Opposite Sex Friendships
“Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” And with this statement, the debate began when the movie “When Harry Met Sally” took the conversation of opposite sex friendships to a whole new level. Granted, it’s been more than 20 years and most of us would like to believe that yes, of course we can be friends with the opposite sex; but those friendships can get tricky when a dating relationship becomes exclusive.
Whether we admit it or not, studies have shown that 90 percent of the time one of the individuals in an opposite sex friendship has experienced romantic feelings for his/her friend at some point. Sometimes it is addressed and sometimes it isn’t, but the feelings are—or were—there. According to Thomas Bradbury, psychologist and principle investigator of the UCLA Marriage and Family Development Study, it’s not that married men and women can’t be friends with people of the opposite sex. “It’s just that with divorce rampant and even greater percentages of unmarried relationships fizzling — marriage can seem pretty fragile. We become concerned when a married person develops a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex,” says Bradbury. “The problem is that these perceptions are not always misplaced. People have affairs, and they can begin in exactly this way.”
The good news is that it’s actually fairly easy to get a handle on the situation long before it becomes a point of contention in your relationship.
According to Sharon Rivkin, a marriage and family therapist, and author of "The First Argument, Cutting to the Root of Intimate Conflict," limiting friendships with the opposite sex once you’re married or in a committed relationship doesn’t allow for the richness and perspective that can be gained from those friendships. “With some foresight and consciousness, it’s possible to have friends of the opposite sex and keep your marriage strong and healthy,” says Rivkin. Often issues arise because the insecurities of our spouse or partner can lead to jealousy, so she recommends setting some opposite-sex friendship ground rules, such as:
- Don’t keep secrets! Everyone should know each other and know about the friendship. If you are keeping communication and/or time spent with your friend a secret—you may have something to hide and it needs to be addressed.
- Time spent with the friend should never supersede time spent with your spouse.
- Never make your spouse feel that he/she isn’t the most important relationship to you. Be aware of and sensitive to your partner’s feelings.
- Never put your friend’s needs first. By keeping your spouse as your number one priority, the mystery surrounding the friendship diminishes.
- Don’t talk to your friend about issues you may be experiencing in your marriage or other private information. Your marital relationship should always be your priority and what you would share with your husband or wife is not appropriate to share with a friend. This can lead you down a slippery-slope to an unhealthy attachment, dependency and even emotional cheating, which inevitably becomes detrimental to your marriage.
- To ensure comfort and trust, there needs to be a high level of maturity and self-esteem with all involved. Talk about this with your spouse and discuss everyone’s concerns and fears.
- Establish ground rules and boundaries from the beginning such as what’s okay and what’s not for everyone involved. Is lunch okay but not really dinner? What do you and your partner feel comfortable with? Each couple will have their own individual concerns and questions to consider and resolve.
- Do things together. Invite your spouse to join you and your friend whenever possible.
- Everyone needs to be in agreement that it’s okay for the friendship to take place. The spouse with the friend needs to be up front at all times, letting their partner know when they’re seeing their friend, when they’ve talked and even what’s going on in their life. This will allow your spouse to feel a part of their lives as well.
- Set clear boundaries with the friend. The ‘friend’ should be fully aware of what is considered acceptable and what is stepping over a boundary (such as calling the house at midnight or texting constantly). Don’t be shy about calling out your friend if they’ve overstepped. It can be something as simple as, “that just wasn’t cool when you (insert friendship foul here). Please don’t do it again.”
- The bottom line is, if your spouse ever feels uncomfortable with the friendship, he/she should feel they can speak up at any time, and their feelings and concerns need to be considered and taken seriously.
Additionally, Helen Fisher, anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love,” says opposite-sex friends can expect a friendship, at some point, to cross the line to flirtation and we should be ready to deflect temptation. “Start out by putting a picture of your wife or husband on your desk and talk about them a lot,” she says. And Fisher has wise words for the “friends” out there, “Make an effort to meet the wife or husband…choose their side of the table to sit on. Make eye contact with them. Make the spouse a friend too, with the goal of defusing jealousy and making the spouse feel that the friendship is no threat.”
Hopefully, most people want their spouses to be happy and to have friends of the opposite sex; however, in reality, this can only happen by setting and following ground rules. “Keep the lines of communication open at all times with everyone involved,” recommends Rivkin. “Be honest with yourself about your ability to have good boundaries as well as clarity about what is appropriate in a friendship and in your marriage. There are differences. As long as everything is out in the open, friendships with the opposite sex are possible.” After all, as one relationship researcher states, “It would make the world a pretty boring place if you could associate with only half the population!”