While there are a lot of ways to screw up a marriage, spouses who have close opposite-sex friendships are toying with one of the riskiest and most short-sighted behaviors that commonly lead to infidelity and ultimately divorce.
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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 he’s always laughing and smiling when he’s texting her.”
Or this: “I know 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 and says I’m being paranoid, jealous and controlling.”
Here’s what these scenarios have in common…
In both of them, the spouse who is having the opposite-sex friendship knows full-well that the behavior is as shady as hell. 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 not exist within marriage. Some people might say that it is old-fashioned and that men and women are perfectly capable of having platonic extra-marital friendships with a person of the opposite sex.
In cases where the opposite-sex friendship involves two people who have absolutely no sexual attraction to each other and who are not sexually compatible, that is of course absolutely true.
Yet many of these friendships involve people who – if circumstances were different – would be sexual partners.
Indeed, many opposite-sex friendships are maintained because of a simmering, unspoken attraction.
One or both people are 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.
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 mostly harmless (although it still may be an irritation to 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 extra-marital friend are comforting each other, turning to each other for advice, sharing details of their intimate life and relationships, and texting each other with increasing frequency and intimacy. As the excitement of their forbidden friendship grows, the dynamics in the marriage deteriorate. After all, three’s a crowd.
The spouse begins to leave the room to text his or her opposite-sex friend, leaving the other spouse in a state of anger, anxiety and hurt. When asked to end the friendship, the spouse often becomes indignant or outright belligerent, and may try to 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 opposite-sex friendship is wrong and how it is affecting the marriage.
Most affairs begin as opposite-sex friendships.
In my capacity as a marriage conflict specialist, I can tell you that the vast majority of infidelities I see nowadays follow a similar pattern to this one. They start with an opposite-sex friendship that quickly becomes intense and emotional due to the false sense of intimacy involved with text-messaging. They then escalate into a full-blown emotional or sexual affair.
Not only are close opposite-sex friendships within marriage risky, they are a form of betrayal. When a person gets married or enters into an exclusive committed relationship, that person expects to be his or her partner’s lover, closest and most intimate confidante, and priority. Of course, we all need close friendships outside of our marriage; however, there are plenty of people of our own gender to befriend.
Even strong marriages can succumb to problems.
Problematic opposite-sex friendships can also sneak-up on people in otherwise happy relationships, particularly when the opposite-sex friend is a “partner predator.”
This kind of opposite-sex friend may come across as innocent, but is drawn to someone who is already “taken” and can be very manipulative and aggressive in their pursuit of this person. If they manage to befriend your spouse, get ready for a world of trouble and drama.
In my opinion, it’s simply foolish to disregard the strong association between opposite-sex friendships in marriage and infidelity. Deciding that these have no place in your marriage is one of the wisest and most proactive measures you can take to protect the integrity of your relationship in the long-term.
It isn’t weak or insecure to do this. It takes a strong person to stand by their values and to insist that there be no or limited opposite-sex friendships within marriage. It takes a secure person to say, “I’m not living like this. I won’t live with the uncertainty and the anxiety and the divided loyalties. I won’t pretend that I’m not hurt because you’re putting energy into this friendship instead of into our relationship.”
You can reclaim and rebuild your marriage.
You CAN break the spell that your partner seems to be under with this other person. Many spouses have been where you are and have decided to handle things smartly – instead of just angrily and emotionally – and their marriage has reaped the benefits. If you need some direction, be sure to visit the homepage to see what resources are there for you. This is an area that I specialize in, and I will do my best to help. Thank you for reading.
• Debra Macleod, B.A., LL.B. can help you now, not weeks from now. See her Marriage SOS instant-access marriage recovery programs.