Ireland’s problem with mixed-gender friendships

Caitlin Parnell examines the challenging dynamics of these friendships in Irish culture

Last year I took the opportunity offered to students every year to do the best thing anyone could do in Ireland: leave. My experience of Erasmus was typical, in that it revealed to me all the ways in which Ireland is lagging behind. Only getting to the club at midnight, regular, accessible and cheap public transport, relatively affordable rent – these were all among the countless features of Central European life that still pull me away from the Emerald Isle. But probably one of the most significant differences I noticed didn’t concern our institutional and structural setbacks, but our cultural ones. 

While living away and getting to know people from all over the world (mostly Europe), I noticed a stark difference in people’s attitudes towards gender in terms of making friends. For those of my friends who grew up in Central Europe, the question of gender didn’t seem to be an issue at all. People are just people, and if you get along, you get along. Even for those who were attracted to the opposite gender, people were considered friends first, potential flings later. All kinds of physical affection: hugs, hair rustles, heads on shoulders could be exchanged freely without there being a presumption of any meaning behind them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has  noticed this, and you don’t have to travel far to see it – we might think of the infamous cohorts of European teens that frequent local Irish spots in the summertime, draping arms around each other indiscriminately. Whereas among Irish groups, platonic physical affection rarely crosses the boundaries of gender. My Irish female friends on Erasmus seemed to share my experience of feeling an invisible boundary existing between straight men and women, of not being able to trust male friends as easily as female ones, of struggling to open up to them as quickly. So all of this led me to wonder: what is Ireland’s problem with mixed-gender friendships?

The first thing to say is that I don’t believe for a moment that Irish people are deliberately upkeeping a boundary between genders in our friendships. In fact, there is a new generation that is largely fighting to break down gender roles and binaries; the very existence of these boundaries defies much of what is being fought for. I believe this to be an intergenerational, subconscious issue. In the many conversations I’ve had with friends about this (yes, I bring it up constantly) I’ve noticed there seems to be a general sense of dissatisfaction in terms of platonic relations with the opposite gender. I’ve had girlfriends tell me of how they wish they could be closer with men, but that they find it hard, usually as a result of some combination of two factors: they have been let down by men too many times in the past, and men don’t open up as quickly as women do. Therefore, women struggle to connect. On the other hand, I’ve had several male friends confide in me that they find it much easier to be vulnerable with their female friends than they do with their male ones, but that women often confuse this effort at closeness as romantic pursuit. So it seems that on top of past and potential future romances getting in the way of friendship, there may also be a rift between the maximum amount of vulnerability most men are willing to show, and the base level of openness that most women deem necessary to form deep friendships. If this is the case, it’s possible that Irish society – whether consciously or unconsciously – highly values traditional gender roles, which breeds a social divide between men and women. 

For many girls, though it is frustrating that our platonic affections rarely reach men, at least we can still hold tight to each other without fear of judgment”

I imagine it comes as  no surprise to most readers that my “Suspect Number One” is the Catholic church. With the education system in Ireland being still so tightly intertwined with the church, and many of us attending single-sex schools during our formative years, it makes sense that our inter-gender relations are so strained. Even if you were someone who thrived in the single-sex school environment, or who had a flourishing mixed-gender friend group outside of school, the very fact of segregation plants something within us – something that says girls and boys are different from each other, that we are us, and they are them. Even for those of us who attended mixed-gender Catholic schools, the same values often bleed through, with children and teens being separated by gender for sports, competitions, even the lines in primary school yards. Being separated and inadvertently – if not explicitly – told from a young age that there should be strict segregation between boys and girls, that it is the natural way of things, only serves to perpetuate traditional values of gender roles and expectations. It mystifies the opposite gender, making the possibility of opposite-gender relations seem so much more exciting than same-gender ones. In some cases it even generates a competitive economy, with people of the opposite gender becoming a product in high demand, and low supply. In heteronormative spaces, it sets a precedent for valuing romantic relationships much higher than platonic ones. For many girls, though it is frustrating that our platonic affections rarely reach men, at least we can still hold tight to each other without fear of judgment. But for the men who spent their formative years in environments that actively condemned this behaviour among each other, it is a crying shame. It is no coincidence that TikTok has recently been swarmed with outcries of female solidarity and affection, while there remains a harrowing silence from those proponents of male friendships. 

As with most things propagated by the Catholic church, these enforced gender segregations benefit no one (besides the Catholic church – this phenomenon encourages the maintenance of the traditionalist values on which the institution thrives). They only serve to create divides between all of us. This boundary that exists between men and women spreads like a crack in our social world, manifesting itself in conversation topics like: “How would you feel if your boyfriend had a girl best friend?” This kind of conversation tends to result in women villainising each other – in this social context, we are tightly bonded creatures, except when a male romantic prospect is involved. All of this should absolutely not be the case. Regardless of whatever gender we are socialised as, we are all humans at our core. In a perfect world, we can connect with each other out of curiosity and with intent to love, whether romantically or

platonically, and we are not held back by these antiquated unconscious biases. As with many things, Irish institutions could stand to re-evaluate themselves in terms of the kinds of values they regurgitate. But until that day comes, perhaps we could begin to challenge ourselves individually, to push past the social boundaries that we were bred to maintain, and try to find the human in everyone.