Can Men & Women Really *Just* Be Friends? Experts Unpack The Old When Harry Met Sally Debate
If your partner has a “work spouse,” you’ve probably given this classic question some thought.
Can men and women truly be platonic friends? That was the big question first posed in Nora Ephron's classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally. Well, to be more precise, the film explores whether heterosexual men and women can really be just friends, you know, without the sex part getting in the way.
The new Apple TV+ series Platonic, starring Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen, attempts to answer that question with a resounding: yes, duh!
The duo stars as former best friends approaching midlife (meaning your 40s, which is scary to think about... but here we are) who reconnect after a long rift. Byrne's character is married; Rogen's character is not. The show is basically how these two sustain and maintain a consuming and demanding friendship, which is totally sex-free, while also balancing the other responsibilities in their lives.
So, what do you think? As someone with a number of close heterosexual male friends, I think so, but I also know it only works if both parties are on the same page and probably have been so since day one. From my experience, my friendships with these men haven't negatively affected our romantic relationships with others. However, I've heard of cases when partners might have an issue when their significant other is close with a member of the opposite sex, especially if married.
Was Billy Crystal's Harry right, then? Does the sex part always get in the way? Or can heterosexual men and women really be just friends? Experts weigh in below.
Unpacking the Platonic Friendship Debate
According to Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., sociologist and certified sexologist, yes, women and men can be platonic friends — even when in a serious relationship or married to other people.
Of course, on an individual or couple level, some people may struggle with this. "Someone who has a partner who tends to be flirtatious may be rightfully uncomfortable, or a partner who tends to be very jealous may complicate matters," she says.
Todd Baratz, a certified sex therapist, licensed individual, and couples psychotherapist, notes that things are a little different for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
"As a cis-gay male sex therapist, I have a lot of thoughts about the idea of friendships with the opposite sex," he tells Scary Mommy. "These are questions that really only apply to cis-hetero relationships. Most queer people are friends with other queer people while in queer relationships."
He says when it comes to heterosexual men and women having a friendship outside of their marriage, it's really about having "a conversation about trust, anxiety, jealousy, insecurity, and traditional heteronormative gender roles. And to focus on anything else would only serve to reinforce the rigid binaries that have contributed to unhealthy relationships throughout history."
Baratz further adds: "The foundations for a healthy relationship are empathy, compassion, self-awareness, and other similar characteristics. Not the gender or sex of our partner's friends. So as these old traditional values come up for people — because let's face it, this is what we've all internalized — it's helpful to pause and reflect on what we are really seeking by attempting to understand rules about gender, sex, and reinforcing safety and trust in our relationship."
Even if we deeply love our partner, they can't possibly meet all of our needs — or vice versa. Which is why friendships can be nourishing for your relationship.
"Data suggests that people with a social life outside of their relationship often have more satisfying relationships," Baratz says. "No relationship can fulfill us entirely. We need friends, social connection, and community outside our primary relationship in order for us to sustain it over a long period of time. And this is regardless of sex or gender their friends are."
Melancon adds that friendships with the opposite sex often offer more diverse perspectives and interests than same-sex friends, keeping things interesting and fresh.
"Men and women tend to offer different types of support," she explains. "Stereotypically, women focus more on listening and being there emotionally, while men focus more on problem-solving. Having friends of both genders offers a wider range of support options."
Interacting with friends of the opposite sex can also help to improve communication skills.
"Men and women tend to communicate differently on average, so having an opposite-sex friend (if you're in a heterosexual relationship) gives you more practice of communicating with that gender, which can improve your own romantic relationship," Melancon says.
Another bonus? When men and women are friends, Melancon notes, it can increase empathy and understanding of the opposite sex. "This can make your partner's behaviors make more sense, and the gender differences between you may be felt as less of a personal or relationship issue."
Communicating Your Needs
Boundaries are always important, especially when it comes to maintaining the integrity of a relationship. In this case, Melancon suggests the following:
Limit physical intimacy. "High-fives and handshakes are probably fine, and many good friends hug without any ulterior motivates. But for most friendships, I'd suggest drawing the line at hugs," she says. "Cuddling can feel intimate, and skin-to-skin touch leads us to release oxytocin, which can contribute to sexual arousal."
Include your partner from time to time. "This is beneficial for both your partner and friend, as it makes your primary relationship clear to both," she explains. "This also allows you to enjoy your friendship and relationship at the same time, and provides an opportunity for your partner to befriend your friends as well."
Openly discuss any feelings of jealousy. "Being open and discussing these concerns with care can reduce their sting and increase trust."
Be mindful when discussing your relationship. "Some opposite-sex friends can be great at giving advice, but too much emphasis on your relationship problems can make your partner jealous and could increase romantic interest from your friend," she says.
Adds Baratz: "There is no blanket rule for anything when it comes to trust in relationships other than creating a relational culture that is safe, open, and honest."
If your partner is controlling about who you see, where you see them, and how long you hang out, that's a big red flag, says Melancon. If your partner looks at your phone or email without permission or if they "stalk" your friends on social media, or if they are unwilling to deal with their own feelings of jealousy when you have a truly platonic friendship, she says these are issues that need to be dealt with between your and your partner.
"If you find yourself overly concerned or demanding when it comes to your partner's friendship, the conversation should definitely not be about finding rules to limiting their partner's friendships, but the conversation should be about anxiety, trust, and safety," Baratz says. "People would be best served at learning how to cultivate relational skills than monitoring their partners. Relationships would be healthier if both partners put more effort into understanding their anxiety, developing self-awareness about where that comes from, understanding how misogyny, sexism, and outdated values shape their experience in relationships."