THE line that separates male and female friendships from sexual relationships is as blurred as the song performed by Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards — and it generates just as much talk.
There is an almost unlimited stream of films and TV shows dedicated to the dangers and rewards of a friendship between a man and a woman.
The hit movie Harry met Sally looked at the drama surrounding friends who ultimately find each other attractive. Then there was the hugely successful TV show Friends, which epitomised the highs and lows of men and women enjoying close connections and in How I Met Your Mother we get a close-up look at the torment that surrounds a friend who unsuccessfully falls for another.
Men and women have much to learn from each other beyond the realms of romantic interaction yet, this education can come at a cost.
Director in counselling psychology at Trinity College Dublin Dr Ladislav Timulak says men and women can have friendships, but there is always a risk that it could become something more.
“It is a complicated issue, it is definitely possible to have friends of the opposite sex but there is no guarantee it will remain platonic. It depends on a number of things — discipline, self-values, the level of attraction, loyalty to partners and the amount of risk involved — for example if someone is married, there is a lot to lose.”
Despite these risks, Timulak says there are lots of benefits to men and women being friends.
“Male and female relationships can be very enriching, the genders socialise differently. Men are more focused and competitive whereas women are more socially aware.
“Typically, men are not very emotionally sensitive and they can learn that from women. Women get encouragement from men to be more assertive as males are naturally more aggressive.”
Relationship therapist David Kavanagh says establishing boundaries around a male and female friendship can be complicated. “It is so tricky, because everyone is different, some people are very touchy feely, others may be very emotional and even if there no sexual activity, it can become an issue of emotional cheating”.
Kavanagh stresses the importance of platonic male and female relationships for the survival of romantic ones.
“People in relationships who do not have friends of the opposite sex, have no one to turn to for advice about their partner’s behaviour.
“I often find people coming to therapy with their problems, simply because they do not have someone they can ask; is this normal? Why is he or she doing this?”
Psychotherapist and relationships counsellor with Relationships Ireland Bernadette Ryan says college life is where men and women often become close for the first time, but it is also a time of exploration.
“There is a lot of trial and error in college and this leads to friends experimenting with sexual activity without any real amorous connection.”
Time pressure and the rules of society, Kavanagh believes, are major factors in the demise of male and female friendships later in life. “As you get older and you have a career, a partner and a number of other responsibilities, your time for just hanging out is squashed.
“To then say to your partner, ‘Oh I am going for a few drinks with this female or male person, is just not accepted in today’s society.”