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Can Men and Women Just Be Friends? Not Everyone Thinks So

Can Men and Women Just Be Friends? Not Everyone Thinks So

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Illustration by Lam Yik Chun. Other images from Unsplash.

It’s the winning formula for romantic comedies: man meets woman, they get along, and they fall in love.

In real life, the latter often doesn’t happen. Instead, their chemistry may result in a meaningful friendship, leaving both man and woman happier and more fulfilled than before they’d met.

But cynics suggest that this scenario isn’t entirely reflective of reality. They believe that if a man and woman got along so well as friends, they would eventually develop romantic feelings for each other. Apparently, it’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’.

Two of our writers, who are both straight, have an honest conversation about where they stand on this observation.

Just platonic friends sharing a laugh. Don't overthink it.
Grace: Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room, “Can a man and woman just be friends?”

I think many existing perspectives on platonic friendship between straight men and women revolve around this question, which is inherently problematic. The question presupposes that there is something ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’ if a man and woman harbour strictly platonic love for each other.  

Justin: It’s a question that I’ve asked myself more times than I care to admit, and one that I’m still struggling to answer. I think it’s only possible for a straight man and woman to remain platonic friends under a few conditions.

First, when either party doesn’t think the other is physically attractive. Second, when either party is unavailable and/or in a relationship. And finally, when one party thinks the other possesses a quality that qualifies as a relationship “red flag”.

Personally, I’ve never met anyone with a platonic friend of the opposite gender who didn’t meet any of the three criteria. So it makes me believe that platonic friendships are only an ‘end result’, and not the basis on which a new male-female friendship is formed.

Grace: A few weeks ago, someone on my newsfeed posted a birthday dedication to her male best friend. She received many comments saying they looked cute or that they should get together. She had to clarify that they had no romantic feelings for each other, which I thought was unnecessary. I got upset on her behalf.

Why should she have to apologise for society’s outdated lens through which we view male-female platonic friendships?

Justin: To call it “society’s outdated lens” might be a bit harsh. I’ve always believed that a great friendship is the core of every fantastic relationship, so maybe that’s why people asked if the person in the picture was or could be a significant other. Ultimately, we care for our friends and just want them to be happy.

Grace: Maybe I felt it was unnecessary because I’ve had to deal with the same reactions. Whenever I want to post a photo with a close platonic male friend, I always find myself thinking twice. I feel this weird pressure to post an accompanying disclaimer that we’re not dating??? In the end, I usually end up not posting the photo.

I feel a similar frustration when I inform my mom that I’m going out with a male friend. She used to ask if we were dating, or ask questions about how we met with the unspoken assumption that our connection was romantic. I’ve learnt to shut down that train of thought the minute I feel it coming, but it can be incredibly irritating.

Like the people questioning my friend’s friendship with her male best friend, I know my mom only has good intentions. But their curiosity only emphasises the misguided expectation that it’s only a matter of time before a man and woman who are good friends end up dating.

Just platonic friends causing mischief. Don't overthink it.
Justin: Perhaps the outcome of a lot of male-female friendships boil down to perceived intentions.

I think everyone assumes that women go into male-female friendships with the understanding that it’s platonic until the possibility of it being more surfaces. But men tend to be the opposite. They go into the friendship seeing if it could lead to something more; if it can’t, then it becomes platonic.

Bearing this in mind, it’s no surprise that people tend to jump straight into the assumption that it’s a romantic relationship. You see, if a woman does see her male friend as a potential boyfriend, it cuts to the chase.

But who knows? How do you even judge intention when you can never tell?

Grace: Straight male-female platonic friendships shouldn’t be that complicated!

Justin: Tell me about it! But at what point do you both acknowledge that the friendship is platonic?  

Grace: It should be clear in most cases. The situation only becomes murky when one party harbours romantic feelings for the other, or suspects the other party is trying to hide these feelings, regardless of whether they choose to act on it.

To be honest, I’ve had completely platonic male friends who end up being people I have dated or see myself dating, as we got to know each other better as friends. But I think the possibility of romantic connection ceases to exist if I don’t find them physically attractive from the start.

Do you think this is the same for you?

Justin: At the risk of sounding like a complete asshole, the more I think about it, the only true platonic female friends I have are either women whom I don’t find attractive, or the girlfriends/wives of my male friends. The rest are just acquaintances whom I don’t know well enough to call a proper ‘friend’.

It’s very clear: if a woman is reasonably attractive to me and if there’s nothing about her that puts me off as far as I can tell, I’d give it a shot if we were both single. It’s not about sex, but an amazing connection with someone of the opposite gender is something I would say is extremely difficult to come by.

Grace: That said, I do acknowledge that there are friends whose physical attractiveness increases as you get to know them better. When you start sharing more intimate details about your life, or when you’ve gone through shit together, they start being an important part of your life. And sometimes, being taken by someone’s personality just makes them more attractive.  

Justin: Again, I find myself disagreeing. It’s extremely superficial but if I can’t picture myself waking up next to the person on a daily basis, then it’s never going to be more than a platonic friendship. Yes, I said it.

Grace: I don’t think most people ever explicitly acknowledge that a friendship is and will forever be strictly platonic. There is no official ‘talk’ at the beginning to say, “Okay, this is a platonic friendship. It will never be anything more.”

It’s not just silly to draw a definitive boundary when you never know what might happen. It’s also unhealthy because you’re operating off the assumption that male and female platonic friendship is destined to be complicated, and that wires are bound to be crossed. If you have to do that, it probably isn’t a solid platonic friendship in the first place.

Justin: Here’s the thing though. If both parties never actually draw a definitive boundary, or have ‘the talk’ on whether the friendship is strictly platonic, would it be unethical to leave the friendship open to the possibility of becoming something more? Would that mean you’d have ill intentions or a hidden agenda, compromising the integrity of what is supposed to be a pure friendship?

Grace: I don’t think there’s any ill intention, until you begin to legitimise the ‘friendzone’. That term assumes that you’re only good friends with someone so you can get into a relationship with them, or that you’re entitled to their romantic feelings just because you hit it off platonically.

So the ‘friendzone’, as we understand from culture, is one thing. But it’s a completely different thing to start being purely platonic friends, without any intention of developing romantic feelings, yet not immediately shutting it down on the off chance these feelings do manifest.

Justin: Ahhh, so you’re saying there’s only ‘ill intention’ when you still hope a romantic relationship can develop even after you’ve been rejected by your friend, or when you know the circumstances are just not right. I suppose if the friendship was strong enough before the confession, then that would never happen. Otherwise, I’d argue that the friendship was never purely platonic to both parties to begin with. 

Also, I think the possibility of someone seeing their platonic friend in a new light over time is something people should be more aware of. They have to know that it’s entirely possible it can happen. For example, I’ve heard many instances of women being surprised and not knowing what to do after finding out their male friends like them. But it’s honestly very natural and not unexpected, no?

So maybe stating boundaries in the friendship would be helpful.

Just platonic friends posing for a photo. Don't overthink it.
Grace: Of course, that raises another pertinent question. What expectations do you bring to new platonic female friendships? Should there even be any expectations in these friendships, or do expectations only complicate a platonic male-female friendship?

Justin: I don’t have any expectations to be honest. As soon as I’ve decided that the friendship is only ever going to be platonic, I feel a lot more free to do and say whatever I think. There’s no pressure to be mindful of my words lest I unintentionally hurt her feelings. There’s also no need to constantly be on the lookout for any other red flags. I would say I become less judgemental simply because I don’t hold my normal/platonic friends to the higher standard that I do for a significant other. Nothing she says would faze me.

Even if my female friend secretly harbours non-platonic feelings, I’d know that it would never have worked out anyway. She’ll just become “one of the boys”.

Grace: I actually think I have different expectations for male and female friends.

With my female friends, I don’t really expect total honesty, because I’ve noticed many females are extra cautious and sensitive when handling someone else’s feelings, even when they’re not actually responsible for these feelings. Many female friendships are based on an undying support for each other’s decisions, which is definitely a valuable thing! But this support can occasionally enable certain problematic behaviours and mindsets instead.

On the other hand, I somehow expect my male friends to be more straightforward with me and to call me out on my bullshit. It does also mean that I instinctively turn to them when I need candid, no holds barred advice.

Justin: I completely agree. Male friends are always great for telling you that you fucked up straight to your face. But my platonic female friends are just as amazing at providing an unbiased opinion from a female POV, whether it’s on a personal problem or a current issue on which I would like to hear a female perspective.

If the male-female friendship isn’t platonic, however, I always get this small feeling that she’s not being 100% honest for fear of hurting my feelings or me seeing her in a negative light.

Grace: Agreed. It’s ironic that conversations tend to feel more unfiltered when the friendship is purely platonic, because this level of honesty is actually what you’d hope to get with someone you’re romantically interested in.

Do you think these expectations of platonic friendships change as you get older though?

Justin: In my opinion, not really. When I was a kid, gender didn’t matter. Everyone and anyone could become a friend, because I didn’t know what relationships were. Much of that is the same today. The only variable that’s changed is whether I can see myself in a relationship with the person and because I’m straight; this only applies to my female friends!

Grace: Yep. Making new friends as a child was simpler. I find that as you get older, you subconsciously regard every new connection as a potential life partner, perhaps because of the biological instinct and social pressure to settle down.

Justin: I think once you’ve gotten a taste of what love feels like, you subconsciously go looking for that feeling again. You start seeing someone of the opposite gender as a potential mate instead of a friend first. As we get older, our circle of friends also tends to shrink as you start discovering who we are and who to invest our time in. Logically, it makes sense to size someone up as a potential partner first.

Just platonic friends sharing a hug. Don't overthink it.
Grace: I’m also wondering if this means what we value in friendships with the opposite gender changes as we age. And if, in the first place, the things we value in these friendships are different than those with our own gender.

Justin: Nah, I don’t think what I value in friends has changed throughout the years. It’s always been about having a good time whilst being able to talk about anything and everything. My friends help me see things from different angles and help to broaden my mind. Oh and of course, loyalty too.

Grace: For me, I value security in all my friendships, regardless of gender. Simply speaking, this means I know that you have my back and you know that I have yours. Even if we don’t speak for awhile, we’re still able to catch up where we left off. I’ve heard this cliché so many times, but it’s honestly rarer than it seems.

I read somewhere that genuine friendship can be more precious than romantic love, because friendships are kept going simply because both parties want to be there. There is zero ‘obligation’ with friendship to stick around, like a sense of codependency.

Justin: Hmmm, but I feel there’s also no obligation to stick around in romantic love though. If it works, it works. And if it doesn’t then well, you try again. There are only two ways a relationship ends.

Grace: That’s a very practical way of looking at it. Realistically speaking as well, the way you view your platonic friendships with women influence the way you view your partner’s platonic friendships with men.

So, if being open to dating a friend should feelings develop, this means that your partner might do the same with their friends. Doesn’t this create more insecurity and anxiety?

Justin: It’s about trust, i.e. whether you act on that feeling and you trust your partner to do the same. I think the challenge is to be alright with not knowing how a relationship could have panned out with someone else. Unfortunately, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Grace: I’m just glad my platonic male friendships aren’t that complicated. Some which crossed into romantic territory, although they didn’t work out in the end, have only led to a closer friendship. But there are also friendships that fell apart after one of us developed feelings. In a warped way, the litmus test for a solid friendship is whether you’re able to continue being friends after both parties see each other in a non-platonic light.

This isn’t always straightforward, simply because people have different expectations and thresholds for the relationships in their life, including male-female platonic friendships.

All this to say, you’re incredibly lucky if you have a close platonic friend of the other gender, to whom you can openly declare you love them and not make the friendship weird. Don’t take it for granted.

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