Saturday, August 10, 2013

More than 'Just' Friends

Relationships between men and women that do not involve romance and sex are usually referred to as ‘just’ friend relationships… few people seem aware that ‘just’ friend relationships can blossom into relationships of dialogical love. Those of us who have experienced the abundant being that can come from a deep personal relationship with a person of the opposite sex would never speak of our relationship as ‘just.’  Calling these relationships ‘just’ is not only misleading; it trivializes the relationship in a way that seems sacrilege. – John Scudder and Anne Bishop quoted in Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions
Some of my dearest friends are women whom I deeply and intimately love.  Because of the deep bonds we have formed, I would never say these women are ‘just’ friends.  I also have several dear friends who are men.  Yes, I am committed to honoring the vows I've made to my husband – and my cross-gender friendships my be of varying levels of familiarity and physical proximity – but I could never with good conscience say they qualify as ‘just’ friends simply because these friends aren't women.  

Several years ago I reconnected on Facebook with someone from my high school years.  It was right at the beginning of all my unraveling, when my process looked ugly and angry and I often argued with people who still believed all the old things I was in the process of discarding.  Even though he is hundreds of miles away, he was a gracious and calming presence, never balking at my anger or turning away when I was far from gracious.  From his years of religious study, he generously shared his perspective in response to my theological questions when I asked.  He introduced me to Volf and Keating and kindled my love for theological reading.  He would gently rein me in when I was disregarding the value of another person's unique life-experience for the sake of winning an argument.   

There is an undeniable bond that forms when someone can look past your pain and ugliness while you burn down the framework of your life, and treat you as though you've already risen from the ashes.  A person who does that is not ‘just’ a friend.

Five years ago, over shared office observations and a similar sense of humor, I became friends with the guy who sat on the other side of my cubical wall.  We don’t sit near each other anymore, but we still chat with each other every work day.  We share stories of what is going on in our lives outside of work and try to add a little levity to the daily grind.  Sometimes we go to lunch and talk about our kids.  Sometimes we grab a beer after work and commiserate about our jobs.  We talk a lot about beliefs, which can be a challenge considering that we could not be more different from each other when it comes to faith and politics, but we navigate the conversations with a great deal of mutual respect. 

There is an undeniable bond that forms when someone becomes a witness to your daily life and allows you to be a witness to theirs.  A person who does that is not ‘just’ a friend.

I have an ongoing dialogue with a long-distance friend I met over social media.  He messaged me one day to say he’d read some of my posts and that my thoughts and unraveling process resonated with him. We have swapped stories about our similar youth experiences and navigating family relationships while straying from our upbringing.  We check in with each other regularly, discussing work and faith and posts we read online, and we frequently swap prayer requests and commit to praying for each other.

There is an undeniable bond that forms when one person is vulnerable enough to reach out to another person and say, “Yeah. Me too.” and the two of you commit to regularly praying for each other.  A person who does these things is not ‘just’ a friend.

The reason I’m sharing about my experience with cross-gender friendships is to bear witness to their significance in my life.  They aren't taking the place of my relationship with my husband, but they are extremely important to me.  If someone has looked close enough to see all of my messiness and chosen to live life with me anyway – that person is dear to my heart.  The appropriate response when I reflect on all my close friendships should be to readily acknowledge that she or he is a dear friend or a kindred spirit or even a person I love deeply.  Life is too fleeting to distance myself from people who mean so much to me because I’m clinging to a religious or cultural narrative that is preoccupied with sex and only allows me to see my friends as “men” or "women" rather than individuals with whom I've formed a relationship that is a vital part of my life.  


Several weeks ago, Natalie Trust wrote a blog series prompted by Dan Brennan's book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions on the subject of cross-gender friendships.  This book was already on my to-read list and after reading Natalie’s posts (herehere, and here) I moved the book to the top of my reading stack.  I appreciate Natalie for inspiring me to read it sooner rather than later and I’m thankful to Dan Brennan for writing it. For most of my life, the most prominent narratives about relationships between men and women have been ones that are narrow, contradictory, and often promoted shame and confusion.  We are often cautioned against cross-gender friendships because attraction or closeness are equated with sex, even though the same type of relationship with someone of the same gender would be encouraged.

What Dan Brennan does in his book is provide historical, social, and spiritual reasons – ranging from an exploration of pre-Freud friendships to insights we can glean from teachings on chastity in the Catholic tradition – for why we should reevaluate how we think about cross-gender friendships and embrace a new narrative; he does this while providing a depth of insight to help establish that narrative.  Reading Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions and engaging in Natalie's discussions has been extremely valuable to me as I continue to unravel much of what I was taught about gender and relationships.  
I appreciated the analysis and criticism of the romantic myth an how it affects both our romantic and non-romantic relationships.  Dan explains, 
Idealizing romantic passion as the unique, one-and-only, exclusive form of love between a man and a woman has created a pervasive romantic myth in our contemporary world when it comes to male-female paired relationships…This is the fruit of romantic idealism, not romantic realism. The notion that one idealized relationship is the be-all, end-all for passion, intimacy, emotional commitment, friendship, happiness, fidelity, and depth, has a cluster of powerful myths supporting it…
The myths to which he is referring are found both in Christian culture (which tends to idolize marriage) and also in popular culture (with the idolization of romance and sex in movies, books, television, and music). I have seen personally the devastation the romantic myth can cause to marriages and the tainted light it can cast on friendships.  

I know that words like “passion” and “intimacy” have become synonyms for sex and can make some uncomfortable in the context of friendship, but the real synonyms for those words are actually: affection, fondness, love, familiarity, belonging, warm friendship, faithfulness, and loyalty.  In fact, the definition for the word 'intimate' includes phrases like: “belonging to or characterizing one’s deepest nature" and "marked by a warm friendship developing over a long association.”  Aren't those desirable characteristics in all close friendships? I think it is beneficial to examine the religious or cultural myths that might hinder intimate cross-gender friendships. 

While the criticism of the romantic myth can apply equally to any cross-gender friendship regardless of religious belief, one of the other points I've spent a lot of time reflecting on relates directly to my faith.  Brennan notes the “one-another’s” in scripture and how we often overlook the obvious inclusion of both genders when we read them:
Consider all the “one another’s” – none of which have a sex-segregated command embedded in them.  Here are just a few: “welcome one another” (Romans 15:7), “pray for one another” (James 5:16), “be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32), “greet one another with a holy kiss” (I Corinthians 16:20), “teach and admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).  None of these contains transcultural  sex-segregated warnings to keep men and women from meeting privately or in public, or from avoiding the powerful intimacy that may grow because male and female friends seek to be obedient to these commands in their nonromantic relationship.
At least five times in the gospel of John, Jesus implores his audience to “love one another;” and other variations of this phrase can be found throughout the New Testament.  It strikes me that there are entire books centered around a very few scriptures that speak specifically to one gender or the other and that those verses dominate admonishments for the interactions of men and women.  In contrast, it seems these multiple “one another” verses are viewed in the abstract, as an almost sterile “love” for some mythical “other.” I had not previously dwelt on these “one another” verses as a call to deep friendship with other embodied people, regardless of gender, but now I can think of them in no other way.  I’m learning to embrace an understanding of cross-gender friendships that can be both encouraged and celebrated within my faith tradition. 


I know Christians are the intended audience of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, but there is a lot to learn from this conversation even if you don't view cross-gender friendships through a religious lens.  It could be invaluable to your emotional health to evaluate what narratives govern your relationships.  If shame or the romantic myth are keeping you from forming intimate connections in your life, it may be time to look at things from a new perspective.  

As a Christian, the book left me hopeful that we won’t always be trapped in a destructive narrative where we idolize romance and are taught we should avoid cross-gender friendships.  As Dan points out, “The mystery of incarnation is that God in Christ overcame the boundaries between heaven and earth, between the spirit and matter, between flesh and spirit, and between men and women.”  The example of Christ is deep friendships with both men and women, who he lived life with and embraced and loved.  I truly believe that through understanding a narrative based on Christ's example the Church can see the truth of how cross-gender friendships can be deep and intimate, as well as holy.


  1. It is difficult from the way the narratives of the Gospel are given to put together a sophisticated portrait of some of the relationships (which is my way of saying, don't let me derive too much from what I'm going to reference here), but I think that, if we look to the Lord for some sense of friendship between men and women, we see something remarkable between Him and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The Apostle John says outright that Jesus loved the three of them. The kind of love that brought Him tears at Lazarus's grave. Between these two sisters and Mary Magdalene we see the Lord as a man who was intimate (in the proper sense of the word, as you mention, thank you) with women.

    And, as you also mention, love without gender limitations is emphasized in particular by the Beloved Apostle. It is emphasized a great deal in his first epistle, and Christ is the model. "Love one another as I have loved you." It is a love that casts out fear, as John also says in his letter.

    It's a shame if the fear of sexual temptation is so overwhelming in some circles (or if one's sense of one's own proclivities is so poor) that genuine friendship between a man and a woman who are not husband and wife is frowned upon or forbidden. That's not casting out fear. It's living right in the wretched grip of it.

    I ramble. It's always a bit odd when an Internet comment goes on as though trying to compete with the original post for number of words of depth of smarty-pants ideas. ;-)

    Nice post.

    1. "...if we look to the Lord for some sense of friendship between men and women, we see something remarkable between Him and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.... Between these two sisters and Mary Magdalene we see the Lord as a man who was intimate (in the proper sense of the word, as you mention, thank you) with women."

      That is so well stated and I agree with you wholeheartedly. In his book, Dan does cover the topic of Jesus' relationships and interactions with women, noting how radical those were for his time.

      Thank you for reading and for your comment.

  2. Excellent piece! Love that you mentioned the "one another's"- I underlined that part too. :) I had never considered the fullness of those verses until reading Dan's book.

    Raising my glass to a better understanding of sacred intimacy!

    1. Thank you, Natalie! So much underlining in my copy as well.

      (Oh, and there is a section of Keating's writing on "the double-bind" that I think ties in with many of Dan's insights, but I couldn't work it in to this post. Is 'The Mystery of Christ' still on your to-read list?)