The Science Behind Opposite Sex Friendships: Can Men and Women Really Be Friends?

Dudefluencer: Opposite Sex Friendships

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We’ve spent a lot of time at Dudefluencer talking about the importance of male friendship, men’s fashion, heck even men’s skin care. But when building communities of support, it’s just as essential to have healthy opposite sex friendships in your life. As we get older, relationships between men and women become more complicated. Feelings can get involved. Hormones intertwine, and the next thing you know you’re posting on R/Relationships about the crush on your best friend.

Side note. After spending far too many hours lurking on relationship subreddits, here is a piece of straightforward advice to remember: just because she is your friend, you are not entitled to a romantic relationship.

Life isn’t like an episode of Friends; not all men and women are attracted to one another. There are differences between male and female friendships you should know, but to think that it is impossible to have opposite sex friendships is just a ridiculous notion.

I dug into the research and discovered that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Opposite sex friendships aren’t as harrowing and dangerous as the internet wants you to believe, but they’re also more work if you’re in a dedicated relationship with someone else.

But can men and women really just be friends?

There’s a scene in the Netflix series I Am Not Okay With This where the main character, Sydney, is sitting next to her friend Stanley. Roxy Music’s “More Than This” echoes off the high school gymnasium walls while high school kids bop along at homecoming. Stanley, dressed in a powder blue suit, sits next to Sydney. Their relationship has been complicated, to say the least: after becoming each other’s first, Sydney realized her feelings for someone else. And despite having a crush on Sydney, Stanley has been nothing but a good friend to her.

Sitting next to each other on the bleachers, Stanley tells Sydney how much he likes her. And responds with her truth: Sydney doesn’t feel the same towards him. After a few more beats of conversation, Sydney offers her hand in friendship to Stanley, and he accepts. Stanley, a 16-year-old, understood that opposite sex friendships can exist.

I know what you’re about to say. “But Garrett, this is all just make-believe. I’ve watched enough episodes of MTV’s Real World to know that when people stop being polite and start getting real, that means they get real horny.” False. Experts disagree with reality televisions sample size of horn-dog housemates.

Linda Sapadin, a Ph.D. psychologist in New York, says, “The belief that men and women can’t be friends comes from another era, in which women were at home and men were in the workplace, and the only way to get together was for romance.” Media has done a fantastic job screwing up expectations for opposite sex friendships. Nick and Jess from New Girl. Then there’s When Harry Met Sally.

Dudefluencer: Friends
Photo courtesy of NBC

You know someone’s got it wrong when four out of the six characters in the show Friends slept with each other (and Joey almost slept with Rachel to make it five). Seriously, the show’s title is Friends.

Television has to keep getting it wrong, right?

Not a buster.

If you ask Jenna when we met, she’d probably say sometime in high school. I was the geeky kid filming Van Halen music videos in my backyard with a group of guy friends petrified to talk to women. I’d say it was more like after high school graduation, we started to chat on AOL Instant Messenger, and she invited me to her graduation party.

I didn’t go. We still ended up becoming friends despite my absentmindedness.

Jenna’s a punk-rocker; Doc Marten’s on her feet to kick your ass, and an iPod filled with real punk music. None of that Fall Out Boy bubble-gum Pete Wentz bullshit.

I’ve been sitting in front of my keyboard for the last few hours, trying to analyze the beginning of Jenna and I’s friendship for the moment we became close. No matter how hard I rack my brain, there isn’t a single event that stands out. I reached out to Jenna to see if she could remember anything, but she came up empty too.

How are you to write the origin story of friendship without the inciting incident, the event that is supposed to define our relationship? I could write about how she took notes for me while I skipped World History 101 at university. Or maybe how I introduced her to Taking Back Sunday, one of the few genuine scene bands she enjoyed. But those aren’t epic tales, perhaps that’s the point.

Jenna and I just sort of meshed together. We did share one thing in common: a love for the Fast and the Furious franchise.

Or I should say, I love the movies, Jenna loves Vin Diesel. But that doesn’t matter, because Jenna and I’s friendship is like a film series that has evolved from street racers stealing DVD players out of the back of a tractor-trailer to protecting the Earth from total nuclear war. She’s not a buster.

What is a healthy friendship?

Before defining what a healthy opposite sex friendship is, it’s important to note what makes a healthy same-sex friendship.

Shasta Nelson, the author of Friendtimacy, highlights the three qualities that make for a healthy friendship: positivity, consistency, and vulnerability. She goes on to explain that if your friendship doesn’t have all three of those qualifiers, then you might not be as close as you think they are. Or if your friendship is going through a rough patch, Nelson guarantees that one of those qualities is missing.

Research agrees that repetition and vulnerability are the two keys to building close male friendships, and the same goes for bonds between women.

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So what’s the deal with opposite sex friendships?

Let’s start by stating the facts: there are already plenty of healthy relationships between men and women that involve no sexual undertones. Think mother and son, father and daughter. There’s a close bond between brother and sister. So it’s obvious that male and female relationships can offer love and support without being romantic.

But outside of family relationships, research says that it’s challenging to maintain an opposite sex friendship without some sort of attraction involved.

When seeking out friendships of any gender, our requirements aren’t much different than when looking for a romantic partner. We want chemistry; we want someone who shares the same hobbies and sense of humor. These people “click” with us, and we desire spending more time with them.

A study conducted in 2014 in the Review of Psychology focused on how men and women decide to initiate and dissolve opposite sex friendships. “These results would suggest that men have two goals when initiating OSFs (opposite sex friendships): a short-term one–to have easily accessible potential sexual partners, and a long term one–to have an available potential long term partner.” There was a trend amongst men that sexual attraction and availability were important in initiating cross-sex friendships, while women who looked for physical protection while choosing their opposite sex friends.

When researchers at the University of Wisconsin investigated attraction between opposite sex friends, they found that “young men would experience stronger attraction toward their cross-sex friends than would women, and that men’s attraction to their female friends would be relatively strong regardless of their current romantic relationship status. Given the dominance of long-term mating effort among women, we predicted that women’s perceptions of their cross-sex friends would hinge on their current romantic relationship status.” The researchers concluded that these findings were the results of evolved mating strategies between men and women.

Going further, the study also found that “men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.” Looking at the relationships in this study, it becomes evident that men and women viewed their friendships entirely differently.

Because of men’s and women’s difficulty is seeing relationships through the same lense, that makes building healthy opposite sex relationships challenging. But not impossible.

According to a paper published through Boise State University in 2000, while men and women can be attracted to one another, it is a bit more nuanced than that. The researchers noticed during their interviews that there were four types of attractions: Subjective Physical/Sexual, Objective Physical/Sexual, Romantic, and Friendship. The study defines Friendship attraction as “having the behavioral characteristics attractive for friendship, but not attractive for a romantic relationship.” Friendship attraction was most common amongst participants, yet the results remained complicated.

Similar to other research out there, some participants felt stronger attractions than their opposite sex friends; other times, one friend initiated the friendship because of romantic feelings, and then as they grew closer, those emotions became non-romantic feelings of love.

Part of the difficulty in understanding male-female friendships is that it is a modern concept. Opposite sex friendships are becoming more common as Geoffrey Grief found out for his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. He recognized that “65 percent of women and 75 percent of men reported having nonsexual friendships with the opposite gender.” That number has more than likely risen since being published. That’s in part because more men and women work together in the office, entertain their children together, play sports together, or enjoy other hobbies together.

Research around relationships between straight women and gay men establish that their friendships are built around “acceptance and comfort in the absence of sexual pressure, social stigmatization, or interpersonal anxiety.” Due to a lack of fear of “ulterior motives,” gay men and straight women more easily trust each other when it comes to building friendships.

Women also respond differently when knowledgeable of a man’s sexual preference: “Explicit knowledge of a man’s sexual preference not only increased a woman’s comfort with a gay man (vs. a straight man) but also affected the degree to which the women (particularly attractive ones) were willing to engage with the man on a more intimate level.” What this tells us is that women identify the challenges of opposite sex friendships with straight men and are more likely to divulge personal details with someone who has no sexual motives.

So to answer our question, can men and women ever be friends? Of course, but it’s complicated.

Three F’s: Fast, Furious, Family

Dudefluencer: Hobbs and Toretto
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

A shadow box with a crocheted tank-top sits on the bookshelf next to my desk. Underneath is a small paper note that reads: “I live my life a quarter-mile at a time. Nothing else matters: not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.” A line from Dominic Toretto in the original Fast and the Furious film.

Jenna likes to tell people she’s Dom and I’m Hobbs. I get it, I’m super ripped, have sick tats, and don’t trust criminals. Jenna loves beating people with gigantic wrenches, destroying entire villages by dragging a safe behind her Toyota 4Runner, and not trust cops. Basically, these characters were written based on us.

Joking aside, Toretto and Hobbs represent something more to Jenna and I’s friendship. At the end of Fast Seven, Diesel’s character remarks, “I don’t have friends, I have family.” And I didn’t grow up having a sister, but I still consider Jenna to be family. Whenever I’ve needed support through work stuff or depression, Jenna’s been there. Every breakup, every death in the family, we’ve been there.

That’s why it’s so hard to pin down the stories that make up Jenna, and I’s friendship: it’s canon to us now. Moments where we watch documentaries about The Gathering of the Juggalos are just as important and memories of driving to our local pizza place for Chicken Finger Subs. I don’t consider Jenna to be just my friend, she’s family.

Benefits of opposite sex friendships

The internet has trouble believing men and women can be friends. Advice columnists love to suggest that there might be something nefarious going on, and think-pieces focus on the research that says opposite sex friendships are trouble.

But think about your friend group? Do you already have opposite sex friends? According to sociologist Michael Kimmel, “millennials are far more likely than their older peers to see nonsexual friendship between men and women as normal.” Nowadays, the idea that men and women cannot be friends feels like an antiquated idea.

Research backs up the notion that those who build opposite sex friendships as children turn out to be better coworkers in the future. Cristia Brown, associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, suggests that boys and girls grouping off together at an early age limits their abilities to properly communicate later in life. “By the time puberty hits and they want to talk to each other, they lack the skills to do so, which can result in negative interactions and even sexual harassment. And these negative feelings can carry over into adulthood.”

Those of lucky enough to have opposite sex friendships know all of the benefits that come with them.

Men and women have different perspectives in the way they view life, and having an opposite sex friend to help guide you through relationships are unbelievably helpful. Men traditionally rely on their wives for emotional support due to a lack of same-sex friendships, but that also says something about the way men communicate. What we can glean from this information is that men are more likely to be vulnerable around women than men due to not having a fear of appearing less masculine. This opens up a whole new world of communication possibilities.

Women and men both trust the opposite sex when it comes to relationship issues. Men are seen as more trustworthy when it comes to boyfriend problems, and women are frequently better at getting into the head of girlfriends.

Anecdotally, the best advice I ever received in relationships has come from my female friends. She was able to decipher precisely what every OKCupid message meant and how to properly navigate the world of dating. She was my dating guardian angel. The same praise goes for a lot of my female friends. On the other hand, I’ve helped guide the women in my life through some traumatic dating experiences.

That being said, don’t go to your opposite sex friends with relationship problems before your partner. Sure, they might provide a different perspective, but you’re just asking for trouble this way.

I asked my friend Kylee about opposite sex friendships, and what made them special. Her response was classic: “I don’t have to try hard with the guys. With the girls, I need to find conversation, I need to get dressed up. My guy friends, I just have to ask for chips.”

We’ve already discussed how shoulder-to-shoulder friendships are the primary form of relationship between male friends. Men tend to stick with sports, beers, and shallow conversation to pass the time while women build friendships around communication. Having a friend of the opposite sex gives you the best of both worlds.

Opposite sex friendships do exist.

The story of Jenna and I is why I’m so shocked by the results of research around opposite sex friendships. We didn’t become friends because I saw a romantic partner in her, nor did she become my friend because she thought I could protect her. Jenna can fend for herself, by the way.

We are just two people who bonded over like-minded hobbies and music. And when I talk to Rachel about her opposite sex friendships, she points out similar reasoning for her relationships with other dudes: shared taste in video games, alcohol, and Ghibli movies.

It’s these shared experiences that I have with Jenna that makes me question all of the fear-mongering around opposite sex friendships and why it’s actually incredibly healthy to have a diverse friend group.

At Rachel and I’s wedding, Jenna sat at the same table as my parents. She didn’t stand up at our wedding, but Rachel and I made sure to seat her with family because that’s what Jenna is to me.

Like Dominic Toretto says, “The most important thing in life will always be family.”

What about our partners?

If you’ve only ever watched an episode of General Hospital or worked at a high school, you’d imagine that every man and woman speaking together were either a couple, married or about to bone. That’s not the case, but the internet seems to be somewhat alarmist when it comes to opposite sex friendships.

Alexandra Solomon of Northwestern University believes traditional gender roles might have something to do with that. “A woman with more traditional ideas about gender might feel threatened by her boyfriend’s female best friend… A man with similarly rigid or traditional ideas about gender roles might feel territorial or possessive, as though his female partner belongs to him and only him.” Many of us have experienced insecurity in our lives. Still, it’s important to note the differences between feeling jealous and acting jealous.

Feeling jealous is just that: an emotion.

Acting jealous is keying your partner’s 1994 Blue Cavalier because they posted a picture on Facebook with another woman.

Big difference. Ashley Fetters suggests that feeling jealousy might not be a bad thing if you take the time for introspection and try to understand why you’re feeling jealous. Acting out your jealousy usually just turns into an appearance on Judge Judy. It’s all about healthily handling your emotions.

There are some rules you should set with your opposite sex friends to make partners feel more comfortable with your relationship, setting boundaries being the biggest of them. Following simple rules such as avoiding late night text sessions, or making sure you don’t attend any event with your friend that your partner isn’t invited to. For your opposite sex friendships to work, both parties need to respect your relationships.

Building boundaries is also a part of healthy communication between couples. Be honest with your partner about your friendships; no matter how difficult the conversation, if one of you crosses the line with friendship, your partner needs to be the first to know.

Zach Carter, who believes that Facebook, the internet, and texting will all destroy your marriage, warns against one-on-one contact with opposite sex friendships, but that’s a little far. If you’re sneaking off without your partner knowing, or putting your friend’s relationship above your romantic relationship, then there’s a problem. But if you want to go out to dinner or grab a drink with a colleague of the opposite sex, that doesn’t automatically lead to wandering eyes and hands.

It comes down to two things for properly handling opposite sex friendships while in a romantic relationship: trust and communication.


Do you think it’s possible for men and women to just be friends? How do you build healthy opposite sex friendships in your life? Answer in the comments below.

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9 Responses

  1. Garrett, thank you for such an informative article on a subject that alot of people think about but don’t really talk about. But I’m glad you did! Yes, I definitely believe it is entirely possible to have a friendship with someone of the opposite sex. But I’m not going to deny, that it could become complicated and romance ensues… actually this is what happened with my husband and I. We worked together on a night shift in computer support positions. I made it clear I don’t date people I work with. Alas… however 2 1/2 years later, my now husband got promoted to day shift and in his mind we were no longer working together. We went out platonically and then 6 months later we got engaged, then married and now 30 years of being happily married.
    That said, if one has mutual respect and common interests, it IS entirely possible to be just friends. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have the close bond I have with a much younger gentleman who is so intelligent, it boggles my mind. But are their romantic feelings? Not at all… just respect. Thanks for sharing this post.

    1. Congratulations on your happy marriage! That’s amazing! And I completely agree with everything you’ve written!

  2. Always found the opposite sex (males) to be the best of friends my entire life. Women were complicated and very involved. It just didn‘t mesh I suppose. I enjoyed the simplest buddy relationships with coworkers. During tough times, they were a magnificent support system as well. To this day, it’s easier to be with the guys.

    1. Yeah, at times I’ve felt the opposite. Working with women and becoming friends with them was so much easier (mostly because there weren’t a lot of male coworkers), but I’ve also grown to understand the importance of making same-sex friends too. Both are important.

  3. Firstly, great article 🙂
    In my opinion, I think that men and women definitely can just be friends. Just because you are different genders doesn’t mean that you automatically can’t be ‘just friends”, it doesn’t make sense to me.

    1. It’s wild. When I was teaching, any student who saw a male teacher interacting with a female teacher just assumed that they were together. It was the wildest thing in the world.

  4. Nice list but where is Machine Gun Kelly (from the 10 Positive Male Role Models article that you closed comments on 😠😠😠😠😠😠)

  5. Hey!
    I am a huuuge fan of your work! But on the post, top 10 male role models you seemed to omit the greatest of them all, Machine Gun Kelly. Please fix this error.