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Can Men and Women Be Friends?

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

It’s been more than 20 years since the witty romantic comedy ‘When Harry Met Sally’ explored the still debatable question - “Can Women and Men be Friends?”

There are those who say ‘No’. Heterosexual men and women can’t be true friends. Blame the hormones! Attribute it to spousal jealousy! Point the finger at the predatory nature of men (and aggressive women) who “want only one thing.

Or simply remember that men and women come from different planets and interplanetary friendships have never worked!

Despite the naysayers, what does the research show and what do the experts say? Since I am one of the experts (this was my dissertation topic), I’d like to share my findings with you. Despite the stories of Harry & Sally and Chandler & Monica, men and women can be friends without the relationship transitioning into a sexual one.

In Jane Austen’s time, when men and women lived in separate worlds, their primary attraction to each other was romantic. In today’s world, however, men and women live, work and play together. They are fellow students, colleagues, committee members, bridge buddies, tennis partners and more. This cultural shift has created a new norm in which people generally keep their sexual involvement and friendships separate.

Do some friendships turn into romantic relationships? Yes. And thank goodness for that; it’s been the beginning of many a great marriage.

Issues, however, can become challenging when friends are not on the same page with what the friendship means to them. Or, when the friendship becomes threatening to the committed relationship.

When you’ve got a challenge in life, what do you do? Do you give up, saying this is just too difficult, confusing, or baffling for me? Do you avoid the problem, scratch the idea? Or do you deal with the challenge? My take on the matter: deal with it.

Here’s how to do just that:

Define the Relationship – All friendships, even same-sex ones, can have ambiguous and changing boundaries. It can be a shock to you when you view Laurie as a close friend, yet her behavior indicates to you that she views you as no more than a co-worker. Or, a friendship that you once considered “near and dear,” has morphed into something more casual. With cross-sex friendships, the ambiguous boundaries can be even more tumultuous. Hence, take the time to define the relationship – both in your own mind and out loud with your friend.

Deal with the Attraction – Let’s say both of you do feel physically attracted to each other. Does that doom the friendship or can you learn to live with it? Is there such a thing as harmless flirtation? Innocent sexual bantering? Sexual attraction without the wish to act on it? Some people believe that the only workable cross-sex friendship might be between two homely, asexual people – a nerd and a nun (and an old-fashioned nun at that). Stop fooling yourself. You can be attracted to your friend and choose not to make that attraction the basis of your relationship. Why? Because, now that you are no longer a teen, you are more than your hormones.

Respect Others’ Feelings – Other people, particularly spouses/committed partners, may feel threatened by your relationship. Do not discount their feelings. If the shoe were on the other foot, you would probably feel the same way. It is your responsibility to integrate your friendship with your committed relationship. Include your spouse in the friendship. At times, all of you can get together. Or, if you see your friend alone, you can openly discuss what you did, what you spoke about. Out of respect for your spouse, you may decide to alter where and when you interact with your friend. Lunch may be preferable to dinner if you’re leaving your spouse home alone, feeling abandoned.

Copyright © 2011: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.
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