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Are Close Friends of the Opposite-Sex Okay After Marriage?

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

Friendship can be a strong source of joy and encouragement in your life, both same-sex and opposite-sex friendships. However, when you marry, there are different perspectives on whether or not those close friendships of the opposite-sex should continue. Listen as Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff approach this issue from different perspectives. Which side of the issue do you find yourself on?



Chris Grace:      Well, welcome to The Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris.

Tim Muehlhoff:   And I'm Tim.

Chris Grace:      Here we are again with an opportunity to just visit with you from the beautiful campus of Biola University-

Tim Muehlhoff:   The stunningly beautiful campus.

Chris Grace:      It is. It's awesome. School in session, it's great. Tim, we've been talking the last couple of episodes about friendships. There is one topic that we get asked a lot of questions about. It's about having friendships, after you're married with both ... Of course, having a friendship with somebody that you've always been a friend with has been usually no problem and there are no concerns or issues.

It's when you're married and now the question comes up, can you have a friendship with an opposite-sex person? That is, if you have now a very intimate relationship with somebody in marriage, is that intimacy able to be shared with somebody outside of marriage of opposite sex?

Tim Muehlhoff:   I'm amazed how much this question comes up. I would say this is probably one of the number one questions whenever we talk about friendship. We get this one all the time. We teach a class on Christian relationships and students are really concerned about this, because I think a lot of them do have opposite-sex friendships. They wanna have them, or should they have them after they get married?

We also should mention that there's not complete agreement on this topic. We have this great teaching team. We teach this class made up of three couples and there's some disagreement among the couples on whether this is possible and what would that look like even if it was possible and things like that. So this is a great topic. I bet you a ton of listeners are really interested at how we're gonna ... And how we answer it is the answer Chris. The definitive answer for all of Christianity. That's a huge weight. I feel that deeply.

Chris Grace:      You're carrying it well Tim.

Tim Muehlhoff:   Thank you.

Chris Grace:      Let's try this, let's ask and let's dive into the heart of this. Is it ever appropriate to have a friendship outside of marriage, with somebody else that's not your spouse, that's of the opposite sex, that is of a strong, deep, intimate nature?

Tim Muehlhoff:   On one level, all of us would agree that couples could be friends. That this friendship can exist, it can be great, and it's fun. As I already said, Alisa and I have a certain level of friendship, but it's always within the context of us as a couple, or getting together as couples with other people. The controversial part of it is, can it be more than that? Can I have friendship with the spouse of someone and that it go beyond that? In other words, maybe we have an interest in the arts and Noreen just doesn't, but me and this other opposite sex person, we want to go out to an art gallery together and we go and do that.

Noreen knows about it, and her spouse knows about it and they're okay with it. Philosophically, I can sign off on that. Practically, no because couple have to agree on this issue and Noreen's not comfortable with that. I am uncomfortable in some ways to, but... We're academics, we love to talk about this philosophically. So philosophically, I can see in some situations where that would be okay.

Chris Grace:      Let's define maybe some terms then for all of us here. I think maybe this comes down to identifying what a friendship and what kind of friendship and the level of the friend. Maybe it even starts with boundaries. There are certain emotional levels and boundaries that I'm advocating for and that I think you are too that stay very strong that is, they're identified. These boundaries are important in a marriage, we are we recognize that.

A marriage is something that it has intimacy, not only physical, but emotional and spiritual. And they're reserved only for that marital relationship. I think we can agree on, there are certain boundaries that can never be crossed.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yes, no matter what.

Chris Grace:        I think then the question is always, in an opposite sex friendship during marriage, when does that boundary get crossed? You said for you and Noreen For example, while philosophically you can agree that there are ways in which there's a permeable. There's maybe an openness in some respects, in practicality, those boundaries are pretty strong. How would listeners know the difference if they've gotten near that boundary and that territory is kind of a gray area?

Going to an art gallery seems to me to be one of those borderline gray areas if the other partner's spouse is uncomfortable with it. Now all of a sudden you have to bring in the other persons that you're married to their level of comfortness and seems like there has to be agreement there.

Tim Muehlhoff:      Yes, but these boundaries you're talking about which I like, I like that a lot. Those can be broken within a double date. They can be broken in the context of three couples. Three couples go to the art gallery right, and let's say I'm spending time with the spouse of another person. Though we're in public, we're with the other couples, Noreen's there, but she's looking at other pieces of art and sometimes we break away. I'm kind of joking with this other spouse, nudging or laughing. We have inside jokes, sort of kind of flirting. That flirting can happen anywhere.

So I like your emotional boundaries and I think those emotional boundaries can be crossed even within a context that most people would say is okay. I don't think anybody would say, "No, you better not go to an art gallery with three other couples because you might become attracted to one of the spouses." Well, the answer to that is yes. That's a boundary that can never be crossed, but that can happen in any context Chris.

Chris Grace:        Sure, yeah. So any context it happened, how do you know that ... So we are saying there are clear, I would say emotional, spiritual, physical boundaries, even inside jokes can actually create an intimacy between two people. In the context, even in a public setting. You could be sitting around in a room talking and sharing, and there could be connections that can be unhealthy. How do you know the difference Tim when you say to get into that area?

Tim Muehlhoff:     Let's talk about this. That's really interesting. I don't know if I have a great answer for this. What crosses the line from joking to flirting? Again, we're all friends, a bunch of us here at Biola. We actually have a marriage group, that's great. Laughter I would say is a huge part of this marriage group. We kid each other. We joke with each other and it's great, it's fun. The wives have the freedom to joke with the husbands and stuff like that, but when does the joking cross the line into flirting?

I think the only person who might be able to tell is me when this joking has crossed into flirting. In other words, there's an emotional connection with this person that's going into the territory of an emotional connectedness where this is more than just friends. I'm joking with you in such a way that I'm trying to get a response from you, and the response isn't just laughter. The responses is, I kind of sort of want you to like me in a way that's not appropriate. Does that make sense?

Chris Grace:        It does, and I think this is where it comes down to understanding something about how we're designed as humans. Our desire and our interest in connecting with other people, feeling wanted and needed. In a relationship in which there might be some issues or struggles going on, it's very different than in a very strong solid marriage and relationship.

Listen to this interesting study. They brought four people into a room, two men and two women. Now, they were not married, in fact, they were mostly strangers to each other and they had them play a quick card game. So, they partnered up. There was male-female on one team and another male-female on the other team. As they played this card game, one couple who again, did not know each other before the experiment, was given inside information on how to cheat.

They were told, "Listen under the table, two taps with your foot on your partner means this. Three taps means this. One tap means whatever." They ended up, of course, being able to have the advantage, not just kind of win the game. But what happened interestingly enough for the couple who had this inside information, who shared this kind inside joke, who shared this kind of almost secretive like, "Hey, we've got something here." At the end of the study, rated each other and their relationship and their interest in having a relationship much stronger than the other couple. They felt more intimately connected in some ways, or heard, or understood or ... And so, that relationship was actually highly rated compared to the other one.

Now, what that means to me I think is that, as we share and like you said Tim, there are certain ways in which you are the one who can decide this, and are aware of this is what's going on in your heart at the time. What's happening with you, your emotions and your need to be connected to this person and are you getting something out of it? You said getting a response from the other person.

That could be pretty powerful because now all of a sudden that response is, "Oh, they noticed me. They like me. I like them liking me," and we all know an intimate relationship is all about that need to feel connected with somebody. We satisfy those needs a feeling each other's interests and connection. Now it's reinforcing, and I like that feeling pf being reinforced. Now we're running into maybe this boundary issue that comes in. We have to identify that in our marriages. Where is my boundary? Then of course now my spouse, do they at all ever feel like I am being too connected to another person?

Tim Muehlhoff:      I like that. Let's put it in the different category and work the problem from a totally different angle. At Biola University, let's say I'm interested in one aspect of communication, let's say nonverbal communication. There's another female scholar here who is equally interested in non-verbal communication as well, and an opportunity comes to co-teach a class together. So we decide we're going to co-teach a class together. Why not bring two different perspectives, two different gendered perspectives on nonverbal communication?

We are going to co-create a class together. We are going to teach the class together, and that means ... You know how much it takes to teach a class together. We're going to have to meet to talk about it right? Well, all of that is the card playing study. We now have things that are just between me and her, Noreen's not at every meeting that we're meeting. She's certainly not there when we're teaching the class together. We're spending time together doing this. So, in your estimation, is it okay for me to co-teach the class?

Chris Grace:           Yes, I think it's okay to co-teach a class. What you have to be very careful of or thoughtful about is any boundaries. That is, inside information with another person that's shared that if Noreen or your spouse was sitting there, would they feel uncomfortable with some of the inside joking that's going on?

Tim Muehlhoff:         Here's where I think some of the people that I've debated this issue with I think have a point. Here's their point, I think it's a good one. Let's say Noreen after two years says, "Okay, I've become uncomfortable with this situation." Well I would stop immediately. That's just a great principle of marriage, you both have to be in on this. But then I think the good point would be to sit down with Noreen and say, "But why? What's happened that has made you grown comfortable with this? Is it something that I'm doing?. Is it something that you're picking up on that I'm not picking up on? What are the reasons that now you're uncomfortable? Does it have to do with matters of trust?"

And by the way, if Noreen says for whatever reason, "I'm struggling with trust issues." Well okay, a spouse needs to have the freedom to do that and I need to pull away. What we just described I think is a totally perfect scenario. Let's take it out of the classroom though, and you have two friends, two different couples, and they have an interest in art. Can't they go to an art museum ... Again, this is presumed that both of the other spouses have to sign off on it. Couldn't we take the very same principles we took in the classroom and apply it to the art?

Chris Grace:      I think it's a great analogy. I'll play devil's advocate and it goes like this. The other side would say that is, encounter in one situation it is something that is done as part of your career, part of your job. You have an interest, but you're also getting paid to teach this class. This is something that's required in your day to day operations. You can kind of make almost an emotional distance from it versus, your choosing outside of that during free time or during a time of friendship to invest with somebody else and something that's outside.

That's the counterargument that I would ... Here's where I think we're running up against a very interesting finding in psychology. They did this with Facebook recently just to update the studies, but it's something that's been found for a long time. Men are always much more angry or will find this much greater of a front, of a brokenness of trust if they find out that there is some sort of physical affair going on with their spouse. And women are almost always more concerned and deeply disturbed and troubled if it's an emotional affair.

On Facebook what they did is, they had people find out that they uncovered a couple that was dealing with an affair. They found out there was ... It was just a made up game they were playing and so they knew it wasn't their partner, but the men consistently found that if they discovered a Facebook affair that pointed to or was uncovering a possibility of a physical affair, they were much more upset. Women were obviously upset with this affair but, if it was an emotional affair, it really influenced women much harder and in a much a harder difficult or strong level than it did the men. So, the answer seems to be a little bit in gender differences when it comes to affairs or possibility or broken trust, that sometimes maybe we see it a little bit differently.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yes, but let me push back on your pushback by first saying where we agree with each other. We absolutely agree that there's an emotional boundary that can be crossed and when it's crossed, it's time to get out. You move away from that friendship. You stop teaching that class. You stop working with that person in a work setting. It's the emotional boundary that's when it's crossed, is the fundamental issue. That can happen teaching with each other, it can happen working with each other on a project at work and it can happen going to an art exhibit as friends. That's the issue.

The other issue is, does my spouse trust me and is my spouse okay with this situation? Now, here's the counter I often get, but why put yourself in that situation? Why needlessly you and this person go to an art museum that's needlessly tempting? I'd say, "Okay, but so is co-teaching with each other." If that's the criteria we're using ... And so is doing a project with each other, my goodness. Going a work project where now you're spending perhaps late nights and weekends. Now you're texting like crazy and sending each other emails like crazy because this is a work project? That to me is more of a recipe for disaster then going to the art museum.

I think co-teaching could be a nightmare, because you actually have an excuse every time you email that person or say, "Honey I'm so sorry, but we've got to get together because we're grading." So, if the issue is, "I'm going to protect myself from all possibilities," then I think listeners are going to react against that like I do with an, "Okay, then we're never going to do opposite sex anything with each other than get together casually." and I'm not comfortable with that in the workplace. I'm not comfortable with that outside of the workplace.

Again, the issue is trust and I'm not saying this is for every couple because remember I've already said, practically even though philosophically and I'm hearing this argument, "I know my wife is an outgoing ..." nu-huh, nope. Although Noreen would sign off I think on me co-teaching with a faculty member, that's interesting. You see what I'm saying? It's the boundary that we're interested in. The context can be multiple contexts.

Chris Grace:      This is really helpful for I think listeners to process, because I think many of them will deal with this. Let's take your analogy at a different level. I think you're describing Tim, in my opinion, you're describing the ability to go to an art museum, the ability to teach a class together with a member of the opposite sex as philosophically and even in many ways practically. So long as it doesn't cross an emotional boundary, then it's appropriate and it's not necessarily dangerous if the person, they go into it with the right heart and attitude.

Tim Muehlhoff:   Yeah.

Chris Grace:       I think that for many of us as ... And again, I don't really always want to narrow this down to genders, but let's go ahead and try and continue with this analogy. I think for you and maybe for me, that idea of emotional connectedness with somebody, even skirting that boundary a little bit doesn't seem all that difficult or painful. It doesn't bring up much trust, but you just said that Noreen would really kind of maybe struggle and go, "U-uh, u-uh. u-uh."

Let me just, well... What about if we try this analogy. What if I decided that for me, physical touch was really a language that I enjoyed. Now, I don't like to go to art museums, but I love to hold hands or I love to put my arm around somebody. I don't ever want to have sex with them, but I want to get as close as possible to them and I love to hug them. It's not my spouse, but see physical touch for me means something. I just like to be friends and show affection to people. Sometimes even kiss them on the cheek.

Am I now starting to get into an area that is for some like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, how ..." Well, this is just a class on non-verbal, so we're demonstrating what it means to be close non-verbally and how you can share affection physically with somebody.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah, I agree with that.

Chris Grace:        So you totally agree with that.

Tim Muehlhoff:     Not to get overly personal but, when we greet each other as couples, we have a core group of couples right?

Chris Grace:         Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:      We always hug each other. The husbands hung the wives, so on that level, it's happening. I think we're okay with that. By the way, if I saw one of those wives ... Let's say we just come across each other Target, I may give her a hug, right?

Chris Grace:          Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:       Okay, so help me understand what your point is.

Chris Grace:           The difference would be to me I think when you end up doing something like greeting somebody or saying hi. You're in the context of six people. You're having a friendship and you're talking. That's done in a certain safe context. I think you start to get into a place that's unsafe, and a little bit more dangerous, and of something that I personally would want to avoid. That is, any time I'm trying to explore something emotionally with somebody, having an inside laugh, having a joke, doing something outside which, I'm building a relationship with somebody is the beginning of an emotional connection that's probably normal and okay in some people's eyes.

For me, it begins to say that my emotional connection, these bridges that I start to make with somebody ... No one else is there. Just us went to this art museum. I now have inside information about somebody. I'm trying to draw a parallel to say, "Okay, let's see if we can extend that into the spiritual realm or into the physical realm." Could I start holding somebody in a certain way, holding hands with them on a regular basis even if I'm in the context of six people in the same room? Can I put my arm around them and sit really close and enjoy a movie?

Now, you're starting to now see that that's uncomfortable in some respects because it's clearer. I think the physical boundaries are clearer than the emotional, but I think they're both equally to be avoided or careful. For me, it comes down to personal, the way we see this as, what is borderline and what makes people uncomfortable? If I saw two people who were not married to each other in the context of six people in the room and they're having a very intimate conversation about something, my antennae go up as if, "Okay, I hope and everything is ..."

Now, just like if I would see them holding hands or their arms around each other or extending a long hug and in fact keeping it that way, I would say I'm beginning to see, is there something that is borderline intimate being involved here that could be leading somebody maybe to a place where they don't want to go?

Tim Muehlhoff:       I agree with the hand ... I can't imagine holding Lisa's hand as we're talking about something at a get together.

Chris Grace:           And I would say you can't. That's the same thing physically as emotionally. I cannot imagine somebody going out with somebody to an art museum and sharing something intimate and involved. Now I know it's not intimate, but it's emotionally bonding for them.

Tim Muehlhoff:        Right, but Chris, that's going to happen if you co-teach a class together. If you co-teach a class together, you're going to have inside jokes. You're going to have information your spouse is not aware of, and if people are listening in the corporate world do a project with somebody and maps of the opposite sex, they're going to have insider information, inside jokes, certain things that they're privy to, that their spouse is not privy to.

Chris Grace:      I also think that's why there's more emotional or physical affairs in workplaces in which there's close connections with people that they have to work on projects. You have to be extremely more careful and draw stronger boundaries.

Tim Muehlhoff:   And I would agree with that. And I would say that would apply to the art gallery couple.

Chris Grace:      You and I, here's where we disagree, because I would say, "Don't go to the art gallery." I would say-

Tim Muehlhoff:   Why?

Chris Grace:      Well, because I believe, why put yourself in a connection where ... Why would I hold the hand of somebody else for an extended period of time and give her a secret handshake-

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, I'm not talking about ... I'm not saying about hand-holding. The physical thing kind of skews it for me a little bit because I can't imagine doing that with the person that I co-teach with. We're not sitting there holding hands, but I might give her a hug every time I see her before class maybe if she's a good friend. You've already said it's okay to co-teach together.

Chris Grace:        Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:     And do projects in the corporate world.

Chris Grace:         Well, because that's part of the world. I mean, we work together. We live in a place in which you have to have these connections. I just think we sometimes let our guard down with emotional connections and intimacy, that we would never let down with physical boundary, borderline questionable things. I just think if you were to teach this class with somebody and demonstrate non-verbals of an intimate couple, and you had to do that on a regular basis and show affection-

Tim Muehlhoff:      I would never do that. But, to me it's the issue Chris. To me it's the issue of, "I need to examine myself because if I'm not good, any contacts is dangerous"

Chris Grace:          That's right, I think that's right.

Tim Muehlhoff:      I need to be searching my heart. I don't want to just put certain things taboo because I do think people need to work together. I think they need to have a good, vibrant working relationship that is a friendship. If I taught this class for five years, I would say we're good friends, and we're getting together. Our spouses are getting together, we're getting together, but I'm with this person in a different context away from Noreen.

Chris Grace:           Yeah. I think when you draw the ... You know and you have said, if my spouse feels uncomfortable, I'm going to not only not do that, but we are also then going to have this conversation to say ... And that's where we're searching our hearts, and asking this other person, is this maybe her issue or a trust issue, and or, is this something that she's picking up that maybe I'm blind too?

It becomes this ... That's this conversation. Am I blind to something, or is she overly sensitive. That becomes a question for your marriage and your relationship to have a good relationship.

Tim Muehlhoff:   I agree with that Chris, and a blind spot is an apt way to say it, because if it's a blind spot, I don't see it. But your spouse could see it or other people could see it. To me, it's the whole package thing of, "I need to be open to the input of others, my spouse ..." And again, going to the art museum, I hope you would say, "Hey, all right, I'm not sure I would do this but, is everything okay? Is this going past just the love of art?" That's what a good friend would do. But I think that would apply to the corporate project like, "Man, you guys are spending a lot of time together on this project. Is everything okay?" "Yeah, we're fine. Thank you for asking."

Chris Grace:      Yeah, and that's good because you have to have that type of communication. I think it points back to, in your marriage and in your relationship, are you able to talk about not only when things maybe feel uncomfortable, are you able to share that and to be heard by the other person? You know, "Can we just talk about something it's really starting to really maybe kind of bother me a little bit. I'm not sure why." Those are good conversations.

Tim Muehlhoff:    That's good, and even to be able to say that, "I'm not sure why it bothers me. It even bothers me that I'm bothered by it. Can we at least talk about this?" And the minute I get defensive about going to an art gallery with a female friend, the minute we can't talk about it anymore, then guess what, I need to stop going to the art. And I need to stop co-teaching. If it's like, "Honey, this is my job. You don't need to be ..." Whoa, dude, something's going on right there. I think in all those contexts, if the lines of communication close, that's a big indicator that something else is going on.

Chris Grace:        Tim, I think that's a great way to end this. Is making sure that we maintain and keep not only this communication together as couples, but also that when we do, when there is uncomfortableness, we search our hearts and then we do reiterate and reestablish boundaries that encourage and show the other person, "Listen, I'm committed to you. I've made this vow to you. Your heart is what's important to me."

Tim Muehlhoff:     And your opinion is more important than the opinion of other people. Some philosophical debate right? Hey, before we close, can you just admit for the listeners that I was right? Just one tap on the table. One tap is, you were right. That's it. We can use a non-verbal.

Chris Grace:         How about if I wink at you if you're right or not, then you'll know. That way our listeners can make up their own decision.

Tim Muehlhoff:      He's winking like crazy. Just trust me.

Chris Grace:          Hey listen, thanks for joining us on The Art of Relationships. We'll see you next week. Go to our website at for more information, more blogs and podcasts and events coming up. Tim?

Tim Muehlhoff:       Great conversation Chris.