Friendship between men and women is diverse and complex in nature and is one of the most poorly understood human relationships. The present study sought to investigate the prevalence of challenges that cross-sex friends often encounter. A study is proposed to test whether O’Meara’s (1989) four cross-sex friendship relationship challenges are still prevalent today and what effect gender and relationship status has on them. It is proposed that a survey given to undergraduate college students will be given to assess how prevalent these challenges are. Anticipated results are that current undergraduates will report that challenges of emotional connection, sexual tension, equality, and public presentation are still common. Furthermore, it is expected that men will view the emotional and sexual tension aspects more challenging than women do and those currently in romantic relationships will be less affected by these challenges. Possible implications of this research and directions for future research are discussed.
Can We Be Just Friends? Challenges Faced in Cross-Sex Friendships
Close relationships with others in our lives are very important to most people. As social animals by nature, we depend on others to meet our physical and emotional needs. Friendships are one of the relationships everyone has that meets those needs. In our everyday lives, friendships with others serve many functions. They “provide protection in challenging situations; help to develop a culture with standards and expectations; promote exploration and learning; validate one’s sense of self by providing the individual with a sense of affection, intimacy, and a reliable alliance strongly linked to psychological, social, and academic adjustment” (Nangle & Erdley, 2001). Until recently, little research was done on men and women’s relations with each other in the context of friendship. This topic had received little attention by social scientists and the context of cross-sex friendship remained relatively ambiguous. In the past, cross-sex friendship was discussed only in terms of dating opportunities or emerging sexuality (Sternberg & Grajek, 1984).
Examination and the implications of how men and women form, maintain, and possibly terminate friendships with each other is of interest and needs to be examined more in depth; especially in today’s modern times when men and women are interacting more regularly and the boundaries between them are becoming fuzzier and fuzzier. More research in this area can remove some of the ambiguity and uncertainty that people face in their cross-sex friendships as well as strategies on how to deal with the various issues many often face in these relationships. With all this in mind, the question is posed: Can men and women be just platonic friends or is there always sexual tension or romantic interest that complicates their relationship? What sort of challenges do cross-sex friends face most in their relationships?
O’Meara (1989) defined cross-sex friendship as “a non-romantic, non-familial, personal relationship between a man and a woman.” She points out that the term “non-romantic” does not imply that attraction or sexuality is completely absent from the relationship. O’Meara published several unique challenges that cross-sex friends often face. First, the “emotional bond challenge” is where the socialization of men and women makes them view each other in a romantic sense rather than as platonic friends. It is important to note that friendship is intimate but less so than romantic love. Monsour (1992) also found that romantic undertones are frequently present in a large portion of opposite-sex relationships.
Rawlins (1982) distinguished five types of love that men and women can possibly have in friendships and romantic relationships alike: (1) Friendship is “a voluntary, mutual, personal and affectionate relationship devoid of expressed sexuality,” (2) Platonic Love is defined as “a highly emotional commitment without any sexual activity,” (3) Friendship Love which is “a potentially unstable interplay between emotional and sexual expression of affection,” (4) Physical Love where little emotional commitment exists and sexual involvement is high, and finally (5) Romantic Love where partners are in an exclusive relationship sexually and romantically. O’Meara argues that cross-sex friends can experience the first three types of love and maintain a shared sense of friendship. Crossing the lines into the others may render relational problems.
The second challenge of cross-sex friendship O’Meara identified was the “sexual challenge”; the fact that there often exists sexual tension between friends. In the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally, the point made by Harry is that the “sex thing” always gets in the way and that men’s primary motivation for having female friends is to hopefully have sex with them. This complication must continuously be monitored and is dealt with. Indeed, men have reported that they are more motivated than women to become friends to potentially become sexual partners (Abbey, 1982) and more men than women define intimacy in their friendship as involving sexual contact (Shotland & Craig, 1988). Werking (1997) suggested that sexual activity in a friendship is an indicator that the friendship has ended and a romantic relationship has begun because sexuality and romance are so intertwined. Sapadin (1988) found that 62% of college students experience sexual tension in their relationships and 58% report having at least slight levels of attraction to their friend. Seventy-nine percent of students also reported that having a sexual relationship with a friend ‘complicates things in a way they dislike’. Results of Afifi and Faulkner’s (2000) study on sexual prevalence in cross-sex friendship indicate that 51% of college students have engaged in intercourse with their friend that they were not planning on dating at the time and 56% percent of those relationships did not develop into a relationship after fact.
On the other hand, Bell (1981) found that many friends saw sexual attraction towards one another added an extra “spice” to the relationship with many reporting that it made it more fun and interesting. Many also reported that sex is an important and enjoyable part of their relationship. Others keep their friendship strictly platonic, mainly to safeguard the relationship and because of the lack of attraction towards one another (Messman, 2000). In an interview study by Pogrebain (1987), he found that no pair of cross-sex friends had successfully mixed sex and friendship and sex always negatively impacted the relationship. Either way, sexual tension is something that must constantly be monitored and dealt with appropriately in cross-sex friendships.
The third challenge faced by cross-sex friends is the “equality challenge.” That is, they must find a way to establish and maintain equality. In a male-dominated society, males control a disproportionate amount of resources. O’Meara argues that cross-sex friends must seek to have a communal relationship instead of an exchange relationship. An exchange relationship is one where one assumes that when benefits are given they will receive benefits in return whereas a communal relationship is one where no return benefits are expected and given freely. Due to gender roles and gender inequality, men often have more “resources” than females in which to barter with which may give men the “upper-hand” in the relationship.
Finally, O’Meara suggests that cross-sex friends have a “public presentation challenge” where there is uncertainty on how their relationships should be presented to others. People often assume that romance or sex is involved with cross-sex friends. This often makes friendships with the opposite sex hard to maintain as partners must always be cautious of how they are presenting themselves to others. The euphemism is often used that he/she is “just a friend” which still leaves the true nature of the relationship in question for all parties involved. This is seen frequently in the NBC sitcom Seinfeld where the main characters of Jerry and Elaine must constantly explain when introducing themselves that they used to date but are now just friends. Characters on the show are often confused by the fact that they maintain a friendship after being in a romantic relationship. Interestingly, one study revealed that 61% of college students reported that they were still friends with a former romantic partner and 14% reported their closest friendship was with someone that was a previous partner (Wilmot, Carbaugh, & Baxter, 1985).
Men and women vary in their reasons for having same and opposite-sex friendships. O’Meara points out that women’s same-sex friendships focus on “nurturing, sharing, personal communication, and general expressiveness while men’s friendships entail instrumentality and shared activities” Men communicate on a less personal and relational level. Women’s friendships also tend to last longer than men’s. Men (more than women) are thought to be more likely to have an opposite-sex friend because men were found to view cross-sex friendship as a potential gateway to a sexual and/or romantic relationship and they may receive more benefits than women from having this type of relationship (Buhrke & Fuqua, 1987).
The Current Study
As society constantly evolves and changes so do our relationships and how we perceive and handle them. This research will seek to confirm if O’Meara’s (1989) research on the four challenges that cross-sex friends face still hold true today. Twenty years has passed since her work was published and it is important to verify if her work is still applicable currently. Since O’Meara’s work was based on a strong theoretical foundation and was formed on the basis of many relevant scientifically-reviewed journals and publications about relationships I predict:
The four basic cross-sex friend relationship challenges (Emotional, Sexual, Equality, and Public Presentation) will still be faced by most cross-sex friends today.
One major gap in the literature on cross-sex friendship is whether or not the aforementioned complications exist in cross-sex friendships when one of the persons in the friendship is currently in a romantic relationship with another person or not. The dynamics of the cross-sex friendship would be much different if one of the partners were dating another person. They may not have to deal with issues of emotional connection or worry about the status of the relationship. They may not also face as much of a sexual challenge as single friends do because both parties know that the other person is (potentially) involved sexually with someone else. Also, when one person in the friendship is not single, how the relationship is presented to others would be clearer. Therefore I predict:
When one partner in a cross-sex friendship is in a romantic relationship, the four basic challenges of cross-sex friendship will be perceived to exist less than friendships where both parties are single.
Finally, prior research has failed to see what effect gender has on the four challenges. Based on Buhrke & Fuqua’s (1987) and Abbey’s (1982) findings that men view friendship with females as a potential opportunity for a relationship and sex, I predict:
Men will struggle more with the sexual and emotional challenges more than women do.
Participants in this study will be undergraduates currently enrolled in an introductory psychology class at Kansas State University. Ideally, one-hundred to two-hundred participants will be sampled for a strong statistical analysis.
The above hypothesis will be tested through the use of a participant self-completed survey (see Appendix A). First, the survey will collect the participant’s age, gender, ethnicity, and current relationship status. Then a total of 16 questions (four questions for each challenge) will be asked concerning to what degree the participant agrees with statements about the nature of his/her opposite-sex friendships. Example items include “I often experience sexual tension with my opposite-sex friends.” and “Inequality exists between me and some of my cross-sex friends.” The participant will rank how much the statement accurately reflects him/her using a 7-point likert scale. One open-ended question will be asked at the end asking for the participants to list the most common challenges they face in their cross-sex friendships.
Participants will complete the survey in their regularly scheduled class time at the campus of Kansas State University. Participants will be informed of the nature of the research; the dynamics and challenges people face with friendships with the opposite sex. They will be informed that participation is completely voluntary and anonymous. Participants who agree will then complete the survey in silence, submit it anonymously, and then thanked for their participation.
Hypothesis one will be tested through the ranking of responses on the one open-ended question in which participants are asked to rank the top eight obstacles they face with their cross-sex friends. Coding of the open-ended responses will be done by several researchers until inter-coder reliability is reached of at least .8. Analysis will be done to verify if any of the four challenges (emotional, sexual, equality, or presentation) rank significantly higher than the other’s reported. I anticipate that these four challenges will still be relevant to today’s college student’s cross-sex friendships and the emotional-bond challenge will be found to be the most prevalent challenge of all.
To test Hypothesis Two and Three, data analysis will be done on the rankings of the 16 questions using an analysis of variance using gender (male or female) and relationship status (single or involved) as independent variables and the emotional, sexual, equality, and presentation concerns as dependent variables. I predict a significant interaction will be found that single participants will have greater difficulty than those currently in a relationship in regard to the sexual and emotional challenges. People in relationships will probably be less likely to have to deal with such things as they already have an emotional (and possibly sexual) bond with another person that is not their friend. Single people have an increased motivation to seek emotional and sexual rewards from another. Those in relationships will also probably struggle less with the public presentation challenge as many of the participants peers, close friends, and families will already be aware that said person is in a relationship with another person so the ambiguity will be removed when seen with a cross-sex friend. The equality challenge for involved people will probably still exist but to a lesser degree than those that are single.
Finally, I predict that Hypothesis Three will yield a significant main effect for gender on the emotional and sexual challenges; that men will see these as more prevalent and more challenging. This prediction is based off research findings of Buhrke & Fuqua’s (1987) and Abbey’s (1982) that men seek friendships with women for potential access to a relationship and sex more than women do.
The nature, dynamics, meaning, and challenges of cross-sex friendship are important to study. This study predicts that O’Meara’s (1989) four challenges will still be prevalent in present times. This study is novel in the fact that it looks at relationship status and gender as important variables to be assessed when it comes to how one should exactly manage these challenges. Whether one is male or female certainly will impact how one perceives and acts with a cross-sex friend. Future research should look at the differences in gender on perceptions and management of challenges. Also, sexual orientation could drastically alter the dynamics of a cross-sex friendship and it may be interesting to see if homosexuals face similar dilemmas.
A person’s relationship status will also greatly impact the dynamics, meaning, and perception of a cross-sex friendship. The “rules” of friendship may be very different for one involved in a dating relationship. It would also be interesting to conduct a study on which challenges (and to what extent) are faced if both parties are in a relationship. Future research could also address how couples deal with them. Jealousy and envy of one’s friendship and relationship partner could also be an important confounding variable that merits further examination.
If this study were to be preformed it would have several limitations. First, it will only sample an undergraduate college student population which makes it low in external validity. How will these results generalize to other populations? What challenges do teenagers and the elderly face with their cross-sex friends? Secondly, this study only examines one’s own subjective impression of the challenge. Whether or not the participant’s cross-sex friend(s) also perceive it as existing needs to be looked at. This could be completed by having pairs of cross-sex friends complete the study individually and then comparing and contrasting the findings. Finally, the open-ended coding of the responses of the last question may create many problems in revealing which challenges really are most prevalent. Many of the participant responses may fall under more than one category and it might be hard to categorize specific statements into each one.
The challenges that cross-sex friends face are very real. Unfortunately, they are also largely ignored by researchers. This study would add significantly to the existing literature and hopefully give researchers in social psychology and communication studies more insight into the dynamics of cross-sex friendship. The results could help counselors, psychologists, and relationship experts help those struggling with conflicts friendships with the opposite sex.
Overall, I believe it is possible for men and women to have positive, healthy, and meaningful friendships with one another although there are many confounding variables that complicate these relationships. It is an intrinsic human need to be emotionally close with others and a normal human desire for most to be attracted to the opposite sex. It could be suggested that this intimate emotional challenge that friendships face is natural. The social construction of “friendship” that says we should be close and intimate with our friends but not romantically or sexually involved may be what complicates these friendships. Those struggling with uncertainty in with their cross-sex friends should consider being more open with their partners. Communication about one’s feelings and inquiring about the status and context of one’s friendship with another will do wonders in reducing ambiguity and maintaining a positive friendship.
In the context of this experiment, sex shall refer to one’s biological make-up of male or female. Cross-sex friendship shall be defined as any voluntary personal non-romantic relationship with a person of the opposite sex. The “emotional challenge” shall be defined as any feelings of romance, attraction, or deep love towards a friend, the “sexual challenge” shall be defined as any sexual tension, feelings of lust towards ones friend or the problems associated with sexual involvement. The “equality challenge” shall refer to any actions that create gender inequity and the “public presentation challenge” shall refer to any action that one performs to define the friendship to others as being non-romantic, non-sexual, and platonic.
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