Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can men and women just be friends?

Males N = 547

Females = 593

My grandmother told me when I was a kid that men and women can't just be friends. Like so many, I suffered from the idealism of youth and didn't want to believe her. Now, I think that it's pretty much true, unless the friends are so hideous, they couldn't imagine sleeping together.

But let's look at the General Social Survey to see how often we see cross-gender best friends. The top graph shows what male respondents had to say about who their best friend is--other than their current partner. I've also broken it down in terms of marital status. I've done the same thing for women in the lower graph.

For men, having a girl as a best friend is quite rare for married men and never married men (8.5% and 10.4%, respectively) but it's close to 20% for separated, divorced, and widowed guys. Younger guys have more (male) friends than older guys, which might explain the low number of female best friends among the never-married. Older men who have been through a breakup or the death of a spouse probably don't have a group of pals anymore and so are more likely to make a close friendship with a women.

Still, I'm a bit skeptical of at least some of these friendships--I imagine one or both friends have thoughts of something more, but don't report it because it hasn't developed that far yet. And of course, cross-sex friendships are rare among married guys. What wife with any sense would let her husband get socially intimate with another woman?

It's the same for married women: only 3.1% have a man as a best friend. Hmm, isn't that estimate also about the same as the number of gay men in the population? It's doubtful that a husband would allow any other type of close male friend. It's also rare for widowed women: perhaps that is due to the fact that men are comparatively scarce among older people. It's a little more common among separated and divorced women. Fourteen percent of never-married girls have a male best-friend. Once again, I wonder if some of these are possible future relationships or one-sided romantic/sexual ones.

Basically, I think Grandma was right.


  1. The stability of male-female friendships is threatened by the male temptation to, er, invade her territory, *and also* by her temptation to use him as a doormat.

    I wrote about how to make a non-zero-sum game out of this:


    Basically, the guy agrees to some exploitation by the girl (driving her places, protecting her at a nightclub, etc.), and she agrees to help him get some other girl, whether by matchmaking or going to bat for him in the other girl's presence.

    Then the guy won't be tempted to make a move on her -- he'd kill his ally in the "find a mate" competition -- and she won't have to worry about the guy ending the friendship due to getting fed up with being her doormat.

  2. Good quote from the Stuff White People Like book:

    "When you see a white woman and a white man eating dinner together, watching a movie, or drinking at a bar you probably think they are a couple. Not so fast! White people often engage in something called a 'platonic friendship.' These arrangements feature a white male who is in love with a white female who needs companionship or access to someone with a car."

  3. Anonymous6:44 AM


  4. Another interesting observation: as best I can tell from the charts, only about half of all men have an unrelated man as a close friend. With women, in contrast, about 60% or even a bit more have an unrelated woman as a close friend. All of these seems to bear out the conventional wisdom of how women are more extroverted and socially adept than men.

  5. To Pete:

    It also bears out that women are more protected than men.

    Think about money and friendship. Theres an old saying that the quickest way to lose a friend is to borrow money from him. Brings out the worst in both parties.

    If men are more in the independent role in life - they wont form friendships with unrelated people because of the breadwinner role they have.

    Women, on the other hand, will as they have a more cushy dependent role. Think of the superficial 'best friends' after puberty and before say ~20. They collapse on contact with the real world. My take is womans 'best friends' are simply this throughout life. AKA They can 'psychologically afford' unrelated best friends better.

    Ofc its just a thought, doesnt have to be 100% right.

  6. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Men and women can be friends... for a while. Then either their friendship turns into a relationship or they find a boyfriend/girlfriend and they spend time with their partner instead.

  7. I was a tomboy, and always preferred the company of boys over girls. I had a lot of "platonic" male friends as a teenager and young adult, but noticed a pattern. They always either a) developed romantic feelings for me, or b) had no romantic feelings but were still always hoping that they might have sex with me. Either way, they were not actually platonic on their part. There is always a sexual undercurrent.

    I think the only truly platonic male/female relationship would be with a gay man.

  8. Anonymous12:46 AM

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  9. Anonymous6:11 PM

    Urteter nuytre:

  10. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Grandma is right, most of the time, and under most circumstances. But there are times when a guy and a girl can and do get past the "sex part" and discover that they can relate to one another with a strong bond of friendship that lasts, and gets away also from the "doormat treatment" and "secret love" syndromes mentioned in earlier posts. It requires understanding and trust from their eventual (and present) wife/husband because the spouses realize/know that they are the spouses after all (the highest level of love), and that the guy/man and girl/woman are honestly close friends, with no need for jealousy, insecurity or paranoia to creep in and take hold. The trust, love and respect required for it to happen take time to build, to be sure, and communication is paramount among all parties, but it can and does happen, and can be a very positive thing for the marriages and lives of the two opposite sex "best friends".

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