Little hard data exist on how many close friendships are between adults of different genders, but Adams and other researchers believe that in the past few generations, men and women have enjoyed more close friendships, with less outside suspicion. In 2014, for instance, the then-director of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, Michael Kimmel, said he’d been asking his students for 25 years whether they had a good friend of the opposite sex. At first only about 10 percent said yes, but by the mid-2010s, almost everyone did. Similarly, Judith Kegan Gardiner, a friendship researcher and professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote to me in an email that “from what I can see (principally of white, middle-class people), adult cross-sex friendships are growing more common and becoming more casually accepted, [and] attract less suspicion of inevitably sexual behavior.”
Read: The widespread suspicion of opposite-sex friendships
Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship researcher based in Montreal, often works with young adults, and she told me that their cross-gender friendships come up regularly. Given the life stage young adults are in, their uncertainties about how to honor adult friendships and close family relationships in wedding contexts without excluding anyone or hurting feelings also come up. Kirmayer isn’t surprised to see that the clash between the old tradition of gender-segregated wedding parties and the new ubiquity of mixed-gender friendships is creating stressful situations.
Asking someone to stand up with you on the day you get married, Kirmayer says, is one of the few codified ways to publicly commemorate or honor close adult friendships. But because the number of spots in a wedding party is often limited to just a handful, choosing to include one friend often means choosing to exclude another. Single-sex wedding parties can already cause hurt feelings, “and because having mixed-gender bridal parties perhaps isn’t as common, that would create even more room for conflict,” Kirmayer told me. She understands why some couples might hesitate to deviate from the norm. “It could be seen as choosing somebody else over the person that you were, you know, ‘supposed’ to.” (The old, crude adages about where exactly on the loyalty list your “chicks” or your “bros” belong would seem to apply here.)
That said, prioritizing the tradition of single-sex wedding parties over just asking your closest friends or family members to be wedding attendants can be equally hurtful, especially to those who find themselves without a role in the wedding because of their gender. Situations like Kat and Adam’s, according to Kirmayer, raise the question of whether the exclusion of a dear friend from a wedding party in the name of tradition comes from a place of anxiety or fear. In those cases, she told me, she would advise the bride or groom to consider what they’re worried about, and what the worst that could happen might be.