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Married with opposite sex friends

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Many of my colleagues and friends are men, so it was with great interest that I read the article in the Huffington Post by Adrian Ward about a research study suggesting it may be possible to be "just friends" with members of the opposite sex. But potential romance may always be lurking in the background.

The study was done with 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends, which I was thinking may be different than it would be compared with friends who are more established and mature. However, a follow-up study had results that tend to favor the idea that it may be just as difficult for mature opposite sex friends to remain just friends.

In order for the researchers to ensure honesty with responses of the undergraduate students they not only followed protocol but also required anonymity and confidentiality by making sure each friend agreed verbally and in front of each other to refrain from discussing the study even after they had left the testing facility. These friendship pairs were then separated and each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings toward the friend with whom they were taking the study.

What happened then was interesting. The results suggested large gender differences in men and women with the opposite sex. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than the women were to their men friends. Something else happened. Men were more likely than women to think their opposite sex friends were attracted to them. In fact, men's estimation of how attractive they were to their female friends had nothing to do with how these women actually felt, but was totally how the men felt themselves. The researchers stated that men basically assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to any possibility that the woman was not attracted to them. Women did not realize that the men were attracted to them romantically. The women were not attracted to the men romantically, and assumed the men felt the same. The study strongly suggested that men overestimate the level of attraction their female friends felt, and women constantly underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.

What happens when these opposite sex friends are engaged, married or seriously dating someone else? The study suggested that there are gender differences here as well, but both men and women were equally attracted (or not) to opposite sex friends even if they were attached with someone else. Women were less likely than men to pursue a romantic interest with someone who was attached even if they were very attracted to them. This study did not explore what happens if the opposite sex friend personally knows the partner of their friend.

A follow up study with adults showed very similar results to the undergraduates. Men were significantly more likely than females to list romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, and this discrepancy increased as men aged.

When having an opposite sex friend it's important that neither men nor women assume how the other feels, based on their own feelings. Once again, communication with your friend as well as with the person you are romantically involved with should be a priority. We cannot help the way we are wired, but we do make choices and each of those choices holds a consequence. I also think this research is a wonderful opportunity to enrich your primary relationship and talk about boundaries with your opposite sex friends. Below I have a few suggestions that I think may help you if you struggle with opposite sex friends in your primary relationship.

1. Never let your significant other feel threatened by your opposite sex friend. If your partner is jealous or insecure rather than getting defensive, talk it out. What is making your partner anxious or concerned about you and your opposite sex friend's friendship?

2. Always mention your partner with respect to your opposite sex friend. Many affairs begin because one of the partners complains to the opposite sex friend. In an effort to comfort their friend, they get too close.

3. Continue to spend the majority of time with your significant other. Friendships grow when more time is spent together. You want the person you share your life with to be your first and best friend.

4. Complete transparency with your partner is always paramount. Any time you begin sharing secrets or intimate moments with an opposite sex friend, you are in a sense cheating on your partner. Any secrets shared should be between you and your significant other - no friends allowed.

5. If you feel romantic toward your opposite sex friend, it is important for you to understand that this is your (not your partner's) dilemma. You have two choices. You can prevent yourself from sharing time alone or outside of work with that person (fleeing the situation) or you can begin establishing better boundaries around your relationship with your significant other. Simple things such as sharing conversations, passwords, phones, and joint accounts (in marriage) are helpful to ensure trust. Remember… attraction is subjective, and each gender assumes things that may or may not be true.

I have never worried about my opposite sex friends and colleagues, but my experience supports my belief that transparency, boundaries, and communication with my spouse is key. I wouldn't be doing what I am doing without the influence and support of my male friends. My male friends would most likely not be the men I know without their loving partners. I have respect for the partners behind my men friends. Perhaps this respect for my friend's significant other would be a strong component of achieving wonderful opposite sex friendships.

– Mary Jo Rapini

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