In the spirit of Valentines Day, I dusted off When Harry Met Sally in all its 1989 romantic-comedy glory.
If youve seen the movie, you know that the recurring question it explores is: Can men and women truly be friends without the sex part (as Harry so eloquently puts it) getting in the way?
Sally says they can. Harry says they cant because men will always want the relationship to be something more.
Hes proven correct at the end of the film when he and Sally finally get together.
Ive seen the movie a few times, but this time Harrys theory stood out even more than usual because it seems to hint at an unwritten rule to which you adapt after graduating college.
Harry makes me wonder: Is it possible to be just friends with someone of the opposite sex when youre a young adult, and if it is, how do you go about it?
Theres a growing body of research attempting to answer these questions. A 2012 study at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire surveyed opposite-sex friendships of more than 400 heterosexual adults ages 18 to 52 and found that men and women have different opinions on such friendships, especially when they are emerging adults.
Women tend to think of their male friends as just friends, whereas men tend to want their women friends to be more than friends, the study found. It found men also tend to overestimate the extent to which their women friends are attracted to them.
As comical as these ideas are on the big screen, Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, the studys principal researcher, said they are a product of evolutionary psychology. Men are more likely to develop feelings for their women friends, she said, because they subconsciously feel pressured to carry on the family line lest they be shut out, genetically.
Sexual attraction is not just a product of the media, and sex differences have more to do with our human evolutionary history than people would like to believe, she said in an email.
While that may be true, Miles Nitz, owner of Take Charge Counseling and Consulting Services in Fort Wayne, thinks an explanation about genetics alone leaves out the social and cultural influences on our relationships, which he finds to have powerful effects on our behavior.
I think that has more to do with socialization than anything else, Nitz said. Men and women simply learn to do relationships differently.
Whereas men learn opposite-sex relationships are more about sexual attraction, Nitz said, women learn that all relationships are about communication and two people deeply understanding each other regardless of sexual attraction.
Melisa Sanchez Landgraf, a Fort Wayne marriage and family therapist associate, said men and women also tend to define friendship differently, which leads to different expectations for friends of the opposite sex.
For women, friendship is being vulnerable, open, self-disclosing and emotionally supportive, whereas for men, friendship is defined as more of doing things side by side, Sanchez Landgraf said.
Since men tend to reserve the intimate details for the women they want to date, she said, they sometimes assume women are interested in them even when women think they are treating the men as platonic friends.
Complicated, right? But even though these differences make for great chick flicks, its important to remember that, in real life, there are always exceptions to the rules. I can think of at least a few guy friends who treated me as a sister and were clearly interested in dating other women.
And Nitz and Sanchez Landgraf say it is possible (and healthy) for young people to have friendships with the opposite sex. But they also say that, as a whole, opposite-sex friendships tend to be more complicated in young adulthood when were still maturing and figuring out what we want.
So the answer to the question isnt as tidy as Harry phrased it. As long as two friends are on the same page and communicate their intentions up front, they might be able to make a platonic friendship work.
But in these confusing years of emerging adulthood, its important to periodically reassess the feelings we have for our friends (or the feelings they have for us) because studies show that Harry has a point.