The rules of engagement for opposite-sex friendships (especially when you're in a relationship)
Time to check if you and your partner are on the same page
“Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ho sakte…” Mohnish Bahl aced the contemptuous dialogue aimed at the leading couple in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989). Still, the lines have reverberated through the audience’s cultural consciousness for years. Even though it was aimed at a romantically involved pair, it has clung to platonic relationships like lint on a black sweater.
It has preoccupied everyday men, women, therapists, HR heads, film writers, neighbourhood uncles and our mothers. Can heterosexual women and men have a platonic friendship without ever getting to a point where one professes romantic feelings for another? Opposite-sex friendships get more complicated when you’re in a committed relationship. Jealousy about opposite-sex friendships within romantic partnerships has been studied, reviewed, and revisited many times.
The potential that these so-called best buddies, especially of the same age and sexual compatibility, come to realise their attraction to each other. The question always remains… could they? Will they, or won’t they? Pop culture narratives have reinforced the inevitability of friendship between men and women turning into a romantic affair.
“We all may believe it to be true – men and women can be just friends. Of course they can. But what we imagine as the ideal doesn’t always play out as we’d like in real life, taking into consideration the Indo-cultural context. People don’t know how to interact with opposite gender, so they can misconctrue what their spouse is doing,” says Preet Atwal, a psychotherapist with the New Delhi-based MindfulHealth clinic.
The historically popular same-sex schools (though the tides have changed) have separated the sexes long enough that we don’t know how to act around each other. “Even in co-ed schools, you will see a separation being made between boys and girls. Whether in the classroom or during playtime,” adds Atwal. In the minds of parents, there’s safety in growing up surrounded by the same sex.
“I, myself, had a tough time, going from a single-sex school into a co-ed college. I couldn’t openly talk to the men. I’d always be second guessing myself. ‘What if they think my smile is an invitation?’ How do I know when a hand on the shoulder is just a friendly gesture or an advance? It took me some time too,” says Atwal.
Atwal says that the lack of familiarity with how different people – regardless of sex, sexual orientation or background – converse, behaviours and body language can lead to many misunderstandings of platonic adult interactions. Add traditional, sheltered upbringing into the mix, and you get a bharta of emotions that you carry into your relationship.
Whether you’re the one with opposite-sex friendships or the partner trying to get comfortable with it, Tweak readers shared some advice on how to ease through it with some rules of engagement to help.
For the spouse/partner with opposite-sex friendships
Introduce them from the get-go
Several Tweak readers expressed that this was the foundation stone in getting your partner and friends comfortable with each other. How can they not be suspicious about a relationship if they’ve never met them? “By separating the two, you are creating an enigma, and your partner’s imagination then runs wild,” says Atwal.
Reader Zalak Trivedi says she introduced them to each other and “let them bond over taking digs at me.” Atwal says a larger group setting is always best, and that is naturally what most people tend to do anyway with their friend’s group and partners.
But if this friend is someone you are very close to them, it may be helpful to make the relationship known to each other. “Get specific and define the relationship in their presence. For example, ‘A, I’d like you to meet my best friend B, and B, this is my husband A.’ It may seem silly, but this way you are very pointedly demarcating the different relationships in everyone’s mind, including the friend,” she adds. She followed the same practice when introducing her new husband to male friends and co-workers.
Don’t force their friendship
Radhika Maheshwari is on board with familiarising your partner with your opposite-sex friendships. Share phone numbers, help them get to know each other, have dinners together, “but don’t try to force it on them. Give it time.”
Forcing a friendship between them can be counter-productive, according to Atwal. Best-case scenario, your partner gets annoyed that you keep wanting them to spend time with someone they may have nothing in common with. Worst-case scenario, they’re completely put off by the idea and even get suspicious about why you’re getting so insistent.
In an ideal world, your spouse and friends of the opposite sex become bum-chums who get along like long-lost siblings (maybe even cutting you out of the equation). Unfortunately, it’s also possible that they don’t have much to say to each other beyond small talk. You may be the only common ground they share, and that’s alright too. Given their love and fondness for you, both teams will make an effort.
Don’t be shady, even if you’re trying to protect your partner’s feelings
“I talk a lot about my friend to my husband. So that he knows what it is and all there is,” says Tweak reader Birwa Bhatt. Don’t hide your friendship from your partner/spouse. Even if they aren’t entirely at ease about it, the more you talk about it, the more you normalise it.
Atwal reaffirms Khushboo Agarwal’s recommendation of acting like it is normal, especially if you are the one who is feeling odd. “Sometimes we get into our own heads about it. We don’t know how our partner would react or what our friend would say. So we start acting very self-consciously, and that creates unnecessary questions. Pick up the phone when they call, and don’t hide your texts or your outings from your partner,” says Atwal, adding that the details we give can fill in the blanks that may arise in our partner’s head about the reality of your opposite-sex friendships.
Use the ‘reasonable person assessment’
The ‘reasonable person test’ is often associated with the law as a benchmark of behaviour that lawyers and law students would be familiar with. However, it can also apply, in a way, in this context to assess whether your friendship would be appropriate in the eyes of your partner.
A reasonable person would be someone of sound mind and judgement, your average everyday person who approaches life with a certain amount of caution and rationality. Would they, looking at your friendship from the outside, question its nature or find it inappropriate in some way?
If you find yourself thinking yes to this question, or even a maybe, then it’s likely that your partner would have a similar reaction.
With some introspection, you’ll note the aspects of your opposite-sex friendships that could be interpreted as disrespectful towards your partner/spouse. It could be how you talk to each other, what you talk about or how often. These things would seem completely normal and natural to you, but they can be things that you may need to exercise some restraint in.
Stick to groups until your partner gets comfortable
In the beginning, you may have to go exclusively for group outings – with or without your partner until they get more familiar with your opposite-sex friends and accept your relationship’s platonic nature. It can take some time.
“You need to ask yourself who is more important here, your friend or partner? Should your partner be OK from the get-go? Ideally, yes. But it’s not a given. Is that really the hill you want to die on at the beginning of your relationship? For some people, it can be a deal-breaker but only you can be the judge of that,” says Atwal.
Group settings keep you connected to your friends and support circle while allowing your partner to familiarise himself with the dynamics you have with each one of them.
For the uncertain partner/spouse
Set aside assumptions and ask for context
If jumping to conclusions were an Olympic sport, many more candidates would be lined up to leap.
Who is he talking to? Oh, it must be her. Where is she going? It must be that fancy restaurant we never went to when we have a date night. “We leave many things unsaid because we don’t want to stir the pot. But questions like this are valid. You need to ask them for context,” says Atwal.
It doesn’t need to be an inquisition, either. A simple who, what, when and why – the basics of engaging in conversations, says Atwal – should give you enough information about what was said to whom and why someone else reacted the way they did, cutting out your FOMO that could turn into angst against your partner and their friend.
Express your boundaries
Setting boundaries in any relationship – with a life partner, parent or friend – can make your tummy drop as if you were asked to do a poetry recitation in front of the entire school, except you memorised the wrong one.
Healthy boundaries can ensure a respectful relationship flourishes, and your relationship succeeds in the long run. When you’re in a relationship, there are some things that you will not feel comfortable with your partner sharing with friends of the opposite sex. It could be about finances, your job, parenting or intimacy.
“Open, transparent conversations help draw lines to what is and is not OK,” says reader Saloni Tewari.
Through the discussion with your partner, share where you’d like to draw the line regarding the depth of details about your relationship that you’re alright with your partner sharing.
There will be some non-negotiables and compromises you are willing to make, and this should be an open conversation that goes both ways.
Drop the name-calling and discuss your fears and apprehensions
Lashing out is easy when you feel you’re losing control of a situation. Jealousy and insecurity are deep-rooted and build up over time from experiences as we grow up. Fighting with your partner over their action, which triggers a past experience of insecurity, does happen, but we also need to recognise those moments and take accountability for them.
Instead of constantly questioning them and worrying that they’ll end up cheating on you, discuss your apprehensions, past experiences and how you can get the assurance you need from your partner – whether through words or actions – that you’re in this together and will work through it.
Projecting your feelings onto your partner, when it has nothing to do with them but your past, isn’t going to lead you down a path of success.
Recognise that different kinds of relationships can co-exist
There are the friends you grew up with and peers from work that you bond with over dabba debates. Some are low-stakes friendships you don’t need to put in too much effort; others are former romantic relationships you will always have some connection with. Through life, we collect relationships like infinity stones – no two are alike.
As much as we may want, we can’t be everything to our partner, and they can’t be everything to us. Few people are lucky to find a life partner that fulfils all of their mental, physical, and spiritual needs, says Atwal, adding that if something is lacking in one sphere for a person, the relationship isn’t weak. Different relations serve different purposes, and once we recognise and accept that different relationships can exist – platonic opposite-sex friendships alongside your loving, committed romantic one.
It’s not about ‘trusting’ your partner; the trusting partner also gets cheated on, but more about transparency. The rules apply both ways
“Raising these questions with your partner doesn’t mean that you don’t trust them,” says Atwal. “A trusting partner somewhere was someone who got cheated on.” Rather than a question of trust, it is about transparency. And many rules of engagement apply to both partners in the relationship who are struggling.