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Can you ever really be “just friends?” Defining the complicated lines between friendship and romance

By in Opinions

When two people spend a lot of time together, we often speculate if friendship is really the only subject on their minds. While friendships can turn into relationships, they can also crumble because one person feels differently than the other. Still, some hold fast to the “just friends” claim no matter what. But is this a disguise for romantic feelings or is it legitimate to simply be “just friends” with someone?

University of Saskatchewan psychology professor Todd Morrison thinks that while we may not be conditioned to believe being “just friends” is doable, it isn’t proven to be impossible either.

“I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that individuals cannot be friends or that one person is always hoping that it will evolve into something else. From a scientific standpoint, the answer is ‘of course,’” Morrison said.

But when it comes to romance, we rarely look at it from a scientific standpoint. More often than not, emotions get the upper hand and the success of friendships and relationships alike are largely dependent on the individuals, their personalities and the present circumstances. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all model that can be applied here and I’ve come to the  somewhat unfortunate  conclusion that having no answer to the question may be the best answer after all.

I spoke to five students at the U of S about whether or not they thought people could be “just friends.” I also asked the students what they self-identified their sexual orientation as because I wanted to see if it had any affect on how they viewed the question. Typically, the question that seems to dominate friendship and romantic discourses is, “Can men and women be friends?” — but to expand that category is beneficial because attraction can be a potential problem for people of any sexual orientation.

For students that said “yes,” their reasons varied based on certain factors, but all students who thought two people could be “just friends” also reasoned that some sort of boundary must be in place to maintain the relationship.

First year arts and science student Jack Fotheringham — who self-identifies as straight — pointed out that feelings for a female friend may come and go with time.

“You have passing thoughts of romance or sexual involvement, but I think you just need to make a judicious decision as to whether you weigh the friendship more or if you value the possibility of having a successful romantic relationship. Even though it’s a passing thought occasionally, I think you just need to create boundaries,” Fotheringham said.

But what happens if these boundaries are crossed — intentionally or unintentionally? Crossing a physical boundary has obvious implications, but does crossing emotional boundaries guarantee attraction?

Third year mathematics and computer science student Mitchell Corbett — who self-identifies as a gay cis-gendered male — thinks that crossing these boundaries doesn’t guarantee attraction.

“I think it’s crossing intimate emotional boundaries that forms the strongest friendship bonds, but does not automatically create romantic feelings,” Corbett said. “The intimacy that close friends share can certainly be a factor in future romantic developments, but it’s not automatic.”

The idea behind being just friends typically seems to be sexually exclusive. However, it is assumed far more often that heterosexual males and females cannot remain in a friendship and at some point one of them will develop deeper feelings for the other.

But the idea that this concept is reserved for heterosexual friendships and not for a variety of sexual orientations is absurd — as Morrison points out in blatant terms.

“If we were to assume that individuals could never be friends and we were thinking heterosexually — men could never be friends with women, women could never be friends with men — that they always wanted more, then this would put bisexual individuals in a very difficult position,” Morrison said. “Logically, they couldn’t have any friends at all — they would always be attracted to someone.”

This raises an interesting point in who we are conditioned or taught to be friends with. Historically — and heterosexually speaking — adolescent men and women were not friends. Opposite gender relations were reserved for romance and outside of that, men and women did not spend time alone together. While there may have been group gatherings where both genders were present, alone time with someone who was not or would not become a significant other was considered largely inappropriate.

Therefore, perhaps the reason many don’t think it’s possible to be just friends has to do with the fact that we are not conditioned to believe it could be possible. The natural progression of major relationship events usually goes from friends to more, with the problem of always wanting more than we currently have.

“We’re really not taught to view the other sex — I’m speaking heterosexually — as friends. We’re taught to view them as prospective partners and so there’s always this idea that you might start off as friends, but that it will lead to more,” Morrison said.

It’s true — people are usually encouraged to have friends of the same gender, regardless of sexual orientation and there’s also a stereotype that a certain “stage series” exists for any given relationship. Perhaps things start off on a surface level, but invariably the relationship must become deeper, more meaningful and lead to attraction. This so-called “natural progression” holds true for all configurations of romantic and sexual orientation.

If we are accustomed to this format, it makes sense as to why friendships can become confusing. While it is true that any given friendship or relationship progresses naturally in some way as trust and comfort levels strengthen, third year psychology student Denae Pellerin thinks this is actually the very reason why two people cannot be friends. Pellerin self-identifies as cisgendered heterosexual.

“I think you can be superficial friends without feelings but I don’t think you can be best friends and not have some level of inevitable attraction or feelings. I guess once you do have those feelings you can choose to stay friends, but those feelings might still be there,” Pellerin said.

However, this attraction doesn’t always have to be romantic. Fourth year art student Elaine Nieman, who self-identifies as pansexual, was quick to state that attraction is present in all favorable human relationships.

“Gender doesn’t make a huge difference in how I make friends anymore,” Nieman said. “Even a platonic friendship is based on some level of attraction; you’re going to hang out with people who you see qualities in that you like. It’s inevitable that you’re going to find something that you are attracted to and then the way that you interpret that or act on it is what defines the relationship.”

Corbett said something very similar — pointing out that gender doesn’t make a difference for him either when it comes to friendships.

“I have no conscious preference for the gender of my friends. I’ve had times in my life where most of my friends are girls and times where most of my friends are guys — of various sexual orientations,” Corbett said.

This is an interesting point: should gender really make a difference in who we are friends with? In an ideal world, anyone could be friends with anyone and we wouldn’t be limited in setting boundaries, only befriending certain genders and worrying about the potential feelings of another.

However, it seems that my heterosexual interviewees were more conscious of being friends with someone who they could potentially be attracted to; they were more likely to see a distinct difference in friendships that involve males and females, versus same-gender friendships. Since we are conditioned to believe heterosexual males and females cannot be friends, we are also conditioned to believe that they can be great friends — if one or both of them is gay.

The differences between male and female can make for a friendship that contrasts same gender friendships. These differences can be beneficial to form strong bonds, regardless of sexual orientation. Second year Edwards School of Business student Sophie Kokott — who self-identifies as cis-gendered heterosexual — points out why men and women enjoy being friends with eachother.

“I think guys and girls want to be friends with each other because girls are usually more emotional — and I know that my guy friends are super chill, so it’s fun to hang out with them. Sometimes guys just want to talk so it’s good for them to hang out with girls too,” Kokott said.

From a heterosexual male’s point of view, Fotheringham agrees.

“You get a different perspective that you wouldn’t get by having a boyfriend or girlfriend. You also value the relationship differently. Even just spending time with someone of the opposite sex in a platonic setting opens up a different view on how the other gender or sex operates,” Fotheringham said.

Both Fotheringham and Kokott pointed out gender differences in friends; but Nieman and Corbett said gender didn’t influence their friendships. These gender differences however might be based on stereotypes for how certain genders should and do behave. They also relate directly to why we don’t have a clear example of platonic heterosexual friendships between men and women.

“Friendship for groups of men stereotypically tend to be quite surface-level and activity-related,” Morrison said. “For women there’s an assumption that their friendships are going to be more meaningful. So men and women are at a disadvantage to be friends because they’re not really armed with the tools that they need to be friends.”

If we’re at a disadvantage already, then is it possible at all? Are homosexual and bisexual friendships at the same disadvantage?

Of the five university students I spoke to, two females and one male said you could be “just friends” while one male and one female said you couldn’t. In some cases where they had gone from friends to more than friends, they claimed that you could still be “just friends” with someone. For Nieman, those feelings were something she could — and had to — overcome.

“I’m roomates with someone who I actually dated for a month last year and we’ve acknowledged that yes, we’re attracted to each other, but we just made a conscious decision to say, ‘This is what we can handle, so let’s do it,’” Nieman said.

It might not be possible for everyone to go from more than friends and then back into a friendship however. This is largely dependent on individual situations, but Corbett points out that once feelings are there, they can be difficult to overcome.

“I can’t be ‘just friends’ with someone if I have romantic feelings for them, because I find it consumes the friendship,” Corbett said.

True or not, the assumption also tends to persist that everything will be much better in a romantic relationship than in a friendship — but that’s not always the case. Fotheringham has crossed that line in the past with female friends and believes there’s no going back.

“I have gone from a friendship to something more than a friendship — but not necessarily a committed relationship — and it’s ended really badly. I regret it because I missed out on the opportunity to continue having that person as a friend,” Fotheringham said. “It’s a one-way street and if you cross the boundary and it doesn’t work out, it just has to be over because it’s too much. You would always be questioning where the other person was at and where you’re at — and that’s just too much strain to put on something as simple as a friendship.”

Friendships of all configurations hold value beyond the romantic. Providing support for life’s problems and a level of enjoyment and fun that is sometimes not even present in a relationship, friendships fill their own role in our lives. As humans, we need friendships — they are essential. And while it might be interesting to test the waters occasionally, choosing to be just friends might actually be a benefit to both parties.

“I don’t think it’s bad to be friends with someone you have feelings for. It doesn’t mean that something has to happen,” Pellerin said.

Feelings come and go, even in strictly romantic relationships. Therefore when they come up, Pellerin is right — it doesn’t mean something will or has to happen. We are conditioned to believe that something “meaningful” will surely come from a friendship-turned-relationship, but like these individuals pointed out, that is not necessarily the case.

“If it’s rendered invisible, then it isn’t very salient and we don’t think in those terms,” Morrison said. “But why couldn’t two people be supportive of each other and the ups and downs of life without worrying about whether or not it’s going to lead to attraction?”

Interestingly enough, the reviews across the board were mixed as to whether or not people should be friends before they date. Apparently, previous friendship can be both a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, becoming friends with someone first allows you to get to know them in a different way as people may be inclined to fully be themselves and show all sides of their personalities — the good, the bad and the ugly. This may lead some people to fall for the other person and form a solid foundation to base a romantic relationship on.

On the other hand, Pellerin spoke about how friendship might lessen your chance of attraction to the person and help you to realize that you could never be more than friends with that person.

“Sometimes when you know someone really well it’s good because you can see that you would never work with them in a relationship,” Pellerin said.

Nieman also finds it hard to turn a friendship into a romantic relationship.

“There’s exceptions to every rule but I find once I’ve come to view somebody as a friend, it’s hard to break out of that camp. I feel like if I were trying to date a friend, it would be more likely for me personally to not be able to make that change,” Nieman said.

Fotheringham also said no, but Kokott was on the fence because the relationship has the potential to end for better — but also for worse.

“It’s good because then you know the person, but once you break up then you might still end up hanging out with that person if you’re in the same group of friends. But dating someone after just going on a few dates is just as good — because then you have an entire relationship to get to know someone,” Kokott said. “Dating someone who is your friend can get complicated; at this age, dating your friends always end up messy.”

Corbett felt the exact opposite when asked if two people should be friends before they date.

“Yes, yes, yes. Your significant other needs to emotionally support you and you should enjoy spending time with them. Either of those are also qualities of good friends,” Corbett said.

Either way, having some level of friendship is important for a romantic relationship, whether it develops prior to or during the relationship.

“Is it essential? No. But does it help? I would say yes. It’s beneficial for all couples,” Morrison said. “I think it’s surprising the number of couples that say ‘I love my partner, but I don’t necessarily like my partner.’”

Genuine friendships — like all relationships — require an appreciation of the other person. They have a specific purpose that is different from just simply filling in a hole while someone waits for a romantic partner to come along. They are valuable in themselves as an essential part of life. For Kokott, this appreciation of a male friend in a non-romantic way is both attainable and favorable.

“I think it’s possible to love a guy best friend platonically. There are so many people in our lives that we have that love for — like a cousin or brother,” Kokott said. “I think it’s possible to have that kind of relationship with a guy too where it becomes kind of brotherly.”

After all this, it seems to me that there is no clear answer to the question “Can two people be ‘just friends?’” Some people can, others cannot — what works for one person won’t work for another and sometimes with friendship, romance can either get in the way or be an added bonus.

The answer is just as varied as the different types of relationships in the world. From my conversations with these students, I don’t think sexual orientation plays a critical role in whether or not two people can be “just friends.” We are all the same and have the same struggles with both romance and friendship — that much was clear to me.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model, nor should there be. I’d say I ended up with more confusion than conclusion, but who’s to say that’s such a bad thing? Perhaps the complicated lines between friendship and romance can never truly be resolved — and shouldn’t be. Everyone loves a little mystery, right?

Naomi Zurevinski / Opinions Editor

Graphic: Stephanie Mah / Graphics Editor

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