Cross-sex friendship, a friendship with a person of the opposite-sex, often becomes a talking point among individuals. It is a non-familial and non-romantic association between a male and female. Despite being non-romantic, it may become a relationship of intrigue, due to a number of other elements involved in it, which many a times brings about the discussion that can a male and female be only friends.
Like any friendship with a person of the same sex, cross-sex friendship has some benefits associated with it. Cross-sex friendship provides social support, self-expression, companionship, and intimacy. Along with these benefits, individuals in a cross-sex friendship get insider perspectives of the opposite sex and they get sensitized to gender differences.
Despite the aforementioned benefits, cross-sex friendships may turn out to be a complex relationship. Individuals (heterosexual) tend to develop romantic and sexual feelings towards their cross-sex friend. The feelings of friendship may get intertwined with romantic and sexual feelings. This may lead to a lot of confusions in how to interact with that specific cross-sex friend, which is what makes the situation complex and ambiguous.
The major reason for such confusions and complications to arise is gender-role socialization. The psychologist Sandra Bem suggests that gender role socialization results in gender-based self-schematic processing due to which individuals organize information according to the culture's definitions of maleness and femaleness – stereotypes associated with males and females.
The gender-based schema results in individuals typifying all non-kin cross-sex interaction limiting them to potential romantic relationships. This further develops a generalized readiness to encode all cross-sex interactions in sexual terms and all members of the opposite sex in terms of sexual attractions.
Due to gender role socialization, males and females, even though being in a friendship, which is platonic, tend to view one another as sexual/romantic partners. The gender role socialization creates societal expectations into gender-based cognitive schema, which encourages the interpretation of cross-sex interaction according to cultural guidelines, that is, male-female interaction should be predominantly romantic or sexual in nature.
It is for this reason why it is not uncommon for individuals to develop romantic and sexual feelings for their cross-sex friend. Many a times, a romantic relationship begins from a cross-sex friendship. Even if the relationship does not transform into a romantic relationship, sexuality may still be an element of the friendship.
Research suggests that sexuality in a cross-sex friendship may range from flirtation to sexual intercourse. Depending on the individuals involved in the relationship, such behaviors may either harm the relationship or be pleasurable and not make any difference at all.
There are many instances when individuals struggle when experiencing such romantic and sexual feelings towards their cross-sex friend. Individuals might get confused about their feelings for the other person. They might question whether their closeness to the cross-sex friend is a mere intimate friendship or development of romantic feelings. If they do feel romantically inclined towards the friend, they may hesitate in expressing it for the fear that it may have a negative impact on the friendship.
Like confronting romantic feelings, individuals may also confront their sexual attraction towards the cross-sex friend. They may initially question whether or not they actually are sexually attracted to the friend. They may try to control their sexual feelings. This might give rise to a conflict of whether to suppress their sexual attraction or display sexually explicit behavior.
When experiencing either romantic feelings and/or sexual attraction towards their friend, individuals might feel that is better to maintain a platonic relationship. They might term the expression of such feelings to be inadequate and perhaps immoral.
Even though individuals might suppress their romantic feelings, such feelings may still persist in an underlying manner, and may seem to be problematic and disturbing. In the same way, suppression of sexual feelings might create sexual tensions in the individual. How well these are handled determines the course and wellbeing of the friendship. If individuals are unable to handle such feelings in an adequate manner, then it may lead to the demise of the friendship.
Apart from confronting romantic and sexual feelings towards the cross-sex friend, individuals may also be concerned about how others view their friendship. They might tend to be sensitive to what others may think about their friendship.
People, due to the gender based schema, generally, view a male-female interaction as romantic in nature. Even if the individuals involved in the friendship have no romantic inclination towards each other, people may see it that way.
This can be a concern for individuals in the cross-sex friendship. They might get worried about what others think about them and behave accordingly. They might deliberately try to change or monitor their behavior in a way that people do not see them as romantic partners. Trying to consistently monitor ones behavior, keeping in mind what others may think, can create disruptions in the friendship. It may not necessarily lead to the demise of the friendship, but may lead to conflicts.
Research has suggested that if the friendship is strong and close, then individuals are able to take care of the romantic and sexual tensions as well as the how others view their friendship. Further, if any one or both the individuals are in a dating or marital relationship then it is more likely that such feelings and concerns, in the cross-sex friendship, may cause difficulties. In such cases, it may be possible that the individuals would prefer to end their friendship, if they are highly committed to their romantic/marital partner.
Cross-sex friendships have been found to be beneficial in many ways. Some of the benefits may not be found in regular same-sex friendships. The benefits associated with cross-sex friendship strongly contribute to individual wellbeing. The romantic and sexual undertones that may occur in cross-sex friendships, however, make it a complex relationship.