Just good friends? Science says you're probably kidding yourself
I have a man problem. It isn’t an unrequited love (normal story) or a guy who just won’t quit (if only). No, this man problem comes in the shape of my best mate, flatmate and all-round, number one pal. You see, having been friends for eight years now, no one quite believes that we’re not secretly sweet on each other. Our parents ask when we’re getting married, and our friends have basically chosen their outfits. I even went on a date with his friend once, during which he asked me not once, not twice, but three times if we’d ever hooked up. The answer is no.
But no matter how much we protest, no one believes us, and it’s ruining both of our dating lives. Don’t even get me started on how awkward potential partners look when we bring them home, on the rare occasion that either of us actually pulls. For years, Hollywood has peddled the “best mate to bedmate” plotline, pushing the idea that romance is an inevitable conclusion of a close male-female friendship. Unfortunately, some scientists are saying they might be right, even going so far as to say that platonic friendship is “impossible”. So can it really be that men and women can’t ever just be friends?
A study carried out by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the US, and published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, would certainly suggest so. They recruited 88 pairs of supposedly platonic, straight, opposite-sex, undergrad friends, then split them into separate rooms and asked them to answer questions about their physical and sexual attraction towards the other, on a scale of one to nine, with nine being the highest. As you can probably imagine, no one really wanted anyone to know what answers they had given, so the results were kept strictly private - probably for the best really.
Nonetheless, the results did make for some interesting reading, with researchers noticing that the men in the study were far more likely that the women to report that they felt an attraction to their supposed “friend”, regardless of their own or their friend’s relationship status. Scientists proposed that that this was likely because “young males possess strong short-term mating desires that are activated in the context of the opposite sex”, compared to women, who are more likely to be subconsciously dominated by a “long term mating orientation”. In other words, the whole friends-with-benefits thing is (in general) less of a goer for women.
Hilariously, it seems that some of the lads were a little too hopeful about their chances: “Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them—a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt”. In other words, they pretty much assumed that the feeling was mutual. Awkward. Women, on the contrary, tended to underestimate their friend’s attraction to them.
Not everyone agrees that attraction is inevitable, however: “Certainly men and women can have platonic friendships,” Dr Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and coach with a particular interest relationships told Four Nine. “When men and women lived in separate worlds, their primary attraction to each other was romantic. In today’s world, however, men and women live, work and play together. They are fellow students, colleagues, committee members, bridge buddies, tennis partners and more. This cultural shift has created a new norm in which people generally keep their sexual involvement and friendships separate.”
There's also the question of whether the results from the study would still stand once the thrill of being a fresher had worn off and real life set in - after all, being 21 involves a lot more tequila and regrettable kisses that most of us would be prepared to stomach just a few years later. A follow-up study by the same team, involving individuals between their late 20s to early 50s, found that while the tendency for a single person to report a desire for a friend was the same, this did not apply to people in relationships. There was also a considerable increase in whether people considered being attracted to a friend a problem, rather than accepting it. It seems then, that as you grow up and settle down, your ability to blind yourself to the charms of that one friend increases.
At the end of the day though, it’s a debate that’s gone on since the beginning of time, and one that will almost certainly go on until the end. And with 83 per cent of married people describing their partners as their "best friend", it's easy to see how the association between friendship and sexual attraction can be made. But from first-hand experience, I’m inclined to believe that yes, men and women can just be friends: my flatmate will always be the skinny posh boy that I’ve watched drunkenly throw up one too many times, who has hooked up with most of my gal pals and who once told me he would “definitely” get with my sister. Yeah; a swing and a miss.