The Raphael Remedy

Boundaries in Friendships: When to Pursue, When to Walk Away

by | Mar 1, 2016 | Relationships

In my recent post I talked about the advantages of single people having good friends of the opposite sex. I believe both men and women can benefit from having such friends and it can set you up for a better future marriage.

But we need to be very careful in discerning when we should pursue or accept such a friendship, when we shouldn’t, and what boundaries can make them not only possible but positive.

First, I want to be absolutely clear on something. When I recommend having friends of the opposite sex, I’m talking on the assumption you’re both single and unattached. Many times these days opposite sex friendships develop in the workplace, at the gym, or other places. If one or both of you is married it can be a recipe for trouble. That is emphatically NOT what I’m talking about or encouraging. (More on that later.)

So, if you’re single, the first thing to consider when you meet a potential friend is this: are either of you attracted to each other romantically? If so, you may be opening yourselves up for a whole lot of heartache if the other doesn’t share the same feelings. One may think at least being friends could lead to more but the chances are equally good it won’t. Be honest with yourself. If it’s clear that either you or the other person are not interested romantically then it may be best you just move on. You don’t want to waste your precious time or theirs. A friendship will work best when you’re both on the same page. Leading someone on can be selfish and is, in some cases, downright cruel.

Healthy Boundaries with Opposite Sex Friendships for Single People

If you’re both single, there’s a little more flexibility when it comes to boundaries of course; however, there are still a few to keep in mind.

1. Limit physical displays of affection. Sometimes a hug or a hello/goodbye kiss on the cheek is absolutely fine. But be careful here. You never know what kind of feelings may be developing for either party so you want to avoid confusion. Keep it clear. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do with your brother or sister.
2. Be mindful of how much time you’re actually spending with one another. You’re both single and free but if either you or your friend’s ultimate goal is marriage then you want to leave some room for dating others that can lead to something more. It’s easy to go with the path of least resistance where you feel secure but this can sabotage your ultimate goal for marriage later on. You also don’t want to build your entire world around someone who may move on. Make sure you share your time with other friends as well.
3. Try to develop a group of friends. Developing a group of friends can help you both. It can keep the boundaries clear and if either of you has a date, the other still has a group to get together with. (And who knows, maybe someone in the group will bring a friend some day that is the perfect match for you.)

Healthy Boundaries for Friendships When One or Both of You Are Married

Now, I’d like to address friendships that develop when one or both parties are married. Again, I don’t generally recommend making friends of the opposite sex when one or both of you are married, but in business and other circumstances, it may be hard to avoid. You may work on a team and spend a lot of time together. You may be members of the same prayer group. In such circumstances I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have healthy and firm boundaries in place. Healthy friendships are possible…but with great caution.

There are a few critically important things to consider. First, if you have any romantic attraction to them at all, be honest with yourself and walk away immediately. Head for the hills. Cut it off, stay away, and don’t take it a step further. Tell a trusted friend, counselor, or confessor right away and ask them to help you stay accountable. It can be easy to rationalize as feelings get involved. An objective friend person who cares about you will keep you honest. The same goes if you sense the other person has a romantic or sexual attraction to you.

If you work in close proximity with such a person then find a way to put some distance between you. Ask to move your desk or office if feasible. I can’t emphasize this enough. Many affairs start out as friends in the workplace. It may be truly innocent at first but proximity and time spent together can lead to intimacy. Nipping it in the bud can save you and many others a lot of heartache and pain.

Keep in mind that we all tend to put our best face forward in a work situation. Your spouse, or theirs, may be home with the unglamorous job of raising kids and doing your laundry so comparing them to someone in the workplace is an unfair and often unrealistic comparison. Don’t fall for this common trap.

Now, assuming you don’t feel a romantic attraction and don’t sense that they do, it’s still important to observe some very strict boundaries in these situations. Again, proximity and time spent together can build intimacy that can be a problem later on. Forewarned is forearmed.

So here are a few boundaries to keep in mind:

1. As discussed above, limit physical displays of affection. Keeping it professional is a good safeguard and will also limit any appearance of scandal in the workplace or in whatever association of which you are both a part.
2. Be mindful of how much time you spend with such a friend. This goes both for time spent in person as well as time on the phone or social media. Keeping it work or association related is a good rule of thumb.
3. Be respectful of your spouse (and/or theirs) at all times and don’t share your troubles, disappointments, or pet peeves. It may seem innocent but it can start to develop into an unhealthy situation quickly. Too many affairs start with such discussions, “My spouse doesn’t understand me”…”you know what I’m talking about…”
4. Try to meet and get to know their spouse at your earliest opportunity and vice versa if you’re the one who is married and they are single. Try as much to be a friend to the spouse as to them.
5. Keep your priorities straight. Spouses come first. Always. All the time. No exceptions. And that means both your spouse and theirs. If you reach out to their spouse and they’re not interested or feel threatened by your friendship with their husband or wife then step aside. You don’t want to be the cause of marital strife or a break up. Even if they seem unreasonably jealous that’s not for you to judge. Just step aside and let your friend know you would rather not continue the friendship other than casual and necessary contact at work etc.
6. If you are the one that is married and your spouse is okay with your friendship, be mindful of your spouse’s rightful claim on your time and their priority in your life. To spend time at home on the phone with a friend may be okay if it doesn’t take time away from your husband or wife. And while we’re on that topic, anything you say on the phone should be able to be said in the open with your spouse in the room. If you feel the need for privacy, you are likely treading dangerous water.
7. If you’re single and your friend is married, then respecting time boundaries is also important. Keep your friendship work related and within work hours. Calling in the evening or weekends to chat is unfair to their spouse and family. Even if they initiate the call, the same rule applies.
8. Socializing at work: Coworkers often go out to lunch together or sit together in the cafeteria. This is best done in a group whenever possible. Even having one other coworker with you can be a good buffer to avoid not only unwanted intimacy that may develop, but also the appearance of impropriety that may be scandalous, even if there is really nothing going on. You should able to be very open with your spouse about how you spend your lunch hours and also to be mindful of your friend’s spouse who may get reports of your time with their husband or wife. Again, it may be innocent but you know how rumors can get started…and cause a lot of heartache.
9. Business trips: Although sometimes it may be hard to avoid being on the same business trip as your opposite sex friend, if it’s possible to avoid such situations then do so. Again, when men and women spend extended time together bonds can form. Better to avoid that if possible.

If you find yourself in such a situation that may be causing friction in your marriage or your friend’s, it’s a very good idea to talk to a counselor or a coach who shares your values that can help you sort it out objectively. Each situation is unique and may not be as clear in terms of how to address it.

Now That I’m Married, What Do I Do With My Single Friends?

Lastly, I’d like to address a question that comes up often…now that I am married, what do I do with my single, opposite sex friends? Is it appropriate to maintain those relationships? Or should I break them off and leave them behind?

This can be a very individualized answer. In some cases keeping those friends is fine, if your spouse is comfortable with it. In other cases, you may need to leave them behind completely and in other cases you may need to put some distance between you. This actually applies not only to opposite sex friends but sometimes to friends of the same gender.

The same paramount rule applies: spouses come first. With that priority firmly in mind you need to evaluate each friendship on a case by case basis. Let’s face it, marriage is a big change of lifestyle. You’re no longer single but are part of a couple which takes priority over individual needs and desires. Hence, some of the people you once palled around with may no longer be consistent with your new circumstances. If, for instance, your group of friends used to hang out at bars or dance clubs, this is not something you should be doing for girls or boys night out once you’re married.

Again, marriage changes a lot in your life. Even with same sex friendships your priorities will be shifting. Whereas you may have spent more time alone with many friends, once you’re married that will likely not happen as often. Inviting friends to parties or getting together with a group of friends may be good opportunities to keep up with old friends…again, if your spouse and theirs are comfortable with it.

Following the boundaries outlined above is a good guide for navigating your existing friendships once your marital circumstances have changed.

One last tip, remember, if you’ve had good self control with your spouse before marriage and didn’t jump in bed, the idea that you would have maintained opposite sex friends that were not sexual or romantic relationships will be much more credible. Chastity has more benefits than meets the eye!

Allison Ricciardi, LMHC
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