Are Platonic Friendships Ruining Your Marriage?
They enrich our lives and make partners jealous. How to navigate the murky waters.
From my teen years until I met my husband, I always had lots of guy friends. Even though I’m a girly-girl, I also have several male-skewed interests. For instance, I love gadgets (I built a transistor radio when I was 14), and I have a consuming passion for baseball.
Fast-forward to my mid-20s. I’m head-over-heels in love with Howard, and I hope to marry him. So when he tells me he’s jealous that my friend Ira and I are going to a concert, I casually let my friendship with Ira lapse: I’m suddenly really busy every time he calls.
While I’m a bit irked that the man I love can’t understand my friendships with men, I’m also flattered that he thinks they must be enamored of me too.
Invoking the wisdom of Judith Viorst and her 1986 book Necessary Losses, Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, says that my decision was typical — and appropriate. “When we want to hold on to a new serious love, we often have to let people go. If a platonic friendship might upset a relationship we hope will be ‘the one,’ we accept different priorities,” Brandt says.
And that’s just what I did with my male friends, one by one. Unless they came with a partner, they were vanquished from my social life.
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Times change, though, and as my marriage accrued in years, I began nurturing platonic friendships once again. They may not be as intense as the ones I had in my younger days — after all, I’ve no desire to stay up all night watching TV or playing cards with these men. But somehow meeting male friends for lunch or a drink feels natural. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
(MORE: Which Old Friendships Are Worth Hanging On To?)
Phil McPhee, a Boston-based attorney who’s been married to his second wife for 18 years, says he frequently finds himself socializing with women for whom he has no romantic feelings, something he hasn’t really done since college.
“My 17-year-old daughter has soccer practice or study groups a few nights a week, and my wife works late sometimes, so I don’t feel much pressure to come home right after work. The clever men — and women — that I work with are a riot out of the office too, and we have so much fun. My wife, who’s in public relations, finds them boring and doesn’t care if I catch a drink or even a movie with them because she knows I love her and that when I get home there’s no chance of lipstick on my collar,” says McPhee.
In fact, many boomer-relationship experts are highly supportive of platonic friendships. “Men and women are different. They think differently. Having a friend who brings a new perspective and dimension to your world can be fun," says Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and author of Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back.
Saltz believes that there’s more opportunity for platonic friendships today. “As we move toward greater gender equality, women are involved in the same pursuits as men, and research shows that men are likely to establish relationships over shared interests,” she says.
“Because my work world involves so many young artists, several of my new male friends are a lot younger than I am,” says April Goodwin, 58, who got married for the third time eight years ago. “I run an art gallery, and the 20- and 30-something men I meet may tell me I look great, but I know they’re not interested in me physically. I’m like, ‘Phew, we can be real friends.’”
Still, platonic friendships are often tricky — even for us boomers. “People in platonic friendships can walk a fine line,” says Saltz. “Things have evolved drastically, but I doubt we’re ever going to reach a state where there isn’t the potential for jealousy.”
(MORE: The Secret to Surviving Infidelity)
7 Secrets to Making Platonic Friendships Work
For those of us who want to have trusting romantic relationships with a partner and enjoy the company of platonic friends, Saltz and Brandt suggest the following tactics:
1. Show your spouse it’s no big deal. If your office goes out for Friday night happy hour or has a monthly get-together, invite your significant other so s/he can observe how you act with your work friends.
2. Be mindful of what you say and do. “Ask yourself if you’d act this way if your partner were there,” Saltz suggests. Would you be touching your friend so much? Does your repartee go beyond friendly banter? Platonic friendships don’t give you permission to flirt when your mate isn’t present.
3. Never compare your friend to your spouse. We see our partners day-in and day-out so we know their flaws. But we tend to see only the best in our friends. “You shouldn’t expect your significant other to be in a good mood or be fun all the time. Direct comparisons may damage otherwise healthy relationships,” Saltz says.
4. Don’t complain about your partner. Platonic relationships can undermine a marriage if a person is constantly deriding a spouse. “Confiding a problem to a good friend is one thing; making that the basis of a relationship indicates something is not right with the marriage, the friendship or both,” says Brandt.
5. Maintain healthy boundaries. Even if you have a solid marriage, your partner isn’t going to share all your interests. That’s the beauty of a platonic friendship: You can talk about things that may bore your mate. Still, Brandt warns, “You must always be careful that you don’t confuse intellectual gratification with romantic feelings.”
6. Be honest with yourself. Is your platonic friendship in fact an “emotional affair” with a spoken or unspoken agreement that you won’t let it become physical? An emotional affair can threaten a marriage as much as a sexual one, says Brandt. If you find that you’d rather be with your friend than your spouse, your friendship may be more than strictly platonic.
7. Communicate with your spouse. Don’t assume your life partner knows that he or she is your numero uno priority. Be affectionate, do fun things together and regularly express your love, Saltz advises. And don’t shy away from discussing feelings of jealousy. “If you can’t talk to your partner about this, that may indicate bigger problems in the marriage,” says Saltz.
Trustworthy Actions Build Trust
Like most boomer couples in which both partners work, Howard and I spend a lot of time with members of the opposite sex who are, simply, friends. We have discovered one great antidote to jealousy is being truly emotionally present when we are together.
And that’s a good thing. Recently, through a quirk of social media, my old friend Ira found me and suggested we meet for coffee. Without thinking twice, I agreed and only later mentioned my plans to Howard.
Instead of being jealous, he was clearly relieved. “I don’t have to go, do I?” he asked.
The perfect response: 30 years in the making.