Skip to main content

Friendships With the Opposite Sex: When Do They Hurt a Relationship?

I enjoy helping people figure out how to maintain healthy relationships, with others and with themselves.

This article will help you navigate balancing supporting your partner's emotional needs and being treated well yourself, all in the context of having friendships with members of the opposite gender.

This article will help you navigate balancing supporting your partner's emotional needs and being treated well yourself, all in the context of having friendships with members of the opposite gender.

Friendship to Relationship: Learn What Signs to Look For

I always maintained friendships with the opposite sex while I was in a relationship, but for some people, their partner's friendships can turn into relationships—and then there are other people who insist their partner shouldn't have any friendships with the opposite sex at all.

Figuring out what is healthy and what's risky can help couples come to terms with their own insecurities and discover new strengths.

Dating Your Best Friend

An old adage says when you meet someone who is your best friend, marry him or her. And why not? Spending ten, twenty, or fifty years of our lives with someone is more of a challenge than staying pals with someone for the same amount of time. You share a home together, have more opportunities to disagree, and have extra responsibilities to one another.

So when you're dating someone whose best friend happens to be potential competition, the risk factor can skyrocket immediately.

The first thing to consider is why your partner isn't dating their "best" friend, and why they'll settle for someone they don't consider a "best" friend - which is you. Some reasons I've heard are that:

  • They don't want to ruin a friendship.
  • They aren't attracted in to their friend "that" way.
  • They've been friends for a long time.

Whatever the reason, you may feel insecure or even a bit jealous. After all, you want to be the person your partner confides in! You want to be best friends and may wonder why you don't measure up.

"Before you make any ultimatums or try to interfere with your partner's friendship, get familiar with the difference between normal jealousy and the harmful, pathological variety that can ruin relationships."

Possessiveness and Pathological Jealousy

It's normal to feel a bit possessive and territorial about your relationship. Pathological jealousy is a whole other ballgame. Before you make any ultimatums or try to interfere with your partner's friendship, get familiar with the difference between normal jealousy and the harmful, pathological variety that can ruin relationships.

Once you recognize the difference, don't let yourself veer into the unhealthy behaviors that destroy trust and safety if you want your relationship to stay strong.

HealthyPathological (Unhealthy)

Feeling anxious

Feeling worthless or unimportant

Negotiating appropriate restrictions

Demanding restrictions only one person thinks are appropriate

Brings thoughts of how great our partner is

Brings thoughts that our partner is trying to hurt us

Helps couples address relationship threats

Creates relationship threats

Shows commitment to the relationship

Shows control in the relationship

Promotes openness, trust, and bonding

Promotes anger and resentment

Increases intimacy

Hurts intimacy

Balancing Between Support for Their Emotional Needs and Your Own Good Treatment

To be a good girlfriend/wife or boyfriend/husband, it's important to show that you support your partner's efforts to meet their own emotional needs—which is something they get from their friendships. However, it's equally important to be treated well yourself, which might be at risk when those friendships are with opposite sex pals.

To find the balance point that shows your partner that you care and that you'll only accept good treatment, remember:

  • Avoid trying to control them.
  • Always control yourself.
  • Look for win-win solutions that give you both some of what you want.

Setting Boundaries You Both Can Live With

It's unreasonable to expect your partner to cut off half the world's population for your sole benefit. Period. Asking him or her to surrender opposite sex friendships completely is unfair to everyone involved.

A better solution is to find out what benefits they get from their friendship(s) and negotiate boundaries accordingly. Here are some suggested examples:

  • He says she's a fun person to be around. You can ask for an agreement to spend time together as a trio, since you know he'd want you to have fun, too. By agreeing to spend time as a group, you won't feel left out and you'll be able to develop more trust within your relationship. You'll probably gain a valuable friend, too, since there's a good chance you and she are a lot alike. After all, he has developed bonds with both of you.
  • She says it's important to her career. Honor her perceptions and ask for her to honor your relationship by limiting work-related friendships to a working environment. That means no after-hours texting, personal phone calls, or dishing about relationship problems. If after-hours get-togethers are part of the overall work atmosphere, make it a point to meet her (along with her pals) occasionally. This gives you an opportunity to defuse your fears, talk about her career and the people who affect it, and provide the kind of buddy support that she'll value deeply.
  • He says he's not attracted in "that" way. This is a gray area. While it may be true, there can be (and probably is) attraction from her side. Opposite sex friendships often have an underlying sexual tension even if it's to a small degree, and over time, there may be opportunities to grow closer and re-evaluate that attraction level. Appropriate boundaries may call for the solution above—limits that ensure you're included in their social circle.
  • She says she doesn't want to ruin their friendship, so they never dated. This is a big red flag that announces an emotional affair and an awareness that sexual tension is present. It may or may not ever turn into a physical dalliance, but it's something that shouldn't be ignored. Finding appropriate boundaries may be difficult or impossible. At a minimum, ensure that everyone agrees to avoid meeting in situations that could be viewed as a "date" by others. As stated above, your presence should be welcomed. If your partner's resistant to the idea, you may want to clearly state that you only want to be with someone who prioritizes your relationship ahead of self. If you still don't find inclusion or you discover your partner sneaking to maintain that friendship, you may be forced to end the relationship. Sure, you can get into all the arguing and controlling stuff that comes with pathological jealousy, but it'll come to the same end—a destruction of trust and love that eventually destroys the relationship.

Gifts, Inside Jokes, and You

When your partner and his friend have known each other a long time, you may see things that are uncomfortable for you, but that are healthy for your partner. For instance, a gift can be a way of saying "I appreciate you" to anyone—a friend, a child, a parent, or a lover. Inside jokes strengthen bonds of friendship and love, but if you're the newcomer you may feel left out.

Remember that your goal is to support your partner's well-being. If you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself if the gift in question is appropriate for a friendship or not. A piece of lingerie wouldn't be an appropriate birthday gift from your girlfriend's guy pal, but a gift card to a spa is a common token of affection between friends.

When it comes to inside jokes, ask for an explanation. By filling you in, they're making you part of their circle. If they brush you aside, be alert to the unspoken message that even though you're present, they're not fully including you.

When these discomforts arise, talk to your partner in a non-confrontational way. If they're a good partner they'll look for the win-win solution mentioned earlier. If they're not a great partner for you, they'll reject your viewpoint and you'll eventually have to decide whether to accept their viewpoint, struggle for control, or abandon the relationship.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I am in a committed relationship. My boyfriend wants to spend Christmas Eve with an opposite-sex friend, and will not include me. He claims "There is nothing to worry about " with this relationship, that they are "only friends." He doesn't want to invite me but wants to spend Christmas Day with me. He has never given me any reason to believe he has cheated on me. How to approach this healthily without sounding possessive?

Answer: The way to approach this healthily without sounding possessive is by setting some reasonable boundaries for the kind of people you keep in your life. "I will not accept having a boyfriend who excludes me from his opposite-sex relationships under any conditions. I'll be there Christmas Eve, or I'll spend Christmas Day alone. Which will it be?

You say he hasn't given you a reason to believe that he has ever cheated on you. I believe this IS reason enough to believe he is cheating on you. At the very minimum, he's being loyal to that friendship instead of demonstrating loyalty to his relationship with you. If you're ok with a guy who doesn't prioritize you, that's acceptable, but for me, it sure wouldn't be!