Just Be Friends?

Harry meets Sally.

Harry and Sally both have commitments to someone else.

Sally thinks that Harry and Sally can just be friends.

Harry thinks Harry and Sally cannot be just friends.  

This is a rough excerpt of the film “When Harry Met Sally…” which was produced way back in 1989, where the main theme is about the possibility of men and women being just friends. But the real world has much more characters than just Harrys and Sallys, especially in a world where dating platforms and social media mediates romantic or sexual relationships. There is Cade who married early but developed feelings for Jade the single mother (over Ashley Madison). There is also the simple college grad Evan who had a serendipitous encounter with Emily who is arguably one generation older than him when both backpacked in the same city. Then, Hannah added Noah on Facebook when one of his hilarious online comments brightened one of her darker days. Predictably, Noah overestimated Hannah’s interest.

More and more similar bitter-sweer stories unfold every day and the question of “Can men and women just be friends?” still remains largely unanswered.

Life, y u so hard?

Is there a single yes/no answer to this question?

Imagine a world where it is socially implied that men and women can always just be friends. We all can go out on friendly coffee, bar and movie dates without too much hesitation or anything to lose. It will be no longer socially acceptable to give in to sexual tension and moments of passion. Women can feel much safer even when surrounded with a company of men. Everyone can upload photos with the opposite sex on social media and caption “night out with bestie” with little to no risk of jeopardizing their relationships.

Contrasted with the following world.

In this world, asking the opposite sex out on a date will always signal sexual interest, especially at night. As a result, we reserve the term ‘date’ only for potential romantic encounters and every date will be a form of progress of a romantic relationship. People would have to think twice or thrice before wanting to know someone of the opposite sex further. Let’s not even get to the photo part…we would certainly be bombarded with “when is the wedding” type of questions.

Modern men and women would swing to the first kind of society, where men and women can safely be together and still be friends. But, we still do not have an answer for everyone because there are these two little related things called reciprocity.and rejection. The norm of reciprocity in social psychology is the obligation to return favours, and the refusal to reciprocate leads to pain and dissappointment. To put them into context, we have to see that almost everyone (regardless of belief in the possibility of just being friends)  would want to experience intimate relationship but because of the costs involved, everyone has to be careful. This makes escalating to intimate relationships tricky because of differences in evolutionary mating strategies between genders and the differences in priorities.

When it comes to passing on our genes (which is our evolutionary meaning of life), it is much more beneficial for males to spread their seeds to a lot of females. Females have to be much more reserved because of the costs involved with childbearing and child-rearing. This results in two implicit norms, males would overestimate female’s interest in them, while females would underestimate the male’s interest (Buss, 2008). Going back to the “just be friends” question, females are more likely to believe that we all can just be friends and live happily ever after, while males are more likely to honestly respond that it is not possible to see each other as just friends all the time.

I will not stress too much on the life priority aspect as that will take forever but it is worth noting that we as a society has progressed to the point that we are almost shaking off some of our evolutionary shackles. Both females and males want to enjoy successful careers and have somewhat equal playing field to achieve them. Differences in priorities (studies, going abroad etc) would certainly be a obstacle to a fruitful relationship. All of these makes reciprocrating romantic signals very problematic, and in a post-feminist world, even initiating a clear signal of romantic interest requires overcoming a lot of hesitation. 

Our world right now is a mix of the two societies I described earlier, due to everyone wanting the safety of being friends but secretly desiring a commitment for life from a certain significant other.

This is why Facebook has that “It’s complicated” relationship status. 

The root of the problem is actually staring right at us. It has nothing to do with being a female that is afraid to commit or being a male that is seeking to breed. It has everything to do with our dishonesty with male-female relationships. When we were young and guillible, we would play on the same swings and slides, play doctor (and investigate each other’s bodies for intellectual pursuit), and spoon-feed each other as we play family. Then we grew up with different societal expectations, different paces of psychological maturation, and eventually becoming potential parents, we start to prefer friend circles that we will have no sexual tensions in. We progressed from boys and girls to men and women without knowing when and how. Above all, we often behave as if we haven’t. 

Men and women can just be friends and more than friends, it doesn’t exactly matter. Where it matters is the attitude we have towards each other, and that is the willingness to learn from each other and emphatize with the opposing gender. We have to be willing to be honest about our intentions so that our different modes of communication will not confuse each other, that we know our strengths and weaknesses as life partners better, that our different priorities and life goals can find a converging point, and, above all, that we are able to feel comfortable being ourselves, true men and true women, without the worry of being losers in the evolutionary race.

External References

What Is the Norm of Reciprocity? Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/socialinfluence/f/rule-of-reciprocity.htm

Buss, D. M. (2008). The Evolution of Desire-Revised. Basic books.

Ward, A.F. (2012). Men and Women Can’t Be “Just Friends” Retrieved from  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/men-and-women-cant-be-just-friends/


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