Harry: . . . no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail them too.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Friendship is regarded as one of the pillars in that personify the human experience. As a social animal, the ability to form connections with one another, in any context, is uniquely human and is attributed to the social strata that help define who each individual is as a person. Contrary to many other types of relationships within society, a friendship is completely voluntary, accommodating relationship that involves fluctuating degrees of mutual care, support, affection, and intimacy. In other words, humans define themselves relationally; social groups more-or-less define who people are. Nevertheless, friendships are also an integral factor in supporting a satisfying romantic relationship. They are also touted as the hallmark of long-term marriages and couplings, insinuating that friendships in and of themselves perform a vital role in the machination of a consummate relationship. Despite this, little is actually clarified or quantified about whether romantic relationships can stem from the pillar of friendship, especially in today’s postmodern age.
Society has evolved throughout the course of time, unearthing new motivations to seek intimate relationships through the advent of technology. This emergent sociocultural change has complicated, rather than simplified, society’s ability to understand romantic relationships. With this impending reality, it has become apparent that romantic relations are so complex that attachment theory and evolutionary psychology cannot fully account for their many facets (Fraley & Shaver, 2000). Thus, the various theories proposed regarding the construct of intimate relationships may be outdated, or at the very least, need to account for the format in which people traverse the relationship spectrum today. The introduction and conquest of social networking has exponentially broadened the scope of social grouping, leaving individuals with the opportunity to make many connections that they would otherwise neglect. Consequently, it can be assumed that adolescents and young adults have begun to seek a friendship style of heterosexual romantic relationships as one of the more prevalent modes of coupling today. In 1996, Berscheid and Meyers found nearly three quarters of the participants in their study associated their romantic partners that they are in love with as also being their friends. Despite this notion, this finding and others that produced similar results do not address the quandary of whether friends can make the transition into becoming lovers. Firstly, it is fair to address the concept of sexual attraction amongst friends to provide an overlook into intimacy that can be resultant from friendship.
The notion of friendship amongst heterosexual men and women in the relative past was generally considered inaccessible and fundamentally unfeasible. According to a study from the 1950s, the percentage of men reporting having a friendly relationship with women was insignificant, due to the cultural standards and norms of the time (Halatsis & Christakis, 2009). However, during the last few decades, the notion of friendships amongst men and women has merely become a formality as women have entered the workplace and cultural standards have progressed. With the advent of deep friendships amongst men and women becoming more and more commonplace, naturally, it would give rise to the possibility of sexual attraction. In Halatsis and Christakis’ study, this very conundrum was the basis of their research, which encompassed both quantitative and qualitative methods. Through the qualitative portion of their research, the researchers interviewed a plethora of Greek participants on their views about sexual attraction amongst friends and discovered that sexual attraction may begin to arise at any point within a friendship, either because of the intimacy that develops throughout the course of the friendship or because of the situational circumstances that they may be in at the time (Halatsis & Christakis, 2009). This phenomenon is not uncommon either: over half of the participants (57.3%) in the study reported that they have been sexually attracted to a friend of the other sex (Halatsis & Christakis, 2009). In light of this statistic, it is imperative to grasp an idea of how friends of the opposite sex cope and maintain their friendships once having realized that there is attraction.
Friendships can operate as a significant source of support, camaraderie, and happiness. Nevertheless, friends often take each other for granted; friendships are oft seen as fragile because there is no true inherent social pressure to deter friends from maintaining or furthering their relationships. Friends can separate for months, or even years at a time, and it would not nearly be as devastating as that of an intimate, romantic relationship. But when attraction amongst friends is in the picture, maintenance of that friendship can become a difficult concept to grasp. As cross-sex friends often do not even ponder the notion of maintenance amongst each other, once attraction is brought into the picture, there are other implications that suddenly must be accounted for. In Laura Guerrero and Alana Chavez’s 2005 study on maintenance behavior amongst cross-sex friends, it was discovered that relational maintenance depended on whether it was disclosed that the friends were attracted to one another. Individuals who were friends and believed that there was a mutual attraction between them reported a high level of relational maintenance, which leads to a notion of romantic intent that would otherwise be missing (Guerrero & Chavez, 2005). This suggests that these cross-sex friends exhibit emotional support, contact each other routinely, and flirt with one another, which are certainly uncharacteristic of a normal friendship. On the other hand, it can be argued that there are individuals who are attracted to their friend of the opposite sex, but are unable to voice it, and can subsequently doubt whether the attraction is mutual. Thus, would lead to a notion of uncertainty. In this study, though, none of the individuals characterized their friendships with a cross-sex individual as being uncertain because these individuals were able to converse with one another about whether a friendship between them and an other-sex friend would be regarded as platonic or more romantic because the inherent nature of friendship inspires a willingness to communicate (Guerrero & Chavez, 2005). Intimate cross-sex friends can present an issue to already established relationships, though.
As stated earlier, the concept of cross-sex friendships is a relatively novel occurrence in the scope of human history. One of the more robust principles within humankind, though, is the notion of reproduction. In humans, as is the case throughout much of the animal kingdom, males are biologically hardwired to engage a myriad of females for the sake of producing offspring, spreading the scope of their genes onto the next generation. Nevertheless, females invest far more in offspring than males do, with the commitment of carrying the child and going through the labor process, meaning that they have the most to lose when selecting a sexual partner. In contrast, males have relatively little to lose and much to gain from this evolutionary standpoint. Pulling this very concept into today’s society, though, its message is essentially the same: men are more readily attracted to women, especially friends, and will continue to strive for their attention, even if they may be in a relationship. A plethora of studies have articulated that men have a greater sexual attraction to their cross-sex friends than women do (Bleske-Rechek, et al., 2012). But this data may not explain the entire story; young women are generally less inclined than men to admit attraction to a cross-sex friend, and they often tend to report less desire and attraction when they are already in a committed relationship. The surprising finding in this study, though, is the likelihood that being attracted to a cross-sex friend is costly because it directly interferes with a woman’s current relationship (Bleske-Rechek, et al., 2012). Bleske-Rechek and her colleagues found that feelings of attraction for an opposite sex friend were directly tied to lower levels of satisfaction with one’s current romantic partner. And as implicated previously, friendships often disclose much more information than many partners in romantic relationships do because of a friendship’s inherent quality of communication, which some romantic relationships tend to lack. Naturally, when the evolutionary nature of humankind is put into consideration here, the concept of mate poaching becomes increasingly more evident. Friends that have implicated interest, or attraction, have the capability of tarnishing an existing relationship and may even take over entirely, as the benefits for men are incentivized, with little to no costs (Davies, Shackelford, & Hass, 2010). Men experience the benefit of an ego boost by “winning the girl”, experience reproductive benefits, and gain a romantic and sexual partner as a result of the ‘poach’ (Davies, Shackelford, & Hass, 2010). This represents a minority of romantic relationships resulting from friendships; it is the exception, not the rule.
Just as romantic relationships can often be a confusing process that provokes subsequent inquiry, cross-sex friendships that exhibit attraction can operate in the same way. Akin to a romantic relationship, romantic desire in friendships are correlated with utilizing maintenance behaviors such as “talking openly about the friendship, initiating phone calls, talking about the quality of the relationship, and visiting each other at home” (Weger Jr. & Emmett, 2009). In other words, these would be referred to as routine relationship activities, which both romantic partners and friends utilize. In general, though, friends who have the desire to make the transition towards romance seek out routine relationship activities at a greater rate, as well as pursuing other opportunities for interaction with their cross-sex friend (Weger Jr. & Emmett, 2009). In addition, acting encouragingly in each other’s presence and spending more time together may signal interest in furthering the relationship towards romance and can even reflect the degree to which a friend may be able to perceive their cross-sex friend as a romantic partner. However, the notion of friends becoming romantic partners is two-fold: it can either develop over time into a romantic relationship or can remain strictly platonic. Friends who have the desire to simply remain platonic report spending less time and energy overall in preserving their cross-sex friendships than those who desire a romantic relationship, even if they are attracted to one another (Weger Jr. & Emmett, 2009). Despite this, it is implicated that once platonic friends often operate as “rebounds”, sexual or emotional partners, and even new romantic partners when a current romantic relationship goes awry (Weger Jr. & Emmett, 2009). Thus, men and women can manage as friends, but when both are attracted to one another and in an intimate friendship, more often than not, it can contribute to much more.
Although men and women like to think that they distance themselves from each other because of the different motivations they have with regards to friendship, as they had began to open themselves to the possibility of cross-sex friendship, there is an inherent contention with the entire issue that underlies the definition of relationship. A relationship can often be sought as a unique, intimate bond amongst two people, and more often than not, the friendship inspires motivations of attraction as they become more intimate over time (Weger Jr. & Emmett, 2009). Especially amongst similarly minded and similarly attractive individuals, sexual attraction is generally considered inevitable and can be a challenge to cross-sex friendships when a current romantic relationship is also in the picture (Halatsis & Christakis, 2009). Sexual attraction is an complicated element that comes to light in many cross-sex relationships and must be accounted for in a number of ways. When experienced, some individuals attempted to suppress the feelings of attraction they had for one another, but contrary to this gloomy view, most friendships where attraction emerged did not end. Rather, many friendships that involved attraction came to fruition and evolved into romantic relationships (Halatsis & Christakis, 2009). As explicated in the research, and just as Harry mentioned to Sally, men and women can be friends, but when attraction has emerged in a friendship, they can be lovers, too.