Can men and women be ‘just friends’? We’ve seen time and time again in pop-culture that it may not be the case. Let’s zoom in on one of inarguably the best references: Friends. There are Ross and Rachel, Monica and Chandler, and — while they weren’t romantically involved, per se — even Joey and Phoebe shared a kiss or two in the series. And yes, this isn’t the only Friends reference you’ll see here. But more on that later.
For now, we ask: does fiction mirror reality? Tons of studies suggest that people in real life also wonder about heterosexual friendships and their implications. Is it inevitable for romantic feelings to arise — mutual or not — when it comes to such relationships? Or is something with no strings attached, no secretly pining for one another — just pure platonic friendship — possible? Talk about an actual head-scratcher!
So we decided to do our own digging. Ahead, three women share their thoughts on platonic heterosexual friendships, choosing friendship over love, and the ‘friendzone’.
Experiences shape perceptions
As someone who studied avionics in university, Jem, 21, experienced being in a male-dominated social circle for most of her college life. Their class ratio was four girls to eight guys, so it was inevitable to be friends with the opposite sex.
“I think heterosexual friendships are really just like any normal friendship out there,” Jem said. “It’s just that there’s a perception that seeing people of opposite sexes having fun together is immediately a sign of a budding romance.”
Freelance writer Roxette, 24, backed this up, saying that one of the probable main contributors to this mentality is “mainstream media” where heterosexual friendships are “constantly portrayed as ‘unrequited love’ or being stuck in the ‘friend-zone.’”
“There's a tendency that one person in the friendship harbours feelings of attachment, attraction, and dependence that often lead to romantic thoughts,” she said. She confessed that growing up, she’s had crushes on guy friends, which sometimes led to rejections or going back to being friends. With this, she said that there is a certain truth to such portrayals in pop culture. However, it’s not fair to generalise based on these assumptions because platonic heterosexual friendships do exist.
Business development analyst Yama, 27, on the other hand, is sceptical about the matter. She studied in an all-girls school for 14 years, making her more comfortable around girls than guys growing up. She also distanced herself from guy relationships because of an experience where she and some girlfriends were “verbally attacked” by guy friends “intentionally or unintentionally”.
“I think men and women value different things,” said Yama. “Additionally, humans are born to be naturally attracted to the opposite sex (like instinct for reproduction) thus it’s easy to have some romantic feelings towards the opposite sex.”
Thoughts on affectionate gestures
One of the best ways to show how you care for someone, without necessarily saying it out loud is through actions. But to what extent does it apply to heterosexual platonic friendships?
“I give hugs every time I see my friends (same or opposite sex) and I’m not ‘choosy’ on who I show my affection to,” Jem said. “I treat my friends equally and am not afraid to have a sleepover with my friends or even let them hang out in my dorm because I know I can trust them.”
Roxette, meanwhile, said: “I have no problem giving hugs and words of affection to my friends. But I only limit kisses to younger friends or female friends, just because I don't want to cause misunderstandings — in case they're in a relationship or insinuate something that isn't there.”
Yama also reserves such affectionate actions towards female friends only. She said that kissing someone on the cheek or saying ‘I love you’ platonically is possible, but these are hard to separate from amorous actions. This is because these actions can also connote romantic entanglement when directed to the opposite sex.
Entering the “friendzone”
Here’s today’s trivia: did you know that the term ‘friendzone’ was actually coined by Friends’ Joey Tribbiani (Matt Le Blanc)? The term was used in one of the first season’s episodes, referring to a situation where Ross made it known that he wanted to be more than friends with Rachel. Unlike the common definition of unrequited love, it is characterised by the existing friendship between two parties, where one party’s sexual or romantic attraction is not reciprocated.
The friendzone’s problem is it perpetuates the idea that if you keep pushing for the so-called friendship, then the other party has an obligation — no matter how long it takes — to give in to your pining.
For Jem, the idea of the friendzone wouldn’t be problematic if there is an acceptance that “your feelings won’t be reciprocated” and that your “fleeting emotions [will] become a tool for growing up and learning something new about love.”
“I get that people who romanticise the friendzone think that you really want the person you like to see that you really care,” said Jem. “But there’s a limit on being stubborn. Is it still healthy for you? Do you actually care for the person or are you just pushing yourself to stay because you’re stuck on thinking about ‘what ifs’ even if they’re already firm with their response’?”
Roxette added: “Someone ‘stuck’ in the friendzone is someone who is stuck with their own expectations and projections. They need to realise that there's only so much that they can do to express their feelings. They can't force someone to like them back or remove themselves from the friendzone. If you value the friendship of the person you like, you need to respect their boundaries or leave them alone because they already told you that they can't reciprocate your feelings. If you're persistent, try again in the future. But take the hint, please.”
“Honestly I think it’s quite annoying,” said Yama. “If they already confessed and got rejected and they still choose to be in the friendzone, I would tell them to stop complaining because it’s the choice they already made. If they haven’t confessed, I would encourage them to confess and get the answer, so they’ll know their place. If being in the friendzone is toxic for them, I would tell them to unfriend that person because it would be mentally better in the long run.”
Platonic friendships causing strains in romantic relationships
The friends-turned-lovers trope is a popular arc in pop culture. One of its main elements is the friendship causing conflicts for one (or both) parties’ existing romantic relationships rooted in jealousy. But does this translate to real life?
Roxette and Jem both said yes.
Jem recalled: “The funny thing was, I was their wingman. I helped them get together and, as far as their relationship was going, I tried to limit my clinginess to her boyfriend as I was being really respectful and setting boundaries. I also have a boyfriend at that time and even he wasn’t jealous of my friendship with the other guy.” However, the girl had an issue with her.
Roxette was stuck in a similar situation where the girlfriend of his guy friend “went haywire and cyberbullied” her even if Roxette was talking to the guy just like any other friend.
“It had a horrible impact on my mental health because I suffer from anxiety and depression,” Roxette said. “I actually relapsed because of that situation but I'm under medication and therapy right now to help me cope. I'm on ‘okay’ terms with the said guy friend, but for the peace of mind of his girlfriend and my sanity feeling safe, I just interact strictly on a work environment basis.”
Possible, but not without its challenges
“It’s the examples from rom-coms that probably birthed the idea,” Jem said. “Even so, it is possible to be ‘just friends’. I actually think sometimes men are better as friends than boyfriends because they’re more protective in that manner.”
“It's highly ideal for a romance to start off as good friendship,” Roxette pitched in. “But sometimes, some friendships can be sibling-like.”
However, Yama added: “But there’s also the fear people have of losing their partners so I’d say it’s normal to be afraid that friends of the opposite sex will be romantically involved.”
Will they choose love or friendship based on their experiences?
“I know this might sound heartless for my significant other but for me, if I knew my friend did nothing bad but I was still asked to choose, I would choose my friend,” Jem said firmly.
Roxette, on the other hand, replied: “If my partner makes me choose between love and friendship, then they're not a very good partner because there is a lack of trust in our relationship. I will choose my friend in this case. On the other hand, if there's a reason for my partner to feel insecure about a friend's behaviour towards me, I will address this to my friend and distance myself from them to avoid any issues.”
Yama echoed Roxette’s thoughts, saying, “If my partner asks me to choose between love and friendship, I would ask for the reason first. If there is a friend who tries to cross the line of being friends with me (like trying to flirt with me, my ex or someone I previously flirted with) when I have a boyfriend, then I will choose love because I think that friend doesn’t respect my relationship. If there is no clue as to why my partner asks me to choose between love and friendship, I’d probably choose friendship.”
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. While it’s only the perspective of three women, it’s enough to say that, yes, heterosexual platonic friendships are possible — yet not without its complications. Whether or not romantic entanglement is on the horizon — among other things — no one can tell for sure. But if there’s one thing that’s absolute about this entire conundrum, it’s that these friendships require just as much hard work and commitment just as any other relationship.