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Why do women say "let's just be friends"?
as well as, "Why do I keep hearing that line?"

by Collie Collier
June 2004 Firestarter column

I've been teasingly told my previous Firestarter column, What is Love? was entirely too cheery, and written mostly from the woman's point of view, i.e. someone who's never been hit with the dreaded line, "let's just be friends."

Interestingly, this is not actually the case -- due to the anonymity of on-line role-playing I have indeed played a male character in an on-line chat room, who was politely told by a female character who mistook his intentions, "Let's just be friends."

This was particularly entertaining to me because while I was a woman playing a male character, the female character was being played by a young man. To further add to the amusement value of the moment, he'd just been unhappily confiding to me, previous to our role-playing, just how much he hated receiving that line.

He was sheepishly amused when I pointed out to him that his female character had just used the line on my male character -- and, he said, far more understanding of how easy it was to use that line to create or keep one's distance politely. It made him appreciate more how women might react in similar situations.

However, that's not the only way the question has come up in conversation, i.e. 'why do women say "let's just be friends"?' I've also often been asked, "why do I keep hearing that phrase?" So I'm going to answer both questions in this Firestarter article, and add a hopefully helpful conclusion at the end of both sections.

If you're only interested in the 'why do they say it?' version, continue reading, as that is covered first. If what you'd really like to know is why you keep hearing the phrase, please feel free to jump to that section.


First of all, this is not a phrase used only by women. To assume so would be both sexist and inaccurate, as my example above demonstrates. Guys will use it too when it benefits them to do so.

Second, I've heard the phrase referred to as 'the break-up line.' Even when it's not used that way, most people who get told that consider it to mean, "I'm not interested in sex with you."

This might not be such a big deal if people weren't quite so obvious sometimes in their visual assessment of potential sexual partners. Those who do this -- staring as they assess someone's sexual potential -- are giving warning with their behavior of exactly what their expectations are.

Treat people the way you'd like to be treated. If you don't want to be sized up like a side of beef, then don't do that to someone else. It would certainly be nice if there were more focus on the entire person, and less on how sexy they look, or how long until they'll give sexual favors.

So what does it really mean when someone says, "let's just be friends"? I can't speak for all women, but I can speculate based on discussions I've had, and on my thoughts in similar situations:

  1. To politely create or keep distance
  2. To defuse situations where the person feels pressured or scared
  3. Because that's what they've been taught to say in those circumstances
  4. When they have no idea how to say 'no,' or...
  5. Because they're just liars

All too often in a budding relationship, it is the woman who decides if the relationship will proceed to physical intimacy. Not always, or exclusively, but in general that's what I've seen. We start, therefore, with an unpleasantly imbalanced power dynamic.

What happens as the relationship progresses? A woman can simply leave open the possibility of sexual intimacy with the guy, and he'll most likely hang around hopefully for a while. But if she later honestly decides a sexual relationship is in fact not going to work, and tells the guy, "let's just be friends," she then runs the risk of being labeled a nasty tease by him -- for telling the truth.

Obviously this is a bad choice for her, since it's commonly the case she'll also be viciously slandered behind her back by the angry guy. Situations like this occur because someone (in this example, the guy) assumed there was more of a relationship than actually existed -- and is humiliated to find out he is so very wrong. It's always wisest to not assume, believe me. Doing so results in far fewer damaged fragile egos.

Alternatively, the woman can state flat out there won't be any sex in the relationship. If the guy doesn't immediately leave, and she later decides sexual intimacy is indeed a possibility, the guy will most likely be pleasantly surprised.

So better by far from the woman's point of view, to always say there's probably no hope, by using the phrase, "let's just be friends." Worthwhile guys will stick around because they want to be friends first anyway. Shallow guys will leave immediately, and are no loss.

That's an example of using the phrase to politely keep or create distance. If the person is pushed for sex and ends up feeling pressured or scared, the phrase can easily be used to try to defuse the situation. It would be simple for this to slide into the next example, of saying, "let's just be friends," because the person is being pressured for sex, has no interest whatsoever, and has no idea how to say no.

Take the example phrase I've heard guys use, "If you really loved me, we'd make love." This can be delivered with great soulfulness, or while leaning over the woman, or shouted angrily, or spoken teasingly. Faced with that statement, and depending on how it was emotionally delivered, a woman might feel uninterested, disbelieving, pressured, frightened, or amused. Her emotional state would then be reflected in the timbre of her reply of, "Let's just be friends then, all right?"

As the above shows, it's easy for there to be multiple reasons to use the phrase, and multiple ways to do so.

So let's say the guy hangs around with women who don't immediately want to sleep with him. Weirdly, there's a faction of our society which considers that guy a sap. I don't know why, though, since usually the so-called "sap" ends up with a lot of great women friends.

Furthermore, have you noticed women often tend to hang out with other women? What a clever way for a guy to not only learn more about what women want, but also to meet a lot of nice women.

What explanation might there be for the last reason -- that they're just liars? I've not actually seen this myself -- I don't hang around a lot of women much -- but I've talked to someone who's had it used on him for this reason. He didn't have an explanation of why they'd choose to do this, but he did have some rather sad examples, which I try to reproduce here.

Remember how I mentioned a man hanging around other women in order to be their friend and to be near someone he's interested in? Well, according to this guy I talked to, women are often quite cliquish, and won't date someone once any other woman friend has dated him, or even expressed any interest in him. Also, some women won't date guys they're friends with.

Sometimes these women aren't even willing to just talk to a guy if they know a friend is dating him. Again, I don't know why. However, under those circumstances it's easier for the woman to say, "let's just be friends," or "oh, you're too nice to date," or "I don't want to ruin our friendship." They don't mean what they're saying -- they just want the guy to leave them alone.

It's emotional cowardice, true, but it's apparently easier for them (in the short run) to lie in a socially face-saving fashion, rather than being honest and saying they're really not interested in you either as a friend or sexually, or exploring their own feelings as to why they feel friends can't be lovers.

Curiously, these are often the same women who bemoan their lack of sweeties with comments like, "All the good ones are taken." I don't understand this. Can they not see they're doing it to themselves, by driving all the polite, interested guys away with lies? Why do they lie so constantly, to both the guys and themselves?

And of course, this also is not confined only to women. I've heard guys moaning about not having girlfriends, and in practically the same breath refuse to have anything to do with the friends of an ex-girlfriend, or laughingly mock less-than-perfect-looking women. I find it bleakly interesting how often those guys are less than perfect looking themselves.

People are strange.

What's gone before

Interestingly, the guy I was talking to then bitterly asked why the women weren't more honest with the men, as well as with themselves. Now that one I could answer for him, and somewhat bitterly myself as well. It's one thing to be honest with yourself -- it hurts sometimes, but in the end it's all for the good, I believe.

It's another thing entirely to be honest with a guy (or anyone) who really doesn't want the truth. Get burned by that once or three times, and I know my thought was I'd be damned before I'd put up with that crap again!

My friend startledly asked me why I was so emphatic on this point, so I explained to him what had happened to me. Early on in my "relationship career" I'd made the mistake of being honest with some of the guys I was breaking up with, telling them I was really sorry but I wasn't sexually interested in them any more -- or, in one case, at all.

Oh. My. Blanking. God. I was so desperately, incredibly naïve.

The histrionics are always frighteningly, irritatingly overboard. In one case the guy ranted and raved at the top of his voice at me for about 10 minutes, then took a knife and stomped off, saying he had to go meditate on whether or not he was going to kill himself for my doing this to him, because he didn't know if he could live without me.

In another case the shouting wasn't that bad, but I seriously feared the guy was going to attack me, or go attack the people he blamed for this situation. It was like suddenly finding a violent, raving stranger in the house.

In the last incident the guy whined at me for a while about being so selfish, then just walked out -- much to my relief. Unfortunately, like the two before him, he also decided to assuage his apparently shattered ego by spreading malicious lies and gossip about me, concerning how I'd led him on and seduced him, and telling filthy stories about me.

Note in all three cases, these are people who purported to love me. If this is how they treat people they love, I guess I should be glad they didn't think they hated me.

And that, I told my (rather shocked) male friend, is why I don't tell guys the truth when breaking up with them. I use polite, face-saving palliatives like, "let's just be friends, okay?" I don't know why guys so hate honesty, but I certainly learned my lesson.

Fragile illusions

As another friend noted in a similar discussion, lots of people (both men and women) don't like to find out they're wrong about something they consider personally essential.

Some guys hold their sexual virility (i.e. how many they've slept with), and some women their sexual attractiveness (i.e. how many they've slept with, or teased about sleeping with), as an accurate reflection of their personal irresistibleness and self worth. Admittedly, I'm not sure how that can accurately reflect anything but their own narcissism, but it's obviously terribly important to them.

Having the current object of their desire let them know these precious beliefs are nothing more than illusion is a horrible, shattering blow to their ego. In such a case, it often doesn't matter how gently or kindly they were informed of the lack of reciprocal interest. They will not -- cannot! -- believe this might be due to their own actions, and they most emphatically don't want to be friends.

Better by far (to their way of seeing things) to turn their former desire into self-righteous rejection. They can believe it's not their fault -- it's someone else's! -- by psychologically projecting all their bad habits onto the other person. If they pushed so hard for sex that they were refused, they will claim the other person "led them on"; if they assumed a relationship where there was none, they claim the other person lied to them; etc.

This allows them to blame the other person for all the pain they're feeling -- for everything, in fact. What's sad is seeing someone do this repeatedly in their lives... and yet still refuse to learn from it.

I can't help but wonder if it's different between same-sex couples when they break up. If it is, I sure wish we'd learn a thing or two from them.

Some anthropological context

Interestingly, I read an anthropological study many years after these incidents (I'll have to try to re-locate the article someday), about an intelligent and independent woman in a small rice farming community in SE Asia. She did not wish to be married, but her society wasn't really set up to accept independent, unmarried women.

The anthropologist described an observed scene where a local man had decided this woman was the one for him, so strode up to her where she was planting rice with the other women, and proposed marriage.

It was obvious this woman would not be interested in this particular, not-very-bright man, and unsurprisingly she politely declined the offer of marriage. What made the scene most interesting to me and the anthropologist both, though, was the anthropologist's realizations afterwards.

The woman couldn't just refuse the marriage offer. That would cause the man to lose face, and in order to regain face he'd slander her and ruin her reputation in retribution, making it impossible for her to remain in her village -- because the man would always be believed before the woman. So she had to not only politely decline the proposal, but also manage his feelings for him!

She did so quite artfully, apparently. She carefully thanked him for the proposal; then described herself as a foolish, inefficient, clumsy woman; then helped him conclude someone as prosperous, wise, and up-and-coming as he really couldn't do with the likes of her as a wife -- she'd just be a liability.

And my thought was, 'Oh, of course -- just like here. That's what I should have done, except I didn't know or want to pander to the guys by denigrating myself like that. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.'

In retrospect, I agree with the professor who noted a lot of culture exists mostly so we don't just kill each other. In other words, "culture" is a socially acceptable means of manipulating others, in the least harmful way, to get what you want.

As a friend noted, by using culture in this way you are in fact helping them not hurt themselves. Admittedly, you are helping them keep their thoughtlessness or their illusions -- but (he added) that's not your problem to fix, is it?

Bad social conditioning

In the movie When Harry Met Sally Billy Crystal's character states a guy can never be friends with a woman, because he invariably wants sex with her. I find this really sad. How humiliating to guys everywhere, to be told they're just incapable of emotional self-control.

Furthermore, how tragic to see folks who still do that -- who differentiate between people they're interested in, and people who are "unavailable" or do not interest them romantically -- as if one group were sides of beef for consumption, and the other group was merely disposable room settings. The only explanation I can come up with for this is they truly believe they're the center of the universe, and everyone else is there solely for their pleasure and/or amusement.

I guess it makes sense to find these types truly don't understand why many people react to being treated that way with polite, distancing comments like, "let's just be friends." Makes sense... but I have to wonder.

Do guys really not comprehend how someone might feel, faced with a statement like "Men can't be friends with women because they always want sex with them"? Have they never tried considering how that might sound to a woman? She's being categorized as nothing more than a possible supplier of sex. Isn't that a little rude? If it happened enough times, I'd imagine most women would soon get heartily sick of it -- I know I did.

Don't guys realize a woman might want her actions to be appreciated, or her intellect noticed -- not just her cup size? Do these guys really not want to be friends with their lovers? Do they really want to be seen as nothing more than objects with no self control? Under that premise, either the guy is interesting and fun to be with because you're a sexual null -- or you're just another sex toy to him. Bleah!

So why does this matter?

A friend noted I sounded a bit annoyed here. I am. I don't know why, but for some reason our culture teaches men to assume women are always seductively inclined towards them -- often long before the woman is more than just marginally friendly. Quite frankly, it's bloody annoying.

Lest you think I exaggerate for effect, I direct you to the following experiment (one of many on this subject): "Friendly? Flirting? Wrong?" related in the book The Nonverbal Communication Reader: Classic and Contemporary Readings. I quote from the article:

In 1982, the publication of Antonia Abbey's work raised the awareness that males generally construe the world in more sexual terms than do females, and indicated that as a group men were much more likely than females to judge "friendly" behavior as "seductive" or "promiscuous" behavior....

Abbey's (1982, 1987) research in particular suggests that misinterpretation of a female's friendly behavior seems to be fairly common. As we have seen in recent news headlines, these misperceptions of behavior can be extremely problematic for both males and females... in addition to the legal and moral implications of sexual harassment and date rape....

Why are we training people to behave like this? It may be the stuff of amusing movies, but it's seriously damaging in real life.

Here's another thought -- as a person, would you really want to have a lover who thinks the only worthwhile thing about you is the sex? What happens if there's some accident and for a while you can't have sex -- will that person just leave you for a better lay? Much wiser, I'd think, to find someone who likes sex, but who is first and foremost a friend.

Yes, but why do I hear this phrase so often?

Let's review why women use the phrase, "let's just be friends":

  1. To politely create or keep distance
  2. To defuse situations where the person feels pressured or scared
  3. Because that's what they've been taught to say in those circumstances
  4. When they have no idea how to say 'no,' or...
  5. Because they're just liars

Those likely to hear numbers one through four are those who push too much, appear too eager, scare the woman, or are too obvious in their sex-potential visual critique.

Also, we should note there are those who have been taught to state number three as easily as they say "please" or "thank you." It doesn't really mean anything to them; it's just what you say.

Alternatively, it could well mean to them they've not "burned their bridges" with the guy. You might see this behavior if they're afraid of being alone, or don't feel it's their place to be so decisive.

This sort of behavior could easily slide over into number four as well. It's simpler to say "let's just be friends" if you believe it's dangerous, or socially unacceptable, or useless to tell a guy no -- and really mean it. Consistent, slandering emotional backlash from an angry person is nothing to sneeze at, after all.

Numbers one and four might also be used when the woman really isn't interested in intimacy at all, and due to inexperience the guy isn't picking up on that. This sort of guy is often sweet, innocent, eager to hang around and be helpful (or just in the way), and emotionally about 10 years old. You don't want to hurt him -- but you aren't sexually interested in emotional children either.

Number five is unfortunately something I think anyone could hear, for the simple reason it's used deceptively whenever the person is dodging honesty. A woman might use it because what she's really saying is she doesn't want anything to do with you. A guy might use it (or some variant thereof) to say if no sex is forthcoming, he's not got the time to waste on you.

So if you want to know why you're hearing the phrase a lot, consider your personality and how you portray yourself. Are you rather large, or do women sometimes flinch away from you? You may well be scaring them.

Try toning yourself down by talking more quietly, wearing more muted or more tucked-in clothing, sitting down instead of looming over them, actually listening to what they have to say, and similar things like that.

Emphatically do not stare at a woman's breasts when you're just meeting her, or give her a visual once-over before you talk to her -- unless you want to be treated like a brainless moron.

Do women often tell you, almost regretfully, how cute you are, but... *sigh* ah, well. If so, you may be coming across as either desperate, or charmingly naïve, like a puppy. Try doing something which will teach you poise, concentration, and focus, like martial arts or theater.

Is sex always on your mind, and you can't think of anything else? Read up on other subjects you can talk about with folks. Are you often utterly flummoxed at how women react to you? You're probably not picking up on their body language -- you might want to try studying some books on the subject.

Conditioning by personal choice

These are all unpleasant situations which I suspect many people have had to deal with at one point or another. Faced with potential scenarios like those mentioned above, I'm not surprised many women use the "dreaded phrase" frequently. What I consider a shame is the women who use it to deceive. They don't mean they want to be friends with you -- they're lying. They just want you to get out of their lives.

I don't know how to change this particular social assumption, but I strongly suggest honesty, as opposed to lying in order to avoid confrontation. This sort of deception may help you run away from a difficult situation in the short run, but in the long run it can only harm you -- and also harm any woman who is actually being truthful when she says she just wants to be friends.

When you mean yes, say yes, and when you mean no -- say no!

Think about it. If you use the phrase, but what you really mean is "go away, you bore me now," it will show in your later behavior. Any guy who's been lied to like that will no longer believe it when he's asked to just be friends. Can you blame him? He's been told, in effect, he's not worth enough to be honest to. How sad to see there are women who are too cowardly to be emotionally truthful, to face the real consequences of their actions.

This may seem harsh, but it's basically true. Treat people like nothing more than sexual commodities, and you should expect to be either shunned, or treated like a dim-witted sex toy yourself as well. Deceive people, and you should expect to be disbelieved.


Now to review and conclude on a hopefully more upbeat note. First, it's my guess most people (not just women) use the phrase, "let's just be friends," either when they're trying to be polite in one form or another, as per the first reasons given in the list above -- or when they're taking the emotional easy way out and lying.

How to deal with this? Review what you know of the person. Are they having trouble meeting your eyes? Do they smile insincerely, and have they been untrustworthy previously? Then it's a good bet they aren't interested at all in you -- don't waste any more of your (or their) time. Cut your losses; go find someone who'll be a true friend.

Alternatively, is the person who just asked you to be friends someone who is honest, forthright, and kind most of the time? Have they been straight with you previous to this? Then don't pressure them -- believe them!

Be their friend; don't just have sex with the first thing that comes along. Hold out for someone nice, like you... and maybe someday in the future someone who's your friend might become something more. It worked for me. ;-)