Platonic Friendships, Friends With Benefits and Relationship Complications

Tuesday, November 08, 2016 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

In relationship therapy sessions, there is often another individual in the background, underlying arguments and punctuating negative feelings: the platonic opposite sex friend. Often men and women have difficulty seeing eye to eye on this issue. 

But it isn’t their fault. It’s all part of an evolved mechanism that may lead men and women to see these relationships in very different contexts, either subconsciously or right out in the open. But without understanding those elements, it is difficult to work through them.

For the record, this is not an article about why men and women cannot be platonic friends, nor is it to say that all of these issues apply generally to all people or to all members of a gender. It is also not to imply that the issue is never flat-out jealousy. This is also not meant to address the slightly misogynistic "friend-zone" where men subtly blame women who turn them down, excaliming an outraged, "I was friend-zoned!" as opposed to the probably more accurate: "She wasn't into me because I'm not cool enough." (We're on to you, fellas. Knock it off.)

Instead, this piece should serve as a discussion aimed at understanding one reason that your partner MAY feel the way they do about your platonic friends, and an evolved reason that you might feel differently, reasons that research seems to indicate are fairly consistent with modern expectations and ideas. 

Let’s start with the actual sex and work backwards, shall we?

The Illustrious “Friends With Benefits” Relationship

Even in relationships where friends are already engaged in sexual activities, women and men have different expectations. Studies indicate that men are far more interested in the sexual aspect of the relationship and hoped that it would remain the same over time1. Women tend to cite emotional connection as a motivator, with hopes that it will evolve into a full-fledged romance, or eventually become a deep friendship without the benefits. 

However, this study did find that both parties were more committed to the friendship than to the sex1. This meshes with additional research which found that men had emotional connections to those they slept with and were not happy engaging in the stereotypical “no strings attached” relationships that are usually attributed to them2

Here’s one reason that male partners are worried: we do often want more from a man we sleep with. There is an assumption that we also want more from men that we are involved in platonic relationships with, a generalization that is usually unfounded (we’ll get to that in a minute). 

But they may also be worried because the type of man we tend to be friends with is also the type of man that we tend to mate with. 

Subconscious Drives Towards Opposite Sex Friendships

Research published in "Evolutionary Psychology" found that the type of partner one chooses for a friends with benefits connection tend to follow the lines of expected evolutionary scripts. While both sexes liked agreeableness and dependability (because who doesn’t) more women saw economic resources and physical prowess as a priority while men prioritized physical attractiveness at higher rates, suggesting that opposite sex friendships may have evolved to enhance mating functions3

This follows general guidelines for evolved mating preferences (link) discussed by David Buss in The Evolution of Desire, who notes that protection and resources would have been more beneficial to women whereas attractiveness (usually indicated by youth for reproduction) would have more valuable to men4

The other issue is that the whole “friends without benefits” may be a more recent phenomenon anyway. According to anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in Mother Nature, in ancestral times, sex was used as a means to enhance bonding among groups and individuals, from opposite sex couples to same sex relationships. And those bonds could be used to garner assistance in times of need, or if something happened to your current mate5

What’s the take away here? 

Evolution says that in times of struggle, it’s always beneficial to have a backup, just in case a tiger eats your partner. Whether we see them this way consciously or subconsciously, there may be a part of our brain that is comforted by the fact that we don’t have to look far should something happen to our current relationship. 

Okay, okay, so we may choose them because of some evolved drive to have a back up mate, but does that really matter? I mean, regardless of that mechanism, many don’t have any actual attraction to their platonic friends and have no trouble interacting on such a level. Right? 

Well, maybe. But for the most part, it seems that while women are more capable of completely platonic relationships, men may have more issues with interpreting intentions of their female friends. 

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Or, if you believe Buss, they may be primed to seek less protection and resources, and more sexual reciprocation, making them more aware of their drive to mate, either now or in the near future. 

It’s not your fault, fellas. We are pretty great. 

Conscious Differences in Platonic Friendship Expectations

According to research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, men were far more likely to be attracted to their female friends, and tended to believe that their female friends were attracted to them as well6. but the women in the study reported the opposite: that not only were they not attracted to their male friends, but they assumed that those men were not attracted to them either. In other words, both sides projected their own feelings onto their friend, an action that gave them additional security within the relationship. In addition, even attracted women reported being respectful of their male friend’s relationship and voiced no interest in asking them out, whereas men felt more strongly that they would eventually act on those feelings. 

While women may be better at being “just friends”, this may be more difficult for men in certain circumstances, particularly if boundaries are not clearly drawn. And as much as we may not want to admit that the men we see as platonic friends might be attracted to us, spouses and boyfriends tend to have some insight into this phenomenon, an issue that researchers say might affect chosen relationships negatively.  

Now to say that all men are looking at their female friends as potential lovers would be a gross overgeneralization that no one should make. Instead, this should serve as a reminder that there are statistically relevant differences int he way women and men view their friends, and that those differences may cause two people within a relationship to see the friendships of their partners as more or less threatening depending on those issues, whether it is conscious or subconscious. 

So, do women and men see opposite sex friendships differently?

Why, yes. Yes they do. 

Now, whether or not this matters is debatable, since both have to agree in order to move the relationship from one level to another. However, it may open up the door for hurt feelings if different expectations do not mesh. Clear boundaries may assist with clarifying where those lines are drawn. Clear communication with a chosen partner with full understanding of where they are coming from may also make current relationships easier.  

The tendency to see friendships differently does not mean that men and women cannot be friends. It just means that we may have a responsibility to be a little more alert, have a few additional boundaries, and be willing to explore the reasons our chosen partner may have an issue with it. 


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Topic-Relevant Resources

What Do Women Want?
An exploration of female sexuality through interviews with prominent researchers in the field, including not yet published research (at this time)

Mother Nature
Women, sex, competition, cooperative breeding and monkey heirarchies.

The Evolution of Desire
Evolutionary psychology and the history of human mating

Sex At Dawn
Exploration of modern relationships from the evolutionary perspective. Everything you ever wanted to know about male penis size.

The Anatomy of Love
An in depth look at a history of human mating. Sex, anthropology and more sex. What more could you want?