Boundaries with the Opposite Sex

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I remember watching movies like Pretty in Pink (1986) or Brown Sugar (2002)—movies where two friends who’ve known each other for years grow close, share inside jokes, and share their dreams with one another, and yet somehow they ended up falling in love with someone else they’ve only known for two seconds—not really but you get it. I would always walk away feeling like the characters made the wrong choice. “Fall in love with the one that knows you, the one that you gets you—you two are friends!!” So many years later, I still think Andie and Duckie (from Pretty in Pink) should’ve ended up together. In my eyes, it just didn’t make sense—it was as if they passed up the love that was right in front of them. I’ve always believed that friendship is the foundation for a loving relationship, and similarly, taking the time to develop a friendship with a person before pursuing a relationship with them is also something I believe in as well.  

Still, whether we have feelings for a friend or not, it’s important to understand that our friendships with the opposite sex should have boundaries, not just physical, but also emotional.

As someone who’s grown up in church, I grew very close to the friends I made in that community, and years later I still remain friends with many of them. As years passed and we got older, conversations began to change: they became deeper, more transparent and vulnerable—something that really is natural when you’ve known people for so long. Even in the natural development and deepening of a friendship, I began to notice that it became easier for me to talk with one friend in particular. As our friendship progressed over the years we stayed in touch over long distances often sharing three to four-hour phone conversations. I remember sharing with him my thoughts about my future and what I hoped to do in life. As I shared my thoughts with him, sometimes merely talking things out loud from inside my head and heart, I didn’t realize that I began to connect with him in a way that I hadn’t with any other friend I knew. Of course, there were my girlfriends that I shared my dreams and thoughts with, but I never shared them with a guy like this before. As time would pass, later I found out that he liked me, and I liked him—though nothing ever came of it, we still remained friends, but I remember feeling like I didn’t want to share my thoughts or plans with another like that until it was clear that there was a mutual feeling and an intentional pursuit that would follow. I’m not saying it has to be this way for everyone, but for myself, I felt it necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen many young women and men open up to one another forging close friendships that were established on sharing intimate details about their lives. Again, none of this is wrong, but I’ve also seen how it prematurely creates an emotional intimacy between two people who aren’t committed to each other, and sometimes there is usually one person that is more connected to the other. Don’t get me wrong, emotional intimacy is beautiful in friendship but we can unconsciously be searching for another to emotionally fulfill our souls before it’s appropriate. No one does it on purpose, we just do it without really thinking, and somehow we feel the affects of it later. 

I’ve seen young women pour their hearts out to guys, the guy that is the one friend they can share everything with, and I’ve seen feelings start to develop and then suddenly it’s revealed that one of the two is already in a relationship, or their back together with an ex, etc.  What’s left is this awkwardness of not being able to talk with the same depth as there was before, and having to find a way to be satisfied with surface conversation when they know so much more about each other. It’s rough. And I’ve often wondered why we don’t pause a bit before we divulge intimate details about our lives to another person.

As I continue to move forward in my friendships here are a few things I’ve learned about sharing your heart with another that can help in keeping healthy emotional boundaries in friendships with the opposite sex:

1. Ask yourself, “What is my purpose in sharing this intimate detail about my life?”

Vulnerability is a bridge to connection with people. When we open up and share our stories of pain we can often encourage others who are going through a similar circumstance. In the same token, we need to be mindful that when we share intimate details about our lives or personal struggles, that perhaps we may be unintentionally treating another as a human diary. It is beautiful to share a relationship with someone who will keep your secrets, but that kind of intimacy should be equal to the level of commitment you have with the person.

2. Consider the context.

Have you ever noticed that one-on-one conversations seem to go deeper below the surface than group conversations? Sometimes what you share with a group of people is very different than what you share with just one person. When it comes to friendships with the opposite sex, our one-on-one conversations can lend itself to creating an emotional closeness that mirrors that of a relationship between a man and a woman and if we’re not careful we can sometimes share details that amount to pillow talk between a man and a woman. 

3. Remember that you are more than just what you physically can give to another.

When we think or talk about boundaries with the opposite sex the conversation usually stays in the context of physical restrictions, and as followers of Christ we believe that crossing physical boundaries such as sex before marriage is not a part of God’s design for our life. What we should also consider is that much of who we are, and what we share with another in relationship is not just of a physical nature, but also emotionally. The dreams and desires that God has placed in our hearts are sacred, and yes, we can share them with whomever we choose, but we should consider that not everyone should be invited to join a conversation between you and God.

In the context of friendships with the opposite-sex, I’ve learned to pause before I share things about my life involving my dreams and consider this before I share:

Is this person willing to partner with me in bringing my dreams to fruition?

Is this person willing to pray with me about these dreams?

Is this person willing to hold me accountable for the vision that God has placed in my heart?

If the answers to the questions are ‘no’ or even unclear, then perhaps I don’t need to share those details of my heart with them just yet.

So what am I saying here? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have friendships with the opposite sex or share about our lives in these friendships. Emotional intimacy in friendship isn’t wrong; it’s just so critical in forging bonds with another that we should be discerning about when and how we share intimate details about ourselves with the opposite sex.

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CultureDominique Johnson