Study: Most People Suspicious of Their Partners’ “Platonic” Friendships

Was "When Harry Met Sally" right?

Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in 'When Harry Met Sally' 1989. (Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection)
Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in 'When Harry Met Sally' 1989. (Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection)
By Bonnie Stiernberg / August 22, 2019 10:05 am

The question of whether straight men and women can really be platonic friends has been around long before When Harry Met Sally raised the issue 30 years ago, and it will likely continue to be hotly debated until the end of time. We may not be any closer to answers on that front, but a new study does reveal that heterosexual people who are engaged to a partner with a best friend of the opposite gender tend to look negatively at those friendships.

Eletra Gilchrist-Petty, an associate professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama, and Lance Kyle Bennett, a doctoral degree student at the University of Iowa, surveyed 346 people between the ages of 18 and 64 who were or had been in a relationship with someone who had a best friend of the opposite sex. Interestingly, those who were engaged to someone with a different-sex best friend, rather than simply dating, were most skeptical of their partner’s friendship.

Gilchrist-Petty blames jealousy and the influence of pop culture, which has reinforced the idea that male/female friendships always have the potential for romance. “Heteronormative assumptions have historically socialized us to consider men and women as romantic or sexual partners,” she told The Atlantic. “Hence, individuals tend to have at least an understated assumption that the friendship between men and women can evolve into something more than a benign friendship. This assumption appears to be pretty widespread.”

Those who were most skeptical of opposite-sex friendships in general were also were more likely to “lash out” at their partner about the issue instead of calmly communicating about it. Gilchrist-Petty says that the stress of planning a wedding is also a major factor in how these feelings of jealousy tend to manifest in engaged couples. “When any of us are under stress, we do kind of regress a bit, and fall back on less healthy ways of coping,” she said. “Insecurity can spike, and if you’re not particularly comfortable in your own skin, you’re more likely to want to control the world around you. I think staring down this really big identity shift — a relationship-status shift, a life-commitment shift — just awakens insecurity that we don’t always know how best to cope with. So to get controlling of a partner would would just seem like a way of coping.”

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