If you are married, it’s more than likely that you’ve had a discussion with your spouse at some point about a friendship between one of you and someone outside your marriage. So, what about those opposite-sex friendships? Are they healthy or are they dangerous? Should we avoid them at all costs or take them on a case by case basis? How much friendliness with the opposite sex is too much and could land you in trouble? What if the person you’re friends with is 50 years older than you? These are all questions we explore in this article.
Recognize the Hazard
First of all, we don’t take a hard line on this issue in either direction. We neither tell you to back off and let your spouse be a grown-up and choose his or her friends or insist that there can be no friendships with the opposite sex for either of you.
This is a nuanced issue with lots of variables and we want to point you towards a thoughtful, nuanced, self-reflective review of this issue. Hopefully, you do this in a way that prioritizes the sanctity and value of being in a loyal, committed, thriving marriage.
It’s important to recognize that we all need to recognize there is a potential hazard in opposite sex friendships. This doesn’t just apply to flirtatious friends; it’s is really true with any friend. If someone is your friend, it is because you are attracted to them: to their personality or characteristics or physical appearance or what they have to offer or how they make you feel. The word “attraction” may make you nervous there: it doesn’t necessarily mean physical attraction or even attraction in a way that is unfaithful to your marriage. It’s natural that we like our friends. You may not be thinking in that direction today, but it is important to acknowledge this as a potential hazard. That doesn’t call us to paranoia or isolation: it should call us toward caution and self-reflection to make sure we keep things in a healthy place.
What to Watch For
The Potential for More
The first issue to be aware of is that there is often the potential for more than a friendship. There are conceivable circumstances under which a friendship could exist with absolutely no sexual attraction or sexual compatibility. In a case like this, having a friendship with someone of the opposite gender presents no problem at all. An example of this is little old ladies from church. You can go to her house for the afternoon, chat, share personal stories, have a cup of tea, pet her cat, and nothing is ever going to happen.
At the same time, it’s important to realize that many opposite-sex friendships involve people who—if circumstances were different—might be potential romantic partners. It’s also worth noting that it is common for men to mainly befriend women that they have at least some degree of physical attraction to. In light of this, it can be hard to know how best to handle opposite-sex relationships because another important task for married people is to stop considering alternatives. You don’t want to be moving through life considering potential alternatives to your spouse. But you also have to recognize that if someone is a potential alternative then that friendship has greater risks associated with it.
The key difference between these two thoughts is the element of fantasy. Fantasy says, “I wonder what it would be like to be married to him or her?” Or worse, “…To have sex with that person?” This is called considering alternatives, and it erodes your commitment, intimacy, and loyalty towards your spouse.
On the other hand, it is possible to realize that someone is attractive or kind or admirable in some way. You need to be conscious of recognizing that there is potential for more (without fantasy or thinking about what that potential might be) and just set a mental boundary for yourself.
It’s important to pay attention to the warning signs and not to ignore them. Some warning signs might be:
- If you find yourself consistently texting with someone of the opposite sex and it’s not strictly confined to necessary communication for work or other responsibilities.
- If you try to arrange more meetings or “together time” than you need to (e.g., if the friendship started at work).
- If the friendship is becoming intimate: emotionally or physically (e.g., sharing personal things you don’t usually share with the opposite sex or sitting close together or holding hands).
- If you find yourself thinking about the other person a lot, even to the point of being distracted when you are with your spouse (obsessing).
- If you start getting together outside of the context of your initial or primary connection. For example, if you start having coffee with someone you met at the gym.
- If you find yourself hiding the details of your communication or time spent with the other person from your spouse.
- If the nature of your communication is becoming personal or intimate.
Friendships with the Opposite Sex
Once again, we’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters. We unpack more of these warning signs for you in this additional content available to our patrons. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Healthy Boundaries for Friendships
According to family counselor Greg Smalley, “Friendships with people of the opposite sex should be casual friendships: Your time together is infrequent and, when you do see each other, you are guided by strong boundaries that your spouse and you have previously agreed to.”
How to Set Boundaries:
The guiding principle in setting up boundaries is to prioritize your marriage. You have to preserve your relationship with your spouse above all friendships. You want to protect your marriage but also to think specifically about protecting the trust between you. The balance is key since we all need to have friends; our spouse cannot be the entire extent of our social network. And all of us will have some friends of the opposite sex whom we need to be friendly to. But we need to do that without putting our marriage at risk.
Here are some guidelines that you can discuss with your spouse:
- Do not be friends with anyone your spouse does not feel comfortable with… no exceptions. And don’t continue fighting for that friendship once your spouse has waved the red flag. That only makes you look like you care more about this friend than your spouse.
- Caveat: We are assuming here that there’s not a problem with jealousy in your marriage (see episode 113). It’s ideal if you can articulate the reason for the discomfort and both of you agree. There is the odd case where a spouse has an unaddressed and out of control jealousy problem, or even an abusive control issue and ends up isolating the other spouse on the basis of this otherwise useful and healthy principle.
- Your friendships with the opposite sex need to be completely out in the open. If you’re hiding a relationship with the opposite sex from your spouse or hiding how close you are to the other person, that should set off some serious alarm bells.
- Don’t share private details of your marriage with anyone of the opposite sex. Lean on a mentor, pastor, life coach, or a trusted friend of the same sex.
- There are different opinions on how much you should be a support to someone of the opposite sex. Some people say you should never be the shoulder for someone of the opposite sex to cry on. They’ll tell you to be kind, hand them a tissue and walk away. You might have healthy boundaries, but this person might not. The part about boundaries is true. But there may also be a place for careful consideration of supporting someone, provided you have your spouse’s approval and awareness of the nature and extent of that support, and that you consider the potential for more that was discussed previously.
- Don’t be alone with a person of the opposite sex outside of work, unless you and your spouse agree ahead of time. This includes being alone in a messaging app: texting, FB Messenger, WhatsApp, etc. Romantic relationships usually come out of recreational activities and intimate conversations, so if you’re spending time having fun or gaining familiarity with this friend, it can easily lead to something more. It’s also worth being very deliberate about planning business trips with someone of the opposite sex in a way that protects your marriage as well as both of your reputations.
It’s Not All About Prevention
While it can be helpful to follow a list of “do-not’s,” it is also good to think about things you can and should do for yourself and your marriage.
There are a few things you can do to strengthen your marriage:
First of all, cultivate a deep friendship with your spouse. Make that relationship your top priority: not just in principle but in practice. This doesn’t mean you need to exclude all other friendships, but this relationship ought to take precedence over all others. You’ll be most protective of, and cultivating towards your most important friendship. Make that person your spouse.
Secondly, your closest, most rewarding friendships outside your marriage should be with people of the same sex. These relationships are also healthy for your marriage. If you don’t have any then that is an indicator that this is a necessary growth area for you. Something is out of balance.
Thirdly, build shared social networks with your spouse. Try to find people where you can be friends as a couple with another couple. So, the friendship and sharing of life and the companionship that develops exists between you as couples, and the strongest bonds or sense of connection is between the two guys and the two women in this context.
Most of us need more friendships, not less. And more connection, not less. We just really want to encourage you to build that first of all with your spouse, then with same-sex friends. Thirdly, to do so carefully, thoughtfully and with boundaries towards members of the opposite sex.
 Debra MacLeod, “Why Opposite-Sex Friendships Will Destroy Your Marriage,” 2019,
 Carter Zack, “1-on-1 Opposite Sex Friends: A Blind Spot Threat to Marriage,” 2017,
 Greg Smalley, “The Billy Graham Rule: Should You Be Friends With Someone of the Opposite Sex?,” 2017,
 Meygan Caston, “How to Keep Boundaries With the Opposite Sex,” 2017,
 Smalley, “The Billy Graham Rule: Should You Be Friends With Someone of the Opposite Sex?”
 Caston, “How to Keep Boundaries With the Opposite Sex.”
 Smalley, “The Billy Graham Rule: Should You Be Friends With Someone of the Opposite Sex?”