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A simple, platonic hug could instantaneously take on a more amorous meaning."You're trying to do a friend-friend thing," said O'Meara, "but the male-female parts of you get in the way." Unwelcome or not, the attraction is difficult to ignore."People don't know what feelings are appropriate toward the opposite sex, unless they're what our culture defines as appropriate," said O'Meara."You know you love someone and enjoy them as a person, but not enough to date or marry them. " The reality that sexual attraction could suddenly enter the equation of a cross-sex friendship uninvited is always lurking in the background.
Blame the sexual tension that almost inevitably exists between any red-blooded, heterosexual man and woman. "The belief that men and women can't be friends comes from another era in which women were at home and men were in the workplace, and the only way they could get together was for romance," explained Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, New York.Called "voluntary gender segregation," it continues into adulthood. "Men go off to one corner, and women go to another." These obstacles may seem numerous and formidable, but male-female friendship is becoming not only a possibility but also a necessity.If men and women are to work, play and coexist in modern society, researchers believe men and women must learn to understand and communicate with each other.To that end, social scientists like Sapadin, Monsour and O'Meara have studied how to do just that.The field of research is still in its infancy, but they are now beginning to understand some basic truths about male-female friendship: Not until high school does puberty really draw boys and girls together, which then continues into college.Still, men and women continue to have surprisingly few opportunities to interact."Boys and girls form their own gender groups in elementary school," explained Monsour.This may explain why they seem to get far more out of cross-sex friendship than their female counterparts.In Sapadin's study, men rated cross-sex friendships as being much higher in overall quality, enjoyment and nurturance than their same-sex friendships." This is especially true, said O'Meara, of older adults, who grew up when men and women were off-limits to each other until marriage.As the workplace and other social arenas become increasingly open to women, the sexes are mingling more and more.