Friends are those people that we do everyday life with. We live or work near each other, we do ministry together, we frequently connect online, or we work out in the same gym. This proximity helps us grow and sustain the relationship, and such “mere presence” leads to increased liking. And this often leads to growing feelings of closeness or intimacy.
Social psychological research on friendships finds that the essential trait of close friends is that they not only like each other, but they like how they feel in the presence of each other. Close friends feel valued, heard, understood and loved. They can be vulnerable and feel safe in each other’s presence, sharing more of their hopes, dreams, and hearts, as well as more of their personal journeys.
As we grow in this togetherness and love—experiencing similar dreams, hopes, beliefs, values, and affections—an intimate relationship can develop. Here we not only enjoy being around each other, we start to feel more emotionally connected. We experience feelings of deeper intimacy, synchrony or flow—like we are on the same page, and begin to let our guards down with each other. This is powerfully reinforcing.
The poet and author Dinah Craik elegantly put it this way:
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.
And it is in this place where having a friend of the opposite sex can get complicated, even perilous. It is in such an intimate environment that romantic feelings can begin to spring up. Neuropsychology has shown that the brain produces higher levels of the bonding chemical oxytocin, starting a cascade of pleasurable feelings associated with this person, leading to greater attachment and intimacy, and yes, romantic feelings.
People often ask if it is ok for a married person to have a friend of the opposite sex. I believe that having friends, even of the opposite sex, is normal and healthy. Where there is some debate is about having a close or intimate friend of the opposite sex. I believe that close friendships are riskier because such familiarity deepens intimacy, and can lead to increased levels of romantic feelings.
At all times we are to make our spouse our priority. They must be told of any intimate feelings that may be developing, and there must be no secrets. This is especially true if the close friend is a past lover or someone you and your spouse have had previous disagreements about. Nothing will shake the foundations of a marriage more than a loss of trust or a violation of faithfulness.
So we must carefully count the costs—to our spouses, our selves, and our marriages. And when we do, it is no wonder so many people find the risks simply too great.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.