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Sexual tension simmers in many male-female friendships

Updated: June 17, 2012 8:04AM

We all know about “friends with benefits,” but is there such a thing as friends with no benefits?

A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire suggests not. Researchers surveyed more than 400 individuals from the ages of 18-52 and asked them questions about their friendships with the opposite sex. Their findings were surprising: A large number of survey respondents admitted they felt some level of attraction for their friends. 

Researchers also found an interesting gender disparity in their results. Not only were men more likely to report feelings of attraction, but they also were more likely to believe that their female friends reciprocated those feelings. On the other hand, women were more likely to underestimate their male friends’ feelings of attraction.  

These differing gender results point to one of the main reasons why male-female friendships are so complicated. One friend might believe that the relationship is purely platonic while the other has hidden feelings of desire, or one friend might hope that the relationship is going to blossom into something more while the other has no intention of ever taking it to that level.

If you are in a relationship, this issue becomes even more complicated. The researchers found that the higher the level of attraction between a person and their friend, the lower the level of satisfaction that person would feel with their significant other. This could be because the relationship already was unsatisfactory so the person sought other ways to fulfill their emotional needs, or it could mean that friendship itself had a destabilizing effect on the relationship. Either way, the friend has now become a roadblock in the relationship.

Even if the affair never becomes physical, an emotional affair can be equally devastating and hurtful to your relationship. You are devoting time, energy and love to your friend instead of your mate, and that can easily harm your bond and lead to feelings of jealousy. No wonder relationship dissatisfaction grows in situations such as these.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that men and women can never be friends. Yet it is risky to assume that male-female friendships aren’t different than same-sex friendships. We are inherently sexual creatures and most of us cannot simply turn off feelings of attraction with a simple switch. Our sexuality is much more complicated than that, and even the happiest of relationships can be harmed by an overly intimate friendship.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help safeguard your bond. First, make sure your partner is OK with your friendship and be sure to include him in some of your outings with your pal. If you feel the need to hide the friendship or keep the two of them separate, that could be a red flag.

Second, don’t put yourself in situations where disaster might occur. Don’t go back to your pal’s apartment for a nightcap while the rest of your friends head home, and don’t overindulge in alcohol or other activities that might lower your inhibitions.

Third, keep an eye out for signs that he or she might have the wrong idea about your relationship, and keep your conversations free of sexual innuendo and flirtation. One good way to ensure that the relationship stays platonic is to ask yourself: Would I be embarrassed if my partner saw my behavior right now? Would I be angry if my significant other was behaving this way with a friend of the opposite sex? 

Lastly, make sure that you aren’t spending more time and effort on the friendship than you are on the relationship. Your partner deserves the bulk of your time, energy and love, and if you spend that outside the relationship, you won’t be able to give that to him. Remember, men and women can be friends, but it can be risky, so unless you can keep yourself honest, straightforward and absolutely platonic at all times (and be ascertained that your friend can too), it can be a dangerous path.   

Dr. Berman is the star of “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” on OWN and director of

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