ONE thing that produces marital strife in today’s world is friendships with the opposite sex. In our society, men and women often have friendships with each other outside of marriage, and in some cases these are very close.
However, when one or both friends are married to another person, too often the spouse feels threatened by the friendship and it can lead to tensions, distrust, and accusations and can even tear a marriage apart. How should such friendships be handled? What priorities and boundaries should be set?
First of all, I don’t think men and women should build close intimate friendships with each other outside of a committed relationship. It is not appropriate to build emotional closeness without a plan in place to head towards marriage. Men and women can be friends, but they shouldn’t be sharing their deepest feelings and dreams if they want to remain just friends. Intimacy between a man and woman should be reserved for marriage, period. It is part of the beauty and sacredness of marriage that your spouse knows you more deeply and intimately than anyone else. Your spouse alone should know your innermost secrets, hopes, and desires.
A lot of people, however, will object at this point. Men and women can maintain a purely platonic friendship, they say. They will point to a friendship or two in which they were very close but never had feelings for the other person and will testify that their close friendships of the opposite sex have been good for them, filled a need for them, etc. My response to that is that of course these friendships fill a need – a need that should be filled by your spouse (or your future spouse). We all have a deep desire to be intimately known, to be accepted just as we are, to make deep emotional connections with another. But this need was meant to bring a husband and wife together to fill this need in each other. It is not appropriate to fill this need outside of marriage any more than it is appropriate to fill the need for sex outside marriage. The problem is, we like to think in little boxes. We want to put emotional closeness and sexual attraction in separate boxes and pretend that they’re totally unconnected. We believe we can have emotional closeness with someone of the opposite sex without having “feelings” for them. The problem is, we aren’t robots that can put things in little boxes and keep them that way. We are integrated beings. We are designed to build emotional closeness that leads to physical attraction and its culmination in physical and emotional unity through sex. Again, that’s supposed to draw a husband and wife together. The marriage relationship is about more than just having sex. For that matter, sex is more than just a physical act. Sex is a physical, emotional, and spiritual bonding experience that is designed to merge two people into a single unit. Just as physical closeness (such as kissing and cuddling) are preparation for this marital unification, so too is emotional closeness. The physical and the emotional go hand in hand to bring the kind of unity that God designed marriage to be.
Because of this, when you are married, emotional intimacy with someone other than your spouse is cheating. It may not be physical, but it’s still sharing with someone else what should only be shared with your spouse. Such emotional affairs are not only wrong in themselves, but dangerous. Most adulterous affairs begin with a seemingly innocent emotional closeness with an opposite sex friend. It’s part of God’s design for our sexuality that we feel physical desire when we have emotional intimacy. This is a beautiful truth within marriage. Emotional closeness brings husband and wife together to show their love for each other physically, and the physical act of sex bonds them even tighter emotionally. Both male and female bodies even release a hormone called oxytocin that triggers emotional bonding after sex. This is the way God meant it to be within marriage. But when a person allows emotional closeness to form with someone to whom they are not married, their body will, sooner or later, want to respond as if they were married. Even if an emotional affair does not become a physical one, it still causes damage to the marriage relationship. For one thing, the emotional energy that is invested in the inappropriate friendship is energy that is not invested where it should be – in the marriage. If you feel the need to express hidden desires and feelings to someone else, it is a sign that your marriage has a problem and your immediate response should be to work to fix the problem and restore intimacy in your marriage. Sharing with another person of the opposite sex ignores the problem, allowing the gap to widen between husband and wife, while also building closeness with someone else. No wonder it leads to so many problems. In addition, when a spouse learns of an emotional affair, they often feel betrayed (and for good reason). This can cause a lot of hurt as well as further rifts in the relationship. Thus, even when an inappropriate friendship does not turn physical, it is still extremely harmful. Because of the design of our sexuality, we need to guard our hearts in order to protect our marriages. While men and women can be platonic friends, that will only happen if there is an emotional reserve between them. In other words, we should not build intimate friendships with the opposite sex outside of marriage. With this is mind, we should be extremely careful what we share with others, especially those of the opposite sex. Even what is shared with friends of the same sex should be limited (though, obviously, there’s less cause for concern that inappropriate sharing will lead to inappropriate physical acts). The need to share your inner desires and feelings should bring you back to your spouse to fill that need.
A question that often arises is what to do when a husband and wife are having problems and they can’t seem to talk to each other or regain the intimacy in their marriage. The default position should be to work out your problems with your spouse, not to talk to someone else about how to “fix” your marriage. However, sometimes there is a rift that does require outside advice. Sometimes counseling is needed. Ideally, a husband and wife should see a counselor together, but that requires both spouses to participate. Sometimes a spouse has to get help alone. In that case, here is my advice. Anyone you tell about your marriage struggles should be:
Your same sex,
A happily married mentor figure, and
Given only enough detail to allow them to help and pray for you.
You want to avoid using anyone (male or female) as a dumping bin for all of your frustrations instead of working them out as a couple. And you want to avoid ranting about your spouse on a regular basis to someone who takes your side all the time. This will only cause you to focus on the negative qualities and turn your heart further away from your spouse. The proper kind of mentor figure, if you must confide in one, will challenge you to change yourself, not your spouse. After all, you are the only one you can change.
By Ogunkoya Odunayo.
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