It’s the eternal question: Can men and women be friends? Is it possible for a man and woman to have a completely platonic relationship, with no romance or sex? This question has vexed people for generations. If you’re reading this, you probably want the definitive answer to whether male and female platonic friendships can actually work.
This topic was the focus of one of the most successful rom-com of all time When Harry Met Sally. In the first scene, the titular characters, played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, debate it. Harry says it isn’t possible, but Meg disagrees, saying she has male friends. Harry says she only thinks she has male friends, but really, they all want to sleep with her. As the movie progresses, the two become friends. Eventually, though, they have sex and, finally (spoiler alert for a 35-year-old movie), end up together.
The ending of When Harry Met Sally suggests Harry was right, men and women can’t be just friends. Of course, real life is always more complicated than a movie. There are countless men and women who are friends and never have sex together. Skeptics say, as Harry did, even if they never sleep together, one or both of them want to. But I don’t agree. As a man who has had numerous platonic friendships with women, I know it can be done. And it can be great. Here’s how.
Can Guys and Girls Be Just Friends?
To start, let’s address the obvious loopholes. When people ask if men and women can be just friends, they mean heterosexual men and women. Yes, straight women and gay men can be friends; straight men and lesbians can be too. The same goes for men and women who are asexual, meaning they generally lack sexual desire or interest in others. I’m acknowledging those exceptions because the premise of the question ignores them.
What we’re talking about here is the conventional pairing of a straight male and a straight female. Can a man and woman be just friends when there is the possibility of sexual attraction? Can they go out together, and generally have a good time together, without sex ever entering the equation? Lots of people say no. Either the sexual component is there from the beginning, or it arises over time. The assumption is platonic affection will always turn into romantic love in time.
My personal experience says otherwise. I know, men and women can be friends. Best friends, even. Since college, most of my closest friends have been women. Even when I’ve had girlfriends, I’ve maintained my female friendships. I’ve had friendships turn into relationships or get complicated, but I’ve had even more remain perfectly platonic. Often, the latter has been better.
My experience with male-female friendships
In my freshman year of college, my best friend was Shelly. A friend of hers was my neighbor in the dorm, and so she often hung out. Shelly had a boyfriend at a different college when I met her, and I was single. In time, we grew close as friends. Then, partway through the year, she broke up with her boyfriend. That obviously presented the opportunity for a romance to blossom. But it never did, and that’s because we both agreed that’s not what we wanted.
We actually talked about it. I knew the breakup was complicated for her. What she needed more than anything was a friend, someone whose intentions she didn’t have to worry about. I wasn’t looking to date, so I told her I only wanted to be her friend, and that was it. We remained close friends for years after, long after we graduated and I moved far away. We’ve both had relationships while friends, and I was even at her wedding. Not once did the line ever get blurred.
Since Shelly, I’ve had dozens of close female friendships, from coworkers to drinking buddies to friends of friends. On occasion, there’s been a spark of romance, even sex, but most of the time it’s remained platonic. What’s the secret? Never go into a female friendship trying to maneuver it into something sexual. That type of manipulative behavior is toxic, and it not only ends friendships, but it also leads to trust issues.
So, when people ask, “Can men and women be friends?” my answer is always, unequivocally, “Yes.”
How to Make Opposite-Sex Friendships Work
If you’re wondering if a man and woman can be just friends, chances are you’re currently in a confusing situation. Maybe there’s a coworker who you enjoy hanging out with, and you’re hoping – or worried – it’s turning into romance. Perhaps a woman seems to be sending you mixed signals and you want to know if she’s interested in you. Or maybe you’re in a relationship and your girlfriend has a guy friend you’re worried about.
These can all be complicated situations, and male-female friendships can be challenging to manage. Mixed signals, societal expectations, and, yes, sexual attraction means such friendships often take more effort to navigate. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. You simply have to be honest, communicate, and be receptive to the other person's feelings.
Communicate with your friends
Communication is especially important in a male-female relationship because our culture creates roadblocks. From movies to influencers to celebrities, someone’s always claiming such friendships aren’t possible. Even if you disagree, those voices are in your head. And in your friend’s head too. When a man and woman are just friends, people question it. Parents ask if you like her, friends make jokes about it, and strangers assume you’re a couple. It puts pressure on the friendship.
The best way to deal with that pressure is to talk about it. Men, in particular, struggle to communicate their feelings. This is true whether we’re talking about psychological problems or romantic feelings. But it’s absolutely vital to a healthy relationship, both romantic and platonic. Most of the biggest problems in a friendship (or a romance) stem from a lack of communication. It can lead to confusion, hurt, and, ultimately, the end of the relationship. So, talk with your friend.
And if you do start developing romantic feelings, my advice is the same: talk about it. Obviously, these kinds of conversations can be awkward. But it’s better to have an awkward conversation once and move on than to let unspoken feelings fester into problems. If you talk, you can be sure you’re on the same page. That’s the recipe for a friendship that’s healthy, open, and long-lasting.
When Male-Female Friendships Get Complicated
While I’ve had plenty of successful friendships with women, I’m not naive. These friendships can get complicated. Physical attraction can be a factor, as well as jealousy. When one person is in a relationship and the other isn’t, the single one can often feel slighted. Alternatively, if the friendship is close, romantic partners may get jealous and cause a rift. And then, of course, romantic feelings between friends do develop sometimes.
What if you become a third wheel?
The first thing you have to understand is there’s not much you can do about other people’s feelings. If your friend gets romantically involved with someone else and starts pulling away, you can’t demand their attention. Most people prioritize romantic relationships over platonic ones. The best thing you can do to preserve the friendship is to get to know your friend’s significant other. Ideally, a new friendship will develop, and your original friendship won’t have to change too much.
There are situations, though, where the significant other won’t like you, even actively dislike you. Usually, it’s jealousy. They might worry you’re attracted to your friend (or vice versa). Or they could be jealous of your closeness with them. Either way, if the significant other has decided they won’t like you, there’s not much you can do about it. Your best tactic is to be considerate and not antagonize them. Hopefully, they’ll warm to you over time.
What if romantic feelings develop?
The ultimate complication is when one friend develops romantic/sexual feelings and the other doesn’t. There’s no easy solution here. If you’re the friend with feelings, you basically have two options. Either admit your feelings to your friend and hope they feel the same, or bury them. The former option can lead to rejection, the latter can be a recipe for depression and heartache. Ultimately, admitting your feelings is better, so long as you’re mature enough to accept potential rejection.
And what if it’s the other way around? What if your friend expresses romantic interest in you, but you don’t feel the same? Again, acknowledge their feelings and explain your own. If you don’t feel the same, don’t just give in because you think it’ll be less awkward. Politely turning down a romantic overture is far less hurtful (and humiliating) than faking feelings for them. In either case, your best hope is open communication and a willingness to listen.
Some friendships do grow into love. That can be a dream come true. But you can’t force it; such relationships need to grow organically. It might not happen as fast as you’d like, or it might not happen at all. You simply have to come to terms with that.
Can a man and woman be just friends? Really?
So, we return to our original question: Can men and women be friends? Of course! You just have to be honest with each other, and with yourselves. If you’re only friends with a girl because you want to sleep with her, then you’re not really her friend. Decide what you want, and pursue it honestly, without manipulation or ulterior motives. A romantic relationship can be great, but often a platonic friendship is better (and longer lasting).
If things get complicated and the friendship ends, it’s okay to be heartbroken. The end of a friendship can hurt as much as the end of a romantic relationship. Like a romance, though, eventually, you need to move on and try again. Cherish the good memories, learn from the bad ones, and be open to new friendships.