Relationships: Are they really…just friends?

I met my husband, Peter, at my first gig out of universi ty. We chit-chatted and lunched together daily. I’d edit his business proposals and he’d set up my Excel spreadsheets. On a work trip, I dozed off on the plane, rested my head on his arm and drooled on his shirt. (I blamed the tequila shot I’d downed before takeoff.) Our colleagues predicted we’d end up getting hitched. He was my “work husband” long before we walked down the aisle.

I doubt we would’ve been so chummy if either of us had been in a serious relationship at the time. In the nearly 11 years since, he’s never replaced me with another work wife — and he’s lucky he hasn’t. I’m not really the jealous sort, but if you’re a heterosexual pair, opposite-gender pals can cause some tricky situations, especially once kids enter the picture.

“ The problem is that there’s always the potential for a sexual or emotional attraction to form that can a ffect the stability and intimacy in a relationship,” says Robert Hammel, a couples counsellor and therapist in Calgary.

Beth Hamilton’s* marriage was on the rocks 10 years ago when her husband, Drew, got too close to a female pal (let’s call her “Jenny”) who was also married with kids.

They spent a lot of time together because they had the same hobbies. “I wasn’t fond of them hanging out,” says Hamilton. “They were always off biking or snowboarding alone. I voiced my concern about her feelings for him, but Drew brushed it off as my being jealous.” The mom of two says the families even got together a few times. But eventually, Drew’s relationship with Jenny became too much for Beth. A fter a long hike, Drew and Jenny came back to the Hamilton’s home, and the three adults sat chatting. “Drew got up to get himself a drink and poured one for her without even acknowledging me,” she recalls. A fter making a pointed comment to her husband about having to get her own drink, Drew actually asked Jenny to leave and acknowledged his behaviour toward his wife was inappropriate. He then ended the friendship. While Drew never stepped out on his wife, Beth’s suspicions about Jenny’s wandering eye had merit. “We later discovered she’d cheated on her husband with another one of her male friends,” Hamilton says.

The tables were turned a couple of years later when Beth became inseparable with a co-worker. “My relationship with Drew grew weaker as my friendship with my ‘work husband’ grew stronger,” she admits. “We started texting and having inside jokes. Drew got jealous and reminded me about the problems I had with Jenny. I ended up quitting my job because of the relationship. We managed to resurrect our marriage, though it was a close call.”

Lori Yusishen, a couples and family therapist in Winnipeg, says when there’s jealousy and disconnection, partners can feel dissatisfied, angry and unimportant. “ This can affect all aspects of the relationship, including how they work as a team to parent. When parents are unsettled, children easily tune into that.”

One of the problems with coupled parents having close relationships with people of the opposite gender is that the potential to a ffect their children is great.

“Marital instability can end in a ffairs, separation and divorce,” says Hammel, “but it can also a ffect parenting in more insidious ways, like their ability to be teammates and partners in life and in childrearing,” Hammel says.

But these kinds of relationships don’t always brew jealously, nor do they have to negatively impact parenting. Michael Graham* and his wife, Laurie Chung, have been married for more than 20 years and have a teenaged daughter. They’ve mastered the ability to let each other have close male and female friends while keeping their relationship front and centre. Graham is most comfortable around women — his best friend is female, and he’s on the board of his daughter’s school and has built friendships with many of the mothers. Chung is the opposite — she gets along better with men and has always been one of the boys.

“Both my wife and I are happy to see each other have access to close friends, regardless of their gender,” Graham says. “Neither of us have possessive personalities.” That said, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. “ There were times when Laurie was convinced that a female co-worker had more than a professional interest in me,” he admits. But neither of them ever crossed the line of inappropriateness in their relationships with others — they haven’t stepped out physically or emotionally on their partner.

As for Beth and Drew, many of the problems they faced stemmed from paying more attention to the new people they brought into their lives. “Anything new can feel threatening to a relationship,” says Yusishen. “When we’re enamoured with a new toy, activity or friend, it’s natural for our thoughts to be taken over by the shiny thing. A long-term friend has the history and security that perhaps newer relationships don’t.”

For example, Beth has a long-time male friend whom she’s known since kindergarten. “ The di fference,” she says, “is that we’ve been friends since the dawn of day. Drew’s not jealous of him because of our history — if something were going to happen between us, it would’ve already.”

When it comes down to it, says Hammel, there are a few key ways to ensure opposite-gender chums aren’t getting in the way of a happy home life. “ The first is to make sure that your time, e ffort and connection with your partner comes first,” he says. Second, there can be no secrets. “No secret meetings, calls or other forms of communication.” And lastly, he says, “there needs to be clear boundaries with the friends that don’t enter into intimacy, sexuality or romance.”

As for us, though Peter hasn’t taken another work wife, he does have a gaggle of female clients he travels with. Admittedly, I sometimes get jealous of them, and I’ve o ften teased him about them. But he’s assured me that no other woman has drooled on his shirt in a plane or elsewhere. And that’s good enough for me.

Think your partner is taking it too far?

1. Nip it in the bud:
“We have to realize the potential for problems before they become threats to our relationships,” says Hammel. “Is going out for an occasional coffee alone with a workmate crossing a boundary? Usually not, unless you look to this person, rather than to your partner, for emotional support. Is it appropriate to go out for dinner with an opposite-sex friend? It depends,” he says.

2. Be honest with yourself:
Hammel suggests asking yourself: How does your spouse feel? Does the friendship add to or take away from the relationship? Do you have romantic, intimate or sexual feelings for the friend? Is the friendship meeting a need that your primary relationship isn’t? “Asking yourself these questions, and most importantly, answering them honestly, will keep your partner secure and confident, and your marriage in a stable, happy place,” he says.
*Names have been changed

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