Having friends of the opposite sex can be meaningful and rewarding. But when you’re in a committed relationship, the boundaries may seem challenging. In some cases, having inappropriate friendships when married can have devastating consequences.
This guide overviews some of the main factors of inappropriate friendships when married. It will also explore how to cope with questionable issues if they arise. Let’s get to it.
- What Is Considered an Inappropriate Friendship When Married?
- When Can a Normal Friendship Become Inappropriate?
- Is It Important To Have Opposite Sex Friends?
- So, Can Friends Ruin a Marriage?
- What Should You Do if You Feel Jealous of Your Spouse’s Friends? The Do’s and Dont’s
- How To Set Boundaries if Your Partner Has an Inappropriate Friendship
- What if You’re the One in an Inappropriate Friendship?
What Is Considered an Inappropriate Friendship When Married?
Inappropriate friendships aren’t always easy to define. What feels wrong to you may seem entirely reasonable to someone else. That’s why defining an “inappropriate friendship” starts with understanding your partner and recognizing your own boundaries.
What Are the Signs of an Inappropriate Friendship?
Although it may seem subjective, there are some universal factors that most people would consider inappropriate. Here are some signs to consider.
Hiding or Minimizing Their Friendship
Does your spouse get jumpy when you see their phone? Do they downplay the friendship and insist that they barely even care about the other person? If other people joke about their closeness, do they get defensive or angry?
These reactions are concerning. While everyone is entitled to privacy, partners should generally avoid withholding secrets about their friendships.
Spending More and More Time With Their Friend
They aren’t just working on projects together- now they’re grabbing dinner or drinks, and your spouse is coming home much later. Or maybe they are working out at the same gym or walking their dogs together.
It may even seem like your spouse spends more time with their friend than you! If this is the case, if it feels like someone else has become a top priority, this could be a significant concern.
Liking or Comments on All Their Social Media
It’s reasonable to like the occasional post or video. But if you notice your spouse constantly interacts with their opposite-sex friend online (especially if this person posts a lot of selfies), this could be a problem. Other people may perceive it as flirtatious; ideally, your spouse should actively strive to avoid that reputation.
Sharing Intimate Details About Your Marriage
If you find out your partner discloses arguments or personal conversations to their opposite-sex friend, this could be a red flag. While it’s normal for friends to share their concerns, your spouse should come to you first if they have a problem.
Less Intimacy or Sex
Emotional affairs can cause people to feel less attracted and engaged with their partners. As a result, your spouse might start withdrawing from you. This withdrawal doesn’t necessarily mean they are having sex with someone else, but it could suggest they feel guilty or tormented by romantic feelings.
Other People Start Raising Concerns
Has anyone else said something about the friendship? Are your friends worried about what’s going on? People who love you care about your well-being and might say something if they feel something is off.
Remember that the presence of a symptom doesn’t inherently mean something inappropriate is going on. But if you notice a chronic pattern or your spouse refuses to listen to your concerns, deeper issues might be at play.
Something Constantly Feels ‘Off’
Your intuition can be powerful, and your gut instincts may have truth to them. If something continues feeling suspicious, pay attention to that feeling. It may be a sign that you need to investigate the situation further.
When Can a Normal Friendship Become Inappropriate?
Is it ok for a married man to have female friends? Is it ok for a married woman to have male friends? And is it wrong to be friends with a married man or woman?
If you ask these difficult questions, rest assured that you’re not alone. Friendship is confusing, and navigating friendships within the context of a marriage can be even more complicated.
Indeed, normal or even healthy friendships can progress into being inappropriate. An inappropriate friendship can happen if someone starts relying on your spouse for more emotional support.
It can also occur the other way around if your spouse starts reaching out to others for deeper connection and intimacy.
Many times, inappropriate friendships emerge as a reaction to relationship problems. Instead of the couple coming together, one partner emotionally steps outside to get the support, validation, or connection they want.
Is It Important To Have Opposite Sex Friends?
Can a married and a woman be friends? Better yet, can friends of the opposite sex have a platonic relationship without any unresolved emotional or sexual tension? Let’s review some of the research.
Matt Grammar, LPCC, states, “Friendships are very important. However, it’s also important to establish boundaries that can benefit your marriage’s health. This might mean balancing the time you spend with your friends.
This might also mean calling out behavior from friends that belittle, demean, or disrespect your spouse. One possible question you can use to reflect on when it comes to behaving and talking with friends is this, “if my spouse were here, would s/he feel uncomfortable? Or, will she be happy?”
In a pioneering article, J. Donald O’Meara highlighted four obstacles that opposite-sex friendships face:
- Determining the type of emotional bond shared
- Confronting and facing sexuality within the friendship
- Presenting the relationship as an authentic friendship to other people
- Addressing equality within the greater context of gender inequality
Think about your opposite-sex friends. Do any of these factors affect you? What other obstacles, if any, have you faced?
In their study, Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship, researchers explored the novelty of these opposite-sex friendships. First, they theorized that these opposite-sex friendships are a fairly new phenomenon. Think about it- we’re social, connected creatures, and we may rely on friends more than family in adulthood.
The researchers also defined friendship as a combination of “what it is and what it is not,” outlining that opposite-sex friendships can be far more complex than same-sex friendships or intimate, romantic relationships.
Finally, they cited how evolutionary theorists speculate that these friendships have an evolutionary, functional purpose. Such friendships support problem-solving, survival, physical protection, and, in some cases, increased sexual access.
In their study, they tested four predictions:
- Opposite-sex friendships reflect a man’s increased short-term mating desires more than a woman’s
- Men overestimate how much their female friends are sexually attracted to them.
- A man’s attraction to their female friends should be similar regardless of their friend’s current relationship status.
- Single women with male friends will feel more attracted to them than women in committed relationships.
Their results showed that both men and women experienced low to moderate levels of romantic attraction. The attraction was higher for men, particularly if they were younger.
Subsequently, participants who reported greater levels of attraction for their opposite-sex friends reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction with their current partners. Many participants cited jealousy (from their partners) as one of the main drawbacks in maintaining their friendship.
Interestingly, men were more likely to overestimate how much their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to underestimate the man’s level of attraction.
According to Imani Wilform, MHC, LP, having friends of the opposite sex does have some benefits. She states that opposite-sex friends “might allow you to become more knowledgeable about the other sex and will become more apparent what may or may not be inappropriate in a particular relationship.
They also may offer differing viewpoints on life and situations that you might not have considered before, opening your mind and broadening your horizons.”
So, Can Friends Ruin a Marriage?
Very few issues in a relationship are strictly black or white. And as we know, friendships are essential for human connection and validation.
A true friend will have your partner’s best interest at heart. This means they will support your marriage and likely make a genuine effort to get to know you. Even if you two don’t become close friends, there should be mutual respect, compassion, and understanding.
That said, opposite-sex friends can interfere with a marriage if they:
- Talk poorly about you or your relationship with your spouse.
- Make inappropriate gestures or comments to your spouse.
- Disregard your or your spouse’s defined boundaries.
If something feels questionable or wrong, that’s a warning sign of an inappropriate friendship. While it’s okay to desire some unique connection, it’s never healthy to feel the need to hide or protect the relationship from your partner.
What Should You Do if You Feel Jealous of Your Spouse’s Friends? The Do’s and Dont’s
Jealousy can be a powerful emotion that typically manifests from a deep place of insecurity. Someone feels jealous when they are afraid of losing something of value. In this case, you probably feel jealous of losing your spouse to their friends.
Jealousy is a different emotion than envy. Jealousy happens when you fear losing something. Envy occurs when you want something that belongs to someone else. It is possible to experience both emotions simultaneously: you may feel jealous because you’re afraid of losing your partner, and you might feel envious of your friend’s personality, appearance, or connection to your spouse.
If you’re feeling jealous or envious, here are some dos and don’ts.
Do Explore Your Alternative Emotions
What else exists besides jealousy? Do you notice any envy? Are you feeling afraid or sad? Are you experiencing shame or guilt? Consider reflecting on these emotions and writing them down.
If you have a trusted friend or therapist, share your feelings aloud. These people can help you maintain perspective. They might also be able to offer insight that you could have otherwise overlooked.
Understanding your emotions can help you plan the next steps for processing them. It’s important to have awareness before you take a specific action.
Don’t Force a Friendship With the Other Person
Ultimately, you can choose the level of involvement you want this friend to have in your life. If your spouse insists you two become friends, let them know you will decide on your own.
You may want to have a friendship with them, but this friendship shouldn’t exist with the intent to sabotage them. That strategy will backfire and probably hurt you, them, and your partner, creating even more disconnect.
Do Consider Your Level of Trust
How well do you trust your partner? Drs. John and Julie Gottman, psychologists, authors, and expert researchers on marriage, created a brief quiz that allows you to assess your level of trust within your relationship.
This quiz may provide some insight as to why you might be feeling jealous or insecure. If you have low trust, you might inherently look for reasons to doubt your partner.
Of course, trust is a two-way street. It is not just an automatic given. Instead, it’s an ongoing process, and your spouse must continuously work to earn your trust.
Don’t Try To Find Your Own Friend To Incite Jealousy
Healthy relationships should never feel like a nasty competition. If your spouse has a close friend of the opposite sex, it doesn’t mean you need to find someone immediately.
Keeping a score doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. If anything, it builds more resentment and animosity. Instead of trying to prove a point, expressing your feelings and sharing your concerns is far more effective.
Do Recognize the Signs of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can happen if your partner is narcissistic or emotionally abusive. Gaslighting can include a combination of manipulation tactics designed to make you think you’re crazy or overreacting. Some examples of gaslighting include statements like:
- I told you that I was having dinner with ____. Did you already forget?
- You seriously imagine things! We’re just friends!
- Maybe you’re the one having an inappropriate friendship!
- Why would you feel jealous? I love you more than anything. She means nothing to me.
- I think this is just your depression talking. You always seem to be upset with me when you feel depressed.
Remember that recognizing these signs can take time. Likewise, they aren’t always obvious, so people often get away with them. But pay attention to your intuition. If something continues to feel off, there’s a good chance you’re onto something.
Don’t Call Your Partner (or Their Friend) Names
Jealousy can be a normal emotion, but your emotion doesn’t give you the right to act cruelly. Calling names or insulting the friendship often creates a disconnect within your relationship. Your partner may feel like they have to defend you- or their friend- rather than assess the situation accurately.
Don’t Make Bold Assumptions Before You Have Evidence
Ideally, you believe in your partner and give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if you feel scared or skeptical right now, it’s unfair to throw harsh accusations impulsively. Instead, take a moment to compose yourself, assess your feelings, and identify your boundaries.
Do Remember That People Have Different Boundaries
Remember that inappropriate friendships can be contextual. What feels entirely unacceptable for you may seem reasonable to your partner and vice versa.
According to Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, “your spouse may have a different view on boundaries, so it’s important to have a conversation around what healthy boundaries look like to you and to them so that you can define it better together.”
Don’t go through your spouse’s phone or email to find information. This sneaky behavior can breach trust and wreck the foundation of a stable relationship.
Instead, if you have specific concerns, share them directly. If your partner seems defensive or presents as anxious, that information can be revealed independently.
How To Set Boundaries if Your Partner Has an Inappropriate Friendship
Setting boundaries is one of the biggest ‘dos’ when navigating your feelings. In any relationship, you have the right to assert your needs. Here are some practical steps you can take to achieve this goal.
Agree To Basic Ground Rules Without Being Rigid
As a couple, having some essential boundaries regarding friendships is a good idea. These boundaries ensure that you both feel protected and respected. Keep in mind that healthy boundaries can be flexible. You can review and reassess them at any time.
Craig and Debbie Lambert, owners of Lambert Couples Therapy, warn about the dangers of having overly strict demands. They emphasize the importance of assuming responsibility for your own feelings and challenging certain beliefs that you’ll be happy if your partner acts in a certain way.
Decide if You Want To Get To Know This Friend Better
Our minds can play awful tricks on us, even if we don’t know the full situation. For instance, if you’ve been cheated on in the past, you might be more apt to be suspicious of opposite-sex friendships.
Understanding the friendship may help put your mind at ease. Consider spending some time together and try to give this friend the benefit of the doubt. Avoid jumping to potential flaws as much as possible.
If there is nothing romantic about their friendship, this person should want to get to know you better. And by spending more time together, you may grow to have a better understanding of their dynamic.
Reflect On Exactly What’s Bothering You
Be clear and concise. What is the main problem you identify? Avoid using any blaming words. Instead, list your feelings and thoughts as objectively as you can. Consider writing them down in advance to help you prepare.
According to Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author, “get it right out there in the open and discuss it. If you think your partner is blind to the friend’s real motives, find a kind way to say it and put your partner on guard for the friend’s hidden agenda. She recommends using a non-threatening phrase like, “I know you enjoy your friendship with…but I feel a little threatened. She/her flirts with you often, and I’m not sure you see it.”
Define What Is Non-Negotiable To You
Is it okay if your husband’s female friend always needs help? Is it okay for a married woman to text another man?
When you think about it, there aren’t many concrete rules about relationships beyond the extreme limits (no abuse, hostility, or threats). Each set of partners needs to define their limits and express them to each other clearly.
What is non-negotiable to you? If you aren’t sure, start writing some suggestions down. Check the items you want to discuss with your partner. These non-negotiable items are hard limits; you will leave the relationship if your partner disregards them.
What if You’re the One in an Inappropriate Friendship?
If you’re becoming too close with a friend of the opposite sex, you may need to take some steps to rectify the situation. Ignoring it won’t make the issue go away. In fact, ignoring and denying the closeness only tends to make things worse.
Be Honest About the Nature of the Friendship
Start reflecting on the following questions:
- Do I rely on my friend for emotional support more than my partner?
- Do I enjoy spending time with my friend more than my partner?
- Do I feel the need to downplay or make excuses about our friendship?
- Do I fantasize about the two of us together?
- Do I often daydream about the ‘what ifs’ regarding our friendship?
- Does my friend poke many holes about my marriage or talk poorly about my spouse?
- Does my friend treat my spouse rudely or make no effort to build a friendship?
Answering yes to any of these questions is a cause for concern. Even if you don’t mean anything malicious, these feelings can deepen over time. Subsequently, you may start withdrawing from your partner in response to them.
Consider What Might Be Going on in Your Relationship
More than ever, people marry each other in response to romantic love. Indeed, falling in love is one of the most euphoric sensations someone can experience. Many modern cultures emphasize the benefits of selecting a mate and falling in love- it’s perceived as a normal developmental task.
That said, romantic love can be fleeting, and research shows that many couples face a gradual decline over the years. In a recent study, Joanni Sailor, LMFT, explored what ‘falling out of love’ actually means. She describes it as a sensation of falling, but the spouse is blamed for the fall. And as one falls, there is no control and nothing to grab- it is just a free fall.
Take a moment and think about how you feel about your partner. Do you still feel love? Happiness for the relationship you have? An acceptance for the person they are?
If you’re unsure (or find yourself saying no), it’s time to reevaluate your marriage and overall happiness. What is this inappropriate friend offering you that your spouse cannot? What voids are you knowingly or unknowingly trying to fill?
Take some time to think about ways you can focus on your marriage. Even small steps can make a meaningful difference. Some good starting points include:
- Making more of an effort to engage in routine physical touch.
- Focusing on daily gratitude for your spouse.
- Implementing a weekly date night.
- Revisiting your future goals together.
- Planning and taking a trip together.
If these strategies don’t work (or don’t feel compelling enough), you might want to consider broaching the idea of couples therapy. A qualified professional can help you both with healthier communication, boundaries, and restoring intimacy. Many couples find relief in knowing there are practical solutions for improving their relationship satisfaction.
Reach Out For Support
Because inappropriate friendships often provide comfort and intimacy, it’s imperative to recognize this dynamic before it snowballs.
Consider discussing the issue with your same-sex friends. What is their insight into the situation? Have they had any concerns? Ask them to be honest with their feedback- if they’re going to side with you, their opinion probably won’t be that worthwhile.
Moreover, individual therapy can help. You may benefit from speaking with a trusted professional who can validate your feelings and explore this dynamic. Therapy is nonjudgmental and supportive- you can talk about whatever is on your mind.
Consider Your Main Priorities
If this friendship interferes with your relationship, you must assess the situation. In a healthy marriage, your spouse comes first. If you continue disregarding their emotions, you risk betraying their trust and marital satisfaction.
You may need to implement new boundaries with your friend. Consider collaborating with your spouse to determine what feels reasonable.