Psychologists Answer Harry Met Sally's Famous Q: Can Men and Women Really Be Just Friends?

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Reader, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to hit on your friend. But I’m here to tell you it’s a risky little move. It can leave you screaming into your pillow that night — either in embarrassed agony or ecstatic pleasure. And then there’s the morning after. Best case scenario: Morning sex? Or it could also play out like a scene from the classic romcom When Harry Met Sally, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this Friday. The eponymous characters hook up in Sally’s bed (next to her stuffed animals) after she finds out her ex-boyfriend is getting married. In the morning, it’s maddeningly awkward between Harry and Sally, played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.
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One of the recurring themes in the beloved Nora Ephron film begs the question: Can heterosexual men and women really be just friends? If you ask psychologists about that, they’ll give you a mixed bag of answers.
For example, Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch, says it’s possible for men and women who are attracted to the opposite sex to be friends — but they’ll at least consider taking the relationship to the next level.
“I think it’s inevitable it will cross at least one person's mind," Dorfman says. “Part of friendship is there being an emotional attraction to the other person. Whether it necessarily translates to a sexual relationship is another story, but I think it would be very difficult for it not to at least be a consideration.”
Her theory is: Even if you’re not attracted to your friends, you’ll ultimately think: Oh, I could never be with them because they don’t do the dishes. But the question of being with him or her is still there. It’s something you’ve mulled over, and you're acknowledging it as a possibility.
Dorfman notes that things are a little different for people in the LGBTQ+ community, but, ultimately, if you’re friends with someone of the sex you’re attracted to (or sometimes even the one you’re not), you’ll at least ruminate about hooking up with them.
Meanwhile, Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D., a behavioral expert and the author of Red Flags, disagrees, but says there are some caveats. “Men and women certainly can be just friends,” Patrick says. “Friendship is based on mutual trust and respect — not sexual attraction.” But she admits that it often does develop into something larger. “[If] both parties are single, great,” she says. “A romantic relationship stemming from friendship that progresses to the 'next level' will have a much healthier foundation than one that began with a one-night stand in a bar.”
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Are there exceptions to the rule? “Sure are,” she says. “The most challenging exception is when one party is having trouble viewing the relationship as just a friendship, and the other has his or her romantic sights set on other shores.” If you think you might be developing feelings for your friend, she recommends that you proceed with caution.
“Any sudden moves could create an awkward sense of discomfort if your friend is taken off guard — even if ultimately he or she might be receptive to considering a romantic relationship,” Patrick says. “Before you reveal your feelings, tread carefully around the topic. Seek counsel from trusted friends, family, and confidantes that know you both and can provide an objective sounding board for you.” Basically, she’s saying that when you begin to “fall” for a friend, you’re trading in your reading glasses for rose-colored ones.
Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW, owner of Manhattan Wellness, says that men and women can be friends, but sometimes outside factors or societal pressures will cause you to consider your friend as a romantic option — even though you might not actually like them in that way. For example, your friends might ask you if your friendship has ever escalated into more, prompting you to consider it. Another scenario: If you just got dumped or you’re feeling lonely, you could look around and just pick the closest person to you to consider a relationship with. Basically, she says it’s complicated. And you need to parse through your feelings, and figure out what’s really prompting them. But if you decide you do want to take your relationship with your friend to the next level, be honest but careful with the way you express your feelings.
“It’s about being super genuine, but also not putting yourself in a position to lose someone that’s really important to you,” Silvershein says. “Move slowly, and be mindful of the choices you’re making, because it’s hard to forget history. But some beautiful relationships can come out of friendships.” Just ask Harry and Sally.
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