Friend zone: Is it possible for a heterosexual man and woman to have a purely platonic relationship?
- The notion that heterosexual men and women cannot enjoy friendships with each other due to "the sex part" speaks to an outdated and old-fashioned perspective on gender dynamics.
- It discounts the fact that friendship is a human thing, not a gender thing.
- Psychologist Adrian F Ward's research shows that "we may think we're capable of being 'just friends' with members of the opposite sex, but the perceived opportunity for 'romance' is often lurking".
In the film When Harry Met Sally, the question around whether heterosexual men and women can maintain platonic friendships is raised. At the beginning of the film, Harry asserts that it is not possible because "the sex part gets in the way" and Sally disagrees.
This discussion is explored through the film's narrative which is centred around the two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship at different phases of their lives. It ends with the protagonists marrying one another. Harry appears to have won the argument with the film's Hollywood-esque happy ending.
The film was released in 1989, when gender roles and norms were less fluid than they are today, 30 years later.
The notion that heterosexual men and women cannot enjoy friendships with each other due to "the sex part" speaks to an outdated and old-fashioned perspective on gender dynamics: that male-female interactions are only designed to be of a romantic nature. It discounts the fact that friendship is a human thing, not a gender thing.
And yet the question of desire and "the sex part" is something many opposite-sex friendships still grapple with in the 21st century.
Friendships can and do cross gender barriers successfully but the dynamics can be tricky at times. Opposite-sex friendships can lead to great confusion and heartbreak in what is commonly known as the "friend zone".
According to psychologist Adrian F Ward, research has shown that "we may think we're capable of being 'just friends' with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for 'romance' is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment".
This is a common occurrence in opposite-sex friendships, where one friend has an unspoken expectation of the friendship developing into something more - be it a casual sexual relationship or a serious romantic one.
Unspoken expectations and mismatched goals are often at the heart of the breakdown of these friendships. While one individual might be looking for a companion, another might be looking for a friends-with-benefits situation and yet another might harbour hopes that the friendship is the starting point of a romantic engagement.
Clear communication at the outset as well as at various stages of a friendship is therefore key in preventing any misunderstandings. Both individuals should be clear about what it is that the other person can offer, and whether this is enough for them.
According to Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W. Ph.D. "it is essential to communicate your desires and listen to those of others".
If the friendship lacks healthy communication, it can lead to confusion over the status of the friendship.
This confusion can be exacerbated if boundaries are crossed at any stage during the friendship. It is very easy for something sexual or emotional to develop if there is an attraction from either or both individuals.
Once this boundary has been crossed, maintaining an uncomplicated friendship becomes more challenging and can lead to jealousy, confusion and anxiety. In order for a purely platonic friendship to develop, it is essential to respect the boundaries of the relationship.
If there is an emotional or sexual connection from either side, psychologist Jeremy Nicholson suggests it might be wise to walk away.
Just like any other type of relationship, opposite-sex friendships can work with the right match.
If both individuals are clear that the relationship is purely platonic and that there are no hidden expectations, there is no reason why the friendship cannot work.
The beauty of human connections is that they are capable of crossing racial, cultural, class and gender divides.
Do you have a platonic friendship that turned into something more? Share your story with us here.