Thursday, September 11, 2003

Parker Swann has as many male friends as there are “stars in the sky,” her mother says.”It’s just a great way to get a different perspective on life,” says Miss Swann, an 18-

year-old sophomore at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Men can be easier to get along with, she says, because females are more competitive in their relationships. One of Miss Swann’s pals says his friendships with girls are natural.

“I’m drawn to female friends because I’m a guy,” says Michael Judd, 18 and also a sophomore at Baylor. “It’s good to have variety in life.”

Not too many years ago, most men and women limited their friendships to their own sex and their love lives to the opposite sex. That is changing.

As sex roles for both men and women become less rigid, and sexual boundaries erode, platonic opposite-sex friendships increasingly flourish, especially among those too young to remember the old ways.

Nowadays more Americans seem to agree that — contrary to the famous claims made by Billy Crystal’s character in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally” — men and women can be just friends.

“It’s not revolutionary for men and women to be friends these days,” says Sherrie Schneider, co-author of the series of the best-selling dating advice books known as “The Rules.”

But the possibility of male-female friendships depends upon certain conditions.

“It’s not an unequivocal yes, that anyone can, but certainly some people can,” says Heidi Reeder, a communications professor at Boise State University. Women are usually thought to be more interested than men in pursuing platonic friendships.

The degree of romantic or physical attraction present in either party, whether the parties are currently (and happily) romantically involved or married, personal ideological beliefs and past experiences all contribute to the likelihood of success of platonic friendships between the sexes.

“If you establish a friendship before you get married, once you get married the spouse is usually more understanding,” says Mike Monsour, a communications professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of “Women and Men as Friends: Relationships Across the Life Span in the 21st Century.”

Spouses are sometimes much less understanding of intimate cross-sex friendships formed after wedding vows have been exchanged, particularly if the other person is attractive. “As a general rule, relationships [cross-sex friendships] in which one person is [homosexual] are usually a lot less troublesome,” Mr. Monsour says.

The biggest difficulties in platonic friendships arise when both partners are heterosexual and “unattached,” he says.

Two-thirds of Mr. Monsour’s students report that they have had no problems enjoying the mere companionship of the opposite sex. He hypothesizes that from adolescence through young adulthood, in roughly 20 percent of male-female platonic friendships, one person has a “hidden agenda” — romantic or sexual goals that he or she keeps hidden from the friend.

With the decline of traditional dating in campus life, ambiguity mixed with alcohol can add sexual potential to seemingly innocuous college friendships. In one study of 300 college students, 41 percent reported having sexual relations with a friend. Of those who did have such relations with friends, 56 percent said the relationship did not become romantic, and 67 percent said sex improved the quality of the friendship.

Walid A. Afifi, a Penn State professor who participated in the study, says students have a network of 30 to 50 acquaintances, but are having sexual intercourse typically with only one to three of their “friends.”

On today’s college campuses, research indicates roughly half of the students are engaging in so-called “friends with benefits” relationships, combining friendship and sex, but not romance. One study of college students in Arizona and Ohio found that as many as 60 percent have been in such friendships.

But among such friends, there is usually a mismatch between how much romance each partner wants, says Paul Mongeau, professor of communications at Arizona State University.

Mr. Mongeau remembers one student who was engaged in two different “beneficial relationships” simultaneously, and was shocked when each woman promptly ended the relationship upon learning of the other, even though there had been no discussion of monogamy.

Young people now are delaying marriage — the median age of first marriage for men is now 27, up from 22 in the 1960s — and friendships are a way for singles to get opposite-sex companionship, Ms. Reeder says.

Some choose platonic friendships precisely because romance has such a bad record, says Mr. Monsour, citing the 50 percent divorce rate. They think friendship may be a safer avenue to explore relationships.

Studies have found that men and women who display androgynous tendencies tend to have a slightly higher average of cross-sex friends. And cultural changes have provided more opportunities for men and women to do so, say scholars.

Men and women have more opportunities to both meet potential friends of the opposite sex and pursue those relationships, says Ms. Reeder. The feminist movement of the 1960s propelled women from women’s colleges and domestic roles into coeducational institutions and the workplace. Men and women began to study and work alongside one another with a much greater frequency.

Although barriers have been broken in regard to platonic friendships between men and women, they can still be a little messy and a little confusing.

“When you say that someone’s your friend, we don’t really know what that means,” says Ms. Reeder.

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