A lot of people snickered and rolled their eyes when Vice President Mike Pence claimed he wouldn’t have dinner alone with a woman who was not his wife. It’s insulting to imagine women as mere objects and temptresses rather than equals, and just as insulting to assume that heterosexual men are all rutting Neanderthals who can’t be alone with a woman for 10 minutes without attempting or at least thinking about having sex with her.
But what if your wife came home one day and said, “Hey, I’m going out to dinner with Tim, my new friend from CycleBar”? Would your first thought be, Who the hell is that and why aren’t I invited? For some guys, it would. Because although it might sound absurd and antiquated on its face to say some men have trouble with the idea of opposite-gender friendships outside the confines of marriage, the fact is, many of them still do, despite how much gender roles in society have evolved.
Kelso, a 40-year-old travel agent in San Francisco, has female friends who his wife has no problem with, he says. However, he says, “If it was a single mom, I’d imagine my wife would have red flags, like, ‘Why doesn’t she have friends who are women she can hang out with? Why does she want to hang out with a married dad?’”
Wives’ comfort level with their husbands’ friendships with attractive women are related to how attractive they feel themselves and how much they feel their husbands are still attracted to them, Kelso suspects.
“If a very attractive woman spends time with a guy and makes him feel affection, particularly if his wife is giving him less attention, it’s nice to feel that vibe,” Kelso says. “They don’t have to take it to the next level. But especially as a parent, when you’re feeling like your glory days are over, it’s even nicer to know you still got it.”
Los Angeles IT specialist Scott says he started distancing himself from female friends after his wife expressed some disapproval about it. “I’d say about half of women don’t like their partners to have female friends,” he says.
Other men think keeping up with female friends they knew before they were married is fine but making new ones might be kind of weird.
“A married man making new female friendships outside of work, hobbies, school, or other foundations seems suspect,” says Joe, 47-year-old engineer in San Francisco. “Why would a married man become friends with a woman … isn’t that why you have a wife?”
Joe feels that there’s a difference in propriety between having a reason to hang out with a new female friend, such as having coffee and working on a screenplay together, and just meeting for drinks.
“The only socially legitimate avenue to new female friends for a married man is one based on shared activities,” he says, but admits, “It’s hard to know if these rules are of my own making or ones that western culture deems reasonable.”
This preoccupation with gender roles, and even the idea that men and women can’t really be platonic friends, has some science behind it. Men are encouraged to treat women like sex objects from an early age, and the process of becoming a man traditionally has been heterosexualized, with men encouraged to start obsessing about sex around adolescence. So that some men have trouble interacting with women without sex and attraction getting in the way makes some sense.
“When boys start to learn about masculinity norms, they stop wanting to do anything ‘feminine,’ such as sharing feelings,” says Chuck Schaeffer Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. “The only avenue boys have been socialized to think they can have emotional intimacy is through romantic relationships.”
Research of platonic, opposite-gender friendships is a fairly new field; no one studied it until the 1990s. Much of the research supports what obnoxious rom-coms have drilled into our heads for decades: that keeping opposite-gender friendships free from the complications of attraction is nearly impossible. Men were more likely to describe a female friend as “a member of the opposite sex to whom I am attracted and would pursue given the opportunity” than women were, wrote the authors of a 2016 study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science. Men were more likely to pursue friendships with women based on sexual attractiveness and a desire for “short term sexual success” than women, according to another study, authored by the same researcher.
In fact, many men misread their friendships with women, according to a 2012 Bleske-Rechek study. Attraction in opposite-gender friendships is common, particularly for men, the researchers found, and men were more likely to be attracted to their female friends regardless of their friends’ current relationship status. They were also more likely to imagine mutual attraction that didn’t exist. Considering this, it’s unsurprising that many attractive women seem to be prefer being friends with gay men over straight men, presumably because there’s less fear that they’ll be sexualized in these friendships, theorized the authors of a study published in Personality and Individual Differences in 2016.
There are many reasons men might have trouble having platonic friendships with women, psychologists say. Religious men who are raised to believe that sex is sinful (such as Vice President Pence and the OG no-lady-friends rule-maker, evangelist Billy Graham) might feel it’s improper or immoral to spend time alone with women who aren’t their wives. Many men feel like female friendships aren’t worth it if it causes jealous or insecure wives discomfort, or they worry that being seen out with an attractive female friend might raise eyebrows if they’re spotted, even if there’s nothing going on.
For other men, the problems are more internalized. In past generations, boys were discouraged from being friends with girls and encouraged to see them as sex objects, so friendships with women might feel foreign to them, says John Paul Garrison PsyD, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Roswell, Georgia. Still other men just don’t trust themselves to keep things platonic so avoid friendships with women to steer clear of temptation.
“It’s not that we’re incapable of having platonic relationships, it’s that some men are just higher risk,” Garrison says. “Someone who doesn’t read body language well might create fantasies in his head. Combined with men’s typically ridiculously high sex drive, problems can arise.”
Men who were socialized into stereotypical gender roles have more difficulty with having platonic friendships with women, Garrison says: “What it boils down is, the more insightful men are, the less they have to struggle with this.”
Let’s pump the brakes on this for a second. We need only look to most men’s relationships with their sisters to find evidence that men can interact with women without sexualizing them, Schaeffer notes. And, on another note, the subjects of all these studies concluding that men tend to sexualize their female friends were college students. College kids, as it goes, are fairly young, inexperienced, and typically highly sexed.
And high sex drive aside, it would be a mistake to generalize that most men have a hard time controlling themselves around women or, perhaps because of #MeToo fears that they might unwittingly sexually harass a woman, that men just don’t know how to behave around women, says Sydney J. Cohen Ph.D., a psychologist in Cherry Hill, NJ.
“It’s kind of a reverse chauvinism to say that men don’t know how to act around women,” Cohen says. “Those kind of generalizations always give me the heebee-jeebees.”
A lot of guys enjoy having their egos stroked and enjoy flirting, and that’s perfectly normal, Cohen says. It’s only a problem if he’s disregarding the feelings of the woman in his life.
“Self-respect and self-control are critical,” he continues. “If her tolerance level for that kind of behavior is low, a quality man will control himself and control his flirting.”
Tolerance levels and personal perceptions are key here. People have very different ideas of what behavior qualifies as flirtatious and what kind of relationships are appropriate outside of a marriage. In other words, whether having platonic female friends might affect your relationship depends on you and your partner.
William, a 39-year-old translator from Sacramento is sensitive to that. His partner was cheated on by her ex-husband, who had an affair with one of her closest friends. That bad experience made her less trusting.
“If a man has a significant other who is very insecure, he has choice,” Cohen says. “He can respect her insecurity and need to not have him do something she sees as bad, or not. It all hinges on how much he respects his partner.”
It’s also possible that your partner’s expectations about your friendships aren’t something you can live with; in that case, you might want to try couples or individual counseling which can help you with your own hang-ups about opposite-gender friendships.
“If you feel like you have little control over yourself or friendships with women are at all anxiety-inducing for you, you should probably seek counseling immediately,” Schaeffer says. “Those guys are lonely and isolated. And if partners can’t trust each other, what kind of a relationship is that?”
In addition, men who don’t have a diverse group of friends are missing out on social support and exposure to different opinions and cultural views that can enrich people’s lives, he adds.
“From my own and others’ research of emotional intimacy, men seem to be experiencing epidemic levels of loneliness, suicide and a lack of friendships,” Schaeffer says. “For men who are not socialized well to have healthy emotional relationships, of course it’s hard. The only way to learn how is through therapy.”
Men and women would benefit from talking more about setting boundaries in their relationships and the kinds of behavior that makes them uncomfortable, Garrison adds.
“It’s amazing what we bring from childhood to adulthood, such as relics we grew up with like that you shouldn’t make friends with girls,” Garrison says. “Hopefully we will have evolved with the next generation and leave that behind.”