Why are we still being weird about opposite sex friendships?

when harry met sally harry and sally have known each other for years, and are very good friends, but they fear sex would ruin the friendship
Stop being weird about opposite sex friendships© 1989 CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT. All Rights Reserved. / MGM

These days, debates about healthy relationship habits come and go as fast as Tory prime ministers – Do you have to be ‘healed’ or in therapy to date? Is going for ice cream a lazy first date? Is it true that ‘if he wanted to, he would’? – but there’s one age-old question that continues to rage on among them all: can men and women ever really just be friends?

If you’ve spent any time on TikTok lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into Nora Ephron’s 1989 romcom When Harry Met Sally (which, if you’re crazy enough not to have seen, centres on this debate). Joining the long list of archaic relationship advice thriving on TikTok – including tradwife ideology and the return of 90s romance guides – many young women are posting videos which suggestmaturing is realising” that spoken-for men have no business having female friendships. The videos are in response to a similar trend from men on the app, who first used the format to say “maturing is realising that you could lowkey get it any day you like”, i.e. revealing that they’d pursue something romantic with a female friend if they thought they had a chance.

The counterpart trends have sparked a resurgence in the conversation around whether platonic heterosexual friends of the opposite sex can ever not be attracted to each other, and how their respective partners can deal with the anxiety around these kinds of friendships. But, over 30 years after the debate got its most famous pop culture reference, why is it still such a sticking point?

For some, the discomfort with their partners having female friends stems from negative experiences in the past. Domi, 28, says this is what influenced her setting the boundary of asking her partner not to have close female friends. “Having experienced infidelity in previous relationships, I find it challenging to fully trust men, especially during the early stages of dating,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “There were instances where I ignored obvious red flags, such as late-night texting with other female friends or granting my partner too much freedom to socialise whenever he pleased.” Domi says that her top priority is protecting her own peace of mind, to ensure she never has to “endure such heartache again”. Part of that has been eliminating the potential threat of other women entirely. “When I entered into a relationship with my current boyfriend, I made it clear that I expected him to sever ties with all past and present lovers and refrain from spending time with his female friends.”

Amara, whose TikTok on the trend currently has over 140k views, reckons that her partner should feel that she fulfils both of the roles. “Usually when you’re dating, your significant other should be your lover and best friend in one – so that’s why I feel like [female friends] are not really needed,” she explains. The behaviour of those around her has also influenced Amara’s opinion. “I’ve witnessed examples and been close to guy friends who would talk to me about girls, either sexually or complimentary, while they also have a girlfriend.”

having fun taking photos at a house party
Roo Lewis

Despite this trend being promoted as an empowering stance for women, by positioning women solely as sex objects in the eyes of men and as imaginary competition for one man’s attention, it actually removes their agency and risks rebranding misogynistic tropes that put male desires at the forefront. “The trend seeks to honour female power, but it treats women as objects and suggests their value relies on what men want,” says Law. “This weakens real freedom of choice and makes sexist views seem normal – views that say men matter most.”

Another criticism people levy against the refusal to let your SO have a friend of the opposite sex is the suggestion of control, where women aren’t ‘allowing’ their partners to have friends (and vice versa). For 32-year-old George*, this signalled the end of his relationship. His ex-girlfriend was unhappy with him having any female friends, even when he insisted there was nothing to worry about. “What is sad about it is that she knew it was irrational and she didn’t like that she was making an issue out of it,” he says. “She knew it was coming from deep personal insecurity and anxiety rather than any live reason that was making her feel insecure. Given that she’d accepted it wasn’t a fair way to respond, I forgave and tried to move on. But it kept happening.”

They broke up days after it came to a head at a festival when he met a friend for a drink and returned to passive aggression from the ex. But the undeserved suspicion George felt he was under wasn’t the only part of the relationship’s downfall – it also started to impact his own mental wellbeing. “It made me feel like I was doing something wrong by just being myself, living my life, and sustaining friendships that are important to me,” he explains. “I think it put my nervous system in a very high-alert kind of defence mode where I could never really relax and didn’t feel safe.”

In order to avoid any of your personal insecurities veering into controlling behaviour, open and honest communication is key, explains relationship psychotherapist Claire Law. “If there are certain activities or situations that make one partner uncomfortable, like one-on-one evenings out, have a frank discussion about finding acceptable compromises,” she suggests.In Domi’s case, she insists that she was honest with her boyfriend from the start about why she feels so uncomfortable with these dynamics. To begin with, her boyfriend didn’t see the need for her request. “He argued that having female friends was important to him and that he didn’t see the harm in maintaining those relationships,” she explains, adding that after she had explained her reasoning, he willingly agreed to her terms. “As we continued to discuss the issue, he began to grasp the depth of my concerns and the importance of respecting my boundaries.”

Of course, it’s not just women who feel this jealousy – men can also be uncomfortable with their girlfriends having male friends and can draw the same harsh boundaries. Though scarce, there are some examples of this scattered among the TikTok trend: one person decisively asserts that “men and women can’t be friends”, while another says that “as long as Snapchat exists, you’ll never be ‘The One’.” We also saw these lines in the sand being drawn in the furore around the screenshots of Whatsapp conversations attributed to Jonah Hill by his ex Sarah Brady in which he apparently said: “If you need boundaryless inappropriate friendships with men… I am not the right partner for you.”

Conflating such strict control with ‘boundaries’ is a risk, explains Law, who says that, no matter your gender, it’s insecurity that leads to these concerns. “I’ve seen how potentially damaging that green-eyed monster of insecurity can be when it rears its head around these friendships,” Law says. “While the reasons behind the insecurity are multi-layered, they often boil down to ingrained societal stereotypes that friendships between men and women must be romantic or sexual at their core.”

She continues: “From an early age, we’re bombarded with narratives in movies, TV, music, and media that reinforce the thinking that male/female friendship is merely a transition stage to an inevitable romantic relationship. Or worse, that these friendships are inherently disloyal, fuelled by at least one party secretly desiring more than just friendship.”

She’s right. Entertainment is saturated with this dynamic: it’s not just When Harry Met Sally, either, but the will-they-won’t-they of Rachel and Ross from Friends, the build-up to Jess and Nick’s romance in New Girl, and countless romcom movies. Rarely can a straight man and woman be friends on screen without the implication that at least one of them wants something more to happen. It’s even the topic of ever-popular ‘POV: your boyfriend’s girl best friend’ skits on TikTok, which infuriate viewers about an imaginary woman plotting to steal their man.

a man and a woman on a bicycle

But ultimately, the drama we see on screens is not reality. And not everyone sees opposite sex friendships as a bad thing. For Bethany, 26, a male partner having female friends is actually a green flag, rather than a cause for alarm. She encourages her boyfriend to have female friends, and says she trusts him to respect their relationship. “I find it a wonderful quality that women feel safe around my partner and therefore maintain friendships with him,” she says. “I completely trust that the relationships my partner builds outside of us are beneficial to his social and emotional wellbeing.”

Bethany is also secure in the knowledge that she could communicate any concerns without judgement. “I know if something about that relationship was making me feel any type of way, the conversation could be had safely, and I’d be heard.” She adds that when it comes to dictating who your partner can be friends with, there’s only so much you can do. “I’m a firm believer that if someone is going to cheat, they will do it regardless of the friendships you ‘allow’ them to have,” she says.

Contrary to the latest discourse that suggests a straight-out ban is the mature way to deal with insecurity, Law says that it’s up to the person with concerns to work on the reasons behind their discomfort, instead of projecting it onto their partners. “An anxious partner should ask themselves: ‘What is it about this friendship that’s really threatening my sense of security? Why don’t I trust that my partner values me and will remain loyal?’ Often, the work is internal,” she concludes. “A little empathy, understanding, and honest communication can transform the green-eyed monster from a threat into an opportunity to build even stronger trust and appreciation for the unique dimensions each partner brings to the relationship.”

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