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Wednesday
Jan082014

Cross-Sex Friendships: Hazardous to Your Mental Health?

A reader asked: Is it true that girls who have more guy friends than girl friends are less likely to have anxiety and depression? What does research say about girls who have more guy friends than girl friends?

Interesting question. Before I respond in more detail, I’ll cut to the chase: In my review of the existing research, I couldn’t find a study that directly answers your question about whether having more opposite-sex (OS) than same-sex (SS) friends raises psychological health in women. However, this is what we do know from the research:

Opposite-sex or cross-gender friendships amongst heterosexuals can be challenging to maintain, but they’re also very valuable for a number of reasons (we’ve written about these relationships before). For example, managing a platonic friendship if one or both partners feels some sexual attraction (which is common) can be tricky because of the inevitable sexual tension (and a lot of these relationships are characterized by at least some degree of sexual attraction!).1 However, having opposite-sex friends also gives people joy and fulfillment, as well as a different perspective on the world that they simply can’t get from a same-sex friend. For example, opposite-sex friends talk to each other about a greater variety of topics than same-sex female friends.2 Females who prefer opposite-sex friends feel that they are more caring, trustworthy, and supportive, but also provide more narcissistic benefits compared to same-sex friends (measured by items like, “My friend gives me undivided attention”).3 This could have implications for how people feel about themselves in terms of confidence and self-worth.

Now, since your question was focused on females, let’s talk about this a bit more.

Friendships among females are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, they can be very beneficial because women tend to be more empathetic and affectionate with each other and value intimacy more than men do.4 Women tend to be very supportive when their female friends are under stress; they engage in what psychologists refer to as “tend-and-befriend” behaviors.5 This means that women respond to each other’s needs by forming friendship alliances and comforting one another during difficult times. Women are more supportive and open in their friendships than men,4 which would suggest they are less vulnerable to depression/anxiety.

On the other hand, women can be competitive with each other, especially in the dating game.6 One study found that among female friend pairs, when one friend was less attractive than the other, the less attractive friend reported feeling greater rivalry in the friendship. Women also expect a lot more from each other than men do.7,8,9 Women have higher standards for their friends, and thus there is greater chance of experiencing conflict. Women also gossip with each other more than men do.2 

What’s more, females tend to tell each other about their negative emotions more than males. This process of sharing and stewing in negative emotions with friends is referred to as “co-rumination,” and it’s not very healthy.10 Some psychologists believe this is one reason why females are more prone to emotional distress and disorders (e.g., major depression) compared to males; not only are they experiencing negative emotion, but they’re sharing it with each other, which amplifies the distress. This may appear somewhat contradictory to the research showing that women are more supportive and comforting than men. In fact, both are true—women tend to discuss and ruminate over negative emotions together more than men, while at the same time showing higher levels of support and affection. In this case, musing or ruminating over negative emotions is a dysfunctional coping strategy.

Given that girls tend to co-ruminate more than boys, having male friends to “balance them out” in theory would enhance girls’ mental health. However, this is not the case. Some research shows that girls co-ruminate just as much with male friends as they do with female friends, and boys co-ruminate significantly more with their female friends compared to their male friends.11 So much for that theory. Here’s a money quote from the study authors: “It is possible then that females are simply more inclined to co-ruminate in a variety of relationships whereas males may only significantly increase their co-ruminating behaviors when their closest confidant is a female friend.” 11

One study came close to directly addressing the issue of good vs. bad proportions of opposite vs. same sex friends. In research on adolescent girls, having a greater proportion of opposite-sex friends (boys) to same-sex friends (girls) was associated with more anti-social behavior (e.g., quick temper, physical/verbal aggression).12 This suggests that girls with a higher ratio of male-to-female friends are less mentally healthy. However, anti-social behavior is not the same thing as depression/anxiety, and also, this is still not the same as saying that they had more male friends than female friends. In this sample, the vast majority (75%) of teenagers’ friends were same-sex friends.12

Furthermore, the overall effect was different depending on whether the girls experienced sexual maturation (puberty) early or later in adolescence. For girls who developed sexually at a younger age, they were much more likely to have older (possibly more rebellious) male friends, and to be more antisocial, compared to the girls who matured later on. Finally, it is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. The authors of the study did not suggest that friendship networks cause antisocial behavior. Actually, it was the reverse—the authors discussed early maturation (puberty) and antisocial behavior in teenage girls as the variables that predict having a large percentage of male friends. 

Other research shows that adolescent girls with a male “best” friend were more anti-social (more likely to steal or lie to others) than girls with a female best friend.13 The important thing to remember here is that the nature of friendships changes dramatically in the teenage years, and it’s totally normal to have opposite-sex friends, but having an opposite-sex best friend may be more problematic, especially for girls. Those who act in a way that is “atypical” to their gender (e.g., a girl who is “one of the guys”) may have greater social dysfunction because they experience “gender policing,” where they are stigmatized and picked on by their peers.14

To summarize, some research suggests that when women have a higher proportion of male friends (compared to girls with a lower proportion of male friends) this can be problematic, although it is not clear that having lots of male friends causes any psychological dysfunction in females. Furthermore, some of the distress in adolescence that goes along with having lots of male friends may be due to stigma and bullying from peers and have nothing to do with the friendship itself. Future research could also investigate more of the possible benefits to having opposite-sex friends.

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Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

1Kaplan, D. L., & Keys, C. B. (1997). Sex and relationship variables as predictors of sexual attraction in cross-sex platonic friendships between young heterosexual adults. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 14(2), 191-206. doi:10.1177/0265407597142003

2Martin, R. (1997). 'Girls don't talk about garages!': Perceptions of conversation in same- and cross-sex friendships. Personal Relationships, 4(2), 115-130. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1997.tb00134.x

3Baumgarte, R., & Nelson, D. (2009). Preference for same- versus cross-sex friendships. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 39(4), 901-917. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00465.x

4Oswald, D. L., Clark, E. M., & Kelly, C. M. (2004). Friendship maintenance: An analysis of individual and dyad behaviors. Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, 23(3), 413-441. doi:10.1521/jscp.23.3.413.35460

5Taylor, S.E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B.P., Gruenewald, T.L., Gurung, R.A.R., & Updegraff, J.A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 411–429.

6Bleske-Rechek, A., & Lighthall, M. (2010). Attractiveness and rivalry in women’s friendships with women. Human Nature, 21(1), 82-97. doi:10.1007/s12110-010-9081-5

7Galupo, M., & Gonzalez, K. A. (2013). Friendship values and cross-category friendships: Understanding adult friendship patterns across gender, sexual orientation and race. Sex Roles, 68(11-12), 779-790. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0211-x 

8Fuhrman, R. W., Flannagan, D., & Matamoros, M. (2009). Behavior expectations in cross-sex friendships, same-sex friendships, and romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 16(4), 575-595. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2009.01240.x

9Hall, J. A. (2011). Sex differences in friendship expectations: A meta-analysis. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 28(6), 723-747. doi:10.1177/0265407510386192

10Smith, R. L., & Rose, A. J. (2011). The “cost of caring” in youths' friendships: Considering associations among social perspective taking, co-rumination, and empathetic distress. Developmental Psychology, 47(6), 1792-1803. doi:10.1037/a0025309

11Barstead, M. G., Bouchard, L. C., & Shih, J. H. (2013). Understanding gender differences in co-rumination and confidant choice in young adults. Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, 32(7), 791-808. doi:10.1521/jscp.2013.32.7.791

12Poulin, F., & Pedersen, S. (2007). Developmental changes in gender composition of friendship networks in adolescent girls and boys. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1484-1496. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1484

13Arndorfer, C., & Stormshak, E. A. (2008). Same-sex versus other-sex best friendship in early adolescence: Longitudinal predictors of antisocial behavior throughout adolescence. Journal Of Youth And Adolescence, 37(9), 1059-1070. doi:10.1007/s10964-008-9311-x 

14Young, R., & Sweeting, H. (2004). Adolescent Bullying, Relationships, Psychological Well-Being, and Gender-Atypical Behavior: A Gender Diagnosticity Approach. Sex Roles, 50(7-8), 525-537. doi:10.1023/B:SERS.0000023072.53886.86

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