Manuel and Katy, who are in their forties, have been friends for a few months. Katy has a lot of male friends and a new boyfriend. Manuel finds her attractive and enjoys spending time alone with her. If she showed an interest in him romantically, he would respond. She sees him just as a friend. Is this a problem?


We have emotional and social needs that can’t be met by one person

We can’t expect a partner to meet all our needs, and it’s not healthy to be dependent on one person. We need family and friends too. But there are overlaps between friendship and romance, especially cross-gender friendships.[1] Baxter and Wilmot (1984)[2] argue that there are shared features like trust, openness, caring, and comfort that blur the distinction between platonic and romantic and this can create “relational uncertainty” in a friendship. We have strong needs to belong, to feel understood, safe, and cared for. Katy will need these from more than one person even when she’s in a relationship. But will there be costs incurred by her friendship with Manuel – especially ones detrimental to her new relationship – that outweigh the benefits? In this two-part article I argue, using scientific published research and my new survey results, that we can benefit from close friends of both genders, and that it is possible to be just friends, under certain conditions.

Is it possible for two heterosexual people of opposite genders to be friends without ulterior motives for sexual/romantic involvement?

Most surveys of this issue have been done in the US and with students, and find that a large majority of both men and women consider sexual attraction in cross-gender friendships to be a very minor issue.  The most recent study of American undergraduates (Hart, 2016)[3] used a 10-point scale (1 = this statement is not at all true to 10 = this statement is completely true) to say whether they thought “Men and women CAN be ‘just friends’ without one member of the pair desiring a romantic connection” and “Opposite-sex friendships CAN be purely driven by motives for platonic companionship (i.e., no interest in romance).” The mean response was 7.24, with no differences between male and female, suggesting that most people are optimistic that such friendships are possible.

But what about older people and the UK? Are people more or less optimistic about cross-gender friendship as they get older? I recently carried out a survey of 180 people of all ages[4] on various UK Facebook pages[5]. 85% of people thought “yes”. Importantly, there was no significant difference between male and female responses, nor between ages.

Figure 1 Blog 1 Friends

OK, so we believe cross-gender friendships are possible – but what’s going on beneath the surface?

Just because people believe that these friendships are possible, however, doesn’t mean that we aren’t influenced by sexual and romantic motives, even if at an unconscious level. Lewis et al[6] found that the characteristics people wanted in their ideal cross-gender friends mirrored those prioritised in relationships. Participants were given a fixed number of “points” and asked to allocate them to various traits such as physical attractiveness, physical prowess and economic resources, to reflect how important each was to them in selecting cross-gender friends. In previous research on relationships, men prioritised physical attractiveness, and women physical prowess and economic resources. In this study, those same priorities were reflected in their choices for cross-gender friends. These and other findings in the study suggest that similar motivations are present in cross-gender friendships as for our motivations when searching for a mate.[7]

Even in the Hart (2016) study described earlier, despite the high level of optimism that these friendships could work, 63% of participants also believed there was a secret sexual element in cross-gender friendships.  Katy may want to believe Manuel values her purely as a friend, and Manuel could also believe it, but at an unconscious level, mate selection processes may still be operating. They may be more likely to be friends if he finds her physically attractive, and if she perceives him as having good physical skills and high earning potential.

Are men are more likely to be attracted to their female friends than the other way round?

Some would argue that gender differences in sexual drive should decrease as society becomes more egalitarian, but research does not support this unequivocally,[8] suggesting that biological processes cannot be completely overridden by cultural change. These biological differences would predict there is more likely to be an attraction factor at work for men than for women in cross-gender friendships.

A survey in 2012 by Bleske et al[9] found that young adult males did indeed report more attraction to their friend than young adult females did, regardless of their own or their friend’s current relationship status. Males were also more likely to overestimate how attracted their female friend was to them.[10]

However, this sample was made up of undergraduates. It may be that younger adults approach cross-gender friendships differently from older ones. Many of my older male clients say that they have now had plenty of experience of being friends with women where nothing has ever happened between them; and the sexual drive can be less imperative for many as they get older. So Manuel may be less likely than a younger man to expect something to happen with Katy, or for it to be foremost in his mind.

Does attraction have to get in the way of the friendship?

So now the question is: Despite underlying sexual and/or romantic motives, can we keep these in the background and have a genuine friendship?

This was a great quote from a men’s website: “And why does a sexual attraction mean they are not friends? Do you think that men and women who are sexually attracted always have to act on it? Are they always secretly plotting to get the other in the sack? Really, they are friends. And sure, deep down or not-so-deep down they will admit, yes, in another life I would like to sleep with so and so. But this does not matter. Sure men usually befriend women that they are attracted to, because these are usually the only women that [they would] talk to in the first place, because they are attractive. This is usually harmless. There is a long way from attraction to action.” [11]

In my UK survey, 61% of people of all ages agreed with the statement “People are often attracted to others but are able to keep this in the background and be genuine friends with them.” Only 20% disagreed.

Figure 2 Blog 1 Friends

Importantly, there was no significant difference between male and female responses.[12] In other words, men were no more likely to perceive attraction as a barrier to friendship than women.

Later, we will consider how to keep this attraction in the background. First, let’s think about whether it’s worth bothering: if it’s going to be a lot of work to keep the friendship as a friendship, is it worth it?

There are costs and benefits to cross-gender friendships

 Every friendship is different, but there will be both costs – such as the possibility of attraction – and benefits. Katy will need to decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs for her friendship with Manuel. What does he give her that she doesn’t get elsewhere? Is she sure it’s not just an ego boost?

 Possible attraction is a risk to cross-gender friendship

In the Bleske et al (2012) study referred to above, males and females of all ages thought attraction to their cross-gender friend was more of a cost than a benefit.

Twice as many women (33%) as men (14%) in the over 27 age category said the risk of one person becoming romantically involved was a possible cost. However, these percentages were low: most people did not see this as a problem.

Single young adults (18-23 years) saw attraction as more of a cost than older ones (27-50 years), with men seeing it as less of a problem than women, but still only for a minority. There was a difference between genders: 22% of men and 47% of women in the younger group found it an issue; and 14% men and 33% women in the older group. How do we explain the gender differences? Do men accept that there will be one-way attraction but women still have to rebuff them? Whatever the reason, Manuel and Katy are less likely to find it a problem than younger people, and Manuel less than Katy.

In another study (Monsour, 1994),[13] only about 20% of men and 10% of women saw a sexual component to a cross-gender friendship as a challenge, again, suggesting it was not a problem for the vast majority.

Are there other costs?

I focus here on a few of the most significant responses in the Bleske et al (2012) study.

Interestingly, those attracted to a cross-gender friend reported less satisfaction in their current romantic relationship (apart from males 23 years and under). It’s not possible to know from a survey whether the attraction caused the dissatisfaction, or whether they were dissatisfied already. But if an attraction to a friend is affecting your relationship, let the friendship cool off a bit, and just see each other in a group.

Three times as many men (33%) as women in that same age group said friendships with women can be emotionally draining and stressful. (Before you draw any conclusions about women being hard work, remember it could be because men need practice at negotiating emotional stuff with women, and that it’s only draining because they haven’t yet got those skills. In that case, friendships with women could be very useful for them.)

Three times as many women as men in the 18-23 age bracket said being in a different place in their lives or having different perspectives on things than the man could cause problems. One might argue that although this creates more work, it can be good to be challenged by different ways of looking at things.

So what are the benefits?

Men tend to engage in activities with their male friends, and women in talking with female friends.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that men report that they like the more nurturing and emotionally supportive interaction they get with women.  Women also sometimes prefer a more activity-based encounter with a male friend, perhaps because they don’t always want to have to discuss feelings and personal information.

In the study by Bleske-Rechek et al. (2012), women reported benefits such as “less drama”, “fun”, “easy to relate to and talk to”, and security. Men listed the possibility of romance, being introduced to other female friends, shared personal experiences, and talking about emotions. Both agreed on benefits such as trust, support, and ‘‘insight into the mind of the opposite sex’’.

If you’re in a relationship, that insight can be very useful. A comment from my survey was:

“If your partner is the only one you talk to of the opposite gender ….” In other words, you need more data to be able to tell if your male partner is being more than one standard deviation in the wrong direction from the mean in his hygiene, geekiness, or social skills.

There is always a trade-off of benefits and risks

As one participant put it: “You need the female perspective but at the same time you don’t because it creates intimacy.” That other perspective can be useful whether you’re in a relationship or not: we can all do with improving our relationship skills. In Part II, published next Friday, I’ll look at how Katy and Manuel should monitor their cross-gender friendship, how to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs, and when to let their friendship cool off. There will be further findings from my survey, too.

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[1] Many studies are about cross-gender friendships for heterosexuals, so apologies to non-heterosexual readers, but I hope you can still extrapolate some general principles that still apply. Of course it might be more complex when, say, a gay woman has mostly female close friends. Perhaps it is easier for gay people to have friends of both genders? Comments welcome!

[2] Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1984). Secret tests. Human Communication Research, 11(2), 171-201, p. 175.

[3] Hart, W., Adams, J., & Tullett, A. (2016). “It’s Complicated”—Sex Differences in Perceptions of Cross-Sex Friendships. The Journal of Social Psychology, 156(2), 190-201.

[4] 87 male; 93 female

[5] The demographics of the sample are provided at the end of this article.

[6] Lewis, D. M., Al-Shawaf, L., Conroy-Beam, D., Asao, K., & Buss, D. M. (2012). Friends with benefits II: Mating activation in opposite-sex friendships as a function of sociosexual orientation and relationship status. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(5), 622-628.

[7] Findings include the following interactions between gender, attitudes to sex, and current relationship status: Those who inclined towards commitment-free sex prioritized physical attractiveness in their friends, especially men. The women in this commitment-free sex group also valued physical prowess in male friends more than those with more traditional attitudes towards sex, whereas for men it was the other way round – they valued physical prowess less. These findings suggest that there are sexual motives underpinning our cross-gender friendships, even if unconsciously. Among those in relationships, women prioritized economic resources in their male friends more than those not in relationships, whereas men prioritized it less, suggesting that being in a relationship does not prevent relationship-relevant motivations affecting our cross-gender friendship choices.

[8] Schmitt, D. P. (2015). The evolution of culturally-variable sex differences: Men and women are not always different, but when they are… it appears not to result from patriarchy or sex role socialization. In The evolution of sexuality (pp. 221-256). Springer International Publishing.

[9]  Bleske-Rechek, A., Somers, E., Micke, C., Erickson, L., Matteson, L., Stocco, C., … & Ritchie, L. (2012). Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(5), 569-596.

[10] However, a new study shows that this overestimation can be eliminated by changing the order in which participants are asked about their own and the friend’s attraction. Engeler, I., & Raghubir, P. (2017). Decomposing the Cross-Sex Misprediction Bias of Dating Behaviors: Do Men Overestimate or Women Underreport Their Sexual Intentions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. Early online publication.

[11] From

[12] This means that the very small difference between male and female answers is more than 95% likely to be down to chance, or random fluctuations in the data.

[13] Monsour, M., Harris, B., Kurzweil, N., & Beard, C. (1994). Challenges confronting cross-sex friendships: “Much ado about nothing?” Sex Roles, 31(1), 55-77.