Can Men and Women Really Be 'Just Friends'?

For a true platonic friendship, a few rules apply.

Remember When Harry Met Sally -- Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan sparred through a friendship that eventually, inevitably led to romance and marriage? And think of other iconic TV couples: Ross and Rachel of Friends; Sam and Diane of Cheers; JD and Elliott of Scrubs, Jess and Nick of New Girl. All characters who started as friends and ended up being more.

There's pretty good evidence that men and women aren't usually just friends: A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reported that 62 percent of the male and female participants admitted there was a sexual under-pinning in their male-female friendships.

Let’s be frank: Male-female relationships aren't always the smoothest waters to navigate. There might be a simmering sexual attraction that erupts into a night between the sheets after a boozy night out. There's also the potential for hurt feelings if an attraction isn’t mutual and a romantic overture is rebuffed.

Still, platonic male-female match-ups -- relationship experts call them "cross-sex” friendships -- are pretty common and they don't always come with sexual tension and secret, unrequited love. They can be emotionally beneficial, too, according to research. Men can get a supportive sounding board to share their feelings and problems, something that can be missing in many man-to-man friendships. Women have access to a guy's point of view while taking a break from the emotional heavy lifting that can come with always “being there” for the girlfriends.

So, is it cool to watch Game of Thrones with a few guy friends while eating hot wings and throwing back a couple a beers? Relationship experts give the idea an enthusiastic...maybe. Here's how to know if you really can be just friends or if you need to proceed with caution.

Make sure you're truly in the friend zone

If there is zero chemistry between you -- not even one little proton of attraction – you've got a true buddy. “Hanging out with my friend John is like hanging out with one of my closest girlfriends,” says Denise of Orlando. “Our relationship is very intimate -- we can talk about things we don’t necessarily tell other people -- because there’s never been a hint of attraction between us, on either side, which makes for a very close, trusting friendship.” Sexual spark is the litmus test, says Miami marriage, family and sex therapist Lisa Paz, Ph.D. “If there’s really no attraction, then men and women can just be friends.”

If there was an initial spark that fizzled, a friendship can work out provided there are no smoldering embers of attraction left that might flare back up. Basia* of New York City, is now best friends with a guy she dated briefly. “Initially there was some attraction and we explored it. But it became very clear that we had different ideas about relationships,” she says. Still, they had enough in common that they didn’t want to ditch their relationship, either. “There was a tiny bit of jealousy in the transitional period, but not anymore. Now we give each other dating advice. And our relationship now is more fulfilling than when we dated,” she says.

Once you've "crossed sex off the list of things to deal with,” says Gary Lewandowski, Jr., Ph.D., psychology professor and creator of ScienceOfRelationships.com, you can move forward with a friendship. “This doesn’t always happen, but if both people agree to going back to being friends, that’s a pretty decent situation.”

Question your motives

If you’re not happy in your romantic relationship, your motives for developing a new friendship may not be totally on the up and up. When relationships are going well, we tend not to be interested in pursuing opposite-sex friendships, says Lewandowski. “But [when they aren't], you can find yourself more open to these kinds of relationships.” Striking up a friendship with someone you’re attracted to can be especially tempting. “You’re fighting against the tide of chemistry and biology and maintaining an exclusive friendship is going to be a challenge,” says Paz.

Question his motives

Look a little closer at why a man is trying to strike up a friendship with you. Usually (but not always) guys aren't just looking for another drinking buddy.

“Guys aren’t necessarily interested in forming relationships with women just to be friends and pal around together,” says Lewandowski. “When a guy has a female friend, it’s usually because he was attracted to her, she wasn’t attracted to him, but they found out they have things in common." Some guys will "settle" for friendship but it's probably not why he started hanging around.

Stay within appropriate boundaries

Not all friendships should go beyond the occasional dinner party. Say you always find yourself gabbing with your gal pal’s husband at social events. Completely fine, says Paz. “It’s fun to banter with someone of the opposite sex in a benign, safe situation. That feels okay because it has a public boundary around it.” But start going out for coffee or texting each other, says Paz, “starts to cross the line into more than just friendship.”

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