More Than “Just Friends?” Here’s How to Find Out

You love to spend time with a good friend—who happens to be a member of the sex you’re attracted to. You love the way you feel when you’re together, and it’s obvious the feeling is mutual. Oh yes, one more thing: you find your friend physically attractive.  

Do you ever wonder whether the two of you are on the road to becoming more than “just friends?" Here are two things to consider: whether you discuss relational status and are comfortable being mistaken for a romantic couple.

Platonic Friends Are Comfortable With Relational Uncertainty

Walid A. Afifi and Judee K. Burgoon in a piece aptly entitled, “We Never Talk about That,” found that heterosexual partners in cross-sex friendships experienced a higher degree of relational uncertainty and were less likely to discuss relational issues than couples who were dating.[i]

They note that Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) proposes that people desire to reduce uncertainty, and high levels of uncertainty are linked with relational dissatisfaction. They note specifically that research indicates that cross-sex friendships are likely characterized by higher levels of relational uncertainty, as well as topic avoidance.

Yet Afifi and Burgoon note that uncertainty may be tolerated in cases where partners expect that the undisclosed information is undesirable. They explain that uncertainty does not always lead to efforts to obtain information, and instead can perpetuate the desire to sustain the state of uncertainty. Indeed, during the length of the friendships studied, a two-year period, the levels of uncertainty maintained were paired with avoidance, as opposed to behaviors designed to reduce the level of uncertainty.

Friends Do Not Discuss Relational State

Afifi and Burgoon found that the subject of relational state was the topic most likely to be avoided within cross-sex friendships. They note this is nearly the opposite of dating relationships, where the topic of relational state was the second-to-least-likely topic to be avoided.

The authors note that individuals in dating relationships versus friendships have different motivations to avoid certain topics. They observe, “Whereas fear of inducing or experiencing jealousy seems to underlie the avoidance of discussing past relationships and current opposite-sex friendships, fear of vulnerability or embarrassment may motivate the avoidance of relationship issues in cross-sex friendships.”

Men and Women Really Can Be “Just Friends”

Billy Crystal famously pointed out in the movie When Harry Met Sally, “no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive” because sexual interest gets in the way. Is this true?

According to Afifii and Burgoon, not always. Although they did find an element of “romantic tension” in the male-female relationships they studied, they did not find that individuals strongly desired to have a romantic relationship with their friends of the opposite sex. However, they found a difference in the sexes: romantic interest in an opposite-sex friend was stronger for heterosexual men than women. This could lead to disappointment because they also found that romantic interest by one partner did not prompt reciprocal interest by the other.  

Attempting to Have “The Talk” As an Expression of Romantic Interest

Afifii and Burgoon conclude that the desire to avoid discussions about relational state seems to stem from fear of undisclosed desires regarding the future of the relationship. So what does it mean when one partner wants to talk about it? 

They note that their data reveals that romantically interested friends are more likely to attempt to discuss the future of the relationship, while disinterested partners avoid such conversation. This dynamic will result in continued uncertainty for both parties, although it might reveal the romantic interest of the instigator.

When Appearances Are Deceiving: Embracing “The Audience Challenge”

Many platonic couples are mistaken for a romantic pair. Does this bother either partner? It depends if they are comfortable remaining platonic.  

Research by Katie Schoonover and Bree McEwan (2014) demonstrated that strictly platonic couples are not bothered by the possibility of being mistaken for more.[ii]  

In a piece entitled “Are You Really Just Friends,” they examined what they termed the “audience challenge”—when platonic couples are mistaken for a romantic couple by others within their social circle. They found that when one or both members of a friendship had romantic designs on the other, they were more likely to experience and be concerned about the audience challenge. They suggest that these types of friendships involve a higher degree of relational uncertainty, as well as relational turbulence.

It therefore appears that truly platonic couples are comfortable maintaining the status quo, whereas seeking to learn more about relational status or feeling awkward in public may signal a desire to take a relationship to the next level.

Platonic friends behave differently than friends with a desire for more.
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[i]Afifi, Walid A., and Judee K. Burgoon. “‘We Never Talk about That’: A Comparison of Cross-Sex Friendships and Dating Relationships on Uncertainty and Topic Avoidance.” Personal Relationships 5, no. 3 (September 1998): 255–72. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1998.tb00171.x.

[ii]Schoonover, Katie, and Bree McEwan. “Are You Really Just Friends? Predicting the Audience Challenge in Cross‐sex Friendships.”Personal Relationships 21, no. 3 (2014): 387–403. doi:10.1111/pere.12040.


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