friendship psychology relationships social skills

Part II: How can I stay “just good friends”?

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. We asked: Is this a problem?

In Part I, we saw that:

  1. There are often sexual and romantic motives underpinning cross-gender friendships.
  2. Young men at least are more likely to be attracted to their female friends than vice versa.
  3. The majority of men and women believe cross-gender friendships for heterosexuals CAN work, even when there is some attraction involved.
  4. There are costs and benefits to these friendships, which need to be weighed.

Since last week, I have to report that Manuel has admitted to himself that he has ulterior motives. And Katy is beginning to wonder if the friendship can work, after they went out for dinner, stayed out quite late, and flirted a bit. Is it too late for them to revert to being “just good friends”?

In this part, we’ll be looking at how Manuel and Katy can stop the attraction factor from getting in the way of their friendship.

We need to monitor our platonic cross-gender friendships

Researchers warn: “A platonic relationship requires careful monitoring to ensure that it does not become romantic”.[1]

To a large extent, we are capable of being aware of and overriding the unconscious processes and motivations involved in cross-gender friendships. So if Katy really values her friendship with Manuel and wants it to last, she’ll be serious about making sure she doesn’t stray too close to the line or give out ambiguous signals. She might need to think more carefully about how she interacts with Manuel now she’s moving from being single to being in a relationship. People can be very lacking in self-control when it comes to the emotional and the sexual, and it’s not easy to go back to that easy-going friendship once you’ve crossed that line. Manuel, too, can consciously take steps to make sure he doesn’t get emotionally involved or “get his hopes up”. In this blog, I’ll be discussing some precautions that they can both take.

Men interpret friendly behaviours differently from women

There are gender differences in how we interpret behaviours such as a woman touching a man.[2] Men tend to interpret that as meaning the relationship is heading in a romantic direction, but she may just mean to be affectionate.[3] Katy should think carefully before leaning her head on Manuel’s shoulder, or responding if he puts his arm round her to comfort her. I’m a great fan of just clarifying these things out loud to avoid misunderstanding. So I would make a joke of saying something like “I’m going to put my head on your shoulder but it doesn’t mean I’m coming onto you, OK?!” Or you could have an ongoing code like “NSG (non-sexual gesture) coming up!”

The more we see them, the more we like them

We need to be aware of a possible “repeated exposure effect”. This phenomenon is essentially that just being exposed to a neutral stimulus over and over makes us feel more positive towards it. The more we see someone, the more we feel comfortable with them, like them, see them as similar to us[4] and find them attractive.[5] So if Katy spends a lot of time with a Manuel on a regular basis, this will inevitably have a greater effect. The context will make a difference too – going for a walk in the park is obviously less likely to prime romantic connotations than a candle-lit dinner together. Katy should limit the time spent alone with Manuel, to reduce the risk of crossing the line, and spend time with him in groups or with her boyfriend too.

Carry out regular tests

Friends often use “tests” to monitor whether the other person is getting the wrong idea.[6] Males and females use these tests, but females use a greater variety of tests, particularly 18 and 19.

I’ve adapted the tests into a quiz. You can do the quiz here, or in your head using the questions below. Count the number of “yes” answers.

Quiz: Does my friend fancy me?

  1. Have you asked them directly (and had a positive response)?
  2. Have you asked their friends (and had a positive response)?
  3. Have you disclosed a lot of personal information to them?
  4. Have you told them things that you’ve never told anyone else?
  5. Have you told them things that your partner doesn’t know?
  6. Have they disclosed a lot of personal information to you?
  7. Have they told you things that they say they’ve never told anyone else?
  8. Have they told you things that they say their partner doesn’t know?
  9. Have either of you talked about problems in your existing romantic relationships (if either of you have one)?
  10. Do they often reply quickly to you when you text?
  11. Do you have lengthy text exchanges?
  12. Do you often text each other late at night?
  13. Do they get upset when they don’t hear from you?
  14. Have they ever fished for compliments?
  15. Have you ever asked them to leave a social event with you before it was finished and they’ve done so?
  16. Have they ever put themselves out for you at your request, such as travelling a long way to see you or stopping their work to help you?
  17. Do they continue to be a loyal friend after you treat them badly?
  18. Do they act a bit uptight or go quiet when you say you’ve got a date or an admirer?
  19. Do they remain as keen a friend when you’re away from them (e.g. on holiday or a work trip)?
  20. Do they prefer to see you on your own rather than in a group?

As yet, there’s no scientific basis for quantifying the likelihood of them fancying you, but I reckon if you’ve got more than say 8 answers of “Yes” then you may need to start monitoring things more carefully, or seeing and contacting them less often. More than 14 and you’re in trouble!

Rebuff the mini-advances

Manuel won’t suddenly jump on Katy. But he might carry out subtle tests like the ones above. So she could make sure she’s not giving out the wrong messages at this low level. Katy told me: “I recently told Manuel I’d had to go out in my dressing gown recently to ask some neighbours to keep the noise down. He joked about how that must’ve been a nice treat for them. I had a feeling he might be testing the ground to see if I was interested, so I made sure I didn’t respond to this compliment, so he would know I wasn’t interested. It was a really good way for us both to communicate with each other in a way that didn’t create any awkwardness.”

The need to prioritise: Accept that you have a limited amount of friendship time

Given that we have a limit on the number of friendships we can maintain, it makes sense to plan how much time we’re willing to invest in our relationship as well as our existing friendships, and adding in extra friends can only come at the expense of existing ones. Dunbar’s research[7] shows that a relationship costs us two close friends from our inner circle of five.  (These friends get pushed out to the next layer of our 15 closest friends, by the way. They don’t get sacrificed completely.) Katy might need to adjust her social calendar a little now she’s moving into a relationship.

Should Manuel tell Katy he is attracted to her?

I found this comment from a client interesting: “I didn’t find her attractive UNTIL I found out she had a crush on me. Finding out a young woman thinks everything you do is wonderful, is almost irresistible, even if you’re in a relationship.” Manuel may get to the stage where he feels he HAS to tell Katy. But by telling her, Manuel could be artificially creating something between them that didn’t exist, which won’t necessarily last. If he doesn’t want to risk the friendship, he shouldn’t tell her. Instead, he should try seeing less of Katy and just seeing her in a group to help himself get over his crush. He should also make sure he has enough other friends and interests to distract and stimulate himself.

What if one or both friends are in relationships?

In a survey of US undergraduates by Hart (2016),[8] participants were asked how comfortable they would feel with their partner having a new cross-gender friend. They were given a 9-point scale (1 = not at all uncomfortable to 9 = extremely uncomfortable). The mean response was 5.39[9], with no difference between male and female, meaning that participants were only very slightly uncomfortable.

In my UK survey of all ages, participants were asked:

Imagine you are in a committed heterosexual relationship. How would you feel about your partner seeing people of the opposite gender alone, as a friend (e.g. for coffee, a trip to the theatre, or a drink, etc)? Assume your partner tells you in advance and it’s not a work-related activity.

Only a small minority would be uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with this, or suspect ulterior motives. Most were comfortable or very comfortable.

Figure 3 Blog 2 Friends
Participants in my survey commented on the social acceptability of having cross-gender friends while in a relationship, particularly for women:

“Quite a few women will have one man – sometimes an ex – who they meet up with occasionally.”

“The idea that my women friends would stop seeing me because their boyfriend disapproves is a total joke.”

“No modern boyfriend stops their girlfriend from seeing me …. Only the male chauvinist ones.”

If Manuel were in a good relationship and his partner was OK with it, his friendship with Katy might be less likely to lead to problems than when he is single, when he has more time to think about and spend with Katy. But there would always be the risk that his relationship isn’t meeting his needs, and that their friendship becomes a symbol an alternative that appears to meet those needs. Research shows that we are more likely to pursue opportunities for new relationships when we are dissatisfied with our current relationship.[10] Katy should also beware of attraction developing at a later stage when her new relationship becomes less exciting and novel.

What if there definitely IS attraction in the cross-gender friendship?

As we saw above, cross-gender friendships can contain an element of attraction which can pose a risk when we’re in a relationship. So although we might feel comfortable in general with our partner having cross-gender friends, what about when we know the friend is attracted to our partner?

In my survey, participants were asked to “Imagine your partner being alone (but in a public place) with someone that was attracted to them”.

More people were comfortable than uncomfortable about this, but there was a significant difference between male and female responses: males are more likely to be comfortable, and females uncomfortable[11].

Figure 4 Blog 2 Friends

So what could explain this gender difference? Perhaps males trust their female partners more. Women are often more used to rebuffing unwanted advances from men.[12]

One client, Tracy, told me: “I became friends with a couple, but especially the guy, and hung out with him loads and had a really fun time. We saw each other several times a month, with our children. I really enjoyed my friendship because I thought it was safe, that nothing could happen. He talked about problems in his relationship, which I now see is a warning sign. I thought of it as him getting the female perspective. Then he said he’d fallen in love with me, and then their marriage had been on the rocks for ages. I wasn’t interested at all. I was horrified and felt guilty. After that, I decided I wouldn’t be friends with men who were in a relationship, because I felt that I’d caused pain for his wife, and trouble for their marriage. He did eventually end up going off with another woman which made me feel much better. I realised it was nothing to do with me. I am now much warier of men, especially those in relationships.”

Another client, Jo, said: “The friendship highlights the contrast between someone who knows all your faults and someone who thinks you’re perfect.” Of course it’s nice to imagine you’re perfect, and so the friendship can be a place of solace to escape dealing with the faults your partner so helpfully and regularly reminds you of. We should also be aware that if we are the one thinking someone else is perfect – compared to our existing partner – it’s almost definitely an illusion, a projection of our unmet needs. Our response to this should be to take time to think about what we really want from a relationship, and whether there are ways our existing partner (or same-gender friends) can meet those needs if we communicate them.

Does the length of time you’ve been friends make a difference?

Several participants suggested that if you’d known the person a long time, it was less likely to lead to problems than if you’d just met them. This could be because you’ve moved beyond the “do we fancy each other?” stage, got to know each other’s neuroses and annoying habits, and seen each other through times of being single as well as in relationships. This can be seen as less threatening to a partner too.

Aisha has a number of close male friends that her partner is happy with her seeing alone. But as time goes on, Aisha finds that her male friends that now have partners see her less often, and as part of a couple rather than alone. “They don’t need to make the effort to organise their social life now they’re in a couple, and often the female partner will arrange their social engagements.”

Two participants said it wouldn’t be acceptable to say to a partner “I’ve just made a new (cross-gender) friend and we’ve just spent the day together!” So the fact that Katy has only recently become friends with Manuel may be less palatable to her boyfriend.

However, as we saw earlier, in Hart et al (2016) above, both men and women were only slightly uncomfortable with their partner making a new cross-gender friend.

What about if you’ve met on a dating site and become friends?

35% of those who had used a dating site in my survey said they had become genuine friends with someone they had met on a dating site. Roughly twice as many men had made a friend as women. Many sites provide options for you to select to communicate your reasons for being on a dating site, and one of them is to make friends. Often after one date you will know that there is no romantic spark, but you get on really well, and so before things go any further, it is possible to ask if you can be friends. It may or may not work, depending on whether the other person is able to accept that. But a friendship with an ex-date shouldn’t necessarily be a threat to a partner.

Should we trust our partner when they are human?

Some participants in my survey said it was a matter of trust, that if your partner trusted you it should be OK to be friends with anyone you like. However, others argued this was too idealistic and it should be OK to ask, light-heartedly, “Are you sure you’re not going to be tempted?” and say “As long as you’re sure this won’t affect our relationship”. Giving our partners freedom and respecting their judgment is very important, and this won’t work if you have shown other signs of not trusting their judgment or being controlling. The historical context surrounding a discussion like this in a relationship is vital to how it will be received.

So, yes, it’s good to be friends, especially if:

  • You clarify what you want, and make jokey comments about it occasionally to reinforce the message
  • You regularly re-evaluate to make sure it’s still platonic
  • You don’t respond to mini advances or flirting
  • You’ve got past that initial novelty stage in a new friendship and are familiar with each other’s foibles
  • You avoid spending too much time alone together, and spend time in a group sometimes
  • You limit sharing of intimate stuff when you’re alone, and don’t moan about your partner to them
  • You avoid going to places with romantic connotations too often
  • You tell your partner about them and introduce them
  • You talk about your partner in a positive way with them, rather than acting as if they don’t exist
  • You regularly weigh the costs and benefits

If Katy values her relationship, she’ll make sure she’s working hard at that. She needs to keep watering the plant to keep it alive. Manuel, as a single man, should make sure he has lots of friends of both genders so that one doesn’t become too important. They may find they have to work a bit harder at first to get things back to purely platonic. But it can be done. Then their friendship will be fun – but not too much fun!

Man and woman meet in a group rather than alone. 

Further reading

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201304/can-men-and-women-be-just-friends

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201302/avoiding-the-friend-zone-becoming-girlfriend-or-boyfriend

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/11808227/Are-men-incapable-of-having-platonic-relationships-with-women.html

Sample demographics for Facebook survey

Relationship status:

Figure 5 Blog 2 Friends

There were no significant differences in relationship status between male and female participants.

Figure 6 Blog 2 Friends

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] However, a recent study shows that the phenomenon of men overestimating women’s sexual intentions can be eliminated, by asking for a report on the other’s intention before reporting their own. Otherwise, both men and women underreport their own intentions. 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.

[4] Moreland, R. L., & Zajonc, R. B. (1982). Exposure effects in person perception: Familiarity, similarity, and attraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(5), 395-415.

[5] Störmer, V. S., & Alvarez, G. A. (2016). Attention Alters Perceived Attractiveness. Psychological Science, 27(4), 563-571.

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

[7] Sutcliffe, A., Dunbar, R., Binder, J., & Arrow, H. (2012). Relationships and the social brain: integrating psychological and evolutionary perspectives. British Journal of Psychology, 103, 149-168.

[8] 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.

[9] SD = 2.17

[10] O’Farrell, K. J., Rosenthal, E. N., & O’Neal, E. C. (2003). Relationship satisfaction and responsiveness to nonmates’ flirtation: Testing an evolutionary explanation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20(5), 663–674.

[11]  p<0.05

[12] The results above might seem to conflict with data presented earlier from my survey showing that a majority agree with the statement “People are often attracted to others but are able to keep this in the background and be genuine friends with them”. This is probably because that earlier statement is more abstract – and is not explicitly applied to them and their partner – than imagining something more specific with their partner. And it doesn’t specifically ask about how they feel.

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