“Every platonic friend I got is some woman I was trying to ****, I made a wrong turn somewhere, and ended up in the friend zone. ‘Oh no, I’m in the friend zone!'” Chris Rock.
They were virtually unheard of for most of human history, but today, in many cultures, friendships between men and women are common place. Still, that niggling doubt never seems to go away – is the relationship really entirely platonic?
A new study by April Bleske-Rechek and her colleagues has investigated cross-sex friendships between heterosexual men and women through the prism of evolutionary theory. From a survey of 88 pairs of college students in cross-sex friendships (averaging two years’ duration), the researchers found that: men felt more attraction to their female friend than vice versa; that men overestimated how much their friend was attracted to them; and that men’s desire to date their female friend was unaffected by whether they (the men) were in a romantic relationship with someone else, whereas females tended to report less desire to date their male friend, if they (the women) were already in a romantic relationship. Male attraction for a female friend was undimmed by the fact their friend had a partner. By contrast women tended to report less attraction for male friends who had partners.
The participants gave their answers after being reassured they’d be kept anonymous, and after agreeing publicly with their friend not to discuss the study afterwards (I bet they stuck to that!).
The pattern of results makes sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective on mating strategies, the researchers said, whereby men have more to gain from short-term sexual encounters, whereas women, who invest more in their offspring (in terms of gestation and child-birth), are more selective.
What about the way people deal with their sexual desires for opposite-sex friends? For a second study, over a hundred heterosexual young men and women (average age 19), and an older sample of 142 men and women (average age 37), answered questions about their cross-sex friendships, including listing the costs and benefits. Among the younger sample, 38 per cent were in a (non-marital) romantic relationship; around 90 per cent of the older sample were married.
Again, the researchers said the findings made sense in terms of evolutionary theory. The older sample, most of whom were immersed in a serious long-term relationship, reported less attraction to their opposite-sex friends than the younger sample did. However, this wasn’t case for the older single people – they reported just as much attraction to their opposite-sex friends as the younger participants.
Overall, attraction to an opposite-sex friend was more often seen as a burden rather than a benefit of the friendship. Averaged across both samples, attraction was listed as a cost or complication by 32 per cent of participants – five times more often than it was listed as a benefit or enhancement. For young women, and men and women in the older sample, more attraction to their closest friend was associated with feeling less satisfied with their romantic partner.
Zooming in on gender differences, men more often than women, listed attraction to their female friends as a benefit of the friendship, and they were less likely than women to list it as a cost.
“Our findings offer preliminary support for the proposal that men’s and women’s experiences in cross-sex friendship reflect their evolved mating strategies,” Bleske-Rechek and her team concluded. “Attraction between cross-sex friends is common, and it is perceived more often as a burden than as a benefit.” Looking ahead, the researchers said it would be interesting to investigate attraction between homosexual same-sex friends, and whether it’s seen by them as a burden or benefit of the friendship.
Bleske-Rechek A.,, Somers, E., Micke, C., Erickson, L., Matteson, L., Stocco, C., Schumacher, B., and Ritchie, L. (2012). Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512443611
Further reading, from the New York Times: “A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?”