Can men and women really be “just friends”? It’s an age-old question (and one that we’ve tackled here at Verily a few times before), but no matter where you fall in the debate, the reality is that many of us do have opposite-sex friends. While it’s wise to take a step away from friendships that pose a clear threat to your current romantic relationship, what should we do about all the other opposite-sex friends we have—especially if there was never a romantic history between you?
I’ve been married for nearly five years and still treasure my friendships with men and women alike. Sure, when I was single I had my fair share of “complicated” friendships with guys, but even so, the overwhelming majority of my friendships with the opposite sex have been hugely rewarding and complication-free.
It feels silly to let an unfounded fear of things going wrong affect an enriching, healthy friendship. So what do the experts have to say about handling these friendships? Here are five therapist-recommended rules to serve as a guide if you, like me, treasure your friendships with the opposite sex but want to be careful not to compromise the one relationship that matters most: your marriage.
01. Communicate with your partner and respect their feelings.
Having friends of the opposite sex is certainly something to be very careful about, and couples therapist and Verily contributor Zach Brittle points out that making sure your partner feels comfortable with your friendships is the first step. “If your partner is uncomfortable, that's a relevant red (or pink) flag,” Brittle says.
Different couples may have different comfort zones; one couple may, for example, have a rule that they never have a one-on-one dinner or coffee alone with a friend of the opposite sex. To my husband and me, that feels too extreme, as neither of us mind it. For us, the key is communicating about that time spent with a friend, both before and after the event, and making sure we’re both comfortable with each individual situation.
Something else that is worth remembering, too, is that on the whole, feelings of jealousy in a normally un-jealous spouse are not to be derided, but something to be respected and discussed. In her book, Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Sanity After Infidelity, marriage Therapist Dr. Shirley Glass points out that your partner could be tuned in to some sexual chemistry that you’re not aware of, for example. Even if you think that their feelings of jealousy are misplaced or the fact that they are feeling uncomfortable is over-the-top, at the end of the day, your partner’s feelings are the priority. If you think they’re being unfairly and consistently possessive and jealous and it becomes a reoccurring or big issue in your relationship, you should seek professional help (together, if possible) from a certified marriage therapist.
02. Nothing should feel like a “secret.”
Dr. Glass wrote that “secret emotional intimacy is the first warning sign of impending betrayal. Yet, most people don’t recognize it as such or see what they’ve gotten themselves into until they’ve become physically intimate.” She recommends that you are completely open about the extent of your relationship with anyone outside of your marriage, and that you constantly ask yourself if you would feel comfortable if your partner heard your conversation with your friend. “When you withhold information and keep secrets, you create walls that act as barriers to the free flow of thoughts and feelings that invigorate your relationship,” she points out.
Dr. Glass recommends reading letters from a friend aloud to your spouse, for example, and letting the friend you’re corresponding with know that your spouse enjoyed their anecdote about one thing or another to make it clear that you’re sharing it with them. It's good practice in all your friendships (whether with men or women) to make it known that you don't keep secrets from your spouse, as secrets of any kind can put a strain on your relationship.
03. Never let someone outside your relationship become an “alternative.”
“The biggest issue is, do you have intimacy with a person who is a potential alternative to your partner?” Brittle says. If you want to ensure the long-term health of your relationship it's important not to discuss any relationship troubles you might have with someone who could be seen as an alternative or replacement to your partner (which is particularly relevant in the case of male-female friendships).
Dr. Glass recommends making sure that you never start confiding more in a friend than you do in your spouse, because this can encourage emotional infidelity; if you start to feel as if your friend of the opposite sex understands you better than your spouse does, they are becoming the “alternative partner” that Brittle describes as one of the most threatening outside forces on your relationship.
04. Put some boundaries in place before you get into a tricky situation.
“My experience as a marital therapist and infidelity researcher has shown me that simply being a loving partner does not ensure your marriage against affairs. You also have to exercise awareness of the appropriate boundaries at work and in your friendships,” Dr. Glass writes. She also goes on to remind her readers that affairs don’t have to be physical, so you’ll need some emotional boundaries, too. “To be healthy, every relationship needs this safety code: the appropriate placement of walls and windows. Just as the sharing that parents have with children should not surpass or replace confidences within the marriage, the boundaries in a platonic friendship should be solid.”
According to Dr. Glass, “Rich friendships outside the marriage are also important for a full life, and it is sad when those friendships have to be forsaken after boundaries that protect marriage have been violated.” She wrote Not Just Friends in an effort to promote “ways to set appropriate boundaries that will preserve your friendships as well as your committed relationship… Good friendships and a loving marriage: This is what is possible when you value and preserve the differences between them.”
Boundaries might look slightly different for different couples, but it’s important to think about and discuss emotional and physical boundaries and find out how your partner feels about all of this early on in your relationship. Make sure you keep checking in with each other and adapting as time goes by and circumstances change.
05. Make sure all your friends are “friends of the marriage.”
Dr. Glass encourages couples to maintain friendships with people who are "friends of the marriage." Typically, these kinds of friendships (with either sex) are characterized by the fact that, "They are not in competition with the marriage," and they "reinforce the values of marriage in general and their friends' committed relationships in particular." She goes on to describe how these types of friends "react to marital complaints with problem-solving approaches that support continuing commitment." As Brittle wrote, "If you’re interested in an intentional marriage, you’ll need the help and support of your community. . . . An intentional marriage cannot exist in a vacuum."
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes, “Nothing so enriches [romantic] love as the discovery that the Beloved can deeply, truly, and spontaneously enter into Friendship with the friends you already had; to feel that not only are we two united by erotic love but we three or four or five are all travelers on the same quest, have all a common vision.” It’s been a great joy of my marriage to see my husband get to know and appreciate my friends, including my male friends. We are truly travelers on the same quest, and there’s nothing more satisfying than that.
Photo Credit: Rob Bye