It's a question that kicks around endlessly without resolution: Can men and women really be just friends? On Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Faith Salie and Mario Correa, hosts of WNYC's RelationShow, about this very topic.
As it happens, Faith and Mario are friends, but they put that down in part to the fact that Faith is straight and Mario is gay – they describe some research that makes them think perhaps platonic friendship between straight men and women is not, in fact, really possible. Some of the research indicates that men, in particular, are somewhat likely to both report some level of attraction to their female friends and to believe their female friends feel some level of attraction to them.
Now, I will make a confession: I have very little patience for this debate under normal circumstances, because my male friends include straight guys, gay guys, married guys, single guys, flirty guys, not-at-all-flirty guys, and yes, even the odd guy I've dated here and there. (Exes are a much more controversial question in my experience, and, I admit, a trickier proposition, but it absolutely happens.) But I am always willing to listen to research. If it turns out that I am not actually friends with any of them, that would be sad, because I would have to return a lot of dudes to the Friends 'R' Us store at once, and that would be very disruptive socially. On the other hand, they're worth quite a lot, so I'm sure I'd get good trade-in value.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On member station WNYC's RelationShow, Faith Salie and Mario Correa delve into the psychology of modern romance. They turn to science - and sometimes, to each other - to help unravel the mysteries of love and connection, like this one:
MARIO CORREA: Do you believe that men and women can be just friends?
MARTIN: This question was put to college students at Utah State in a YouTube video, viewed nearly 7 million times. You may notice a pattern in the answers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's no.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No way.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I don't believe so, no.
MARTIN: OK. So, you get the picture. Women said yes, men said no. And according to Mario Correa and Faith Salie, it's those skeptical men who may well be right. Hi guys.
FAITH SALIE: Hey, Rachel.
CORREA: Hey there, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK. So, you two - this is actually a topic that I've discussed quite a bit with friends and family, for some reason. And I have to say that based on my very rudimentary research, I do not think that it's truly possible for men and women to be just friends. I mean, you two have managed to do it, but I suppose that's a little different.
SALIE: Yeah, yeah, the gay-straight thing, you know, sure makes it easier.
CORREA: Although Faith totally checks me out still even today, so.
SALIE: Yes, Mario, I like what you've done with your chest hair for summer.
MARTIN: OK. So all of that aside, you two have been digging into the science of straight, opposite-sex friendships, right?
CORREA: Yeah. We basically wanted to find out why men and women view their opposite-sex friends differently. You know, like, why platonic relationships are fraught with sexual tension and unexpressed feelings and, you know, all that good stuff.
SALIE: So we spoke to Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. And she's just published the results of two studies that examined real-life male-female friendships, and found out what these men and women were really thinking.
DR. APRIL BLESKE-RECHECK: The men reported more attraction to their friend than the women did. And the men also overestimated how attracted their friends were to them.
CORREA: Even though these pairs were supposedly just friends, right, the man was more likely to see the woman as more than a friend.
SALIE: And in many cases, even if the woman in the pair was not attracted to the guy, the guy assumed she was. So...
MARTIN: Of course he did.
CORREA: Surprise, surprise.
BLESKE-RECHECK: And then the most interesting thing for me was that men who are single or involved, don't differ in how attracted they are to their female friends, whereas women do. So if women are already involved, or their friend is involved, they seem to be off-limits. And men don't experience that.
MARTIN: But why is this happening? I mean, why do men in these friendships have these feelings that the women don't? And why do the men think that their female friend is attracted to them, even if it's clearly the farthest thing from her mind?
SALIE: Yeah, that's what we asked Dr. Bleske-Rechek.
BLESKE-RECHECK: I think that men have a stronger evolved sexual strategy for engaging in sexual opportunities. I think that over evolutionary history, men who had - who received subtle signals or ambiguous signals of sexual interest, needed to act on them because if they didn't, they would have been out-reproduced by men who did.
CORREA: So in other words, it's basically evolution. Because you got to remember that platonic relationships are still like a basically novel concept in the history of mankind, right? So, what Bleske-Rechek is saying is that today, men are still acting out on those impulses to express attraction, you know, to reproduce, even though they're engaged in friendships.
SALIE: Yeah, and Bleske-Rechek says that the fact that women don't act on that impulse quite as often doesn't mean they don't feel that attraction. It may just be an unconscious choice on our part - or even, unwittingly, a coy strategy.
BLESKE-RECHECK: It's quite possible that for women, actually not being aware of attraction to a cross-sex friend, or not expressing it, could actually be to their advantage. So women may send subtle signals without even realizing it, that could kind of lead men on and proffer protection and benefits.
MARTIN: Hmm. We're so complex, Faith. So women may well have these feelings, but we're not expressing them?
CORREA: Or at least, you're not expressing them consciously. But you may be doing unconscious things, like some guy's chores. Meet Vanessa and Josh. They've been friends for over a decade.
JOSH: Crush? Did you have a crush on me?
VANESSA: No, it wasn't a crush, but there was about a two-week period where I did think maybe I had feelings for Josh. And it all started because I did his laundry for him, at one point, in college. I don't remember why I did your laundry for you. Looking back, someone said to me, like, why did you do his laundry for him? Like, you must have feelings for him. And I just went into this whole spin - like, maybe I do have feelings for Josh. And that ended with you sleeping with my best friend.
JOSH: Second-best friend.
VANESSA: Yeah, my second-best friend. So that was the end of that two-week period, and I've never thought about it since.
MARTIN: I love that it's the second-best friend.
CORREA: Imagine what would have happened if he'd slept with the best friend. Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: OK. So, the moral of the story is - I guess it's just really complicated.
SALIE: Yeah, it is. And - and it's all evolution's fault.
MARTIN: Blame it on evolution. Blame it on biology. We will leave it at that. But I can't let you two go without saying congratulations to Faith. You have entered into one of the most deeply emotional relationships ever. You had a brand-new baby boy a couple of weeks ago, so congrats.
SALIE: I did. Thank you. I'm about cry. And Rachel, you are about to join the club. Congratulations to you.
MARTIN: Thank you so much.
CORREA: So exciting.
MARTIN: The club of motherhood. I am actually due today, so could be an interesting day. I'll be taking a break from the air for just a few weeks - hopefully, a little bit longer than you did, Faith.
SALIE: Oh, trust me, I am going right back to bed.
CORREA: I am too, actually. Can I do that, too?
MARTIN: Sure. Mario Correa and Faith Salie co-host RelationShow on member station WNYC. You can follow them on Twitter @RelationShow, or learn more about them at RelationShow.org. Thanks, you guys.
SALIE: Thanks, Rachel.
CORREA: Thanks, Rachel.
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MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.