Gender and friendship: can women and men be close friends?

Posted on October 6, 2012 on BRolade Societal Blog - roladesocietalblog.com

  • “Men and women can’t be real friends,” Pierre, a gentle French man in his late 20s, insisted.
  • “There’s always that sexual dimension that makes male-female friendship impossible,” chimed in Guido, an Italian banker in his early 40s.
  • “I had to cut contact with my close female friend because my wife was jealous of her,” revealed Michael, a Belgian in his mid 30s.
  • “It depends where you live. In my village in the south of Spain, men and women get together and dance as friends, only friends no more,” argued Jose.

(We always start our Business English class with current events. Unusually, last week, my students were more interested in talking about male-female friendship than the economic crisis in the Euro Zone).

Though views on friendship vary from culture to culture, generally, such relationship between men and women is less common and more complex than same-sex friendship.

Friendship between men and women is viewed with suspicion because of cultural social and physiological realities. In films, friends always fall in love or end up in bed, which has either a happy or disastrous ending. Our education and socialisation encourage gender division in terms of physical and emotional needs and ways to attain these. There’s a prevailing belief that men, by biological nature, are more sexual thus more likely to have more than one partner.

Some individuals use friendship as a camouflage to their emotional insecurity and other psychological handicaps. They need a female friend (or friends) other than their partner as they didn’t experience emotional stability while growing up, they never witnessed their parent’s love and devotion to each other, or they were deprived of their mother’s care and attention. Meanwhile, are these not just excuses for a selfish desire that is responsible for some divorces and failed relationships, which have disturbing consequences, especially when children are involved.

Last May, Dr. Laura Berman reported in the Chicago Sun-Times (www.suntimes.com) the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire survey on friendship involving individuals aged 18-52 years old which shows that the higher the level of attraction between the individual and their friends, the lower the level of satisfaction in their other relationship (e.g. marriage) either because such relationship was already unsatisfactory or the friendship had a destabilizing effect on the relationship.

According to Dr. Berman, an emotional attachment can be equally devastating and hurtful to a relationship even if the affair never becomes physical. I agree with her that when you devote time, energy and love to your friend instead of your mate, you can easily hurt feelings and risk your relationship.

As women and men study, work, socialise and do sports together, there are opportunities for friendship. Men and women can be friends if they both keep themselves honest and disciplined to be platonic all the time. The friendship becomes risky and dangerous when one of the friends has an ulterior motive. How do we distinguish friendly from sexual or romantic feelings?

As Dr. Berman has said, your relationship will last only if your partner accepts your friendship (hiding the friendship “could be a red flag” (sic), you avoid susceptible situations (e.g. seductively dressed, alone with your friend in a sexually conducive environment), you are watchful that s/he won’t have the wrong idea about your friendship, and you keep your interactions free from flirtations.

There are benefits in having friends from the opposite sex; for instance, you can receive advice which may help you better understand your partner. However, if you think you may not be able to control the course of the friendship and avoid the point of no return, you should ask yourself this question ‘Why do I want to have a friend from the opposite sex?’

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