While there are a lot of ways to screw up a marriage, spouses who have some types of close opposite-sex friendships are toying with one of the riskiest and most short-sighted behaviors that can lead to infidelity and ultimately divorce.
Many of my consults begin with a client saying something like this: “My husband is constantly texting a female co-worker…he says they’re just friends and that they only talk about work, but she texts at all hours and he has to text her back instantly, even if we’re lying in bed together.”
Or this: “My wife is always texting or on Facebook with her personal trainer. Now she locks her cell phone and has changed her online passwords. If I ask her who she’s talking to, she freaks out at me.”
In both of these cases, at least, the spouse who is having the opposite-sex friendship knows full well that the behavior is a bit shady and that their spouse is worried. But instead of respecting their spouse’s feelings, they continue to indulge in the ego-boost or thrill of it all.
Some people don’t agree with my stance that opposite-sex friendships should be handled very carefully within marriage. Some people might say that it is old fashioned and that men and women are perfectly capable of having platonic extramarital friendships with a person of the opposite sex.
In cases where the friendship involves two people who are not attracted to each other, that is of course absolutely true.
Yet unfortunately, some opposite-sex friendships – the ones that cause problems – are maintained because of a simmering, unspoken attraction.
One or both people may even be keeping their “friend” on the back burner as a potential mate in the event their current relationship ends. This is especially true of men. Let’s face it. Many men still only befriend women they have at least some degree of physical attraction to.
Some people will say that they’ve always had opposite-sex friendships and that shouldn’t change “just because” they get married. They will say that only insecure people or weak marriages would shy away from opposite-sex friendships. I’ve even heard people say that the “buzz” they get from an outside friendship is good for their marriage.
In my opinion, this is a self-focused and naïve way of thinking. It ignores the reality that every marriage goes through ups and downs. When you’re “up,” things are great and the opposite-sex friendship may be harmless (although it still may be a nagging, unspoken worry for the other spouse).
But things are different when your marriage is going through a “down” period. This might be some kind of conflict, sexual dry spell, life circumstance or even pure boredom. When this happens, many people turn to their opposite-sex friend as a shoulder to cry on.
Before you know it, the spouse and his or her extramarital friend are comforting each other, turning to each other for advice, sharing details of their personal life and relationships, and texting each other with increasing frequency and intimacy. As the excitement of the friendship grows, the dynamics in the marriage deteriorate. After all, three’s a crowd.
When asked to end the friendship, the spouse may become indignant and turn the entire situation around so that his or her spouse must go on the defensive, desperately trying to explain — to no avail — why the friendship is wrong and how it is affecting the marriage.
So to make a long story short, in some cases, an opposite-sex friendship isn’t a problem…until it is. And as anyone who works with couples will tell you, many if not most affairs do begin this way.
In my opinion, it’s foolish to disregard the strong association between opposite-sex friendships in marriage and infidelity…or if not infidelity, then at least an endless storm of arguments. Deciding to handle opposite-sex friendships proactively, recognizing that they can be a bit of a minefield, and therefore setting some boundaries for having them, is one of the smartest ways to protect the integrity of your relationship in the long term.