Men and Women, Can they be Friends?

Adrian F. Ward, weighing on some recent important research on how men and women relate as friends, and how they perceive that relationship:

What do you think? Friends or not? Any guidelines?

These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being “just friends.” What makes these results particularly interesting is that they were found within particular friendships (remember, each participant was only asked about the specific, platonic, friend with whom they entered the lab). This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation—one that is actually platonic….

In a follow-up study, 249 adults (many of whom were married) were asked to list the positive and negative aspects of being friends with a specific member of the opposite sex. Variables related to romantic attraction (e.g., “our relationship could lead to romantic feelings”) were five times more likely to be listed as negative aspects of the friendship than as positive ones. However, the differences between men and women appeared here as well. Males were significantly more likely than females to list romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, and this discrepancy increased as men aged—males on the younger end of the spectrum were four times more likely than females to report romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, whereas those on the older end of the spectrum were ten times more likely to do the same.

Taken together, these studies suggest that men and women have vastly different views of what it means to be “just friends”—and that these differing views have the potential to lead to trouble. Although women seem to be genuine in their belief that opposite-sex friendships are platonic, men seem unable to turn off their desire for something more.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Bob S.

    Shocking! Men will tend to think of being more than “just friends” with a female? Who knew?

  • Ann

    I would need a lot more details on the study, starting with the definition of “friend”. For example, I consider my female friends’ husbands to be my friends too, but I am certainly not interested in them nor them in me. How is this study using the word “friend”? “Best friends” or a much more casual usage? How close are these relationships? What are the ages of the people being studied, and are they married or single? And how many people were studied?

    Can men and women be just friends? They better be able to be – in both the professional and ministry world, I expect men to be able to work with me as a colleague and friend, with no sexual attraction whatsoever. That’s part of respect – and Paul’s admonition to Timothy to treat women as sisters. Apart from that, am I going to be “best friends” with a man I’m not dating or married to, implying emotional intimacy the way I might have with my female friends? No. But that aside, I do appreciate my casual male friends (generally always the husbands of my female friends) and the conversations we have on topics like theology and politics, topics women tend to not appreciate as much.

  • Phillip

    Weren’t these findings brought out several years ago in “When Harry Met Sally”?

  • RJS

    This is a sketchy report lacking precision on a study that is not (or was not) linked. There are no real statistics, just broad generalities and fluffy talk.

    I am not commenting pro or con on the conclusions, just the poor way the original article by Ward was constructed. The original study may be good and the conclusions valid.

    Guidelines? Perhaps we should follow the Saudi approach and simply sequester all women away from unrelated men. Then we never have to worry about the messiness of real interactions between people as people – at least in this respect.

  • scotmcknight

    I dug a bit to find the article to which he is referring and now have built that link into the post.

  • Phil Miller

    They better be able to be – in both the professional and ministry world, I expect men to be able to work with me as a colleague and friend, with no sexual attraction whatsoever.

    I think that’s part of what the study is saying. I think it’s the “whatsoever” part of your comment that women don’t get about men. I do think that men and women can be friends, but I think that most men can’t simply turn off the attraction part of the equation. That doesn’t mean they have to act on it, of course.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Re: “When Harry Met Sally” (which does indeed seem to echo these findings, and that was how many years ago?)

    I find the movie a bit (unintentionally?) ambiguous. So much of the movie seems to support the idea that men and women CAN be just friends (despite admitted attraction, at least on the part of the male). This “status quo” exists for YEARS (movie-time). Then they go and actually HAVE a romantic relationship by the end of the movie! AAAARGH! Yeah, it makes for nice closure to the romantic story, but it really doesn’t help the “they can be just friends” point at all! Yet, I find myself unable to agree with those who suggest that the point intentionally tries to prove that they can’t….

    This survey doesn’t prove that they can’t, either. It DOES suggest that men have to work at it, though (oddly, it doesn’t seem to say much about women, other than that they may not actually SEE the romantic/sexual issues at play as much as men do). For me, I find that my own experience echoes the survey, but that proper boundaries (especially as a married man) do indeed make platonic friendships possible. But those boundaries are ESSENTIAL!

  • http://www.alise-write.com Alise

    Hi Scot! I did some research into the study linked by Scientific American and found that the SA article way overstated the actual findings. I wrote about that here: http://alise-write.com/friendship-and-attraction-part-1/

    I think it’s important to address the issue of attraction in cross-gender friends, but I also think that it’s important to recognize that attraction plays a role in ALL friendship and doesn’t have to be sexual in nature (and that if it is, it can be redirected in a healthier way).

  • Nathan

    As if all men are indiscriminately attracted to all women. that’s just not true.

    It’s studies like these that make men out to be 2 dimensional creatures who are driven wholly by their glands.

  • Stephen W

    I have female friends who I have no sexual attraction to at all. How does that fit? Just because someone’s a woman, doesn’t mean I’m automatically attracted to them. Seems a bit of a wooly report to me.

  • Amy Martin

    I like this:

    “I think that’s part of what the study is saying. I think it’s the “whatsoever” part of your comment that women don’t get about men. I do think that men and women can be friends, but I think that most men can’t simply turn off the attraction part of the equation. That doesn’t mean they have to act on it, of course.”

    That’s some of the most simple, solid, common-sense I’ve seen expressed on this topic. I would add that a more nuanced view and deconstruction of what we mean by “attraction” is a desperately needed and necessary part of this discussion, (I’m “attracted” to all of my friends, male or female, that’s why they are my friends!) and that when that happens we might find that this seemingly “one-sided” attraction isn’t one sided at all. That perhaps, its just that women are culturally, socially and emotionally more nurtured to view attraction in a more nuanced and holistic way – not simply encouraged to sideline it into and on/off, sex or no sex kind of thing. This does seem to be part of the cultural social, and emotional undercurrent of the man-code, however. But, I find that the men who are able to, (for whatever reason) get beyond that cultural narrative, are also able to see a more nuanced and holistic version of attraction, (NOT deny it – men who deny it scare me, honestly) and realize it doesn’t indicate a need to act on it, nor believe they are controlled by it, as if it is a crazy, uncontrollable force.

    A good (male) friend and I had a conversation about this the other day. His words:

    “Lust shall only be served in a bilateral limbic craving of the moment. If it becomes chronic, seek professional medical attention!”

    Besides the fact that I adore his oblique and quirky word-usage, this person is a safe male to me. Why? Because he’s not denying attraction happens, or even flashes of “lust”. He’s saying when you see it, call it what it is, lets it pass – and know that when it becomes chronic you need to get serious about where you are, do some serious introspection – and get help.

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    I don’t think the report is completely ignorant of the fact that (as some have noted) all men are not attracted to all women. However, it does relate trends that, at least to me, correspond generally to reality.

    Even (going back to the movie one more time) “When Harry Met Sally” included the disclaimer in their theory. Men couldn’t be friends with women (said Harry) that they found attractive.

    Since human beings are (for better or worse) biological beings, it is simply inevitable that attraction will occur beyond the confines of one’s spouse. (If it weren’t so, finding one’s spouse would probably be a much easier thing to do!) That is no excuse, however, for men treating women as sexual objects, and should not be an excuse for a lack of platonic friendships.

  • Phil Miller

    Since human beings are (for better or worse) biological beings, it is simply inevitable that attraction will occur beyond the confines of one’s spouse. (If it weren’t so, finding one’s spouse would probably be a much easier thing to do!) That is no excuse, however, for men treating women as sexual objects, and should not be an excuse for a lack of platonic friendships.

    That’s what I was getting at. Sexual attraction in and of itself isn’t something that men can control. Just like we can’t really control when we’re hungry. We certainly can, however, control whether we act on these urges. There are some guys I know who probably legitimately can’t have female friends. Others can. I have quite a few. To say that I’ve never experienced some amount of attraction to any of those women at some point would be a lie. My bet is that if you asked them, though, they would not say the same thing.

    The thing I find most interesting in the study above is this part:

    Males were significantly more likely than females to list romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, and this discrepancy increased as men aged—males on the younger end of the spectrum were four times more likely than females to report romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, whereas those on the older end of the spectrum were ten times more likely to do the same.

    It kind of reinforces the whole stereotype of an older dude driving around in a sports car… :-)

  • John I.

    “doesn’t mean I’m automatically attracted to them”

    Neither the article nor the study makes that assertion. They report on trends, tendancies, probabilities, ranges, etc.–statistical. Hence there is no claim that romantic attraction always occurs or is inevitable for all men in all situations.

    However, the fact that there is divergence a significant amount of the time suggests that there is some difference between the sexes that results in this frequent (but not inevitable or exceptionless) divergence.

  • John I.

    Note also that the study makes a conclusion that is applicable to both sexes: “Our findings implicate attraction in cross-sex friendship as both common and of potential negative consequence for individuals’ long-term mateships.”

    That is, romantic attraction occurs for both sexes in cross-sex relationships that are not (currently) romantic. The study also reports that this type of attraction happens more frequently (not inevitably) among men than women.

    Such a difference between sexes is suggestive of either an inherent or acquired difference between them.

  • metanoia

    OK, I might get myself in trouble with this one, but feel compelled to comment.

    I raised my daughter with a few general but important principles to consider when dealing with men. 1. Women can do almost everything men can do and men can do almost everything women can do, but there are things that the other sex just can’t do. 2. Remember that men most often than not have 3 things on their minds: Sex, Sports and Sustenance. Men are just wired differently and if you forget that you can get yourself in trouble. 3. Women give sex to get love, men give love to get sex. 4. Women get married believing they can change a man, men get married believing their wives will never change.

    Now obviously these are general rules and somewhat tongue in cheek, but when you’ve been around as long as I have and have dealt with the carnage that often accompanies male/female relationships you adopt “general” rules while staying open to the “exceptions.

    When my daughter was 12 or 13 I told her that if a guy wanted to hug her she should ask him if he wanted to shoot hoops or if he was hungry. If the answer to either of those questions was no, don’t let him hug you. ;-)

    She had many guy friends and girl friends in high school and college and managed to traverse the minefield of male/female relationships rather unscathed. She recently told me she will try to teach her daughter and sons (if she ever gets around to having children) these principles.

    I taught my boys corresponding principles, but that’s a topic of discussion for another day.

    #justanoldschoolguywithlotsofexperience

  • http://www.danjbrennan.com/ Dan Brennan

    Is there anything inherently dysfunctional between men and women in such a way that they cannot be friends? Even close friends? I don’t see where you can come to such stark conclusion from the Scripture or studies like above. On the contrary, I think men and women are called to “oneness.” The debate and the tricky part is navigating a healthy oneness and what that looks like in various contexts honoring both the man and woman and their respective contexts (their spouses).
    I think there are guidelines to navigate. Ongoing appropriate transparency/vulnerability. What this looks like in a friendship at a casual level is going to be superficial to the depth of transparency in a more mature friendship. Self-awareness. We need to be self-aware of our own internal issues and desires–distinguishing between lust and mere physical attraction. Communication with one’s spouse (if one is married) about the ongoing nature of the relationship and total openness to listening to where your spouse is. Some spouses would be totally uncomfortable their beloved meeting an opposite sex friend for lunch, tennis, or a coffee. Other spouses would be more open. There is a healthy “oneness’ in friendship in contrast to unhealthy triangles.
    An ongoing openness to “check-in” on the relationship with an openness to “step back” if necessary. Then, the normal healthy checks and balances in healthy friendships apply. Is there an appropriate sense of “matching” and one party is not consistently draining the other, etc. After the attraction issue, healthy guidelines center around healthy differentiated selves within the marriage and within the friendships.

  • http://www.ellenharoutunian.com Ellen H.

    Check this book out: http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Unions-Passions-Engaging-Friendship/dp/0982580703/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356718871&sr=1-1&keywords=sacred+unions+sacred+passions
    Dan Brennan does a beautiful job of fleshing out these questions and solutions. My take is that healthier male-female relationships will reduce the gender power struggle within the church and sexualization of relationships, as well as the imposed limitations on women that happen as a result, as well as give men and women a healthier way in which to manage their own sexuality. Our culture has reduced sexuality to unreflective, uncontrollable and untrainable entitlements and urges. Dan gives a much more hopeful perspective that enhances all relationships.

  • Gary

    Wow, the authors of a lot of these comments are the ones that overreach. Nobody said that EVERY guy is “driven wholly by their glands.” It was simply saying how men react vs how women react. It might be that only 1% of women react that way, and 4% of men – but it’s still 4x greater for guys. I also concur with the comment that says his experience is that there is a lot of truth to it. I suspect my personal thoughts about women (not acted out, but still) have not always aligned with their personal thoughts about me.

    Finally, regarding the “dirty old man” aspect of this, again the men vs women aspect comes into it. The conclusion might be that many of us are dirty old men … or another conclusion might be that young women have a lot dirtier minds than older women. Worst of all would probably be if the correct conclusion was that women coming of age today have dirtier minds than women who came of age 40 years ago.

  • Kw

    It’s not rocket science, though our culture attempts to blur gender lines and make it complicated. Men are visual and are sexually driven primarily and women are relational and emotionally driven. Men fall due to lust and sexual attraction and romance follows and women fall due to emotional attachment and romance kicks in the sexual relationship. Both end up in the same place, though got snared differently. Lets just be alert know our inclinations and be honest about it, and act accordingly. We don’t need a rule book.

  • Jay

    I also believe Phil’s comment above, seconded by Ann is foundational in M/F relationships, he said, “I do think that men and women can be friends, but I think that most men can’t simply turn off the attraction part of the equation. That doesn’t mean they have to act on it, of course.” There are other factors at play, however. If it were only about physical attraction, I would believe that Dan B’s comments were 100% correct.

    What nobody has mentioned yet is that, aside from lust, there is also the desire to possess beauty the feeling of being needed, which is even more subtle and undermining. Suffice it to say, now that I am 57 years old, I am much more aware of potential dangers than when I was 40. We are very complicated beings. To quote Rich Mullins, “We are not as strong as we think we are.”

  • erik

    this study, from what i can see, suffers from selection bias. nothing can be said of “men and women” because the study samples primarily from married men, and probably not at a range of ages.

  • Vicki

    I can’t help but wonder how much the objectification of women plays into how men respond to women, as is noted in Ward’s research. Just today, the following blog post was submitted by MissRepresentation, highlighting Voco’s disturbing new ad campaign.

    http://www.missrepresentation.org/notbuyingit/notbuyingit-vocos-play-with-my-v-spot-ad/

    Friendships between men and women require navigating the often under-identified issues of power, objectification, and emotional self-awareness/maturity needed for those friendships to flourish. Cudos to Dan Brennan (17) and Ellen H. (18) for their responses above.

  • E

    …and all these years I just thought there was something wrong with me! Glad to know I am a “normal” man. :-)

  • Denise

    The study upon which Ward’s commentary was written begins with,
    “We propose that, because cross-sex friendships are a historically recent phenomenon, men’s and women’s evolved mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences.” and is published in the “Journal of Social and Personal Relationships”

    The Body of Christ, the family of God, treating each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, these things are not in the worldview of the study authors. Worldview matters.

  • http://www.danjbrennan.com/ Dan Brennan

    Jay,

    I think you are correct. I think the feeling to be needed is defintely a risk, danger, and a real possibility if we open ourselves up to nurturing a deeper relationship (this would be true of all intimate and close relationships). I think this is a genuine possibility we face once we move past an individualistic ethic to a more communal ethic–again whether our friend is same gender or the other gender. I think this is where we can not only learn from healthy differentiation in friendships but I also think if anyone does a study of the communities of monks and nuns–you’ll discover Christians who have nurtured friendships in the past have had to face these dynamics.

    Ellen, thanks for the plug. Vicki, you are spot on. I don’t say this glibly but with all seriousness that the path of out of objectification is learning to practice healthy skills of friendship.

  • EricW

    Ann @2. wrote:

    For example, I consider my female friends’ husbands to be my friends too, but I am certainly not interested in them nor them in me.

    Per this study, as well as my 60+ years as a male and working with males and females for most of those decades, I wouldn’t automatically be so sure about that “nor them in me” part.

  • MaureenM

    I totally agree with this article! I have had experiences where i have been JUST friends with a guy and they have come out at some point to say they like me more than a friend. I couldn’t reciprocate and that was the end of the friendship because THEY couldn’t be friends any more! Which is sad, because if i don’t like u back then u don’t wanna be friends with me again!!

    But i’ve read some of the comments where men say they have female friends that they are not attracted to, so this article is not accurate BUT they are not looking at the fact that the woman may become attracted to THEM. It can go both ways gentlemen, u may not be attracted to a woman but she may be attracted to u. So if she tells u at some point that she is, will u still want her as ur friend or will u always think she’s pinning for u??!?!?! Think about it, then ask urself if this article makes sense!

    Then there are some women who say they are friends with men, husbands of female friends or just casual friends and they have NEVER thought of them in any romantic way. WELL the thing is, how do u know they don’t look at u in a romantic way…have u asked them, have they come up to u and said ‘i only see u as a friend’?!?!?!? Truth is, the more time u spend with someone the more u grow fond of them. That being said, if u are a social person and u talk in groups or u have dinner parties, or u work together or are in ministry and casually have conversation and u occasionally hang out AND u respect the bounds of marriage THEN yes u can be simply friends. BUT u cannot be intimate, close friends who share intimate conversations on a daily basis, who go out to movies alone with each other, talk on the phone till the wee hours of the night or he/she is the one u go to when u’re down or sad or had a fight with ur wife/husband or boyfriend/girlfriend…NO!!!!!!!!…that is where the problem is! If u can be that way with someone and NOT fall for them, good for u BUT u run the risk of THEM falling for u and then the problems start. Cuz u will NEVER cheat, u will NEVER have an affair, BUT ur constant togetherness has caused the other person to fall in love with YOU! Is it fair to the other person because YOU think u can just be friends, so u assume he/she can too!!! Is ur marriage/relationship worth that kind of problem?? Do u cherish FRIENDS more than ur spouse?? Why take the risk?! If u really think about it and talk to other people about it, u will eventually realise that this article is telling the truth. Why do we need statistics to prove everything…or would u rather be a statistic urself!?!?!

    I am only speaking from experience on both sides, i have had friends fall for me and i was only thinking friendship and i have fallen for guys who were completely clueless and didn’t see me that way and ended up with other girls…none of these friendships have lasted after that! Because someone got hurt along the way! These are just my thoughts on the subject!

  • Robert

    I think what Alise (#8) said is important: “attraction plays a role in ALL friendship and doesn’t have to be sexual in nature (and that if it is, it can be redirected in a healthier way).” That last part is critical. I have women friends to whom I am attracted or find attractive. The question is, if that attraction is not something I should act on, can I turn it into something healthy? And can I honestly keep it that way? It makes all the difference as to whether the friendship is appropriate and whether it will succeed.

  • http://Leadme.org Cal

    Denise:

    Worldview matters but it doesn’t do any good to ignore trends. To say Consumerism has no place in the Church is one thing, to ignore that it does crop up or act subversively in the Western man/woman’s heart is another. I do think that these studies are a bit “wooly” in that they are from a particular culture. Not that they become less relevant, but rather they are not universals. We live in a hyper-sexed culture (of which I am infected with) and these realities need to be dealt with and broken down in the context of the Body of Christ.

    Cal

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    That is such a culturally “funny” question. When we lived in Italy, the Italians answered, “of course men & women can’t be friends, it’s always about sex!” When I listened to a Princeton Seminary prof talk on the book he was working on, within the last 3 years, his thesis was based on the premise that men couldn’t be friends with men because of homophobia. When I pointed out the cultural specificity of his contention, an African brother concurred with my observation. What a tangle we get ourselves in! How do our national & corporate cultures, our media & societal habits habituate us to perceive others in a sexual way, or to perceive ourselves and others as persons?

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    Sometimes we are at “WAR”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DmYLrxR0Y8

  • Roy

    As a corporate chaplain, I work/counsel/listen/support men and women (one on one) all the time. I grew up in a pentecostal church that was so hyper-sensitive about pastoral counseling NOT being done between men/women. While I could understand the position of some, I was relieved to hear Jesus meeting with women.

    What works for me is that I have someone (trained as a psychoanalyst) that I get supervision from. Anytime I have met with a woman I “feel” something, I simply share it with him and explore what the “feelings” are all about. It shocks me to see/hear that more pastors DON’T do this. If we can’t be models of seeing healthy relationships between men/women, then who can model that for us?!

    Eugene Peterson in his book, “The Pastor”, recounts stories of how he met with women of his congregation to provide guidance and support. This was also liberating to see.

    I know I’m referring more to maybe a pastor/parishioner role but this role requires some form of friendship. Any other forms for male/female relationships are usually based on some form of connection (i.e. spouses of friends, women in groups I’m connected to).

    I am not looking for a female “buddy” to be close to. I don’t think my wife would appreciate that. So I’m wondering if this is what the article is referring to…this type of relationship between a man/woman that are NOT married.

  • TJJ

    It is a broad generajlization, but taken as such I think it fits with what most people experience and observe in daily life. With male/ female relationships there is that extra element of potential for sexual attraction. It most often will go unaffected on and unspoken as well, especially at work and church, but in general men will nonetheless be attracted to attractive women, especially younger, and women to attractive and/or powerful/ wealthy men. Nothing new or shocking or even surprising about that.

  • TJJ

    Also, the significant other of men or women will not appreciate their man or woman having a friendship with someone of the opposite sec who is attractive etc., because there is an understanding such relationships can lead to attraction that causes problems/ issues.

  • Henry

    I keep telling my daughter this and she hates how I always turn out to be right. As men age, marry and have daughters they get better assuming they actually mature in the process.


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