
4O’Meara, J. (1989). Cross-sex friendship: Four basic challenges of an ignored relationship. Sex Roles, 21(7-8), 525-543.
5Hand, L., & Furman, W. (2009). Rewards and costs in adolescent other-sex friendships: Comparisons to same-sex friendships and romantic relationships. Social Development, 18(2), 270-287.
6Afifi, W. A., & Faulkner, S. L. (2000). On being ‘just friends’: The frequency and impact of sexual activity in cross-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17(2), 205-222.
7Sapadin, L. A. (1988). Friendship and sex: Perspectives of professional men and women. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 5, 387–403.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.