Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Zack Carter Ph.D.
Zack Carter Ph.D.

1-on-1 Opposite Sex Friends: A Blind Spot Threat to Marriage

Decades of steady, consistent research call for us to check our mirrors.

On October 26th, 1967, John McCain’s Skyhawk dive bomber jet suffered a lethal blow to the right wing as he was flying a mission over Hanoi, Vietnam. The plane immediately went into an inverted, almost straight-down spin. Pulling the ejection handle, he was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection. McCain gained consciousness right before landing in a lake off the corner of Hanoi, where he sunk immediately to the bottom of 15 feet of water, weighted down by 50 pounds of gear. With his right leg broken around the knee, right arm in three places, as well as his left arm, he managed to kick up to the surface to fill his lungs with air, right before sinking back down only to be forced to kick back up again for more air. Shortly after, he was pulled out by North Vietnamese, receiving a rifle to the butt, and a bayonet shoved clear into both his abdomen and foot.

And so, began his five and a half years serving as a prisoner of war.

Suffering psychological torment through routine solitary confinement and perpetual physical agony and anguish, a day of potential salvation finally came. North Vietnamese commanders learned of McCain’s father, a Navy Admiral, who had recently been named commander-in-chief of all Pacific forces. Hoping to score a propaganda victory, they offered McCain an early release. McCain refused. The Code of Conduct U.S. Forces followed designated prisoners were to be released in the order they were captured. Unless every man captured before him was released as well, McCain declined the offer. “I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do,” McCain said.

Declining your freedom for a greater cause can sometimes be difficult to do, especially if you’re married.

As I’ve explored in a previous article, which can be found here: The Most Important Relationship Strength You Must Have, exercising selfless behavior—that behavior which runs in conflict to selfishness, often unnatural, and even undesired to what you may prefer to do—in a marriage relationship is a key component to a long-lasting, satisfying, successful relationship. Thus, it should come as no surprise that giving up particular freedoms, requiring complete selflessness, is a contributing variable to such ever-lasting marriages. Those freedoms that may be the most challenging for you to part with individually may actually strengthen your bond with one another collectively and even help guard against an extramarital affair.

For instance, can you think of a freedom you are exercising with the opposite sex that you should consider surrendering for the sake of bolstering and fortifying your marital union? Do you have a one-on-one opposite sex friend beyond your spouse you find yourself meeting and texting with consistently one-on-one?

If you answered, “yes”, you may be decreasing your marriage’s opportunity to flourish, mature, and secure itself, while increasing potential opportunity for infidelity to creep in.

*Before findings and lessons learned from research on this topic are extracted, a brief note must be stipulated to dispel what you may think is going to be discussed: This article debates potential marital relationship repercussions that one-on-one opposite-sex friendships outside of a marriage may produce, and is not an article condemning opposite sex group friendships, professional rapports at work, peer assemblies at school, couple double-date night, dating courtships. Though these connections still should be stewarded appropriately, guarding against relational connections which may harm a marriage, or, a dating relationship, developing connections with the opposite sex in group settings—double date-night with other couples and co-ed game-nights, for instance—may encourage positive personal and relational growth when steered strategically. Therefore, this article is not recommending you completely abandon friendships with the opposite gender, but rather contemplatively consider and then strategically steward appropriately opposite-sex relationships.

Nonetheless, research findings from this past year, the last five years, the last 20 years, and beginning from 25 years out (And yes, each and every one is listed below this article), propose potential emotional and sexual attraction in one-on-one opposite-sex friendships, creating extramarital/unfaithful relational bonds outside of a marriage or dating relationship, pose often negative long-lasting consequences to those relationships.

Opposite-Sex Friendships Research and Research History

Gender research suggests women’s and men’s experiences in one-on-one opposite-sex friendships are swayed by their advanced coupling tactics. This idea retains two suppositions: the first is that historically, one-on-one opposite-sex friendships are a modern phenomenon; and the second, women and men hold advanced coupling tactics. Utilizing this particular reasoning, both women’s and men’s coupling tactics are prompted when women and men interact with individuals of the opposite sex who, over time historically, would have been prospective partners. Accordingly, coupling tactics may encourage an individual’s participation in one-on-one opposite-sex friendships while inadvertently attaching them emotionally and/or sexually, when their actual initial intent was simply for platonic friendship.

Longtime typical definitions of friendship look something like this: A voluntary, supportive personal relationship comprising fluctuating amounts of fellowship, closeness, affections, and joint support. Whereas opposite-sex friendships have been often defined as a voluntary, supportive, non-romantic association between persons of the opposite sex. Though this definition seems harmless enough in a word, in action, however, it seems to be much more complex.

During the late-twentieth century, one of the earliest investigations on opposite-sex friendships suggested that opposite-sex friends meet these primary challenges: defining the type of emotional link shared, encountering sexuality in the relationship, and displaying the relationship as a genuine friendship to observers. Additionally, this inquiry proposed that opposite-sex friendships provoke mistrustfulness in romantic partners and that opposite-sex friends must continually assure their romantic partners that the friendship is not a risk.

A large collection of research shortly after suggested most married women and married men of those spouses with close opposite-sex friends, possess a continuous grade of suspicion and apprehension. Since this early research, studies have consistently discovered women and men across an array of contexts report feeling emotional and/or sexual attraction to their opposite-sex friends.

It’s important to mention that the greatness with which emotional and sexual desires are apparent in opposite-sex friendships differs from inquiry to inquiry. Research from the early part of this 21st century suggested variation in findings.

One enormous study, for instance, proposed women and men experience low levels of emotional attraction with high levels of sexual attraction to their opposite-sex friends, whereas another study suggested the opposite. Particular inconsistency in response from study to study may potentially be a consequence of how opposite-sex friends are defined by participants. What remains consistent, however, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, to the present day is that emotional and/or sexual attraction is a notable and very consistent component of opposite-sex friendship. There is extremely little research or widespread literature on an opposite-sex friendship that does not indicate attraction and its conceivable consequences.

Extensive talk surrounding explanations for the existence of opposite-sex friendship attraction exists. Some academics center their attention on the societal underpinnings of attraction in friendship. For instance, the media is to blame on many levels, instilling in women and men the notion that they should be attracted to their cross-sex friends. Other scholars, however, posit biology, psychology, and physiological explanations are key reasoning ingredients for why the relational connections of emotions and sex are unavoidable in opposite-sex friendships.

Regardless of the rationalization, extensive present-day research explicitly suggests one-on-one opposite-sex friendships with an individual other than a spouse, may contribute to marital conflict, extramarital affairs, and even divorce.

Potential Marriage Relationship Consequences

In previous articles of mine, which can be found here: Facebook Infidelity: 10 Safeguards Your Marriage Needs Today; Internet Infidelity: Today's Blindspot Threat to Marriage; and Texting May Destroy Your Marriage, I’ve discussed research examinations conducted by myself and others, concerning marriage fidelity and communication. Specifically, common relationship blind spots that often are unfortunately not anticipated, often times leading to a myriad of marriage relationship ramifications, across a large array of contexts. To name a few: dissatisfaction, disconnect, conflict, loss of trust, deceit, and extramarital affairs.

Extensive interview and survey results from essentially even figures of married or previously married women and men, collected from both instigators of extramarital affairs as well as victims, provide overwhelming large measures of responses indicating they, or, their spouse, participated in either an emotional (i.e. disclosing intimate, personal details normally reserved for a spouse, either face-to-face or through texting or social media) and/or sexual (i.e. face-to-face sexual affair and/or “sexting”/social media) extramarital affair, with a woman or man of the opposite sex that they considered to be a close friend. More specifically, a man or woman they devoted personal, one-on-one time with away from their spouse, either in a face-to-face venue in public or private or, digitally, through texting or social media.

Face-to-Face, Social Media, Texting. It Doesn't Matter.

Meeting one-on-one with someone of the opposite sex for your weekly Starbucks in-between a meeting, or, daily workout at the gym before the day begins, or text-messaging to pass the time at work, or late night Facebook chats, or movie night while your spouse is out of town. All these scenarios and infinitely more, provide ample, consistent opportunity to attach relationally to one another both emotionally, with feelings, and sexually, with desires. Often times dangerously creating a relational bond, through emotional disclosure, and often working in tandem, development of sexual desires, that is of an alarming similar strength to the bond that you hold with your spouse.

Additionally, with the advent of social and digital media, such as Facebook and texting, potentially negative implications to marriages from interacting one-on-one with the opposite sex through these electronic means must be taken into consideration. Substantial divorce court records indicate a large number of divorces nationwide, occurring based on an extramarital affair, originated on Facebook and through text-messaging with a one-on-one friend of the opposite sex. Too often, direct quotes from instigators and victims in both divorce court records and scholarly research concerning extramarital affairs between married men or married women with a close one-on-one friend suggest their thinking, “It will never happen to me”, played an instrumental role in their path, or their spouses path, from friendship to emotional disclosure, and finally, to sexual affair.

It must be illustrated that research does submit there are many married women and married men capable of refraining from developing romantic emotional and/or sexual attachments and connections with an opposite-sex person, as being part of the human race, we are incessantly mixed with members of the opposite sex, regularly participating in opposite-sex activities at work, school, and leisure. However, massive research clearly indicates one-on-one opposite sex friendships have a heightened likelihood of developing emotional and/or sexual connections, regardless of initial intent for a strictly platonic relationship. Though you may find you’re quite capable of stewarding well emotional feelings and sexual desires, your friend in that one-on-one opposite-sex friendship may be developing feelings and desires unbeknownst to you. In turn, causing problematic friendship turmoil down the road.

5 Tips on How to Manage Opposite Sex Friendships When Married or Single

  1. Have a sit-down, one-on-one conversation with your spouse about friendships with the opposite sex. Be transparent. Share about your one-on-one opposite-sex friendship experiences, and allow your spouse to tell you about their experiences. Discuss what makes you both uncomfortable. Being zealous for one another is not necessarily a bad thing. There indeed is a stark line between being zealous (passion, enthusiasm, desire) and being possessive (controlling, domineering), and there is indeed a need to discuss boundaries in your marriage with the opposite sex while maintaining a healthy amount of trust for each other. It’s a balance.
  2. If you’re currently married and have decided with your spouse that one-on-one opposite-sex friendships may indeed be a hindrance to your relational growth, and you (or your spouse) have a one-on-one opposite sex friend (or many), have a sit-down heart-to-heart with them and your spouse. Discuss with them openly and transparently your reasoning for choosing to discontinue the one-on-one friendship. They may be married as well, and if so, include their spouse in the discussion. Maybe you and your spouse and them and their spouse can develop a couple's friendship. If for whatever reason that isn’t a possibility, discuss forgoing the friendship any longer altogether. You must be willing to place the success of your own marriage relationship before other relationships.
  3. Discuss with your spouse your circle of "couple friends," and any uneasiness or discomfort either of you may have with any of them. Couple friends can indeed be significant and important. They can act as encouragements for your marriage, and add much joy that can come from being involved in a community. But sometimes certain couples friendships can add unnecessary stress to your marriage. You may have 30 couples you both spend your time with couple-to-couple throughout the year, or, you may have only two or three couples you run with from time-to-time. Either way, whether your uneasiness and discomfort may be brought on by some unwarranted, consistent attention your friend’s spouse may be giving you through texting, or, face-to-face during your Saturday night couples date night, or, even maybe from some consistent, unwarranted attention you’ve noticed your own spouse receiving, it’s important to know that it’s OK to discontinue hanging out alone with a particular couple if they’re causing discomfort in your marriage. Your marriage relationship is worth more than appealing to, and pleasing others on a couples-date night.
  4. Single? Be cautious with your opposite-sex friendships, especially one-on-one. If your desire is to date with the eventual goal of marriage, pursue this person intentionally for this end goal. However, if a strictly platonic end is the goal, consider having an open, transparent conversation, suggesting you limit quality time together to a group setting. Feelings and desires are tricky components of both men and women, and as seen extensively throughout this article, are often unavoidable and difficult to completely tame. It’s crucial to view your opposite sex friend as someone else’s future spouse until you both choose yourself to play that role.
  5. The reality is, infidelity exists, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The equation for infidelity often looks like this: A - B = C. If you don’t have guidelines established for engaging with the opposite sex, you’re leaving your marriage house unlocked and undefended = the bad guy. Infidelity, may break in and cause devastating marital havoc. Set boundaries for communicating with your opposite-sex friends. These boundaries should be applied not just to face-to-face settings, but of equal importance, to social media (e.g. private messaging) and text messaging. Evaluate who you and your spouse are friends with on Facebook.

Surrendering a personal freedom can be difficult. Especially when it comes to our relationships with others. We’re built for a healthy community, with both men and women, and this can often be done successfully and appropriately. But it should not come at the cost of your marriage.


Afifi, W. A., & Faulkner, S. L. (2000). On being ‘just friends’: The frequency and impact of sexual activity in cross-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17, 205-222.

Afifi, W. A., & Burgoon, J. K. (1998). ‘We never talk about that’: A comparison of cross-sex friendships and dating relationships on uncertainty and topic avoidance. Personal Relationships, 5, 255-272.

Bleske, A. L., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Can men and women be just friends? Personal Relationships, 7, 131-151.

Bleske-Rechek, A., Somers, E., Micke, C., Erickson, L., Matteson, L., Stocco, C., Schumacher, B., Ritchie, L. (2012). Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 5, 569-596.

Hartup, W. W. (1975). The origins of friendships. In M. Lewis & L. A. Rosenblum (Eds.), Friendship and peer relations (pp. 11-26). New York, NY: John Wiley.

Hays, R. B. (1988). Friendship. Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research, and interventions (pp. 391-408). New York, NY: John Wiley.

Kaplan, D. L., & Keys, C. B. (1997). Sex and relationship variables as predictors of sexual attraction in cross-sex platonic friendships between young heterosexual adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 14, 191-206.

Monsour, M. (1992). Meanings of intimacy in cross- and same-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9, 277-295.

Monsour, M. (1997). Communication and cross-sex friendships across the life cycle: A review of the literature. In B. R. Burleson & A. W. Kunkel (Eds.), Communication yearbook 20 (pp. 375-414). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Monsour, M. (2002). Women and men as friends: Relationships across the life span in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

O’Meara, J. D. (1989). Cross-sex friendships: Four basic challenges of an ignored relationship. Sex Roles, 21, 525-543.

Rawlins, W. K. (1992). Friendship matters: Communication, dialects, and the life course. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Reeder, H. M. (2000). ‘I like you ... as a friend’: The role of attraction in cross-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17, 329-348.

Swain, S. (1992). Men’s friendships with women: Intimacy, sexual boundaries, and the informant role. In P. Nardi (Ed.), Men’s friendships (pp. 153-171). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Werking, K. (1997). We’re just good friends: Men and women in nonromantic relationships. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Wright, P. H. (1984). Self-referent motivation and the intrinsic quality of friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1, 115-130.

Carter, Z. A. (2016). Married and previously married men and women's perceptions of communication on facebook with the opposite sex: How communicating through facebook can be damaging to marriages. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 57, 1, 36-55.

About the Author
Zack Carter Ph.D.

Zack Carter, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at Taylor University, where he teaches classes in interpersonal, intrapersonal, and family communication.

More from Zack Carter Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Zack Carter Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today