Can men and women be ‘just friends’ ?

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The blurred line that separates men and women friendships from sexual relationships is as murky as Miley’s performance at the VMA’s -and it generates just as much talk.

Two people of the opposite sex coming together intimately, yet platonically, is something of inestimable value.

Men and women have much to learn from each other beyond the realms of romantic interaction yet, the price of this education can be quite costly.

Director in Counselling Psychology at Trinity College Ladislav Timulak said men and women can have friendships, but there is always a risk that it could become something more.

“It is a complicated issue, it is definitely possible to have friends of the opposite sex but there is no guarantee it will remain platonic.

“It depends on a number of things; discipline, self-values, the level of attraction, loyalty to partners and the amount of risk involved, for example if someone is married, there is a lot to lose.”

Despite these risks, Dr Timulak says there are a number of benefits to men and women being friends.

“Men and women relationships can be very enriching, the genders socialise differently. Men are more focused and competitive whereas women are more socially aware.

“It is not good to generalise, however typically, men are not very emotionally sensitive and they can learn that from women.

“Women get encouragement from men to be more assertive as males are naturally more aggressive.”

A leading relationship therapist David Kavanagh said it can be complicated to lay out the boundaries around a male and female friendship.

“It is so tricky, because everyone is different, some people are very touchy feely, others may be very emotional and even if there no sexual activity, it can become an issue of emotional cheating.”

Emotional cheating is when a person in a relationship puts the needs of another before their partner, resulting in emotional detachment.

Yet, Mr Kavanagh stresses the importance of platonic male and female relationships for the survival of romantic ones.

“People in relationships who do not have any friends of the opposite sex, have no one to turn to for advice on their partner’s behaviour.

“I often find people coming to therapy with their problems, simply because they do not have someone they can ask; is this normal? Why is he/she doing this?”

Psychotherapist and relationships counsellor with Relationships Ireland Bernadette Ryan says college life is a where men and women really become close for the first time, but it is also a time of exploration.

“There is a lot of trial and error in college and this leads to friends experimenting with sexual activity without any real amorous connection.”

Time and the rules of society, Mr Kavanagh hypothesises, are major factors in the demise of male and female friendships later in life.

“As you get older and you have a career, a partner and a number of other responsibilities, your time for just hanging out is squashed.

“To then say to your partner, oh I am going for a few drinks with this female or male person, is just not accepted in today’s society.”

There is an almost unlimited stream of films and TV shows dedicated to the dangers and rewards of a friendship between a man and a woman.

When Harry met Sally is one that deals with the drama surrounding friends who find each other attractive.

The TV show Friends epitomises the highs and lows of men and women enjoying close connections and How I Met Your Mother looks at the torment that surrounds one friend who unsuccessfully falls for another.

Sean Buckley, 34, Limerick, says the uncertainty of his female friendships makes the bond unique. “No one understands it, but that’s the beauty of it. You can start out wanting nothing and feelings just form.”

Aisling O’Neill, 24, Dublin, says having a boy as a best friend is invaluable for women. “It is different to having girlfriends, they are way more mellow and involve less stress!”

Ed Finn, 24, Charleville, says that being friend-zoned in the past has kept women in his life that he would likely have otherwise lost.

“If a guy likes a girl but she just wants to be friends, then the friendship is saved. I was friend zoned twice and I still hang out with those two girls!”

Of course not all evolving friendships end in disaster as Aoife McLoughlin, 30, Limerick can testify. “I became best friends with a guy I worked with and we ended up going out. Nine years later we are still together.”

Aoife says she thinks it can be difficult, especially for single people, to be friends but the rewards are worth the effort. “I think there can be confusion at times, banter mistaken for flirting, caring mistaken for romantic feelings, but men can be great friends and give great advice, all it takes is trust and emotional maturity.”

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