Are close, one-on-one, opposite-sex friendships a good idea?
May 6, 2010 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Are close, one-on-one, opposite-sex friendships a good idea; or is the risk of one-sided romantic feelings and other problems too great?

I was discussing this with my mom a few days ago, and she does not consider one-on-one, opposite-sex friendships to be a good idea; and she thinks this is a common view among people of her generation (she was born in the 50s). For her, any kind of male-female relationship implicitly has a romantic component for at least one party, and to think otherwise will lead to problems down the road. She also thinks opposite-sex friendships are totally inappropriate for someone in a relationship. However, she admits that younger generations like mine may not think this way.

That got me thinking. I've had one-on-one, opposite-sex friends, but I never thought much of it. Those relationships never really lasted, but usually because of other factors like someone moving, and I do recall some suppressed romantic feelings in one or two, but that's just my experience.

What does the hive mind think? Are one-on-one opposite-sex friendships things that should be avoided or be treated with a little extra caution?
posted by dogcat to Human Relations (32 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
What's a one-on-one friendship? Spending time one-on-one? Close friendships?

I think close friendships between people are good. Not all people are attracted to one another sexually or romantically. What would your mother say about bisexual people, no friendships whatsoever? It seems like a tragic decision that would limit a person's potential social circle and hurt their potential growth as a human being.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:27 PM on May 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

Some of my dearest and most valued friends are of the opposite sex, and it makes me sad to even consider how empty my life would be without them. Once in a while I've definitely had misunderstandings and romance-related problems with some of these friends, and sure, I've lost a few along the way due to such problems. But I've lost some same-sex friends along the way, too; it's not like being friends with your platonic-gender-of-choice is a guarantee against conflict. As for how your spouse or romantic partner might react, well, if you've proven yourself to be a trustworthy person and a good communicator, your significant other probably won't have too much to say about it. If you're not a good communicator or you're a habitual cheater, then those are issues that probably need to be addressed asap anyway.
Overall, I really think that having opposite-sex friendships is 100% worth the occasional hassles that crop up.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:29 PM on May 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Any situation where you're "at risk" of becoming romantically involved with someone should be treated with extra caution if that kind of relationship is something you want to avoid. That should be common sense. That said, lots of people are close platonic friends with people of the gender they're attracted to.

Practically speaking, if you're in a relationship with one girl (for example), and you're close friends with another girl, it's a really good idea to steer clear of jealousy on the part of your S.O.: Don't spend too much time alone with your friend, and be completely, totally honest with your S.O. about everything you and your friend do together. The three of you should spend plenty of time together too, to establish the non-competitive nature of the friendship and allow your S.O. a chance to also get to know your friend.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 4:33 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Asking your significant other to break off opposite-sex friendships because you're in a relationship seems as controlling and irrational as asking your wife not to have a male doctor, or therapist, or boss. "It might lead to something" isn't a valid excuse to tell someone else who they can have as friends.
posted by lore at 4:34 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I used "one-on-one" to mean you spend time together one-on-one, as opposed to only spending time together in a group setting.
posted by dogcat at 4:35 PM on May 6, 2010

Approximately half of the awesome people I know are women. Why would I not be friends with them?
posted by kprincehouse at 4:37 PM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For her, any kind of male-female relationship implicitly has a romantic component for at least one party,

The assertion that the world operates under such a specific rule should raise eyebrows. In other words, she's saying that whenever a man and woman are friends, either one or two out of the two people -- but never zero -- will be romantically interested in the other. Isn't that implausible? If it's common for one person of the two to be uninterested in the other romantically, doesn't it stand to reason that sometimes not just one but both of them will be uninterested?

That said, your mom has a point.

But I'm reminded of some words of wisdom I was once told: "If you make sure that nothing bad ever happens to you, you'll also make sure nothing really good ever happens to you either."
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:39 PM on May 6, 2010 [23 favorites]

Best answer: Ask yourself, "If there was absolutely no possibility of a romantic or sexual relationship with this person, would I still want to spend time with them as a close friend?" (I usually do this by imagining them as the opposite sex, but I suppose that doesn't work for bisexual folks).

If you find yourself saying no or on the fence about it, probably best to avoid the close friendship.
posted by Menthol at 4:41 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

My closest friends have traditionally been women (I'm a straight male mid-twenties). Sometimes they were in relationships, sometimes I was, sometimes neither. Doesn't really matter.

My life would be immeasurably less without my close relationships with women.

Jealousy is tricky - I've always found that hanging out with the new SO helps, as does the new couple having a bit of time to establish themselves. But nonetheless, an opposite-sex friendships isn't any more meaningful than a same-sex one, so either the SO should be jealous of all your close friends or not worry about the rest.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:42 PM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: One of the main potential problems comes from possible jealousy from their partners. My best friend, whom I've been friends with for 15 years, is the opposite sex. His girlfriend and I get along well and she's credited his relationship with girls (as friends) as the reason he's so great and knows how to interact with women. There's always the romantic possibility in any relationship (opposite sex or not), I suppose, but its not insurmountable.
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:42 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The benefits of a close friendship are amazing. They make your life wonderful to live.

The potential downside is awkwardness, drama, and confusion.

Of course it's worthwhile. There's a chance something will come up that hurts the friendship, but it's a chance worth taking.
posted by twirlypen at 4:45 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't think it's a black and white issue. For me, on some level, all relationships have a sexual element. How could they not? It's like all we are programmed to do. I have lots of opposite sex friendships - my closest friendships, in fact. My life would be empty without these friendships. And while there has never been any drama in the way of 'to date or not to date? to sex or not to sex?' there is still definitely a level of sexual attraction - and my friends and I are open about this, which takes away any sort of awkwardness because it's just out in the open. Like, "hey, yeah I think you're kinda sexy and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't had a dream where we fucked, but we both know we don't belong together and sex, which is such a fleeting thing, might complicate this great and lasting friendship, so let's just not go there and we'll get our sexy time elsewhere." Even if it's never stated explicitly in most opposite sex friendships, I think if pressed both parties would be obliged to say that, yeah, sure I'm curious about what the sex would be like, but I wouldn't let it get in the way of our friendship. And heck, if it really wouldn't ruin the friendship, you should have sex with your friends if you both really want to. Why not? I don't get why people let something silly like sex crush so many bonds with other human beings. Then again, I am of what they call the 'friends with bennies' generation. So ymmv. But I really think not pursuing a friendship because you're scared your penis will come out is unfortunate and childish.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:55 PM on May 6, 2010 [10 favorites]

Best answer: The problem, I think (and one that I've dealt with and still deal with), is that it's hard to imagine romantic attraction as anything other than a deterrent to friendship. Right? You're scared about being friends with somebody of the opposite sex because — uh-oh! — you might start thinking they're cute or something and then it'll kill any friendship that might have been there.

It is important that you stop thinking this. Hoping for a romance with somebody is kind of like hoping somebody's going to share your music tastes. When it happens, it's awesome; when it doesn't happen, you can still have a great time, though you're going to have to find a new friend to concertgowith/fuck. It is only more dire a situation than that when you insist on it being so.

Have you ever been in a situation where a friend of yours admitted feelings for you? I'd bet chances are you didn't feel awkward saying you just wanted to be friends. That's because while feelings are uncomfortable for the holder, they rarely feel that way for the other person. What that means is that if you're crushing on a friend and she lets you down, it's going to bother you more than it'll bother her. Which means that if you've got any willpower about you, you'll be able to keep up the friendship, find another girl to flirt with, and let life go on.

And let me tell you — having somebody of the opposite sex to talk to is a godsend. I think I have more close girl friends than I have guy friends, actually. One of those girls I used to flirt with, and when she turned me down I used that as a cue to stop talking to her entirely. That was stupid of me. Now she's the person I go to when I'm really feeling unsure about myself, and vice versa. I also have an exgirlfriend who I'm more comfortable talking to than nearly anybody else; we're both completely happy with seeing other people.

In the end, people are people. Usually they're cooler than you think. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume everything'll be okay.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:00 PM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

The view your mother has sounds, I am sorry to say, simplistic and harmful. I am a straight male fortyish Gen X type and I suspect that if I were to enumerate my five dearest friends, four of the list would be female (and, for that matter, straight). My life is so much the better for knowing these amazing women and I cannot imagine voluntarily cutting myself off from half the world because of their genitalia.

I am baffled by this part of your post: She also thinks opposite-sex friendships are totally inappropriate for someone in a relationship. I am saddened by the implications of this, that it is good and right and proper to cut loose a good portion of one's friends when one becomes involved in a relationship. What kind of weak and insecure little man would I be if I demanded a new girlfriend instantly sever contact with all men she knows?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:07 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's impossible to answer your question as stated. The only question that might be answerable is "Are close one-on-one opposite sex friendships a good idea for person x."

So, for yourself, you have to consider your own emotions when you have an opposite sex friend. Are you developing feelings for this person? Is this going to be problematic? Can you deal with them?
posted by sid at 5:12 PM on May 6, 2010

One of my closest friends in the world in a woman, and in general I have way more female friends than male. I love them (non sexually) dearly, it's never really been an issue for me. We're not sex machines that see possibility and have to fulfill it.
posted by smoke at 5:20 PM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: One of my 2 best friends is opposite sex and there has never been anything between us and never will be- we just aren't each other's types. The guys I date haven't been jealous, as far as I know, because I am not sketchy about hanging out with him and once anyone sees us together they know we are just close friends. Many guys I date have a majority of female friends and that doesn't bother me either.

I think it would be a lot worse to not have any close opposite sex friends because then their only experience of that gender would be with dating them and maybe not a full picture of what women or men are like.

Boundaries are surely important, and those can be established in a relationship, but I can't imagine no one-on-one time with a friend of the opposite gender to be a reasonable one. Maybe maybe for an ex or someone who there is romantic tension with, but for a friend? Nah.

Your mother might be worried about emotional infidelity or something like that, but for me at least, and I think for most people, it is clear that you talk to friends about certain things and interact with them in a certain way and you talk to your SO and interact with them in a different way. There is friendship behavior and dating behavior and they aren't that hard to separate unless you are an especially flirty/touchy-feely person. So I don't really see the danger.
posted by rmless at 5:33 PM on May 6, 2010

There's no single right answer to this question. If a straight man and a straight woman are friends, one or both may, at some point, become attracted to the other.


If one or both are the types of people to whom such feelings are deeply distracting, then it's probably going to be a problem. If not, not.

It's a little irritating if I get urges I can't feed. But, for me, it's just one of many things one puts up with in life. And, for me, it's not that big a deal to put up with it. Your mileage may vary.

And there are all sorts of non-sexual irritants in platonic relationships. Can a rich person be friends with a poor person? Won't the poor person feel jealous and the rich person feel guilty? Can a black person be friends with a white person? Won't racial tensions get in the way? Can a democrat be friends with a republican? Can a cop be friends with a drug user? Can an introvert be friends with an extrovert? Can a Christian be friends with an atheist? Etc.

I've never had a friendship that didn't involve some tensions. So what? Unless those tensions make me more unhappy than the friendship makes me happy, I deal with it. It's worth it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:54 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, I'm bisexual. According to your mom, that clearly means I shouldn't be friends with anyone. Stating that heterosexual men and women can't be friends lest the urge to shag overpower them is just as silly.
posted by lydhre at 6:11 PM on May 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

Here's my view:

it depends on you and it depends on the other person. You need to be the type of person that can tell who you can be friends with and who you cannot because of obvious attraction reasons. There are people you just can't be close friends with because you don't want to put yourself in a situation that could turn into something awkward, or in trouble with your spouse.

I am a male, and I have very close female friends and male friends, but I make sure any female friends I have meets my wife so that she can also see there is a friendship on both sides and that sexual/emotional attraction is not a factor.

So, be smart. don't be friends with those that you are attracted to and can see yourself doing something dumb with if you were inebriated.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:13 PM on May 6, 2010

I have guy friends that I will go out to a dinner and a movie with on our own, and I'm married. It's not weird or pseudo-romantic or any of those things, and my husband doesn't care either. Of the guy friends who have had crushes on me, usually they get over it and it's no big deal -- and they're nowhere near the majority of guy friends that I have. Most of my friends are men.

I mean no offense to your mom when I say this, but usually when people try to say "men and women can't just be friends" as some sweeping rule, it says more about them than it does anyone else. Which is to say your mom has probably had problems being just friends with men, either because she would become attracted to them or vice versa, but that doesn't mandate anything for the rest of humanity.

The only other person I've know somewhat well who has sworn that men and women can't be friends -- and I'm not at all saying your mom is the equivalent of this person, I'm presenting it as a separate variation -- is a friend who pretty much wants to fuck every guy she meets. Because she can't imagine not wanting to fuck every guy she meets, she assumes everyone else wants to do the same thing, and if they won't "admit" to it, it's because they're ashamed or sexually repressed or fooling themselves or something. When she ends up fucking half her guy friends it just validates her mindset that she can't be "just friends" with a guy. When the rest of us would tell her okay, that's fine, but that's not our experience, she'd think we were just lying. The point is, don't listen to anyone who tells you that everyone is one way or another. It's just not true.
posted by Nattie at 6:54 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I find close, one-on-one friendships with the opposite sex are awesome. But the Sex hurdle is like an unexploded pink elephant lurking in the other room, ticking obnoxiously.

It's not as simple as a Determine The Relationship talk at the outset: Real relationships change over time. And it's not that sex is automatically barred by virtue of being friends. Sometimes you have sex when you really know it's a bad idea, or you don't have sex when you really think it's a good idea. Sooner or later the elephant will probably start to tick LOUDLY and need to be defused. This will truly test the friendship. But it's not an A to F- exam grade on coping and communication skills --it's more a trial-by-fire thing: There can be tears and anger and months of hard feelings, and STILL finish in a friendship that transcends the transitional period. That's how you know you passed: It was "tested" and held.

Once the sex hurdle is passed though? Free sailing! ...until one of you gets an SO. That's a bitch in and of itself. Jealousy aside (because who ISN'T jealous when their best friends leaves them for someone else), it is often very hard to get one's own SO to accept the idea of a truly platonic friendship. Especially if there's been sex.

Sooooo... 1) they can be hard to manage
2) they can be emotionally messy
3) they may even impede your dating life, as you can be perceived as "taken" even when you profess not to be
4) they hold huge potential for causing jealousy in SOs, yours or theirs
5) they can be as rich and rewarding as any other close personal friendship.

That said: The opposite-sex friends I shove down my SOs throat were all well established before I met him. I personally would NOT go about developing new ones while still involved with him. Not sure why, but that seems wrong in my book. Perhaps because the pink elephant will be there and active during the whole development phase...
posted by Ys at 7:03 PM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: I'm really not sure what the problem is. People are just people - gender is just one way of describing them. Obviously, maintaining a friendship with someone that you fancy who doesn't fancy you (or vice versa) will be a bit tricky, and if the two of you can't get over that and appreciate the friendship for what it is, then maybe you can't be friends with that particular person. But there's no need to rule out an entire gender because of that possibility. If you get along with someone and want to be friends with them, then their gender shouldn't be a consideration. Without my male friends, my life would be a shadow of what it is - I'd hate it!
posted by finding.perdita at 7:33 PM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: I think maybe the big difference between your mom's attitude and some of the stuff upthread is that people our age move between significant others much faster. So a lot of people are saying 'I couldn't not have opposite-gender friends' assuming that they'll at some point lose/ditch their SO and still want their friends.

The old model was different -- you were, basically (oversimplification!), either dating or you were married. The former is complicated by intimate same-gender friends, and in the latter, there's not all that much reason to have a totally separate set of friends from your spouse, especially if you spend a lot of time with your spouse.
posted by Valet at 7:36 PM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: I feel like the difficulty in opposite-sex friendships lies in social expectations and pressure rather than the problem of potential attraction. In OP's mom's generation there was a lot more separation of sexes and more defined gender roles and expectations. Men and women were not together as much in working environments, study environments, or doing social activities like sports, etc. So there were not as many opportunities to become friends, and when men and women spent time together, it was usually for dating. Hence OP's Mom's perspective.

But now, men and women spend time together a lot more in non-dating situation, (more women in grad school and university, in science and math programs; more women playing sports, etc, etc).

I also think that two gay men and two lesbians can be platonic friends easily because, while they may be sexually attracted to one another, there is no pressure for them to date or history of them being together for the purpose of dating. So two gay people of the same sex may be physically attracted to one another but can pretty easily make the decision to not date because they don't think it will work out. Whereas men and women are still evolving on this issue. I think as sexism and societal roles and expecations lesson, friendships between men and women will be less fraught with difficulties (not that they are always difficult now.)
posted by bearette at 8:03 PM on May 6, 2010

Response by poster: I just want to clarify a few things, out of fairness to my mom:

1) I think I've phrased some of the ideas in my question more strongly than she did (in other words, much of the all-or-nothing-ness of some of the statements may just be my paraphrase). We were mostly talking about specific situations, not abstract principles. I think the advice she gave was good, and I now think I did kind a poor job expressing it.
2) Emotional infidelity is one of the things that she mentioned, and it was certainly on her mind.
3) The other thing on her mind was a situation with someone that I'd only be interested in as a friend, but who probably has or had a non-friend agenda with me.
4) I'm mostly interested in the generational attitude difference, and the kinds of experiences that form both attitudes.
posted by dogcat at 8:12 PM on May 6, 2010

It could also be a cultural thing. My roommate, who is Cuban, is adamant about this stuff, saying things like "I view your husband as having a vagina!" meaning (I think) "I could never ever view him sexually at all because that's wrong always." And great, I'm glad that she knows that that's not an option, but framing it that way puts it in a binary context, when it's more of a spectrum. But her family all thinks this way, and I wouldn't be surprised if her fiance felt the same way she did.
posted by emkelley at 9:01 PM on May 6, 2010

I think you and your mother should watch When Harry Met Sally together.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:42 AM on May 7, 2010

For middle aged women of your mothers age their social standing and financial security was basically tied to holding onto their man, often in the face of direct competition. So yeah, they are going to be a lot more aware of and opposed to opportunities for infidelity.

People my age (mid 30s) and younger generally are not as economically dependent on their spouses and are also far less likely to out and out try to "steal" someone else boy or girlfriend (which according to my parents was a pretty legit way to get a date back in the day. You should see some of the stuff my Dad sent my Mom to get her to continue to go out with him: funny poems, cute drawings, little picture books, paintings (!). Major wooing. She decided to marry him on the third date but didn't tell him for a couple years). A big part of that is women entering the workplace and a big part of it is changing social mores where it's just not OK to make a major play for someone who is already seeing someone else.
posted by fshgrl at 1:07 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

My husband and I both have opposite sex friends. It has not been without complication at times, but I am so grateful that he has female friends. One of his closest friends is like family, adores our son, is a good friend to us both and I am so lucky she is in our lives.

That said, my husband and I were best, platonic friends for 7 years and then started dating, got married and had a beautiful son :)
posted by murrey at 5:07 AM on May 7, 2010

*Are close, one-on-one, opposite-sex friendships a good idea?*

If the way the friendship started is..."hey that guy is hot I want to be friendly with that guy" (later realizing he's not interested in you and you morphing into the friend role)...then no, probably not the best of ideas if you are in a relationship currently. This is akin to people being way to close with their exes. It's more of a question of if it impacts your current relationship than anything inherent in the friendship.
posted by teg4rvn at 10:34 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, they're a good idea if you don't mind making out with your friends.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:13 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

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