can men and women be friends

The Verdict: Can Men and Women Be Close Friends?

This is a question I am asked somewhat frequently:  Can men and women be just friends? And the answer is always somewhat unsatisfying because as much as we long for a clear-cut yes or no, we all know that the answer is more like "Yes, but...."

The age old question: Can men and women be just friends?

The Research on Cross-Gender Friendships

We have our own personal stories that count as evidence for most of us:  If our best friend is a guy then we cheer on others, convinced they can enjoy these friendships, too; but if we've had a friendship end after awkward confessions of love or after one gets married then we seem convicted to whisper caution.

And the experts and research seem just as mixed.  I've been following the studies, the experts, and the opinion pieces for quite some time now-- and while everyone seems to agree that the answer isn't anywhere close to "No, these friendship never work," neither is the evidence causing a resounding "Yes these friendships are for everyone!"

Here are my cliff notes:

  • Yes, of course it's possible be friends with the opposite sex.  If we practice the three requirements of friendship-- positivity, consistency, and vulnerability (from Frientimacy) --with anyone, we will become friends with them, regardless of gender.  The more we do those three things-- the closer we'll feel to someone.
  • Yes, sexual attraction is an issue when our friends are of the same gender we also want to date. A big study in 2012 showed that in the majority of platonic friendships, there was usually sexual attraction present.  This was especially true from the men who were more likely to not only be attracted to their female friends, but also to assume those friends were attracted to them. There are countless stories of "friends" having to decide at some point whether to "risk" their friendship to see if there is "more," and just as many stories of friendships drifting apart once one of the individuals pairs up romantically with someone else. The relationships where there was no reported attraction do seem to last longer, and lack of sexual chemistry (or competition) is credited with the bonds that happen between gay men and women, and vice-versa.
  • Just because there is risk doesn't automatically mean it's to be avoided. All relationships require some risk. Furthermore, we build friendships with heightened risks all the time even in our female friendships:
    • Friendships in the workplace are crucial to our happiness even if we do need to be extra mindful of possible hazards.
    • Friendships in temporary locations (while on vacation, traveling for work, or in a summer-away program) will contribute to our joy in those places, even if we know it makes saying good-bye more difficult.
    • Getting to know the friends of our friends is meaningful to helping create a feeling of community or tribe, even if it does increase the chances of someone feeling left-out.

We don't need to avoid risks, we just need to be mindful and form friendships with as many healthy behaviors and appropriate boundaries as needed to help protect the friendship.

  • However, the deeper the friendship, the greater the need for honest awareness. There is a big range of depth and intimacy between the guys we are friendly with at work or those who are in our social circles versus those we are calling to confide in regularly and would consider to be one of our best friends. Most of us would agree that the more meaningful the friendship (read: vulnerable and reliable) the more need there is for honest communication and self-awareness as there is also greater potential for some confusing boundaries at some point, either between the two of us and/or from our current or future romantic partners.

Be honest with yourself as you reflect on the friendship, or the potential friendship.  The more self-aware we can be, the more growth we can experience and the healthier our expectations can be in all our relationships.

Reflection Questions For Personal Awareness

  • What is the level of friendship (maybe on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most meaningful, deep, vulnerable, committed) that I am comfortable forming with a guy/this guy? Based on that, what boundaries might I need to set for myself or expectations I might need to shift?
  • What are my honest feelings about the physical attraction between us? Is is important to me to not ever act on those feelings or am I secretly hoping/open to exploring that?  Would it feel safer to me if we could get beyond that attraction or is it the attraction that keeps the relationship compelling to me?
  • Even if I'm clear that I want him as a friend only, am I okay with his feelings be the same or is part of my enjoyment from knowing he likes me? In other words, if he falls head over heels with someone else, will this friendship still be meaningful to me to maintain?
  • Even if we're just friends, is this friendship limiting me in any way from dating others?  Is the friendship supporting me in my goals to find a romantic partner or is subtly, or blatantly, discouraging me from pursuing that desire?
  • Are there aspects of our friendship that would need to change or shift, in any way, if either of us got seriously involved with someone else?
  • If I'm romantically involved with someone else, am I clear what they each provide me and comfortable with the differences and boundaries of each relationship?  (One study showed that the more attractive we find our friend, the less satisfied we may feel with our romantic partner.)
  • Am I friends with guys because I'm uncomfortable being friends with women?  If so, why is that? Is that how I want it? What am I gaining/losing by that belief?

Bottom-line: Our lives can be enhanced from all types of relationships.  Our goal isn't to limit what type of love and community we can create in our lives, but rather to do so in the ways that feel the healthiest and more supportive possible. How close we each are comfortable developing cross-gender friendships will depend on a variety of personal circumstances, our ability to engage in honest conversations, our needs outside our romances, the risks we're willing to take, the opportunities that present themselves, and the motivations we're willing to examine.

Indeed, it's a question that simply has no clean and comprehensive answer other than the unsatisfying, gray, and messy answer of "Yes, but...." that we each have to wrestle with for ourselves.

What has been your experience? What tips would you give? On a scale of 1-10, what level of friendship are you comfortable developing with a man?

Want more on the subject?  Medical Daily wrote up a great round-up that highlights a lot of the studies and weaves in some great expert advice!

Friendships Don't Just Happen - for Guy Friends

From Shasta:  I've long-held that most men crave more meaningful friendships and while I don't have the same expertise and experience in teaching men as I do to women (that won't stop me from trying though! ha!) I have been long interviewing men about their friendships because I think there is a lot there that we aren't yet talking about, and need to be.

Greg Tjosvold has preferred friendship with women much of his life but is grateful to be exploring meaningful friendships with men now.

One of the men whose opinions and experiences on this subject has impressed me greatly is Greg Tjosvold, a middle-school teacher, husband, father, and author living outside of Vancouver, Canada.

Greg's story is poignant... as he comes to have faith in other men wanting and willing to grow in closer friendship with each other.  I hope that as we keep modeling men having deeper friendships and giving more permission (as a culture) to men to get together to talk and share life (without sports being the only acceptable excuse) that we will see that frientimacy is something that enhances all of our lives, regardless of our gender.

Huge thanks Greg for sharing the story of the Barley Brethren with us!  :)  Love it!

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Friendships Don't Just Happen - for Guy Friends

by Greg Tjosvold

He stopped trying to shove my head in the toilet when I started to cry. Grade 8 boys weren’t supposed to cry, but it worked.

Most of my interactions with guys have been like that. Until I was 14, I was very small for my age. I was an easy target for wannabe bullies trying to establish themselves. I was not athletic, so I was always picked last, if picked at all. And if I was on the team, invariably the captain would call me out in front of my peers for my less than stellar play. Being small gave others the chance to be “big.”

As a teen, I didn’t drink, tinker with cars, or “chase tail” - the favorite activities of most of the guys I knew in my small Canadian logging town. I was attracted to solo adventures like fly-fishing and astronomy. Those were safe for me. And so were girls.

My best friends have always been women.

In school, the girls I hung out with never attempted to give me a “swirly.” In fact they told off people who tried. I was always included by my amazing girl cousins whom my family visited frequently. My best friend in high school, a wonderful young woman of Japanese heritage, always kept a seat free and a meaningful conversation ready for me on the bus ride home. I played flute in band, but rather than shunning me, the cool girls in the band, the “Fearsome Five-some” I called them, made time for me. Girls were there for me; guys were not.

Things have not really changed much for me as an adult; by comfort and profession, I am still surrounded by women. My wife is my absolute best friend and soul mate. My BFF is a former teaching partner; I was her “man of honor.” As a teacher in the lower grades, I once found myself working in a building where everyone other than me, from janitor to principal, was a woman. And I was OK with that. I still feel safest in my female connections.

So I was as shocked as anyone when I said yes to an invitation from a colleague to join the founding chapter of “The Barley Brethren.” I am the rebel seventh – the lone non-drinker in a group of men coming together each week to share each other’s journeys over a six-pack of quality craft beer. For the first time in my life I am hanging out with guys and enjoying it.

What happened? This new adventure, this new friendship experiment, is a happy byproduct of navel-gazing, need, and Shasta.

Navel-gazing

As I approached my 50th birthday, I became very self-reflective. One of my realizations? That it is hard being a married, middle-aged man with female friends. On more than one occasion an outside observer has assumed I’ve been up to something. Or that I’m gay. Sometimes, I just don’t fit in with my friend’s activities (e.g. having a guy at a bachelorette party is lame!). Still other times, my offered friendship has left the other person's spouse feeling threatened and jealous. I’ve even had people tell me outright that married men should not have close female friends. Period.

All of these things do not just affect me; they also affect any potential female friend. While I have to believe that I'm worth it, it is a special lady indeed who is willing to take on such a challenging friendship. In light of that realization, I started to toy with the notion that, if I was going to need a new friend, it might be better (albeit scarier) if that person was male.

Need

It turns out that I did find myself needing new friends. My best friend and teaching partner moved to the other side of the continent (following her husband's employment) and I had a rather painful falling out with another very good friend at nearly the same time. The full weight of my needs for companionship and camaraderie all of a sudden fell almost exclusively on my wife's shoulders.

Shasta

Fortunately, in the midst of all of this, I came across Shasta Nelson, friendship expert, via Twitter. While her company and mission, girlfriendcircles.com, wouldn't be any help to me, her book, "Friendships don't just happen!" was a timely godsend. So much of the book resonated with me, especially:

  1. Friendships come and go. Shasta references research that shows we are now replacing about half of our friends every seven years. It was reassuring to know that what I was going through was not unusual. It's hard on the ego to admit you need new friends.
  2. There are different types of friends. For many people, I suppose Shasta's five Circles of Connectedness are largely self-evident. However, for me, it was life-changing revelation. As someone who had very few friends growing up, I just assumed that the very definition of friend was someone who was a BFF - a "committed friend" per Shasta's terminology. I distinctly remember times in my life when the phrase "Everybody's pal, nobody's friend" hung over me like a black cloud of loneliness and unworthiness. I had never really considered the importance of my "left side" friends on the continuum - how they can be the seeds of deeper friendship and who are no less important to a rich life of connection all on their own.
  3. Friendships don't just happen. I spent most of my life with the unspoken assumption that people just connected or they didn't. The book challenged me to look back at the best friendships I had in my life and understand that they were the byproduct of gradual progression. More importantly, it made it clear to me that this progression was something that could be replicated; that I could start with "contact friends" and, given time, consistency and gradually increasing intimacy, there was hope I might be able to move friends from the left side of the friendship continuum to the right.

Enter the Barley Brethren

Retired school principal Phil Ballard started the Barley Brethren to a meet a perceived need; the need for men to have the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way.

Per his early notes, he envisioned the Barley Brethren as a "club of like-minded gentlemen in search of spiritual coherence. Membership in the Double B would involve a commitment to become a connoisseur of quality craft beer and would require the sharing of 'cicerone' duties for the weekly gathering. While quaffing their favorite brew, the brothers would discover meaning for their own lives while sharing in each other’s journeys. Meetings would be convened on the “MV Kairos,” a 45 ft. motor yacht."

While we couldn't come across any group photo-- this is supposedly Phil's hand holding one of the lucky beers.  Ha!

The concept of bros and booze in a man-cave should've sent me running, given my history. However, my desire to establish male friendships and the concepts in Shasta's book give me a framework for courage.

My BFF had moved (my committed friend would soon become a confirmed friend), so when a respected colleague (a "contact friend" worth investing in) asked if I was interested in joining a group planning to meet weekly (ingredient: consistency) to learn about beer ("common friends") and discuss life (ingredient: intimacy), what might have looked scary before, I now recognized as the perfect recipe for developing friendship. The fact that founding father Phil was a "confirmed friend" with whom I had lost touch over the years seemed serendipitous.

Note from Shasta: Greg, Gold stars for making the real life application to the concepts!  Love it!

Each week during the school year we meet.

Beer pours at 7:30 sharp. We spend time reviewing the beer, its history, and its characteristics. As a non-drinker, but a life-long learner, it has been fascinating learning the terminology of surrounding craft beer. I also know what sort of beer to bring to a gathering if I am asked.

The rest of the evening is a little less structured. In theory there is a go to study we listen to or read, but just as often as we just talk about what needs to be talked about. We talk, laugh, and yes, even cry about the things that are affecting our lives. Marriage, children, death, illness, work, retirement, faith... we all bring different perspectives and wisdom to what is important in the moment.

The Barley Brethren have been meeting for two years now... at least our first group. Somewhat ironically, the friend who initially invited me became the leader of a second group when the success of the idea and the need to open the concept up to more members became self-evident. (I see this friend outside the group now though.) For the first time in my life, I am hanging out with men on a regular basis. I still have my uncomfortable flashback moments... I'm overly sensitive to teasing about my beer selections, for instance... but I am so thankful for the growing friendships in the group built on vulnerability and sharing that, frankly, I didn't believe was possible among men.

Apparently friendships don't just happen. It's an important concept for guys too.

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While "just a group of guys," for more information, there is a site under construction: http://www.barleybrethren.com, they are on Twitter @barleybrethren, and here's their un-official theme song that sort of encapsulates the Barley Brethren: Brother, by Need To Breathe.  :)

From Shasta: Bravo guys!  Well done!  May your willingness to engage be contagious! :)