Can Men And Women Really Be Just Friends?

In my relationship counseling practice, a number of the couples I work with explain with great distress that their spouses have friends of the opposite sex. Frequently these are friendships that developed before the couple met. Some of them even dated for a short time and slept together. This has raised the question: can couples who are in a serious monogamous relationship (or married) be friends with someone of the opposite sex, even someone they dated and slept with in the past? Researchers have found that so few platonic male-female friendships that they’re at a loss to even define these relationships. The feasibility of opposite sex friendships must be looked at on a case by case basis; it cannot be dismissed out of hand. In my opinion, men and women can successfully become close friends. There is no one right way to do “relationship”.

The Complex Feelings Surrounding Male/Female Platonic Friendships

Why Does the Friendship Cause So Much Pain?

Before we venture into the morality of male-female friendships, it’s important to first evaluate our feelings around this issue. Many people will feel insecure and jealous about having their partner involved with someone of the opposite sex. This insecurity can grow and soon enough the partner feels disrespected and mistrustful. For some, the emotional intimacy with another man or woman feels like a betrayal or even emotional infidelity. Often, my clients insist that their partner give up their friend all together with the only rationale being: “It’s not right.”

The “It’s Not Right” Myth

Perceptions of right and wrong can be closely held. They are typically created in the family of origin or the individual’s culture. They include activities that are appropriate to do with the opposite sex and activities that are not. For example is it all right to go out to dinner, hiking, or even to a movie alone with a friend of the opposite sex? Is there a distinction between an appropriate just hanging out together and a date? How about talking to a friend of the opposite sex daily on the phone? The couples in my practice describe all of these behaviors and more. They almost always disagree on their propriety. Given that they grew up in different households with different experiences until they met, disagreement is not a surprise. It’s important to recognize that culture, family, the media and, of course, our egos all contribute to a script that dictates whether there’s room for warm friendships with other men or women. Those that our partners may have slept with in the past are particularly off-limits. Our culture feeds that it’s impossible for men and women to have a platonic friendship and that it will inevitably lead to them sleeping together. Your individual story may also say emotional intimacy will eventually lead to sexual intimacy. You need to understand this is just a story and this is not necessarily truth set in stone. In my couples counseling practice, I have found that the opposite sex friendship DOESN’T cross the line more often than it does.

The Accusation of Jealousy

The partner playing the “it’s not right” card gets the accusation of inordinate jealousy thrown back at them, as if jealousy is an inappropriate or irrational response. This label makes the partner outside the friendship feel even more defensive. The conflict escalates further. Jealousy takes many forms. The partner may be jealous of the emotional intimacy. He or she may also feel that too much of the other’s time and energy is going to another person, energy that should be invested in the relationship.. Finally, some perceive that the partner gets certain needs met by another person, which can be perceived as a threat. These are all reasonable concerns. Please read my blog post, “Understanding And Managing Jealousy Whether It’s Yours Or Your Partner’s” to get more insight into his tricky emotion.

The Sexual Threat

More explosive, one can’t help wonder about the strictly platonic nature of the male-female relationship. Many declare that any male-female friendship winds up turning into an affair or romance. Those that take this position believe that sexual tension almost always exists between a man and woman. I do not necessarily take this view. Beyond arguing about the presence of attraction, I’ve found that even if some attraction does exist (we are biological beings, after all), it can certainly be managed appropriately.

The Source of the Sexual Tension Myth

The perception that uncontrollable sexual tension exists between every man and woman or even two gay friends stems from the media. The film When Harry Met Sally starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal convinced the nation of moviegoers that sex always comes between men and women, making true friendship impossible. In my opinion, When Harry Met Sally set the potential for male-female friendship back 25 years. Television hasn’t helped either. The majority of sitcoms feature a male-female friendship that winds up turning into a romance. This overdone theme is far from inevitable in reality.

Men and Women CAN Be Friends

With the research on platonic opposite sex relationships nearly non-existent, I can’t site facts and figures. I will say that in my years of couples counseling in San Diego and La Jolla, I’ve come to the conclusion men and women can be friends without a threat to the primary relationship. I truly believe that with clear open communication your partner can have a close friend of the opposite sex. In fact, I have found both professionally and personally that it is very healthy to have friends of both sexes And in fact these friendships enrich the lives of your partner. I’ve talked with men who regard their female friend as a sister and I’ve talked to many women who regret their male friends like a brother. This becomes particularly important if your partner never had a brother or sister. Rather than being a threat, these friendships enrich lives, taking some of the responsibility for entertainment and happiness from the spouse. If as a couple, you determine that the friendship can go on, please read my next blog post: “Ground Rules for Opposite Sex Friendships Both Partners Can Respect.”

Therapy Helps Resolve These Issues Efficiently And Quickly

If you’re having trouble with your partner’s friend, know that coming in for relationship counseling can help the two of you communicate and resolve the issues and often in a matter of weeks or months rather than years. I love this quote from Rumi: “In the space beyond right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.”