The Billy Graham Rule: Should You Be Friends With Someone of the Opposite Sex?

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Billy Graham is 98 years old, but he can still make headlines. When Vice President Mike Pence said that he never spends time alone with a woman who’s not his wife, suddenly everyone was talking about the “Billy Graham Rule” again.

Lots of the commenters didn't seem to like the rule. It’s sexist, they said, or they argued that it was outdated to the way we live and work today. I disagree. And while my wife, Erin, and I don’t follow Dr. Graham's “rule” to the letter, we’ve incorporated its spirit into our own lives.

I know the “Greg Smalley Guideline” doesn’t have quite the same ring as the “Billy Graham Rule.” But I hope that how Erin and I handle this really ticklish topic might help you, too.

It’s OK to have friends of the opposite sex, but

Check out Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV): “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching,”

Here’s another, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (5:11): “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”

God wants us to have friends. He wants us to be in relationship with one another. And I believe that can include having friends of the opposite sex. But those friendships should come with some pretty important stipulations.

First, those friendships shouldn’t be close friendships — the sort of friendships that entail a lot of one-on-one contact or where you’re sharing intimate details of your life with each other. That can get you into trouble in a hurry. Friendships with people of the opposite sex should be casual friendships: Your time together is infrequent and, when you do see each other, you are guided by strong boundaries that your spouse and you have previously agreed to (see below).

Second — and really, this should go without saying — those friendships should be completely out in the open. No secrets. No sneaking or skulking around. If you’re hiding a relationship from your spouse, that should set off some serious alarms.

Third, not only should your spouse know, your spouse should bless the friendship. You need to give your husband or wife a relational trump card. If they feel like the relationship is a problem, then guess what: It is. Never tell your spouse that he or she is paranoid or jealous. Don’t shut the conversation down. Talk it through. And if the friendship is a problem, you should end it immediately. If you can’t end it — if you and your friend have to work together — set some strong boundaries that you and your spouse agree on.

These aren’t easy conversations to have with your spouse. It’s easy to get mad, defensive or dismissive. And trust me, I know all about how these talks can go wrong.

An example from our marriage

Twice in our marriage, Erin has come to me with concerns about my friendships with female co-workers (neither of whom worked at Focus on the Family, by the way). And frankly, I responded defensively both times.

“Don’t you trust me?” I asked her. “What do you think I am, an idiot?”

I interpreted her concern as an indictment on me. She doubts my integrity, I thought. And a lot of spouses respond in a similarly defensive way. They either take the concerns personally or they place all the blame on the other person, calling him or her jealous, controlling or paranoid. All that insecurity, blame and defensiveness leads to even more relational disconnect, and often to a full-blown fight — just like it did for Erin and me. And that only reinforced Erin’s concern and fear.

If your spouse raises concerns, you might think about it this way: You can be a great driver, but it still doesn’t hurt to have a car with antilock brakes. You can be a talented woodworker, but you should still wear safety glasses when you’re working with a lathe. And it’s the same with opposite-sex relationships — safety first. Erin needed some extra assurance that I dismissed in that moment.

Eventually, we were able to sit down and really talk about the issue. I put aside my defensiveness and was able to sincerely hear what Erin was telling me. From that conversation, I was able to talk about having some good, strong boundaries with women at work.

Some guidelines

I’ve mentioned the word “boundaries” a couple of times already. Just what exactly do those boundaries look like? Consider the following:

Make your relationship with your spouse your priority. No relationship — even the one you share with your husband or wife — can be your “everything.” No one person can fill every relational need. But tending to the friendship you have with your spouse should take precedence over every other relationship you have outside the family.

Cultivate and maintain your same-sex friendships. Those should make up your closest, most rewarding friendships.

Build shared social networks with your spouse. Invite your opposite-sex friend to dinner, along with his or her spouse or a guest. Go to baseball games together. Instead of nurturing a friendship with a woman outside of your marriage, better to befriend a couple, where you can all get together to share life and companionship.

Be careful about your interactions. Don’t take an opposite-sex work colleague out to lunch alone, and never take a business trip with only him or her if you can help it. If you can’t avoid those situations, build some strong boundaries. If you’re interacting with an opposite-sex friend or colleague online, make sure there’s a legitimate reason for the communication.

To be blunt, I don’t think you have any business “casually” texting the opposite sex. If I’m trying to banter or joke, I always make it a point to include others and make it a group text. That’s just being safe.

Take honest stock of yourself. Be aware of your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and heed warning signs that this friendship might be veering into dangerous waters. For instance, do you ever fantasize about your “friend”? Are you exchanging highly personal information with him or her? Are you hiding the relationship in some way — deleting texts so your spouse won’t see them?

Set guidelines for how you should behave around members of the opposite sex. Ask these questions:

  • How do you feel about opposite-sex friendships in our marriage? How might they be appropriate and helpful? What would make them inappropriate?
  • How do you feel about opposite-sex relationships at work? How might these be different from outside-of-work friendships?
  • When interacting with the opposite sex, what are your expectations for me (i.e., off-limit places, inappropriate topics, how often I spend time with that person, etc.)? What are your expectations with opposite-sex work relationships?
  • What rules do you feel are important to have in an opposite-sex friendship? At work? Outside of work?

The Billy Graham Rule is great. But the spirit behind that rule is even greater, and you should incorporate that spirit into your own marriage. No friendship — new or old — is worth damaging your marriage.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.

Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.

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