I never had to think too hard about the notion of “guy friends.” In high school, I had a boyfriend for practically all four years, so the whole “Will they?/Won’t they?” flirting game people played with cross-sex friendships never applied to me. I had friends who were boys because I was friends with my boyfriend’s friends and vice-versa. For us, the line between romantic and platonic relationships was clear because there was no space to question whether said line was being moved or crossed. I didn’t have to think about the connotations of my interactions because everyone knew where I stood.
That all changed in college when I no longer had the buffer of my boyfriend between me and my male friends. Suddenly, every innocent invite or funny text could be taken out of context and misconstrued as flirting or wanting something more than friendship. It got complicated to navigate these new relationships, having to steer through the rocky waters of Are we just two friends watching sports or does he think I’m in love with him? Especially at a university like TCU, where the “Ring by Spring” culture is dominant, the girl-to-guy ratio hovers around 70:30, and every single person (despite their best efforts) has a slight reek of jealousy and desperation.
It places such intense pressure on what should be fun, easy friendships. I firmly believe having cross-sex relationships is so beneficial. They help teach us a perspective we’d never understand otherwise. They give us an easy out for formal dates (in theory, at least). They can help us open up emotionally and really promote our personal growth. They help us create standards for our romantic partners and learn to differentiate between platonic and physical attraction. So with all of these positive aspects, why is it so challenging to just be friends with a guy? How do we build relationships with them that are deep and meaningful while also maintaining boundaries? How do we as women communicate with the men that we’re friends with?
My friend group has seen it all, trust me. I think if you recorded us for a semester you would give any psychology professor a field day. We’re connected in the strangest ways, but my experiences have led me to the answers to some of these teeming questions. Compounded with my time in the Communication Studies department here, I’ve learned a thing or two I can share with those of you struggling to define and build cross-sex friendships.
Men and women have inherently different styles of communication
In commonly known in the fields of psychology and communication that men and women construct intimacy differently. For men, relationships are generally structured and strengthened around shared activities. It’s much more common for a group of guys to hang out and play a sport or video game together than anything else. It sounds stereotypical, but it’s backed by research. (As I type, the men who live on my street are playing baseball in the park across from my house. They do it every week.) It’s called “side-to-side” communication, and it essentially means that men feel closer to other men when doing shared activities as opposed to participating in intentional dialogue. It’s less confrontational, and quality time is more meaningful to them than other love languages.
This differs drastically from women who build relationships around intentional dialogue or by simply talking to one another. Think back to the last time you hung out with one of your girlfriends. Did you lounge on the couch and gossip? Did you go to the brunch and chat? Did you drive around town listening to music and talking about your week? Notice the consistent element of verbal communication. For girls, talking is essential to our close relationships. Activities are fun and all, but they need to be supplemented by “face-to-face” communication. It’s more direct and verbally involved than men’s “side-to-side” approach.
It’s important to recognize that no one form of intimacy is inherently better than the other, but we do fall into gendered patterns. This creates a massive roadblock when breaking into cross-sex friendships. As women, we expect dialogue to be effortless and included in the time we spend with our guy friends. For them, catching a movie or hitting the gym may be more meaningful.
As you navigate your cross-sex friendships, notice when you can alter your dialogue-heavy approach to a more “side-to-side” perspective to help foster closeness. Maybe go to Top Golf, where you can share an activity, some food, and some small talk. It’s even beneficial to just “do nothing” with your guy friends, like studying in the library, and give them space to fill the silence by talking on their own terms. By approaching them through their preferred method of communication, you’ll create the pathway for them to meet you in the middle and open up in a more verbal way over time.
Of course, if they never catch the hint… that’s on them. Don’t spend forever trying to hack your communication differences. It can be frustrating, and ultimately, you deserve someone that wants to talk to you.
Create a shared definition of friendship
One place I often find my own cross-sex friendships meeting confusion is our expectations for what a friend is. Can you text them every day? Can you hang out one-on-one or only in groups? Can your friend comfort you when you’re crying or is that strictly boyfriend territory for you?
As a woman, you need to identify where your line for friend vs. boyfriend is and stick to it when creating your expectations for your cross-sex friendships. Sometimes, it’s helpful for me to ask myself if I’d trust one of my girlfriends to do whatever it is I’m on the fence about. For example, if I wouldn’t ask my roommate to make me breakfast when I’m too hungover to do it myself, I can’t ask a guy friend to either. If I can’t talk to my best friend about whatever emotion I’m experiencing, it may not be smart to talk to my guy friend about it either.
It’s not a flawless system and every situation and person is different, but the better you can understand your own needs, the easier it will be to set expectations with your cross-sex friends. Communicating your expectations with your guy friend will be so helpful in avoiding role ambiguity, or confusion about what exactly you can and can’t do for one another. If you can “define” your friendship together, you will decrease relational anxiety and be able to participate in a more open, healthy, and clear cross-sex friendship.
Set personal boundaries
It’s no secret that many cross-sex friendships end up as romantic relationships as a result of time spent together and a steady increase in self-disclosure, or communication that begins to reveal personal things about yourself, such as fears, hopes, and dreams. However, we don’t enter into these friendships with that expectation every time. Usually, we just genuinely want a platonic relationship because we enjoy spending time with the other person.
With these contradicting pieces in mind, I’ve found it very important to set personal boundaries for yourself. Different from a shared definition of friendship, your internal boundaries are what keep a line between being a friend and being something more. Take a step back and really evaluate this person and your friendship with them. Could you imagine anything more than friendship? Do you find them physically attractive, or would it be weird to cross a physical limit together? Can you see a romantic future with them? Does the future you envision work and align with the goals you have for yourself? And if you’re not sure, is it worth risking your friendship?
You may not know the answer to these questions, and the answers may change as time goes on, but being strict with yourself about where you are will help keep confusion at bay regarding your emotions. If you think a lunch with just the two of you is perfectly fine, but a nice dinner crosses into the romantic side of things, hold yourself accountable to your boundaries. Again, these will vary person to person, but the truer you are to yourself, the more your relationships will benefit.
Keep a level playing field
Cross-sex friendships have a high propensity for inequality. Men in these relationships often take advantage of the women on the other end, using them for girl advice and over relying on them for social and emotional support (or that “face-to-face” piece they lack with their same-sex friends). Remember, you’re not just an emotional library they can enter and exit whenever they please. Friendships should be both ways, just like you expect your same-sex friends to be equally invested. If you find that your relationship is severely imbalanced, address it.
On the flip side, be responsible for your own actions in these relationships. It’s also not fair to pick your guy friends’ brains constantly for guy advice or to use them in other ways. It’s less common for women to be the sole beneficiaries in these relationships, but just be mindful of when you may be taking things too far.
You’re not just a wingwoman and vice-versa. You’re not just a back-up option and vice-versa. Y’all are friends. Act like it and keep things level.
Be honest with him and yourself
If you feel your emotions beginning to change, approach it like an adult. I know it can be scary, but hopefully, you both have built a relationship where you feel safe to express yourself. Your friendship should be built on trust and respect, a safety net to catch you whether you’re fighting with one another or confessing stronger feelings. Honesty is always the best policy. The braver you can be the better, and remember, you are worthy of an amazing friendships, no matter who you share it with.
This advice is not comprehensive, and of course, life is hectic and unpredictable, and your relationships change along with it, but I hope this short compilation can help you begin, define, and navigate your cross-sex friendships while still valuing yourself and your needs.
Further reading on this fascinating topic, should you wish to explore:
Gender Differences in Intimacy, Emotional Expressivity, and Relationship Satisfaction (2016)
Differences between genders in the expression of emotional intimacy in same-sex friendships (1987)
Comparing Relationships: Same-Sex Friendships, Cross-Sex Friendships, and Romantic Love (1992)
Exploring Cross-Sex Friendships as a Means to Understanding Friendships Between Former Romantic Partners (2018)
Individual differences in the preference for cross-sex friendship (heterosociality) in relation to personality (2020)