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Last year, I wrote a column to Caixin weekly for reference:

There are tens of millions of friendships in the world, and the most complicated one is the friendship between the opposite sex. Many people may have experienced this tangled feeling:

your boyfriend/girlfriend has a so-called “red face confidant” or “blue confidant”, like a shadow, which is covered in your relationship; You try to convince yourself that there is no need to doubt that they are indeed pure friendship, but they will inevitably mutter at the bottom of your heart: is there really nothing else?

“Can men and women be just friends”

What is heterosexual friendship? 

Looking back on the history of human civilization, heterosexual friendship is actually a new thing. In most of history, due to the solidification of gender roles and inequality of the status of men and women, there is no soil for the birth of heterosexual friendship. Only in recent decades can equal friendship between men and women become a possibility.

Some scholars summarized four main modes of heterosexual friendship according to their own and other attitudes in the relationship

-Mutual attraction: both of them have further development interests;

-Desire Romance: I want to develop further, but the other party is not interested in it;

-Reject tolerance: I am not interested in further development, but the other party is interested.

“Can men and women be just friends”

-Strict Platonic: neither side has the meaning of further development;

Among these four modes, mutual attraction is more like a sentinel of a love relationship, and the interaction between the two sides will be more frequent; Desire and rejection are similar to what we usually call “friend-zoned”, one side is interested in falling flowers, the other side is ruthless, so we have to retreat and ask for a second, first to be friends to see; Only the last, perhaps, is a “pure” heterosexual friendship.

However, whether this platonic relationship really exists is still controversial. For example, a recent study of 418 American college students found that friendship between men and women was at least theoretically possible [2]. But if they are to estimate how many heterosexual friendships imply sexual motives, the average estimate is 63 percent – that is, in the minds of ordinary people, most of them are mixed with something not pure. Moreover, if they are asked to imagine that their partner has made a new heterosexual friend, most people will feel a little uncomfortable.

“Can men and women be just friends”

How pure is it, men and women

So, what is the actual situation? What is the proportion of “impure motivation” in the real-life heterosexual friendship? Some studies have found that there are significant gender differences in this area.

You may have guessed that in a heterosexual friendship, men are usually motivated and impure. 88 heterosexual friends were investigated in a study and asked to report on their attraction to each other and estimate the degree of attraction (9 points score) [3]. The results showed that in men, the average score of attraction was 4.94, close to the midpoint of the scale (moderate attraction); Women scored only 3.94. In addition, men overestimate their attractiveness in the other’s eyes (4.54 points from their own), while women underestimate their attractiveness in the other’s eyes (4.24). What’s more interesting is that women’s thoughts are influenced by the love situation of both sides: whether they have a boyfriend or have a girlfriend, their interest in heterosexual friends will drop significantly. On the contrary, for men, whether they have a girlfriend or the other party has a famous flower owner, they will not reduce their interest in heterosexual friends.

This result is very consistent with the theory of mating strategy in evolutionary psychology. Due to the natural differences in physiology, men and women have formed different mating strategies in the evolution of tens of millions of years. The male strategy is to “spread the net” and mate with different heterosexuals as much as possible to improve the probability of their genes being transmitted. The strategy of women is to find a reliable partner and raise their offspring together. Therefore, they are more critical in choosing a spouse and less willing to accept short-term mate selection. This gender difference can explain why the two sexes have different performances in heterosexual friendships.

Challenges to maintaining a heterosexual friendship

No matter what reason people enter a heterosexual friendship, it will be a hard road. If we want to maintain this relationship for a long time, we need to deal with the challenges from both internal and external aspects [4].

First, how to define such a relationship between two people within the relationship. As mentioned above, attraction is an unavoidable topic in heterosexual friendship. Even if this relationship is not originated from the love interest, we meet a person who is appreciated and worthy of making friends, just as well as the opposite sex. In repeated contact, there will inevitably be a dark feeling. This interest may be both physiological and emotional, and in more cases both.

Once this happens, the relationship enters into an uncertain state. It is not until one party showcases in one direction and the other side, it collapses into one of many possibilities: maybe it is upgraded to a love relationship, or it may maintain the status quo, or add sexual scores to the existing relationship, maybe one beat and two scattered. The relationship will go to depends on many factors, and it can not be generalized; It can be determined that only when the two sides reach a new consensus on the nature and boundary of the relationship, can they return to a stable state.

Apart from the challenges within the relationship, heterosexual friendship also bears external pressure. Even if two people really believe that this is a pure friendship, it is not easy to persuade others that “there is nothing really”. The power of external public opinion may also push the relationship into various directions: it may be that people are afraid of words and gradually reduce communication; Maybe to avoid gossip, into underground activities; Or maybe simply push the boat, fake the truth.

In a word, the opposite sex friendship is in a delicate balance state, asking whether a friendship between the opposite sex is “pure” may be futile; Like any other relationship, the reality is far more complex than a label. However, heterosexual friendship does bring some benefits, such as helping us understand another gender idea, providing special emotional support, etc. Whether these benefits are worth our efforts and endure the difficulties and dangers on the road is a matter of opinion.


[1] Guerrero, L. K., & Chavez, A. M. (2005). Relational maintenance in cross‐sex friendships characterized by different types of romantic intent: An exploratory study. Western Journal of Communication, 69(4), 339-358.

[2] Hart, W., Adams, J., & Tullett, A. (2015). “It’s Complicated”—Sex Differences in Perceptions of Cross-Sex Friendships. The Journal of social psychology, 1-12.

[3] 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.

[4] O’Meara, J. D. (1989). Cross-sex friendships: Four basic challenges of an ignored relationship. Sex Roles, 21, 525-543.

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