Friendship and Attraction (Part 1)

Friendship & Attraction

A couple of weeks ago, Scientific American released an article stating emphatically that men and women cannot be just friends.

Needless to say, most people are just saying that it confirms what is common knowledge. As Harry said so many years ago, “…men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

At a first glance, the Scientific American article certainly makes it appear that way. The article points to men being more attracted to their female friends, men being more likely to want to date their female friends, men overestimating how attractive their female friends find them, men see hooking up as a benefit. As someone who has a man as one of her closest friends, I was disheartened by the article. I know the truth about my relationship with Rich, but it makes it difficult to write about the beauty of cross-gender friendship when a well-respected journal says that they can’t exist.

But on further examination of the source material, I found hope. While the SA article points to some discrepancies between the way men and women view friendship, the actual study does not paint so grim a picture.

The questionnaire used a 9-point scale, for determining attraction, 1 being not at all attracted to your friend, 5 being moderately attracted, and 9 being extremely attracted. Among men, the mean was 4.94, with women coming in at 3.97.

The dating questionnaire also used a 9-point scale, 1 indicating no interest, 5 indicating neutral/unsure, and 9 indicating definitely yes. In this area, men’s self-reported desire to date their female friends was 4.55, while women reported a 4.25.

Additionally, when looking at the benefits of cross-sex friends, the top three overwhelming reasons for both men and women were: better understanding of the opposite sex, conversation/advice, companionship/shared activities.

None of these are friend-killing results.

I don’t want to brush off the differences between the way that men and women relate to one another. It is important to note that the cost/benefit numbers do show some discrepancies. And certainly men do have a tendency to be more attracted to their female friends.

However that attraction is on the low side of moderate. And the desire to date is on the low side of neutral. And what people really want from their friendships is someone to talk to and someone to do things with. Not sexual things, but boring activities like tennis or shopping or playing in a wedding cover band together.

But these benefits to friendship also indicate a desire for intimacy. Better understanding, advice, companionship – these are things that require us to give of ourselves in a relationship. Certainly they can’t be achieved simply in perfunctory interactions. They require an opening of one’s self to another and an affinity that reaches beyond superficial conversations.

We have so entangled attraction and sex with one another, that if we see even moderate attraction, we assume that the inevitable result must be a sexual encounter. It’s what leads us to make statements like, “if we all thought like men, we’d probably be facing a serious overpopulation crisis.” It’s what cause us to demand that we “guard our hearts.” It’s what makes us wary of getting too close to someone of the opposite sex, even though Jesus prayed that we all would be one in our relationships, just as he and the Father were one.

So how do we begin to disentangle attraction from sex? How do we begin to move beyond fear and see someone of the opposite sex as a close friend?  How do we stop viewing cross-sex friendships through the “When Harry Met Sally” lens and find our way to the oneness that Jesus desired?

Tomorrow we will examine these questions. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the implications of the study and how that affects your views of cross-gender friendships.


Part 2

Part 3




  • EivindKjorstad

    Journalists, ofcourse, make sensationalist headlines from modest results. If men are, on the average *slightly* more attracted to their female friends than vice versa, it’s not plausible that this would pose some kind of impossible challenge to friendship.

    Who came up with the idea that “real” friendship requires the total absence of attraction anyway ? Or that handling moderate differences in attraction is even difficult ? Yes it’s a challenge if A is madly in love with and overrunning with lust for B, while B thinks A is as attractive as a sack of potatoes, but that’s not what this study shows.

    Also, these are *averages* with such a modest difference it’ll be very common that attraction-levels balance, and also fairly common that the female is more attracted to the male than opposite, so even *if* moderate differences where a problem, (which they’re usually not!), it’d just mean that -some- male/female friendships are difficult, not that they’re *all* impossible.

    I think most of us, of either gender, has experienced some relationships where the two involved obviously had very different attraction-levels, but also MANY relationships where there where no noticeable difference at all.

    • Alise Wright

      When my husband had to remind me to use my inside voice when I was discussing this article, I realized how annoyed I was by it. The language of the SC piece was incredibly frustrating to me. If the data had shown a large gap OR if the reports of attraction were high (say even a 6 or 7 on the 9 point scale), that might be something worth discussing. But moderate attraction? Yeah, I think that’s pretty much how FRIENDSHIP works, regardless of sex.

      But that’s tomorrow’s post. ;-D Thanks for commenting!

  • Blake

    I seriously thought that was Matt Saracen in the above pic at first glance.

    • Alise Wright

      Ha! I wouldn’t usually say that about Billy Crystal, but he kinda does in this pic.

  • Jessica

    We all know there’s a potential danger. But I think you may be right that it gets blown out of proportion a lot. Especially in Hollywood. I was watching a show on Netflix recently and that’s pretty much all they did, get lonely and hook up with their best friends, even if they were already in relationships.

    • Alise Wright

      Seriously, since When Harry Met Sally, that is pretty much THE narrative. Male/female friends MUST hook up. I was really frustrated to see that SA evaluated THAT information, rather than what the study actually showed.

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