Can men and women ever really just be friends?…

Photo by Andrew Nicholson

This can be a very tricky question to answer, and it’s one we’ve been asked many times. We were called by BBC Radio only last week to take part in a radio discussion on exactly this subject.

Male/female friendships –  it’s a line that can so often be misread, become confused, or cause upset not only for those in the friendship, but for any new partner who enters into the equation too.

My personal belief about this, is that it is possible for a man and woman to be friends, provided that one of them isn’t secretly harbouring a secret attraction towards the other without their knowledge. If one of them is hoping for something more, then it’s not really a true friendship, because one is lying to the other about their part in the relationship.

Often when a relationship ends on amicable terms, a man and woman may agree to remain friends and of course that’s perfectly fine, especially if kids are involved. However, if one of them lives in hope that the other will eventually come around, then trouble and heartbreak may be ahead. We have seen these ‘in limbo’ situations lasting for many years, sometimes over a decade, where a woman lives in hope that even though he has told her he only wants to be friends, she secretly believes that if she loves him enough, is good enough to him, flirts with him, looks sexy enough and even enjoys ‘friends with benefits’ occasionally with him, then one day he will see the light, fall deeply in love with her and want more than friendship. At the same time as living in hope, we tend to find that she is also unwilling to ask him straight out if their relationship can ever be anything more, because she knows that if he says no, it may well be an end to their friendship too.

We have seen far too many beautiful, strong and amazing women, and quite a few men too, who have been living their lives in this state of limbo, unable to decide to remove themselves from the friendship.

Thus these situations really do leave you in a state of self-induced limbo that can continue year after year until you choose to step away. Yet it can be exceedingly difficult to end the friendship emotionally and physically, because as a friend, you only ever generally see the best of them, disagreements are few, and the friendship can feel like it’s adding so much to your life. What is generally not faced is whether it’s actually reducing your enrichment of life in the long term. These kind of relationships can leave you feeling empty, hollow and very lonely, because for as long as you’re in love with a friend who wants nothing more, you’re unlikely to have the emotional capacity to allow any new partner into your life.

As relationship coaches and mentors, we have dealt with many scenarios like this, where a man has told a woman that he only wants friendship. Yet he continues to text, he even continues to want sex occasionally, but he won’t commit to anything more. The problem is that when a man says he only wants friendship, he generally means exactly that. Andy has had to sit down with quite a few of our female clients and ask them “When are you going to actually hear to what he’s telling you?”

When two people are friends, then hugging or touching often, and adding kisses to the end of your texts may seem like the natural thing you would do with any friend. However, these signals can, and are in fact very likely to be taken as a signal of hope by someone who is in love with you. Many women read these signals very differently to men. If you tell a woman you only want to be friends, then proceed to hug her very tightly, holding her like you’re protecting her and have ‘got her’, then for many women, she is likely to read your actions as being your truth, as opposed to your words.

So how do you know whether your opposite sex friend is secretly harbouring feelings for you? Well, other than asking them outright and hoping for a truthful answer, you can’t really. This is why it’s absolutely vital to be crystal clear that friendship is all you want, then behave in accordance with that, so you leave no space for uncertainty.

Flirting with your friend as a way of meeting your own need for significance, then feeling they are silly for reading anything into that, is playing a fool’s game. Flirting can, and does, leave a clear signal that you are available and open to taking things further. So it’s wise to think clearly about the message you are aiming to leave.

One way of ascertaining the authenticity of your friendship, is by how welcoming they are towards any new relationship you bring into your life. If your friend becomes defensive, attempts to distance you from your new partner, or asks for continual help and advice which they feel only you can provide, then this really should set your warning signals alight. An authentic friend should make your new partner feel welcome and at ease, and should also give clear signals that they are not posing any threat to your partner by the way they behave around you.

If you are in an intimate relationship and also have an opposite sex friend, then we suggest the following to ensure your intimate relationship remains healthy:

  1. Ensure you have clear boundaries concerning your friend, and keep to these boundaries.
  2. It’s not OK to flirt with, kiss, and touch your friend frequently, then expect your intimate partner not to raise concerns. Remember that your partner will sense whether there is an underlying sexual tension in your and your friend’s behaviour, and will look at your combined behaviour over and above any words that are spoken.
  3. If your partner wants to ask you questions about your friendship, then welcome their questions and answer everything they need to know without becoming defensive. If your ego sets in and you do respond with defensiveness by accusing them of not trusting you, then remember that it’s up to you to prove to your partner that you can be trusted. It’s natural for a new partner to want to understand who you and your friends are, so defensiveness around this is likely to be read as a signal that you don’t want to answer the question or have something to hide. This is likely to make your partner suspicious.
  4. It’s vitally important that you put time and effort into your intimate relationship so that your partner doesn’t feel like they’re playing second fiddle to your friend. If you share more of your deepest feelings and problems with your friend than your partner, and spend most of your time out enjoying yourself with your friend instead of your partner, then it may be time to take stock. All intimate relationships have 10 fundamental relationship needs, and it’s these needs which determine the difference between a friendship and an intimate relationship. These needs include intimate conversation and recreational companionship. If you cross the line constantly by meeting some of your relationship needs with your friend instead of your partner, then it’s very likely that issues and resentment will surface.
  5. Ask yourself if you would be fine with your partner having an opposite sex friend situation exactly like yours.
  6. Don’t tell your partner that they are fearful or reading signals that aren’t there if they are raising concerns. These kind of accusations, particularly towards a woman, can make her begin to mistrust her own intuition. When this happens, negative behaviour is likely to surface. Many people can sense when someone else is attracted to their partner even more clearly than their partner can, particularly if their partner is wholly convinced it’s just friendship. Remember that it’s not your partner’s fault that you have an opposite sex friend, so it’s up to you to ensure that your partner feels safe and secure within your relationship. Their ability to trust you on this will inevitably be determined by you.
  7. Whatever you do, don’t lie to your partner about seeing or being in contact with your friend. When these lies surface it’s going to be difficult for your partner to believe that it really is only friendship. Why would you need to lie about a genuine friendship after all? So ensure that any contact you have with your friend is above board and out in the open. Anything else is an invitation for trouble.
  8. If your friend has told you that they are living in hope of something more, and you cannot reciprocate, then it’s time to determine whether the kindest thing to do would be to end the friendship so that both of you can move on with clarity. This can be exceedingly uncomfortable to do, but in the long term might it be far kinder? This is something only you can decide.
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