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Psychology faculty member explores age-old question 'Can men and women be just friends?'

December 12, 2012
ApriBleske-Rechek
Dr. April Bleske-Rechek
The most popular 2012 article on the Scientific American website, "Men and Women Can't Be 'Just Friends,'" featured research by UW-Eau Claire's Dr. April Bleske-Rechek and her students.

EAU CLAIRE — Can men and women be just friends? That is the question Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire associate professor of psychology, attempted to answer with her research on cross-sex friendships.

The research project, titled "Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendships," was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in August and has gained national and international attention for its in-depth look at platonic relationships between men and women. The two-part study, conducted in collaboration with student researchers, proposes that "because cross-sex friendships are a historically recent phenomenon, men's and women's evolved mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences."

"Friendship is an intriguing relationship from an evolutionary perspective," Bleske-Rechek said. "In the animal kingdom, most mutually supportive alliances are between genetically related individuals (kin) or reproductive partners. Little research has explored how men and women navigate platonic cross-sex friendships, which are presumed to involve neither sexual relations nor kin."

In the first part of the study, 88 opposite-sex undergraduate friendship pairs were surveyed using questionnaires. The friendship pairs were separated, and each person answered questions related to the level of romantic feelings toward the other. The researchers followed anonymity and confidentiality protocols, and required both friends to agree not to discuss the study, even after testing was completed to ensure honest and accurate results.

The results showed that men reported higher levels of physical and sexual attraction to their cross-sex friends than women and also showed a tendency to overestimate their level of attraction to their female friends. Men reported moderate levels of attraction and desire to date their female friends regardless of either their own or their female friends' current romantic involvement.

The second part of the study measured attraction in cross-sex friendships between emerging adults, aged 18-23, and young and middle-aged adults, aged 27-55. Most respondents in the young and middle-aged adult group were married or in a committed relationship. Participants were asked to spontaneously list the benefits and costs of their cross-sex friendships and rate their level of satisfaction with their current romantic relationship.

The results showed that young and middle-aged adults generally reported less attraction to their cross-sex friends than emerging adults did; however, single men across both groups reported high levels of attraction to their cross-sex friends, and single women across both groups reported moderate levels of attraction. Participants were much more likely to list sexual attraction as a cost than as a benefit. Attesting to the possible challenges posed by attraction to a friend, middle-aged men and women who harbored feelings of romantic attraction toward their cross-sex friends also reported lower levels of satisfaction in their marriages.

"This is the most interesting finding from the study," Bleske-Rechek said. "And it is open to further study, because correlation doesn't imply causation. It could be that men and women who are dissatisfied in their romantic relationships turn to their cross-sex friends or even develop new friendships; or it could be that attraction to a cross-sex friend leads to dissatisfaction in their romantic relationship."

Bleske-Rechek plans to continue her research on friendship and follows middle-level evolutionary theories to guide her research. One prediction she is currently testing is that people choose friends who resemble themselves at the genetic level.

"We need an evolutionary psychology perspective for understanding relationships," Bleske-Rechek said. "Awareness of biological sex differences resonates with what people actually feel rather than what societal institutions tell them to feel."

For more information about the study, contact Dr. April Bleske-Rechek at 715-836-4641or bleskeal@uwec.edu.

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