Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Man. A Woman. Just Friends?

That's the title of an article by William Deresiewicz in which he suggests opening the closet wider to allow platonic friendships between men and women. No sex necessary. Of course Harry insisted that was impossible in the movie "When Harry Met Sally."

Not that platonic friendships don't exist today. It's just that friendships that don't end up in bed are not part of popular culture according to Dereseiwicz. After briefly tracing the history of platonic friendships, he makes this observation of our current culture:

We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand. 
We have trouble with mentorship, the asymmetric love of master and apprentice, professor and student, guide and guided; we have trouble with comradeship, the bond that comes from shared, intense work; and we have trouble with friendship, at least of the intimate kind. When we imagine those relationships, we seem to have to sexualize them.
I am fascinated by the fact that this conversation is taking place inside and outside the church. Both secular and sacred space is being made for friendships between men and women that don't have to turn sexual.

In his book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and WomenDan Brennan asks these questions:
What would our marriages, our friendships, our churches and our communities look like if men and women were not afraid of connecting with each other in deep ways? What if men and women could really know each other without sex getting in the way? What if we didn't have to be so afraid of our own and other's bodies that we cannot trust ourselves with them?
He believes that people can enter fully into these friendships as embodied sexual beings without becoming romantic. He goes on to suggest that deep spiritual friendships between sexes may actually decrease the number of divorces.

In an interview conducted by Kathy Escobar, Brennan states that "you cannot have reconciliation between sexes without cultivating and nurturing friendships between the sexes." This statement is important to understand especially when women are invited to the table of leadership. Equality is not necessarily achieved by making space at the table or adopting a doctrinal view of women that allows them more freedom.

Equality is experienced when space is opened in the heart and the other is invited. Misunderstanding and barriers will persist if that space is assumed to be sexual rather than sacred.

When Brennan was asked what surprised him most about his cross-gender friendships, he offered two: His friendships with women challenged him to change his views about women in ministry and they helped deepen his love for and friendship with his wife.

In March 2011 Brennan launched "the sacred friendship project," a place to share stories of cross-gender friendships. Coming up at the end of this month in Chicago will be conference, a "sacred friendship gathering" for those who want to explore and encourage a deeper communion between men and women.

So what do you think about this conversation? Agree or disagree?


  1. I think that most cross-gender friendships, where marriage is involved on at least one side, are best lived out in the context of the married couple. I can see very little purpose--and a huge amount of danger--in having intimate cross-gender friendships with the spouses on the sidelines.

    If I am friends with a woman, I want my wife fully engaged in that friendship. I can't imagine why I would want it any other way.

    I have a male friend that I meet with every week. We share everything with each other. We talk about our marriages, quite often, sharing the difficulties and frustrations, praying for each other, supporting each other, challenging each other.

    Would that scenario work as well if that friend was a woman? No, I don't believe it would. For me to share my frustrations in marriage with a woman other than my wife, and then to receive emotional support or comfort or closeness from her, would tend to draw me away from my wife and toward my friend... emotionally, if not physically. Of course, there could be exceptions. Maybe somebody can make it work, for them. But for the most part, I think it's pretty clear that such friendships are extremely likely to become adulterous, in one form or another.

    Maybe that's not the type of "deep spiritual friendship" that is being described here. Maybe marriage struggles would need to be off-limits, though I'm not sure how that would work. Maybe there's some distance that needs to be maintained in the friendship. Maybe there's some way to make it work.

    But is it worth it? Can't we achieve the same level of mutual understanding by developing cross-gender friendships as couples, and within the context of our marriages? Why does it need to be separate from the marriage context? What do I gain from having a one-on-one intimate relationship with a woman, that I couldn't gain by having a relationship with her with my wife by my side?

    1. I think you raise legitimate concerns of cross-gender friendships which include at least one married person. I would agree that boundaries are appropriate in situations in which the marriage is weak or troubled, one spouse is not comfortable with the friendship, or intimacy is being withheld from the spouse and given to another. All of these expose the marriage to inappropriate attachments. And the friendship with the person other than the spouse is probably circling around the issues of the marriage struggles rather than on things of God and the pursuit of Christ.

      Your question of what a "deep spiritual friendship" is a good one. I haven't read the book yet so I will get back to this question another time.

      I think what Dan is after is a brother-sister friendship that may be blessed even if one or both are married to another.

    2. I would say spiritual friendships between men and women are definitely "worth it" for those who can. I don't mean to imply anything about those who can't. I understand the danger, but I'm really grateful that the majority of my close shepherding or mentoring relationships have been with other women, and they've always been safe relationships. I haven't sought out women in particular, but, like all good mentoring relationships, they came about naturally.

      Sometimes my wife is in the mix, but she's not usually able to be there. It's not a matter of wanting her there or not. There's something about one-on-one relationships that makes them uniquely suited for spiritual intimacy, anyway. I can't put my finger on it, so I can't come up with a robust defense. But I'm quite certain that friendships between men and women are uniquely valuable, as Brennan suggests. Such friendships can be redemptive, especially for women who've never experienced close relationships with men before. To devalue or frown upon one-on-one relationships is to give up the store, or rather, the church -- the context where affirmative, intimate relationships can be realized between brothers and sisters in Christ. If not in the Body, where...?

    3. I intended to say "... for women who've never experienced *safe* relationships with men before."

  2. I remember reading and thinking about this back when I was in college. (Over 30 years ago!) I think setting makes a big difference in how successfully friendships between sexes can grow and stay platonic. I agree with Mark that spouses should be aware of and included in each others' relationships. However, in situations like work, a spouse would not always be present. In those cases, including other people in the interactions makes sense. For example, three to five co-workers going to lunch together is better than a male/female couple. Not that you can never have one-on-one discussions with someone of the opposite sex but you have to use good judgement and caution. It's easy to fool ourselves.

    I want my husband to be my closest friend - especially when compared to other men! I want to protect that relationship. On the other hand, when I became engaged, I noticed my friendships with guys became more relaxed and we had a lot of good conversations - in the setting of the college campus. They knew I was engaged and that took away the question of romance.

    Another point that Mark brought up that I agree with is that people should set boundaries on what they discuss with the oposite sex. I have a rule for myself that I will not complain about my spouse to another man or discuss problems in my marriage. Even in counseling situations, my husband has been there with me most of the time. I have become alarmed when men have made negative comments to me about about their wives. The two men I remember doing so both ended up divorced and one man got involved in adultery. I have talked to other Christian women who say they got entanged in an "emotional affairs" with men who confided their marriage problems to them.

    For many years, the deepest discussions I have had with men involved threesomes or foursomes that usually included my husband. Occasionally, I have had one of those relationships carry over into a one-on-one phone conversation or conversation in some other setting but it wasn't like pursuing a separate relationship. I think these conversations were good for all of us while keeping thing platonic. I suspect that trying to go much beyond that would create problems. I don't think this is because of cultural hang-ups but because of our sexual natures that we would be wise to acknowlege.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your thoughts, Pam. Good things to keep in mind.

      One thought I have when faced with the kind of conversations you describe is how important it is for me as a woman to believe that I can speak truth into the lives of the men around me. My responsibility as a sister in Christ is to pay attention to what I hear and respond honestly and confidently to men who reveal their situations and are in need of redemption or care or healing or whatever. Whatever their motives for telling me personal things does not release me from caring for them as brothers and speaking the truth in love if necessary. Assuming I am listening to the Spirit, I realize that may also mean being quiet, but not because I am a woman.

  3. Equality between men and women is not created because a space is opened up for one to step forward in order to share and understand. Equality is created because Christ said so. I have nothing to prove to a man. He is my brother in Christ. If a man is not certain of the same, my moving into his space is not going to help his theological issues. It will likely create other ones.

    Marriage is to be honored, and I can't imagine that refers only to the marriage bed in Heb 13. Out of respect to other marriages and to my own, I don't want to be too close in the space of another man. That doesn't mean I don't have, friendships with men, but they are also Mark's friends, and I don't see them on my own terms.

    Full recognition of the body of Christ and reconciliation between the two genders will happen in heaven. I will have plenty of time to get to know lots of interesting men, in a nonsexual environment. For now, I have one man I really want to know well and that takes up just about all the time I've got.

    I'm a solid proponent for marriages having more, not less boundaries, especially those marriages that are "ministry marriages." I've seen too many fall apart and don't want to be one.

    1. Thanks, Alyssa, for an important point made about equality. You are certainly right that equality is a reality because of Christ. I should have started from there. The issue I am addressing is the fleshing out of equality in the relationships found within any given community. It is analogous to the truth of unity. Ephesians 4 points out that we have unity in Christ but then describes how we are to attain unity through the process of growing in maturity. One is a spiritual reality. The other is a developing reality as we live together in the Kingdom on earth.

      Yes we are all equal in Christ. Now how is that equality lived out in our life together? That's my context.

  4. Thanks for this post, Harriet. I'm immediately drawn to Dan Brennan's position. I too believe our capacity for edifying male-female friendship is much greater than anything our culture (Christian or otherwise) generally fosters.

    I deeply respect and appreciate the more cautious positions expressed above, but as a single, it often seems to me that most people in the church (especially those in leadership positions) take for granted that Christians can and should be meet their needs for relational intimacy through marriage. I struggle with this assumption in light of both Scripture and the reality that there is a growing disparity in the number of marriageable men-to-women in the church (many singles who want to get married never will, for no fault of their own).

    I also struggle with shaping our discipleship (i.e., disciplines) around creating boundaries, as though we are still pioneers holding back the dark flood of nature. From my experience, the disciplines of confession, communication, meditation, and study are far more effective in fostering self-control, grounding perspective, and the kind of authentic relationships that allow us to experience one another as individual brothers and sisters instead of variations of Male and Female.

    To backpedal though - even if some of my intuitions (and Dan's) are accurate - I recognize the huge pastoral tension that comes in leading people through a transition in culture. Just because climbing mountains suddenly looks both desirable and possible doesn't mean everyone should now start scrambling up the cliff face. We need tools, we need guides, we need a clear theology of mountaineering. And so I'm glad you're grappling with these questions!

    Many blessings.

    1. Thanks, Alex. You touch on a core theological belief that I hold - Gen. 1:27 tells me that God's image is most accurately and fully expressed through the relationship of male and female. The marriage relationship does not enter until Gen. 2. Genesis 1 lays a foundation of a community that is first made up of men and women, not husbands and wives. This affirms singles as fully embraced by the community and fully integrated into the sphere of spiritual friendships. You have been a significant brother to me and I am deeply grateful for our friendship.

      You articulated well the tension regarding this hopeful transition in culture. I think the church needs to stand firm against the culture's pressure to sexualize friendships. How that's done is the conversation I hear happening through Dan and the conference. Just because it's part of our sin nature doesn't mean we avoid meaningful, spiritual relationships with the other gender. It means we pursue Christ, put off our sin nature and relate rightly with the power of the Spirit.

      Blessings to you, brother!

    2. I think some of this is helped when married couples develop friendships with singles and invite them into their homes.

  5. I love that Dan wrote this book and I love that this conversation is happening more and more in the body of Christ. We can model non-sexualized friendships between men and women that are healthy for this is the way of the kingdom of God. Which is why I had no issue meeting up with a male friend last week for coffee apart from my husband and my husband had no qualms about it. Good stuff!

    1. Nice to hear from you, Pam! It feels like a very difficult thing to do - to put the brakes on the runaway train heading down the track of deeply broken, unhealthy relationships, turn it around and head back to healthy, Christ-honoring relationships. Conversation is a good place to start...Thanks, Pam.

  6. Hello Harriet, I haven't spoke to you in a while, but I landed upon this discussion. I'd have to agree with Alex. It is very easy for couples to default on the belief that there is very little possibility of having safe relationships between men and women outside of marriage. I want to respect marriage, and in no way oppose it or come against it, but I greatly appriciate the insight that has been given to me by other men within the church. As a single, I do not have the ability to turn to a husband for advise. I value the opinions of my brothers in christ, to be able to get a male perspective on things. I have found a little of that friendship you have described, but it has been within the bounds of church life, with accountability to others. I think it is possible, but motives must continually be in check.

    1. Hey, Athena! So good to hear from you! Thanks for contributing your perspective. I especially ache for singles who desire deep connections within the body of Christ which include both male and female friendships. I think it's possible too - there just needs to be some movement in that direction but with careful shepherding and teaching.

      Want to hear more from you and what is happening in your life. Email me! harrietcongdon@gmail.com