Can men and women ever be 'just friends'? Or will romantic feelings get in the way?


Some inter-gender friendships are affected by gossip, rumours and assumptions that there 'has to be' more to the platonic relationship than there is. Photo: 123rf.com

Every weekend, Maya B, 34, and Victor W, 29, meet up and spend time together. They go for coffee, hang out at the mall, watch a movie, indulge in online games, go bowling, play tennis, or even go jungle trekking. But the duo aren’t a couple – they’re just friends.

Maya and Victor believe it’s possible for a heterosexual man and woman to be just friends with each other. But they say it’s “other people” who sometimes make it “complicated” because of false assumptions that inter-gender friendships are not possible. Sometimes, there’s also “gossip” about the status of their bond.

“It actually isn’t complicated, but it’s people around who make it complicated because of their assumptions or gossiping,” says Maya who works as a software engineer.

“Onlookers assume that we’re a couple when they see us together – and I suppose we do look like one. She’s slightly older than me but absolutely doesn’t look or act like ‘a mother’,” says Victor, an IT consultant. He laughs as Maya makes a cheeky face at him.

“And siblings rarely hang out like we do.

“I guess I’m also her ‘default’, like when she goes for events and has to bring ‘a partner’, she naturally asks me and I am happy to accompany her. We’re there for each other because that’s what friends are for,” he says.

“She’s also there for me when I need advice on money, career and girls,” he adds.

The pair met through mutual friends.

“We would all hang out and have different activities every weekend but eventually, everyone got hitched and was busy with their own family,” says Victor.

“But we continued to hang out because we’ve a lot in common and our friendship has enriched each other’s life in many ways,” says Maya.

The duo, who are both single, say that they’re both not looking for a relationship right now. While Maya recently came out of a long-term relationship last year, Victor is focused on his work.

Although he has dated before, he says that he’s not ready to settle down and hasn’t found “the right one” yet.

“I know most guys my age would be dating, some even married and with kids, but I want to focus on my career first. Getting married or being in a relationship is a heavy responsibility – financially and otherwise, so I’d rather build myself up first,” he says.

“One of the things that made our friendship possible and progress is both of us are still single. So, we have more time to spend with each other, and no spouse or partner to misunderstand,” says Maya.

“We do know of other guys and girls who are friends while dating or being married (to others), and they don’t get to hang out as much because they would be busy with their respective partners, or concerned about misunderstandings,” she adds.

“We’re also in a fairly similar industry so we can ‘talk shop’, inspire and bounce off ideas on each other,” says Victor.

Purely platonic

Bawany says that in the past, people tended to act according to norms that didn’t encourage opposite-sex friendships. Photo: Bawany ChinapanBawany says that in the past, people tended to act according to norms that didn’t encourage opposite-sex friendships. Photo: Bawany ChinapanAccording to Family Therapy Association Malaysia vice-president Bawany Chinapan, it’s possible for men and women to enjoy platonic relationships, namely, friendships as opposed to romantic relationships.

“Friendship is a beautiful thing. It’s all about loyalty and trust, just like in any other relationship, so just because two people are differently gendered, it doesn’t mean that they can’t have a beautiful friendship,” says Bawany.

“There are those who perhaps don’t have that romantic feeling for each other but they’re good friends, perhaps since school or university. They hang out together, care for each other, even go for road trips, but there’s no romantic feelings involved,” she explains.

“This is different from a romantic relationship where there’s physical chemistry or attraction. This is what takes it beyond just a friendship,” she says. “If two persons are mature enough to know the boundaries of not crossing that, then there’s no issues with being friends, even though both of them are of different genders.”

Bawany notes that in the past, people had to behave according to society’s expectations or cultural norms and conventions.

“It also has to do with certain cultures that might see it as improper for a female to be close friends or go out alone with a male. Those norms determined how one was supposed to behave, and made it harder to form friendships with the opposite sex – because of what people might say or think.

“These norms made it difficult to even be friends with someone of the opposite sex, even though it’s just a schoolmate or co-worker,” she adds.

“But today, all that is changing. Millennials form friendships naturally regardless of gender. Guys and girls hang out together, greet each other with a hug – even those who don’t have a romantic affiliation at all. They care for each other and do all kinds of activities together – but there’s no romantic relationship,” says Bawany.

Topic of contention

Today, millenials form friendships naturally regardless of gender. Guys and girls hang out together, care for each other and have activities together – but there’s no romantic relationship. Photo: Unsplash/Duy PhamToday, millenials form friendships naturally regardless of gender. Guys and girls hang out together, care for each other and have activities together – but there’s no romantic relationship. Photo: Unsplash/Duy Pham

Whether in movies or literature, the question about male-female platonic friendships have been a popular topic of discussion, maybe even contention. Researchers too have weighed in on the topic.

An article in Scientific American, “Men And Women Can’t Be Just Friends” refers to research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that “the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for romance is often lurking” therefore making it difficult for such platonic friendships to prosper.

In the study “Benefit Or Burden: Attraction In Cross-Sex Friendship”, researchers interviewed 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends. The friendship pairs were separated and then each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) toward the friend.

“The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them,” discovered researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in United States.

However, the results were quite different for the female subjects: They were mostly not attracted to their male friends and assumed the non-attraction was mutual.

“Men were also more willing to act on this mistakenly-perceived mutual attraction,” the researchers found. They concluded that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being “just friends”.

Friendship is about loyalty and trust - just like in any other relationship - so just because two people are of different genders, it doesn’t mean that they can’t have a beautiful friendship. Photo: FreepikFriendship is about loyalty and trust - just like in any other relationship - so just because two people are of different genders, it doesn’t mean that they can’t have a beautiful friendship. Photo: Freepik

Although Victor thinks his friend is attractive, he doesn't have romantic feelings for her.

“Of course I think she’s attractive, but I didn’t really consider her in that way because we’re friends. I also didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ and lose the friendship by trying to make it anything more,” says Victor.

“He’s attractive in a ‘cute’ kind of way,” says Maya. “But you realise he’s a few years younger than me, right?” says Maya.

Although many of her female friends ask her about her “cute friend”, Maya hasn’t tried to matchmake Victor with any of them.

“He’s met some of my friends before – he’s a smart guy who knows what he wants, so if he’s interested, he would approach them directly. He doesn’t need to be matchmade... plus I don’t want to get blamed if it doesn’t work out,” says Maya.

“If you want to be friends with someone of the opposite sex, you’ve to be a bit ‘thick skinned’ and not care what others say or think. You’ve got to just trust, and be honest with each other,” says Victor, adding that Maya would sometimes seek his advice, “especially on guys that she likes”.

“It’s the people around you who can destroy the friendship by telling you that you shouldn’t be friends with each other because ‘it isn’t proper’ or, on the other extreme, try to force you together as a couple. They should just mind their own business because only the two persons involved know the true situation,” says Maya.

Communication is important to prevent misunderstandings.

“If you don’t like anything, then you’ve to be truthful and speak up,” she concludes.

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