Dr. Shirley Glass
March 19, 2003
When your guy has a gal pal
When you have a significant other in your life, setting boundaries with platonic friends can sometimes be tricky.
Relationship experts are finding that a woman's discomfort or even outright dislike of her boyfriend's or spouse's close female friend may be rationally rooted. It can come from valid concerns that romantic flames could ignite, or if they once burned, reignite.
Increasingly, experts say they have seen male-female friendships (where one or both of the parties is already in an intimate relationship) slide from casual chitchat to regular contact, flirtation and full-blown romance.
"Many people want to find ways to move a friendship into something more, and they compartmentalize these relationships from their prime ones with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mind-set," says Adele Britton, a Boulder, Colo.-based psychotherapist.
People often deny what's happening and say "we're 'just friends,'" says Shirley Glass, a Baltimore psychologist. "But, they're often no longer that. Eighty-two percent of the 210 unfaithful partners I've treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, 'just a friend,'" she says. She has documented this trend in her new book, "Not 'Just Friends'" (The Free Press, $25).
Additionally, changing workplace dynamics and vast opportunities to connect with people online may fuel temptation.
"In the past, [infidelity] may have occurred between high-powered men and lower-powered women," says Glass.
But that has changed, she says, as more women have moved into more powerful professional roles.
Surfing the Internet may give rise to friendships that progress from chatty e-mails to developing close emotional ties to meeting face-to-face and becoming intimate.
Another update: Glass has found that contrary to the traditional perception that men's friendships are more likely to turn into love affairs, women's friendships with men run the same risk, especially if the women aren't getting what they need from their spouse or boyfriend.
"Most times with a threesome, complications arise," says Bill Mitchell, a psychologist and private investigator in upstate New York, who self-published "Adultery: Facing its Reality." Some people "think it's fine to go after someone, even somebody married," he says. "Sharing affection usually costs the first relationship."
All this is not to say that healthy friendships can't exist between the sexes. Joan Allen, author of "Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right: From Stalemate to Soulmate" (Capital Books, $16.95), says it's important for each gender to have opposite-sex friendships. She maintains a friendship with a former beau whom she later fixed up with the woman he married.
"The romance didn't work out, but the friendship has," she says. "He's taught me to be less pushy, and I've helped him become gentler and a better communicator."
Meredith Reid, a psychologist in Cincinnati and author of "LoveStyles: Being Who You Are, Getting the Love You Want" (Owen-Hill Publishing, $19.95), believes the majority of platonic friendships fall into a healthy "angel" or an "escort love" category. Angel love involves admiration with nothing required in return; escort love involves an activity partner.
"Both pose little or no threat to the romantic partner because friendship is valued over sexual intimacy," she says.
These two types of platonic friendships are differentiated by the presence of an essential ingredient: honesty, says Alexandra Hambright Solomon, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute of Northwestern University.
"Participants [in healthy platonic friendships] understand that infidelity happens in more subtle ways than intercourse. [Instead] they use platonic friendship to bounce ideas, vent and strengthen their primary relationship rather than be alone intimately. They also nurture their prime relationships and are sure the platonic friend is an advocate," she says.
Meanwhile, the difficulty of setting boundaries may be a function of age. Younger men and women are growing up with a healthy attitude about the value of platonic friendships, largely because more young women have careers and they stay in the work force for a longer time than women of previous generations, Reid says.
If concerns arise about your partner's friendship with another woman, experts suggest a proactive approach. For example, says Glass, if you don't like your husband's or steady beau's gal pal, calmly ask: What is it about her you like?
Then try to get to know the third party. You may end up liking her or it may turn out that you and your mate agree to disagree about her virtues, and you politely decline hanging out as a threesome. To ask him to stop seeing the person may be unreasonable, Glass warns.
But, if you remain concerned about a potential affair, voice that in a non-confrontational way. In turn, the spouse or significant other needs to be self-aware. If chemistry does bubble up, he or she should back off from this "alternative relationship," Glass says. She uses an architectural analogy: "An affair erects an interior wall of secrecy between the primary couple and opens a window of intimacy between the affair partners."