Can Men and Women Be Just Friends? How To Handle Opposite-Sex Friends in a Relationship

Having opposite-sex friends has long been perceived to be valuable by both women and men. It also raises the widely debated question: Can men and women be just friends?

According to a study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin titled as the same question posed above, both sexes reported the information they received from opposite-sex friends about how to attract mates as beneficial. Women also reported receiving protection from their male friends more often than men did from women and rated it as highly beneficial. Where sex was involved, men valued that aspect of friendship more than women.

Due to the intimate emotional and physical nature of some of these benefits, maintaining relationships with opposite-sex friends while in a romantic relationship can open up a can of worms. Depending on who’s complaining — the partner who’s unhappy about the opposite sex friendship or the partner who’s looked upon with suspicion because they have the friendship — the couple needs to deal with the issues head-on. Otherwise, the opposite-sex friendship could damage the relationship, even end it.

If one of the above scenarios describes you and your partner, this article is for you. Here are a few ways to think about an opposite-sex friend in regard to your romantic relationship and how you can manage the friendship responsibly and respectfully for everyone involved.

Is the friendship new?

These days, it’s rare to meet a love interest without a past, even if you’re young, due to the growing trend of people marrying later in life. Pew Research Center reports that as of 2019, only 44 percent of millennials were married. Of the millennials who did take a walk down the aisle, they did so later in life as compared to previous generations.

Now picture if you’re dating in your forties, fifties, and beyond. You and your partner have likely picked up more than a few opposite-sex friends along the way, especially given how the rate of gray divorces (divorces among those over 50) has doubled from 5 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2015. Do these opposite-sex friendships need to end just because you’ve entered a serious relationship?

That’s a loaded question, and the answer rests heavily on the nature of the friendships, despite their age. If a friendship, even if it’s an old one, prevents you or your partner from fully engaging with each other the way a couple should, it might be time to think about how you engage with that opposite-sex friend moving forward and how you really feel about them. More about that later.

If you’re in a committed relationship and you or your partner begin an opposite-sex friendship, that, too, can cause issues, especially if the opposite-sex friend is single. It’s often hard to tell everyone’s intentions in an opposite-sex friendship, even if they appear aboveboard. For the relationship partner standing outside the friendship, it could cause uneasiness, even distress, raising the question: Is this new friendship worth maintaining?

If you’re the one with the new opposite-sex friendship, and you feel strongly enough about continuing it despite your partner’s feelings, you might want to consider why. The same holds for an old opposite-sex friendship or a friend who pops up after a long time, wanting to reconnect. Be honest when asking yourself the following questions.

How do you feel about the opposite-sex friend?

Determining how you feel about your opposite-sex friend will require doing a little soul-searching. You should also be aware you might not like your answer after you do.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as devoted, we’re human and have urges. Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll act on them. But your partner, especially one with Spidey-sense, can feel whether there’s an attraction between you and your opposite-sex friend or one of you likes the other more than just as friends. Seeing this can become a source of worry for them, which will likely take its toll on your relationship at some point.

If you find you’re thinking about your opposite-sex friend in a way that’s not platonic — you’re focusing on their physical attributes, you feel jealous if they’re expressing romantic interest in someone else or someone of the opposite sex is interested in them, or fantasize about engaging in sexual acts together — your friendship might not be as friendly as you think. And likely, your partner has picked up on this.

That said, if you think of your opposite-sex friend as only a friend, is it possible something else is giving rise to your partner’s uneasiness? In other words, is your partner seeing something about your friend you’re not?

If you’re the partner who’s listening to their gut, let me congratulate you. Our gut rarely steers us wrong, and when we listen to it, it can be uncomfortable. That said, it doesn’t have to mean your partner is the one whose behavior is causing you to be upset. It could be your partner’s opposite-sex friend.

If you know the friend or know of their behavior, you might see something your partner doesn’t. It could be flirtation your partner is oblivious to or passes off as innocent. Or the friend could’ve said something to you that raised a red flag.

Regardless of how or why it happened, that person’s behavior is causing you to feel a certain way. At this point, I would recommend talking to your partner about what you’re experiencing. The way your partner responds to you will often say a lot.

How is your friendship with your partner?

When you’re in a serious, committed, and healthy relationship, you and your partner each should be the other’s best friend. If you find yourself turning to your opposite-sex friend for advice on important personal issues or discussing intimate details about your partner, you should probably consider what’s lacking in your relationship for you to go outside of it for support and guidance.

Fulfilling emotional needs outside your relationship can make your partner feel like an outsider. If you’re the partner on the outside looking in, it’s time to raise the issue and have a discussion about it. Not only can the response be informative, but research also supports how facing problems directly can serve to strengthen your relationship.

If you’re hearing from your partner about your conversations with an opposite-sex friend causing them uneasiness, you might want to rethink your behavior. Consider turning your attention back to your partner for those personal discussions. If you don’t feel comfortable, focus on getting to the root of why and addressing it.

Are you caught up in old ways of thinking?

Everyone comes to a relationship with preconceived notions about how a relationship should be. But those notions only take into consideration your feelings, not your partner’s. How could they? You didn’t know your partner before you entered the relationship with them.

Different people have varying tolerance levels. What might bother one person will roll right off another’s back. The same holds for opposite-sex friendships. Some folks will be OK with them, and others not so much. Then there will also be gray areas in between based on the above factors.

If your opposite-sex friendship is really bothering your partner, ask yourself whether their feelings are justified. Is it possible there’s truth in what they see, causing them to think of the friendship the way they do? Is it possible your interactions with your opposite-sex friend, or theirs with you, could be perceived a certain way, even if completely innocent?

On the other hand, if you’re the one who’s wary of your partner’s opposite-sex friendship, is it because your history, which might have absolutely nothing to do with your partner or their behavior, has caused you to see the world in a certain way?

For example, if you were cheated on in the past (whether by your current partner or someone else), are you particularly suspicious of opposite-sex friends? Have you been unfaithful before (with this partner or someone else) and recognize a similar pattern?

As much as we may not want to admit it, cheating is common. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, infidelity occurs in about 20 percent to 40 percent of U.S. marriages. Put simply, one to two couples out of five are involved with a partner who has a wandering eye.

Then, of course, there’s another possibility; your jealousy is related to a separate issue altogether, like wanting to control your partner, and, therefore, is not based in reality.

Only you can answer these questions and whether you need to adjust old ways of thinking about relationships. That brings me to my next point.

Are you open to changing your behavior?

Healthy relationships don’t just happen. They require dedication from both partners to make the relationship work and continue working. It means both partners need to pay attention to how they feel in the relationship and how their partner feels.

In the case where an opposite-sex friendship is upsetting the rhythm of your current relationship, it’s critical to determine why, how you can address your partner’s concerns, whether you’re open to changing your behavior to do so, and to what extent. In other words, is your relationship worth saving?

If you can’t answer this last question without asking and getting the approval of your opposite-sex friend first, you probably already have your answer. And so does your partner.

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Cassie Zampa-Keim is a nationally known matchmaker, relationship coach, and online dating strategist based in Marin County, C.A. For more than three decades, Cassie has helped thousands of clients find satisfying relationships and love. Cassie has been happily married to her husband, Mike, for over 20 years. Together they share two daughters, Kaylie (20) and Lauren (17), a son, Evan (13), one dog, a bunny, and lots of laughs.