Healthy Opposite-Sex Friendships in Marriage

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One of the most important conversations you can have with your spouse starts with the question, "What is the healthiest way that you and I can relate to our opposite-sex friends?"

We live in a time when we all have friends whose marriages have been damaged, or even undone, by unhealthy opposite-sex relationships (OSRs). At the same time, there are many marriages that have been supported and strengthened through healthy OSRs. At the end of the day, the Bible provides answers to this issue.

Here are a few key principles to help you make the healthiest choices for your own marriage and friendships:

Understand the reality of potential problems. It is important to understand that certain OSR situations exist that can be a detriment to marriage. Emotional affairs, physical infidelity and even simple flirtatiousness are a few examples. In addition, some spouses have a history of wounds from past experiences with OSRs, and old feelings of fear, insecurity or jealousy can emerge, damaging the safety and intimacy of the marriage. So marriages must be protected, as the Bible teaches in Hebrews 13:4, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled."

Understand God's purposes for the body of Christ. The Bible also teaches another reality. According to Ephesians 4:16, the body is to help itself grow and fulfill God's mission: "From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." The "whole body" and "each part" phrases help us see that all of us, men and women included, are to develop godly character and a godly mission in our relationships with one another. We find in Philippians 4:2-3 that Paul ministered with women, Euodia and Synteche, and appreciated their contributions.

This reality makes sense in practical terms because men and women offer a growth perspective to each other that is unique. They look at life differently, and that can be extremely helpful as they support one another's growth spiritually, relationally, personally and professionally. If we cut off access to half of the human race, we can be in danger of limiting the good growth nutrients — such as support, insight, feedback and wisdom — that healthy OSRs can provide for us.

So the task for married couples is to both protect the marriage from the wrong OSRs, while providing the marriage with good nutrients to sustain the relationship.

Make sure any OSRs are with righteous people. Any marriage needs the healthiest influences possible. If you have OSRs, they can't be perfect but they should be righteous, that is, following God's paths. That means the person needs to have solid spiritual values and live a lifestyle of being loving and truthful. An OSR should only be with someone who wants your marriage to be better, not worse.

Act on the health and strength of your marriage. Marriages come in varying degrees of health. Some are solid, loving and honest. Each spouse has earned the trust of the other. Other marriages are struggling and fragile. You have to identify the health of your own marriage.

In many healthy marriages, OSRs can be a great source of truth and love. For example, a woman can tell a man, "You are stonewalling your wife when you shut down emotionally, and it hurts her. Open up to her more." Or a man can tell a woman, "When you criticize your husband you really wound him. Back off, and be more supportive." There is credibility behind those statements, and the marriage can improve from this point of view.

Some couples in solid marriages choose not to have OSRs simply because the couple has determined the risk not to be worth the benefits. There is nothing scripturally wrong with that approach, and it may be the best fit for that couple. However, they must work hard to make sure all the nutrients that God provides from others in the body of Christ are somehow present in the marriage.

In struggling marriages, here are some special situations that require answers:

  • When one spouse's actions in an OSR have damaged the marriage, and the spouse is unrepentant, in denial or dishonest. In this situation, that spouse has not proven himself or herself trustworthy and should curtail OSR involvements until that changes from the heart, in the behavior and over time. You must protect the marriage from further temptation.
  • When a spouse is truly engaged in the healing process, but there has not yet been enough time for that spouse to become a safe person. The spouse is working on the issue, but is still too broken to be considered trustworthy. OSRs should also be curtailed until the necessary change has taken place and has been verified by a qualified person, such as a good therapist.
  • When a spouse is personally insecure and jealous of the other spouse, even though the other spouse has done nothing to deserve it. In these situations, the insecure spouse needs to take responsibility to heal and grow. Instead of attacking and being suspicious with the spouse, he or she is to be vulnerable about his or her insecurity. The other spouse is to comfort and reassure the insecure spouse during this time.
  • For individuals who are threatening and suspicious, insisting that their spouse have no OSRs so that they themselves don't have to deal with their own issues, they violate the scriptural law of freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). In this case, it does little good for the righteous spouse to live in slavery, while the one with the problem has control. Both spouses remain in a damaged state. It would be helpful for wise and biblical experts to counsel the couple.
  • Some issues are simple. For example, we shouldn't rob banks. Some are more complex, such as this one. Either way, the Bible has the answers. Remember that God made us male and female, and anything from God is a good thing. Keep the balance — and keep on the path of growth.
Dr. John Townsend is a leadership consultant, psychologist and author. He has written or co-written 27 books, including the best-seller Boundaries.

Based on research and experience from Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley, Focus on the Family has created valid and reliable questions that evaluate the strength of your marriage. Take our free assessment now.

This article first appeared on the website of Focus on the Family's Thriving Family magazine in 2014.
Copyright © 2014 by Dr. John Townsend. Used by permission. From the Focus on the Family website at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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