MargaretRecently I ran into an old friend who was widowed about six years ago and who has struggled to rebuild her life with a move to a new home and new activities. She looks wonderful, and I told her so at which time she introduced me to her “best friend,” a charming man of appropriate age and circumstance.  My friend said she and he have been friends since high school and have dinner together every Saturday night.  

Our chance meeting was on a Monday evening, and they were very much together.

Several days later, I stumbled across a study done at the University of Wisconsin, asking the age old question:  Is it really possible for men and women to be “just friends?”  


The study findings sound to me like somewhere along the lines of  “sort of,” “well, maybe” and “probably not.”

It seems that for most of our time on earth, being friends with members of the opposite gender has not been much of a problem. Men were busy out with each other slaying dinner and more recently bringing home the bacon from jobs in offices and factories. Women were at home in caves and then houses tending children, cooking the bacon, and generally keeping the home fires burning. In other words, we led pretty different lives with little opportunity for friendships with anyone but those in our own orbits and our significant others.

Then came the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century when women, and unfortunately, some children found themselves in the workplace, at first just with each other but later in mixed company. Women also began seeking more and more education, again breaking traditional barriers, and the question of actual friendships between men and women arose. It is still lurking large today in our world of few gender restrictions, North Carolina’s HB2 notwithstanding.  

Think of what goes on in our own workplaces, and you get the picture.

So what do the researchers at the University of Wisconsin say?

In research speak, platonic male-female friendships are referred to as “cross-sex” friendships, a term that sounds a tad unsettling to me. 

Researchers found that — surprise! — men in cross-sex friendships are generally speaking more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. In other words, women generally think we can have cross-sex relationships while our male buddies are hoping for something more romantic even though the women had no such thoughts. As usual, Venus and Mars are on different wavelengths, or to quote Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

It is really more complicated, though.

Children have no problem with cross-sex friendships, and that seems pretty well true through high school and into college, although we all know exceptions to that rule. Things get trickier in young adulthood as couples form, un-form and form again. And, once we couple with someone, friendships with the opposite sex are tricky indeed. Chances are the other partner in our couple will not be particularly interested in our hanging out, however platonically, with our cross-sex friend. And, once we are married, most couples would say, “forget that.”  Expressions like “playing with fire” come to mind.

Cross-sex friendships are possible, though.  I know a man and woman, both married to other people, who declare each other their best friend and who spend time together and with their respective spouses. It is worth noting that one of them is gay.  I also know many men and women who are clearly good friends, though most of these relationships are work-related and do not involve spending time together outside that context. These relationships seem a positive to me.  They teach us how the other half looks at the world and can make us more perceptive and understanding in our own relationships. Additionally, many a solid friendship has led to a solid long-term partnership, even marriage. Friendship, after all, is probably a stronger foundation than physical attraction.

The bottom line seems to me to be that — yes — some women and some men can be friends and can keep it on that level to the benefit of both. Some cannot, and trouble may ensue when they cannot keep it on the friendship level even when another sort of relationship may be wildly inappropriate. Like all human interactions, friendships can be complicated and fraught, and we should proceed with caution and deliberation but still knowing that friendships are among our most meaningful relationships.

That being said, I am not going to keel over if I receive an engagement announcement from my old buddy and her “best friend.”

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