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Just Friends? Here's Why Having Opposite Sex Friends Could Be More Trouble Than Its Worth

So you’re committed. Is it time to let former friendships with opposite-sex friends shrivel up and die? And what happens when you meet someone of the opposite sex that you actually like—platonically, of course? Read on to find out.

In a Huffington Post article couple's mediator and relationship expert, Debra Macleod writes that “spouses who have close opposite-sex friendships are toying with one of the riskiest and most short-sighted behaviors that commonly lead to infidelity and ultimately divorce.”

Ouch. Someone is not okay with opposite-sex friends.

But it’s 2016. Isn’t banning opposite-gender friends a little outdated? More importantly, does it mean that your relationship is somehow weak?

Marriage and family counselor Sharon Rivkin believes that opposite-sex friendships are healthy. In an article in Hitched, a publication for married peoples, she writes, “Limiting friendships with the opposite sex once you’re married doesn’t allow you the richness and perspective that you can gain from a member of the opposite sex.”

She goes on to give a list of practical do’s and dont's for folks who want to have non-shady friendships with members of the opposite sex. According to Rivkin, openness between all three parties is key to maintaining boundaries and upholding trust.

So who’s right? Is forming an opposite-sex friendship playing with fire? Or, is it simply a matter open lines of communication?

Perhaps the only way we’ll come close to an answer is by asking another question:

Can heterosexual men and women ever be friends?

The friends-who-fall-in-love trope is a regular on the silver screen. No Strings Attached, Friends With Benefits, and Just Friends are a just a few recent films to feature clueless friends who wind up head over heels for each other.

If all couples took their cues from Hollywood, they’d trust Harry (Billy Crystal) from When Harry Met Sally on this one. He claimed that male and female friendships don't work, because "sex always gets in the way."

As it turns out, there may be more than a nugget of scientific truth to that thinking.

Whether you’re single or in a serious relationship, most of us do indeed have non-romantic friendships. They’re practically unavoidable when we live, work, and play alongside members of the opposite sex. And in a staggeringly high number of cases, men and women are actually successful in avoiding hopping into the sack with one another.

But this is where things get complicated for people who are otherwise taken: simply not sleeping together doesn’t rule out the possibility of romance.

According to a study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, platonic friendships between members of the opposite sex are something of a façade. Under the surface of the friendship, conscious or unconscious romantic and sexual urges lie in the wait.

The research involved 88 pairs of heterosexual, opposite-sex friends. The pairs were separated, and under guarantees of confidentiality and anonymity, both parties were asked whether they had romantic feelings toward their friend.

The results showed significant differences in how men and women perceive opposite-sex friendships.

Men were more likely to express attraction towards their platonic female companions. They were also more likely to believe that their female friends felt the same way—regardless of what the female friends actually reported. The men assumed the sexual attraction was mutual.

But females were equally blind to their male friends’ feelings. Though they were less likely to report attraction towards their guy friends, they also believed their guy friends felt the same way. The women assumed the lack of sexual attraction was mutual.

Perhaps not surprisingly, men were more willing to act on what they presumed to be a mutual attraction. Whether the female friend was taken or not didn’t seem to matter—men were just as likely to desire romantic dates with single friends as they were with taken friends. Women, on the other hand, tended to be less willing to pursue male friends who were in relationships.

This study suggests that though we think—and indeed, we may have evidence—that we’re capable of maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, it’s the lingering possibility of romance that can get us into trouble.

For couples, opposite-sex friendships may last for years without ever crossing into adulterous territory. But the trouble usually arrives when a couple goes through a rough patch—and all couples go through rough patches. At which point, one partner decides to look elsewhere for attention and emotional support. Where is that person going to look outside of his or her relationship? To the close friend who’s been there all along, of course. After all, they already trust each other. This can trigger even more strain between the couple, which in turn pushes an opposite-sex friendship to escalate into a full-blown extramarital affair.

To get back to the question of whether it’s okay to have opposite-sex friends, that’s up to you and your boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse to discuss and decide together, knowing that there will be rough patches—times when you feel like turning to someone else, perhaps an opposite-sex friend, if only for support. And when you do, just remember Harry from When Harry Met Sally’s advice.

[Image via Getty]

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