What is the etiquette of female-male friendship when one party is taken?
August 16, 2014 11:53 AM   Subscribe

When one half of you is taken how does this affect the plans you can make together?

So I got to thinking about this recently because I am planning to meet a long-term male friend of about 10 years (who is taken) and he suggested meeting for coffee. Coffee - a pretty neutral, safe meeting plan isn't it? Something that two friends may possibly do.

Now in a few days time I am planning to meet another male friend (of about 5 years) who is offering me practical advice about moving to another country having just returned from the country in question. Originally he also suggested "coffee" but this time as he has asked that we meet in the evening after his work. By this point I too will have just finished work and am going to be hungry - and actually kind of want to suggest dinner. But dinner is out, right? Because he too is taken and that might look a bit strange to his girlfriend...but in a way it's funny. Think about who we all first ate and had dinner with - our families, which is totally unromantic!

Last year when I was in a relationship a male friend asked me to dinner (he was also taken). I remember feeling very uncomfortable with the suggestion and turned it down on a few occasions. So, is this down to personal preference? Or is there a universal-size-fits-all etiquette for activities you can do with a friend of the opposite sex when they are taken?
posted by Kat_Dubs to Human Relations (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I guess it varies by couple, because I'm married and I have zero problems having dinner with friends of any gender and vice versa for my husband. Maybe if there were candles and wine flights involved, that'd be weird. But not a cause for losing trust.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:59 AM on August 16, 2014 [18 favorites]

there is no universal size fits all. Folks who are looking to cheat can cheat at breakfast. Folks who truly have no sexual tension element to their friendship can drink together at night and have it not be an issue.

All you need to do is be totally, unflinchingly honest with yourself about what's between you and let that be your guide as to what behavior is risky or inappropriate.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:00 PM on August 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't know, you know? I like meeting new people and would personally like to be invited to something like this if I were her, but maybe not?

I don't think it's rude to ask but maybe a nod to wanting to meet his girlfriend at some point when she wouldn't be bored by expat chatter is appropriate, to indicate goodwill.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:03 PM on August 16, 2014

Dinner is only romantic if you make it so. You're meeting to discuss something practical. I have lunch and dinner with coworkers all the time and its fine.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 PM on August 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

Personal preference. It's not crazy to not want your partner to go to dinner with a single person of the opposite sex, but I would mark it a little towards the possessive end of the scale.
posted by ftm at 12:04 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

It depends on each other's comfort levels. I'll go with some female friends to, like, risque burlesque shows because my wife doesn't care (and their SOs don't care) but I have other female friends that consider an unchaperoned dinner in anything above a burger joint to be a "date" and thus a bridge too far.

And if it's a work thing, I think that's also totally different. For a while I worked with these three bombshell gorgeous blondes so we'd all have dinner together but all we were going to do was bitch about clients. My wife attended one of those once and then gave me a free pass because "Jesus, that was SO BORING all you did was talk about work never make me go to that again."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:06 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

It definitely varies by couple. There have been instances of individual girlfriends of my male friends saying "no you cannot hang out with that female person without me there" but it is not the norm. IME those relationships seem to fizzle out pretty quickly so it's not usually a serious issue.

But no, I would not find it at all strange if any partnered friend of any gender was like "hey let's have dinner", nor would I assume that there were any ulterior motives. I would also find the suggestion that there were ulterior motives to be weird and fairly offensive. If I've known someone for 10 years, sharing a side order of fries one evening is not going to suddenly trigger an unholy lust.

a lust for more fries maybe
posted by elizardbits at 12:12 PM on August 16, 2014 [29 favorites]

Wow, you sure have a lot of rules for yourself.

If Husbunny wanted to meet up with a female friend for dinner, I'd totes be okay with it. I'd like it more if I were invited along to meet her too, but it's not mandatory.

If you want to meet for dinner just say, "Gosh, I'll be ravenous for dinner after work, there's a great Tapas place next to the coffee shop, I can nibble, you can talk and I'll absorb all of what you know. Do you think Lisa would like to join? I'd love to meet her."

He can take it from there. If you don't act awkward, it won't BE awkward.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:15 PM on August 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm female. My (male) partner's best friend is a woman and that doesn't bother me at all. She lives far away and he sometimes stays with her (and her boyfriend) for an entire weekend without me along. I wouldn't bat an eye at just the two of them getting dinner together without me. I'm with fingersandtoes in that I believe trying to stop someone from cheating is a futile action. You either trust them or you don't.

I would find someone who wouldn't want me to go out to dinner alone with one of my male friend to be overly possessive and jealous, but everyone has their own level of comfort. I also believe it is important to spend some time with your friends without having your significant other along. I need a life outside of my couple.

Bottom-line: There is no set etiquette. Do what works best for you and your significant other.
posted by Blissful at 12:16 PM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think dinner has romantic implications unless it's at a fancy restaurant. So just meet up at a diner or taco place or something like that.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:31 PM on August 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm going to expand on my prior answer because I see how it could be misinterpreted.

I believe infidelity is often a "crime" of opportunity and that's one reason that activities like dinner, especially with wine, etc., can be a risky behavior for attached people to engage in with people they're attracted to who aren't their partner. Because when opportunity, lack of inhibition, privacy, etc, combine with pre-existing attraction, that can be a risky combination. But attraction is a necessary ingredient for this to be risky. That is why I can go to dinner with my dad or even certain old friends and I know it's not disrespectful to my partner or risky in any way.

But there are plenty of people in my life who it would be risky for me to spend boozy private dinners with, because what stops me from messing around with them isn't lack of attraction, but rather discipline, trust, respect for my partner, respect for their partner, etc… "superego", basically… and those inhibitions can dissolve in the right circumstances. And so it's my responsibility to not let those circumstances arise. That's why I said that the important thing is to be really honest with yourself about whether there's attraction there or not - and if there is, it's reasonable to avoid intimacy-promoting activities like private dinners. If not, it shouldn't matter how you hang out.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:34 PM on August 16, 2014 [23 favorites]

If you don't act awkward, it won't BE awkward.

This, this, this.

I'm bisexual, friends male and female. Coffee can be romantic, dinner can be unromantic.

Boundaries are not one-size-fits-all.
posted by RainyJay at 12:34 PM on August 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Or is there a universal-size-fits-all etiquette for activities you can do with a friend of the opposite sex when they are taken?

Alas, no. I'm female and many of my good friends are male. My SO has at least one very good female friend. I have had my friends' SOs have issues from time to time with them hanging out with me and that sometimes happens. People get to work out what works for them in their relationships first (usually) and then with their friends secondly (usually). I try to be super clear that I'm above board and being totally appropriate about these friendships just out of consideration to the SOs, including

- SO (theirs, mine) is usually always invited to anything we do together within reason
- I don't do "date like" things with them that I'd normally be doing with my SO (my guest at a wedding or family event, romantic-seeming dinner or vacation) but regular dinner or things I'd be doing on my own? Yeah totally.
- I'm perfectly transparent about what I am doing (If I say we are going out to dinner and then to see a lecture, that is what will be happening, always, and I check in if plans change)

I've found, if I may generalize, that this seems to get bumpy more in one direction (i.e. my male friends' partners can sometimes be weird about it) than the other (My SO is welcome to do basically whatever he wants, I can't imagine telling him not do) and I feel like sometimes my male friends may be being a little ... less empathetic in keeping their partners informed in a way that makes it all AOK.

My father, when he lived at home, often hung out with women who were not my mom in ways that were sketchy. Doing things my mom would like to be doing with him. Just "happening" to run into them when he was out doing his thing, being dismissive and crappy when my mom would call him on it. He felt like this was legitimate because he wasn't sleeping with them, he could hang out with whoever he pleased. My mom didn't think it was legit because it didn't work for both of them and it seemed sketchy (and, later on, turned out to be even though it wasn't at the time)

This is a long way of saying that people usually work this out within their own relationships and while you can make an effort to try to be considerate about how something might look, you're not going to be able to always make sure that no one ever minds. Being thoughtful and polite is useful. And, to this specific situation, dinner sounds fine. And maybe the earlier dinner that made you feel weird wasn't fine and you correctly assessed it.
posted by jessamyn at 12:34 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm bisexual. I guess that means I can't have dinner with anyone but my husband, right?

If that sounds silly to you, then so are "rules" about what you mustn't do with friends of the opposite sex just because you could theoretically be attracted to each other.
posted by lydhre at 12:35 PM on August 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are absolutely no universal rules. Not only is it going to vary from couple to couple, but may vary within each couple, with a variety of "it depends" variables. So no, dinner is not out just because he's in a relationship.
posted by rtha at 12:39 PM on August 16, 2014

My best friend is a woman. I am a man. I've never once hesitated to do anything with her (getting dinner, having drinks, just hanging out the two of us alone at each other's places etc) that I would also do with a male friend. We don't flirt. We hang out and talk like two really close platonic friends.

If your feelings towards these men are truly platonic then you have nothing to worry about. They can set the boundaries in their own relationships.
posted by AtoBtoA at 12:40 PM on August 16, 2014

Nope, no one-size-fits-all rule. I've been with my (male) partner for going on a decade and I go out for dinner with male friends all the time, with my partner's knowledge, just as he goes out to dinner with female friends with my knowledge. This is because A) we have both always had close opposite-sex friendships, and when we started dating we understood and respected this about each other; and B) we trust each other implicitly. So our dynamic means that we're totally cool with this sort of thing. Other people's mileage may vary.
posted by scody at 12:40 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dinner seems totally fine to me...I'm female with a bunch of male friends who I occasionally hang out with individually for dinner or other things that I guess some people might think are date-like. I think the only time it would be weird is if the single person wants more than just friendship, in which case it probably wouldn't be a good idea to hang out for any meal at any time of day. If he doesn't feel comfortable with dinner, he can say so, but it doesn't really seem like a big deal.
posted by three_red_balloons at 12:50 PM on August 16, 2014

But dinner is out, right? Because he too is taken and that might look a bit strange to his girlfriend...but in a way it's funny.

The answer is easy to guess, but what country/culture are you talking about? For example, around here dinner is not considered a particularly romantic activity, while meeting other people for drinks would be Right Out for most couples.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:51 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think this is your hang-up. It seems perfectly natural to me for two friends to have dinner together. Especially in your situation, I'd say "Hey, I'll just be getting off work too, and I'll probably be hungry. Why don't we grab dinner instead of coffee?" Add to the fact that you are meeting for a specific purpose to discuss something, doing it over dinner is fine. I mean, how is getting dinner really any different from getting coffee? It's very much the same situation and similar setting, except you'd be eating something rather than drinking coffee... and maybe eating a pastry. Go to a casual restaurant. It's not the same thing as a romantic night out where you're dressed up and eating by candlelight. Pay your own bill and enjoy talking to your friend. No one I know would find this inappropriate for two longtime friends with no romantic connection.
posted by catatethebird at 12:57 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, I think the fact that you felt so uncomfortable about your other friend asking you to dinner suggests that either you felt some (maybe unconscious) attraction to him or suspected that he was in some way attracted to you.
posted by catatethebird at 1:05 PM on August 16, 2014

I am bi, and it's just part of my taking care of my relationship that I would touch base with my beau before I made dinner plans with whoever. I would also like him to let me know/let me in on his decision to go to dinner with someone. Not because I am controlling, but because we are each other's primary relationship.

If it's really just dinner, it's just dinner.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:07 PM on August 16, 2014

is there a universal-size-fits-all etiquette for activities you can do with a friend of the opposite sex when they are taken?
No, and even if there were, it's not your job (as the friend) to bend into a pretzel trying to accommodate anything beyond what makes you feel most comfortable.
posted by sm1tten at 1:09 PM on August 16, 2014

But dinner is out, right?

Ask your friend, not internet strangers. That's what's matters mos.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:19 PM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

My relationship is like many that people here are describing or maybe even looser, where dinners and room sharing and coffee "dates" with friends of any gender/sexuality are fine. But I know a lot of people for whom that is emphatically not the case and dinner with someone (especially if they were single) would be deep into the Forbidden Zone. That's not how I would want to live but it represents reality for millions of people, and as Brandon B says it's your friend's rules and expectations that matter, not ours.

One way I've seen people signal that a get together is platonic is to invite the other person's partner -- even if you are sure she won't come, it can send a clear message to offer the invite: "I appreciate you offering to discuss Country X with me. I've heard the tapas at that place are really good, would Girlfriend like to join us?"
posted by Dip Flash at 1:48 PM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

1. It is your friend's job to manage the relationship with his girlfriend/SO. If he is comfortable inviting you to dinner, trust him to know what works for his relationship. And if you don't trust him...
2. Don't do anything that feels uncomfortable to you personally. If it feels like he is trying to cross the line and make more than platonic friendship, protect yourself and your integrity and say no.
posted by metahawk at 1:56 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was single and friends with taken/married men I have two scenarios that played out:
1. I would just hang out with them, just the two of us, no problem.
2. I always made sure that there were others socializing as well, never just the two of us.

The only time I used #2 was when I actually had feelings for the guy or if the girlfriend/wife/partner was the jealous type. Everyone else... they were just another friend and did normal friends things.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 2:00 PM on August 16, 2014

I think there are two issues here: ethics and (for lack of a better word) safety.

From an ethics perspective, I think it's fine for a straight woman to do anything with a straight male friend that you'd do with a friend who's not a straight man. For me, depending on the closeness/comfortableness of the friendship, that might include anything from coffee to dinner to sharing a hotel room or going on vacation together. Personally, I wouldn't do stuff like backrubs and snuggling, which just feels too physically intimate for friends.

But I think what you may be really asking about is safety. If it's not a super-intimate and trusting relationship, and your goal is to not be misinterpreted or expose yourself to risk, that's harder and more context-dependent. It helps to show interest in the person's partner -- "How is your wife? What's she up to lately? How is the [family project or activity] going?" In general, if you feel uncomfortable about anything another person is proposing, there's probably a reason and in that case, I'd say you should lean conservative and stick to no alcohol and to public places.
posted by Susan PG at 2:16 PM on August 16, 2014

What is the etiquette of female-male friendship when one party is taken?

You two have fun be home at a decent hour so I don't worry bring me the leftovers and no fucking.
posted by vapidave at 3:24 PM on August 16, 2014 [22 favorites]

Nope, there is not a one-size-fits-all etiquette. But I frequently spend time with guys who are not my husband, because I work in a male-dominated industry and have hobbies that involve a lot of dudes. I have never had this be a problem. Here's what works for me:

1) have a point for the meeting up. Catching up with an old friend, talking about a work opportunity, playing a tabletop RPG are all totally valid, so this doesn't have to be Business with a B, but stating the agenda helps with making clear it is not a date. This matters less the longer you've known the person in a platonic capacity.

2) invite SOs if they are available to attend, and if they're not, tell them the plan in advance -- where you're going, with whom, what the agenda is. If I have something really boringly work-y to do with a person, I've sometimes met the person alone for a bit and then had my husband join later for drinks when the work portion was finished.

3) have the self-awareness to recognize if you do have a bit of a crush on the other person, or if you think they are into you. If that is the case, back off and see them in more chaperoned contexts only.
posted by shattersock at 3:42 PM on August 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

So, is this down to personal preference?

Yes. I am male and taken, and I have dinner, go on picnics, go for bike rides, see shows with single female friends all the time. It's no different than doing the same thing with my single male friends.

Basically, my partner trusts me not to fuck other people, and she trusts my friends not to fuck me. Your mileage, or your partner's, may vary.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:08 PM on August 16, 2014

It comes down to your personal comfort level, that of your friend and both your partners. It sounds like you're a little uncomfortable with the idea, but I don't think you need to be. I don't think dinner is "out" as a rule.

If I were in your position I would say: "Hey, can we go someplace where I can get some food when we meet up? I'm always hungry after work." Then suggest some place casual, like a coffee shop that also serves food or somewhere with counter service and then he can choose to eat or just get a drink.
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:30 PM on August 16, 2014

We have dinner with people of any gender we want, at home or out at a restaurant.

At times, I've felt jealousy over my girlfriend's dinner partner, but we just talk through it. I trust her, and, I appreciate the freedom of having her trust to have drinks or dinner with whoever strikes my fancy.
posted by Gray Skies at 10:14 PM on August 16, 2014

Ask the friend. "Hey would it be OK if we grabbed dinner instead, I'm going to be starved by then?" You'll know by his response if it will be OK. Invite partner if you think it would help, the symbolism of inviting them will make it clear you have no romantic intentions. He can say no if he's worried what his partner will think, and you can get a pastry with your coffee to tide you over instead.
posted by wwax at 9:17 AM on August 17, 2014

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