Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has declared that America is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic.

Two friends sitting on park bench talking

There are many causes for this isolation, but here’s one few seem to have considered: barriers to cross-sex friendships among heterosexuals. As psychologist Michael Monsour argues, society doesn’t make it easy for men and women to become friends—and to maintain friendships in general. In his 2001 book, Women and Men as Friends: Relationships Across the Life Span in the 21st Century, he details how social and structural barriers interfere with cross-sex friendships starting in childhood and continuing into old age despite all the good things they offer.

And, he observes, because cross-sex friendships don’t get the same “prominence and notoriety” as same-sex, familial, or romantic friendships, they’ve had to “struggle for recognition”—something Rhaina Cohen explores further in her 2024 book, The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center.

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So, can heterosexual men and women truly be platonic friends? I looked at the research to find out. And I discovered that, yes, men and women can of course be friends—if they have an incentive to manage emotional and sexual attraction.

Does sex always get in the way?

One thing research has found is that LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to remain friends with former romantic partners and more likely to be satisfied in those friendships than heterosexuals. Friendships often play a core role in their lives, offering support, intimacy, and acceptance for “creating and sustaining meaningful identities in a dominate culture at odds with their norms and minority status.”

But heterosexuals? Let’s just say it’s complicated, even if a man and woman have never been romantically involved.

That’s one of the plotlines of Platonic, an Apple TV+ series that features Seth Rogan as a divorced brewpub owner, and Rose Byrne, a stay-at-home mom of three, who rekindle their platonic BFF relationship in midlife. In this show, their friends and spouse/girlfriend are suspicious of their relationship, but the two never betray sexual tension. They really are “just friends.”

Many people wonder if such a relationship is possible in the real world. In a recent article on whether straight married men and women can be friends, Los Angeles Tribune journalist Deborah Netburn wrote that she has platonic friendships with men she’s known from childhood or through work, which her husband has no problem with, but she does not seek out new friendships with straight men. It doesn’t seem right, she observes.

Sarah Wheeler makes a similar observation in her article in The Cut, “Where Have All My Guy Friends Gone?” about the male friends she’s let go by the wayside simply because she’s married.

Their hesitation to cultivate new cross-sex friendships doesn’t seem all that far from former Vice President Mike Pence’s declaration in 2002 that he does not eat alone with a woman or attend an event where alcohol is being served unless his wife, Karen, is with him. The “Mike Pence rule” quickly took over social media with jokes as well as confessions by some men that they, too, avoid interactions with attractive women. The temptation could be, well, tempting.

Cross-sex friendships often raise eyebrows, thanks in part to the problem presented by the popular 1989 rom-com movie When Harry Met Sally—that men and women can’t really be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way.” According to this movie, one of them, typically the man, wants to get into the other’s pants.

As a result of this belief, many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around such friendships. When rocker Patti Smith shared a loving tribute on Instagram to actor Ralph Fiennes on his birthday in 2018, social media went bonkers—were they dating and why did no one know that? The two have only spoken of each other as longtime dear friends—not lovers.

These situations don’t just bring up the When Harry Met Sally dilemma; they also touch upon what philosopher Elizabeth Brake calls amatonormativity—“the widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.”

After the breakup

So if cross-sex relationships are problematic, what are we to make of former romantic partners who remain friends? It may have worked for Seinfeld’s Jerry and Elaine and Sex and the City’s Carrie and Mr. Big—until they got back together and tied the knot, that is—but can it work in the real world?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about since a romantic relationship ended recently. I was crazy for him, but clearly the feeling wasn’t mutual. “Let’s stay friends,” he told me.

“Sure,” I said, feeling somewhat crushed, knowing that many people say that as a way to exit a romantic relationship as gently as possible with no actual desire to truly be friends. So, I had to ask myself: How would that work? Could I really be friends with someone I have such strong feelings for? Should I?

Several studies have sought to answer my questions.

There are four reasons people stay friends with a former partner, according to one 2017 study: security, practicality, civility, and unresolved romantic desires. Staying friends for both practical and security reasons was likely to lead to a more satisfying relationship, according to the study, whereas staying friends solely for practical reasons or for civility often meant that the friendship was less likely to last in the long term.

Staying friends with a former romantic partner is a “very pervasive phenomenon,” the study’s lead author Rebecca Griffith told Live Science, adding that some 60% of people remain friends after a romantic split and about 22% are friends with several former partners.

That said, the study observes that people may have different ideas of what a friendship actually is, with men often having a looser definition. “Perhaps a lack of animosity would qualify as a friendship to some, but a much more involved and reciprocal conceptualization would be used by others,” the researchers write.

A different 2017 study, “Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship,” found a few more reasons, such as:

  • sentimentality: “we shared a lot of good memories” or “they were supportive of my goals”;
  • pragmatism: “they were able to provide me transportation to places” or “they had attractive friends” (note: this seems problematic!);
  • continued romantic attraction: “I still had feelings for them” (also problematic!);
  • shared resource: such as a child, pet, or an apartment;
  • diminished romantic feelings, which made it easier to keep things platonic; and
  • social relationship maintenance: such as keeping a friend group intact and minimizing drama.

As the study’s authors note, previous research found that while it isn’t all that rare to stay friends with a former partner, it’s a lot harder to maintain a relationship with them than it is with a friend of the opposite sex that you’ve never been romantic with, like the characters in Platonic.

Many people have more negative feelings toward a former partner than a platonic friend, the study found. Plus, researchers noted that men were more interested in maintaining friendships for practical reasons and—perhaps not surprisingly—sexual access, creating a kind of situationship until someone better comes along.

Maintaining a friendship just to have sexual access to a former partner or because they have attractive friends don’t seem to be the best or healthiest reasons to stay friends. Which is why social and health psychologist Juliana Breines suggests people ask themselves why they want to maintain the relationship.

If you want to keep tabs on your former partner, or if you’re lonely, or you’re hopeful you may become lovers again, it’s not going to be a positive friendship, she writes. Friendships with former partners tend to be “less emotionally supportive, less helpful, less trusting, and less concerned about the other person’s happiness. This is especially true, not surprisingly, for former partners who were dissatisfied with the romantic relationship, and in cases when the break-up was not mutual.”

Then there’s the issue of remaining friends on social media. The reasons people decide to remain friends or not with a former partner in a face-to-face context don’t influence whether they decide to keep or end a Facebook friendship, according to a 2019 study of U.S. college students. Maintaining a friendship is a “way to save face in front of their social networks both on and offline,” the researchers found. Plus, it’s easy to avoid seeing a former romantic partner’s posts by snoozing, hiding, or unfollowing them.

Benefits of a healthy post-breakup friendship

All that said, post-breakup friendships can carry many benefits. Olivia Dreizen Howell has a two-decade friendship with her college boyfriend of four years.

“When I was going through my divorce, he was one of the first people I told and he reminded me how strong I was,” says the CEO and cofounder of Fresh Starts Registry, a registry and online platform to help people who are rebuilding their life after a major change, such as a divorce. “We FaceTimed and talked a lot during the pandemic early days. He is someone who always made me feel safe, so it was nice to have him in my back pocket. We still text on a regular basis.

“I feel so blessed that this guy stumbled into my life when I was 19 and he will always be part of my life.” 

Still, Breines writes that a friendship can work if “neither of you has ulterior motives”—which are sneaky, she acknowledges—and if the friendship doesn’t interfere with a current relationship.

And a current relationship shouldn’t interfere with a friendship with a former partner, as Howell suggests:

My ex-husband was not a fan of my keeping up relationships with anyone from my past. In fact, when we got engaged, my ex-boyfriend-now-friend was thrilled for me and said he couldn’t wait to come to the wedding—and I was not able to invite him, and that broke my heart. If someone asks you to end a 20-year friendship with someone because you dated for a few years in your early 20s, that person is trying to isolate you and it’s a major red flag.

LGBTQ+ individuals aren’t the only ones who are better at maintaining friendships with former romantic partners—heterosexual and bisexual polyamorists do, too.

Author Elisabeth Sheff has long studied polyamorous families. Polyamorists, she says, are better able to “recognize and accept when people have grown apart or are not working well together, and then change—not necessarily end—the relationship.” Rather than being seen as a catastrophe, “ending or transitioning to a different kind of relationship can be a celebration of a new phase.” That’s a lesson their monogamous counterparts might take to heart.

As someone who embraces Katherine Woodward Thomas’s principle of conscious uncoupling, which promotes ending relationships as they began, with love, kindness, and compassion, I believe that former lovers, spouses, and romantic partners can be friends after the relationship ends. But I’m not sure staying friends with a former partner needs to happen, unless you share children, pets, or property with them. Will my most recent partner join the ranks of my friendly former boyfriends? So far, we have had several sweet text exchanges and he has offered to help fit me for my new bike. Time will tell if that friendly banter will continue.

So, can men and women be friends?

Indeed, a lot has changed since Michael Monsour’s book was published a quarter of a century ago.

Young people are more interested in watching stories about friendships and platonic relationships, called “nomance,” according to a 2023 UCLA study. Elevating friendships is having a moment, not only expressed by writings by Cohen and author Andrew Solomon, but also by Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has been studying cross-gender platonic friendships since the late 1970s.

“I think there’s more recognition now of the fact that friends are resources in the way that we’ve always known family members were. There’s a lot more awareness now of the importance of friendship in people’s lives, that our fate is not just determined by our families of origin, but our ‘chosen’ families,” Adams tells the Atlantic.

And a substantial number of American adults—61%—believe that having close friends is extremely or very important in order to have a fulfilling life, according to the Pew Research Center. However, most also said that all or most of those friends are the same gender as they are.

America’s loneliness epidemic is particularly hard on men, who often lack deep friendships as they tend to turn to their romantic partners for support instead of making and maintaining friends of their own, which negatively affects them if they divorce or become widowed. So, it would seem that anything that encourages and supports more friendships would be welcomed, including those between former romantic partners.

More researchers are starting to pay attention to cross-gender friendships, what’s known as “heterosociality.” And as psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner writes, focusing on the “either/or categorization of gender as female or male” may be too limiting, especially as more people identify as nonbinary. “Understanding how sex and gender relate to friendship may require a looking at a continuum of gender identity.”
Research aside, ultimately it comes down to this: What kind of friendships do you want—and who do you want to have them with? Being open to different perspectives seems to be something all of us may want to embrace.

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