The Male/Female 'Friend Zone': Is it Possible?

Can men and women really be 'buddies?'

Posted Feb 10, 2019

When Harry Met Sally.  My Best Friend’s Wedding. The debate goes on. Can heterosexual women and men just be friends? I’m talking about the kind of friendship where neither party would ever remotely think of the other person in any other way than a brother/sister/cousin type, helping one another along life’s path and being a platonic source of support. 

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Source: pexels

Having been around nearly seven decades, my personal findings tell me the answer to this question is no. I think straight men’s minds, interests, and thought processes naturally lead them to different places than straight women’s do, even if both parties in a platonic relationship deny it or never act upon it. Sound too black and white? It probably is. But it's my contention. An article on the topic in askmen.com says some studies support this: ”If you're a dude, you're more likely to think that your female friend might be attracted to you when she is not. Women, on the other hand, tend to assume their lack of attraction towards their male friend is mutual — hence the existence of the dreaded ‘friend zone’ concept.” 

The short piece admits there will always be ambiguity on the topic because there are, of course limitless types of relationships between people. How it is viewed can depend on just how evolved men are at any given moment in time about the word “friendship” and how realistic women are as well.  Says one commenter, “I firmly believe that a guy and a girl can't have a close relationship outside of a group setting without there being some sexual tension by at least one person at some point in the relationship.”

Others — often those with a number of opposite sex friends — insist that platonic friendships between heterosexual men and women can exist and even thrive. Interestingly enough, however, most of those who defend this are women — not men. When I posted something on social media, my friends weighed in on it. I was to find that responses were all over the board. Most, however, agreed with me.  True friendships with no sexual undertones within the minds of one or the other in a friendly couple are extremely rare. Ever think about how, when someone becomes a widow/widower/divorcee, it's not uncommon to end up marrying the widow/widower/divorcee of a couple they were once social friends with? 

It might be fun to break down a few of the types of non-romantic relationships men and women can have as well as how they originate. I can’t come at this topic as a therapist, because I have no such credentials. So it’s just me — trying to talk openly about it based on my own experiences as well as a few other sources I found. No science here.

Childhood friends. My peas-in-a-pod husband and I collect movies for our DVD drawer and watch them many times over. One such movie, The Help, tells us in its “extras” section that the movie was written and produced by Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett, two people who grew up together in the deep South, where the movie takes place. We loved this story and eagerly wanted to see how it all came about. The two creators of the film speak fondly of one another during these clips — about how they always felt like outsiders, making them bond with one another throughout their school lives. An article about the two ran in USA Today, saying “She and Taylor have known each other since they were 5, attending the same preschool in Jackson. When they were older, Taylor coaxed her to New York City, where he lived. Both had big dreams. Taylor wanted to act on Saturday Night Live. Stockett wanted to be a writer.” Against huge odds and a slew of challenges, her book became a script and the script for The Help became a movie. Their friendship was something they knew they could count on, with their spouses egging them on to never give up on making the movie.

That kind of friendship is, I believe, rare. Were there ever romantic feelings between these two attractive people who met one another as semi-toddlers? Nothing tells me there was, and it made me sit back and think of how some male-female pairings can be more like sibling relationships. It warms my heart.

Friendly co-workers. I guess I am of a certain genre of women who preferred to have men friends over women friends for a good chunk of her life. Having grown up with brothers, I felt I related more to the broad topics (apart from a rapt interest in sports) that men concerned themselves with. Conversations with girls/women my age seemed petty, trivial and even competitive, while my chats with men seemed fun, intelligent, and informative by comparison. So when I got my dream job during the heyday of the airline industry (1970s), I developed what I considered fast friendships with the uniformed men I worked on the ground with. We had odd hours and strange days off, making us gather like birds of a feather both on and off work. And we had flight benefits that took us skiing together, sitting on beaches in Hawaii on our days off and frequenting local night clubs close to closing time after our planes departed or got sent to hangars for the night. There were a number of romances that sprung up, no doubt a LOT of sex going on, and even a few marriages resulted from all this.

My interest in my male co-workers, however, was purely platonic. The relationship I had with them was playful, but I never felt intentional flirting going on, so I felt safe. As I left my 20s and gained some life experience, however, I feel now that almost any of the guys I considered “buddies” back then might have crashed the door open had I left it slightly ajar in terms of making that friendship into something more. Some of us have kept track of one another through social media, thrilled we reconnected and remarking on how we have all evolved since those days of Kahlua coffee and backgammon at the Peppermill. But I feel now that what I thought was brotherly love could have been more in their minds. I could, however, be entirely wrong. After all, no one talks about these things 40 years later, especially if they are happily married.

I have to agree with Scientific American’s research on this issue, however. “Daily experience suggests that non-romantic friendships between males and females are not only possible, but common—men and women live, work, and play side-by-side, and generally seem to be able to avoid spontaneously sleeping together. However, the possibility remains that this apparently platonic coexistence is merely a façade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.”

What about having met someone at a bar or in a group setting and just becoming friends with them from the start? An interesting article in goop.com has both males and females weighing in on the topic. A guy named David tells a story about how a friend of his swore up and down he had a purely platonic friendship going with a woman, but found it blew up in his face when the proverbial substance hit the fan. “One of my best friends had what he described as a wholly satisfying and purely platonic friendship with a woman for years. They were extremely close. He swore he wasn’t attracted to her, or interested in anything beyond the friendly connection they shared. But when she called him one night to gleefully announce she’d just met the man she was going to marry—he literally freaked out. Panic set in. It took him months to get over it. Despite claiming that she was merely his ‘buddy,’ that he never desired her physically, that he always had her best interests in mind, some part of him still wanted her all to himself.”

Dates that never went anywhere. So what happens when you go out with someone a few times (or maybe just once) and you know almost instantly there is no chemistry for you? Even if there is a repartee and you have fun together, the rest of the romantic equation just doesn’t add up in your head. This happened to me over and over again during my dating years and I know it happens to men as well. What I found for the most part is that men simply don’t call again if the date was a dud — even if the female thought the brief liaison contained hope. And I always thought this was a HUGE copout on the man’s part, knowing full well these gals might be sitting by their phones hoping for a call. I know because I held the hand of many a friend who could not understand how she could get so unceremoniously dumped, including me. So whenever I was the “dumper” I decided I would not string a guy along. The best way to get a guy to stop calling me was to tell them (1) "I don’t feel chemistry here" (2)  or to say “you feel more like a brother to me.” I know. Both sound cold and down right cruel. But I felt I was freeing the guy up to look elsewhere and in the meantime, I didn’t have to dread hearing their voice on my answering machine trying to be cool about getting together again. And it worked.

Did we become friends after that? Never. Because whether I considered him good friendship material or not, I knew in my heart that his intentions had started out with more in mind. It may have even taken him a while to get up the nerve to ask me out, and suddenly we were over. While I felt bad for him, I knew that letting him THINK I was interested was a worse cruelty, and trying to become friends with him would only remind him of the rejection.

Ex-lovers.  This is where it’s easy for me to draw a line on the friendship thing. Do men and women who once bedded each other go on to become friends? They can and in many cases they do. But to me, sex is like a line in the sand that can’t be brushed away.  How many times have you heard about a relationship break up that was 100% mutual — both parties said “let’s part friends and still keep track of one another?” In reality, someone is usually hurt while the other person moves on. And even if the person who ended the relationship continues to stay in touch for old times’s sake (or even a sense of guilt), I think it is difficult for the injured party to completely ignore or forget what the good times were between them. 

This is a case where I believe the “dumpee” unwittingly lives with the deluded hope that a reunion can take place, but in the meantime acts more as a confidante. Again, there is a case for that door being just a crack open for whatever might happen otherwise. As for married/committed people having opposite sex best friends who were ex-lovers? Despite how open-minded I try to be, I consider it patently unfair to the new(er) person in their lives. I may be somewhat old world on this issue, but if you are confiding things in an ex-lover, you may be avoiding dealing with the relationship you are supposed to be deepening as well as celebrating. Hearing your spouse reminisce or chuckle with an ex-lover about the people, experiences, and places he and she have in common is not a good recipe for marital bliss. Am I telling you to cut things off from an ex-lover who happened to become a good friend? Of course not. I’m just communicating some life-hardened personal experience. And there is many a more open mind who is not bothered nor threatened by any of this.

Psychology Today has some excellent posts on this topic, and I encourage you to look them up. One, by Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, cites a study done by Bleske and Buss in 2000. Their research had both men and women being grilled on the benefits and costs of female/male friendships. Definite differences were found, including how men were more likely to see sex and romantic potential in an opposite sex friend as a benefit while women primarily saw it as a cost. “As a result, men were also more likely than women to say that they had sex with an opposite sex friend (22% vs. 11%),” says Nicholson. But it went further than that. Men were also more likely to report lowered self-worth as a cost, while women found their own inability to reciprocate the male's attraction as costly. In the end, when friendships did not turn sexual or romantic, men were often left feeling rejected and as a result, used. There was no name for this in my era, but  it is now referred to as being "friend zoned.”

What I find the most interesting about this study, however, is that when friendships did turn romantic/sexual, some of these men continued to label the women as "just friends" - at about double the rate of women, who undoubtedly saw it as more as a "next step." Sure makes it sound more like conquest than a friendship to me...

Shall we chalk this up to youth and say those of us past age 55 can be better opposite sex friends than frisky folks in their 20s?  Is “companionship” a better word for it? If so, why do I NEVER hear a man using that word? In my experience, while it’s easy for women to want to have a guy they can go to plays or go wine-tasting with, it’s difficult for men to shake their feelings of attraction, even if their body parts no longer respond the way they used to. Perhaps this accounts for how many of the older ones still tell embellished tales about who they are (or perhaps were) in their online dating profiles.