There have been movies about it, TV shows that touch on it, even songs about it. You may have even found yourself asking this very big question in your own May-December dating adventures—can a man and woman ever really be “just friends?”
It’s an age-old question, one that often leaves people sitting on either side of the fence. But researchers in Norway have come up with one possible explanation that supports the naysayers. According to the findings, men and women can’t be friends because they misinterpret each other too much. The study found that men misinterpret women’s friendly gestures as signs of being sexually interested, while women misinterpret signals of sexual interest from men as signs of friendliness.
In the realm of relationships and May-December dating, this misunderstanding is what gets in the way of men and women being able to maintain strictly platonic relationships—if she’s being friendly, he’s likely to assume that it’s a sexual advance, and if he pursues that assumption, it can cause conflict.
While it’s interesting to see how this study fits into May-December dating, it’s even more interesting to see what the researchers have to say about why this big misinterpretation happens. It all has to do with evolutionary psychology, which believes that men seek out the ability to reproduce—which may be why they seek out younger, more fertile women and hence May-December dating. For men, reproducing “is dependent on how many women he is able to make pregnant,” explains Mons Bendixen, one of the researchers. And that’s why he’s more likely to see sexual interest where there isn’t any. Sex is low-risk and has the potential to be highly rewarding.
That’s not how it works for women though. For women, sex comes with a higher cost because of the risk of pregnancy—they have to carry the child for nine months and then assume responsibility for it for at least 18 years. That’s why women are subconsciously more selective about who they have sex with, and why they’re more cautious about how they perceive sexual interest from men. “Even though these processes aren’t conscious, we can still empirically measure the results,” says Bendixen.
Does that change your opinion on whether or not men and women can be just friends? The next time you’re out with an older man, don’t be surprised if you find yourself questioning whether it’s May-December dating, or the start of a happy friendship.
Nauert, R., “Is the Misinterpretation of Gender Intentions Hardwired?” PsychCentral web site, January 30, 2015; http://goo.gl/zOl8HL.