The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 01, 2023 - 1:14:51

Can Men and Women Be Friends? Part One

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Apr 06, 2017

Can a woman and a man be "just friends?" Or must every male/female friendship inevitably lead to either romance or resentment?

A Federalist article entitled "Why Men and Women Can Never Be 'Just Friends'" sparked off a furore on Facebook Tuesday by managing to denigrate both woman and men with the author's argument that male/female friendship is both impossible and bad for civilization.

That is not an exaggeration. The author's argument can be summarized thus:

  1. "Americans need to raise our sagging birth rates."
  2. To reverse this, young men and women need to marry earlier.
  3. Friendship is transactional, and women need to understand that "There’s only one thing you can give his man friends can’t," and this means "You don’t have any guy friends. You can’t have any guy friends." 
  4. Conclusion: Women need to reverse the waning birth rate by either dumping or marrying their male friends. 

Along the way, the author paints a picture of male friendship that is stuck at the preschool level of parallel play. And that's being generous. At one point the author describes friendship as "a good that people acquire in exchange for the currency of their time." That's not far from a toddler's definition of a friend as "someone whose toys I like." 

Fr Schneider provides a critique of this reduction of male friendship on his blog, observing that,

"This article misses the essential aspect of any friendship in the love of charity. He is missing the very core. Aquinas speaks of this: 'Yet neither does well-wishing suffice for friendship, for a certain mutual love is requisite, since friendship is between friend and friend: and this well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication.' Well-wishing is desiring the good for the other. We wish well for all, but the specific close communication which allows us to know what is good for this specific person is an important element of friendship."

With such a reductionist view of men--the Federalist author posits that what men want out of friendship is explosions, emotional repression, and fart jokes, and that men provide these things better than do women--and such an incomplete understanding of friendship, it's little wonder the author reaches the conclusion that men and women cannot be friends. 

The author of the Federalist piece is not the first or only person to make the argument that men and women cannot be platonic friends. Although his portrayal of the kind of friendship desirable to men is fairly easy to discard, I was curious what others have to say on the topic, and spent yesterday reading around.

First I looked for some data on male/female friendships to see if there's any substance to the claim that women and men cannot be friends because of the potential for sexual attraction.

One study that was widely reported in 2012 showed that college-age men tend to think their attractive female friends are attracted to them. College-age men are also more likely than their female friends to indicate willingness to "upgrade" friendship to something sexual/romantic.

When researchers sought input from a wider range of ages, they found that middle-aged women are more likely to cite "possibility of attraction" as a "cost" of male-female friendship while middle-aged men are more likely to see it as neutral or even as a benefit.

Although this study was frequently publicised as "Science Shows Men and Women Cannot Be Friends," it's worth noting that despite the obvious complications involved in these disparities of perception and attitude, respondents from both studies saw male-female friendship as beneficial overall. Obviously, there is more going on here than the Federalist author credits. 

What is it that motivates men and women to become friends? Why do we have so few models for male/female friendship? And what does this have to do with Personalism? 

Continued in Part Two

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