It’s Complicated

One of my most common topics of conversation seems to be the question of whether men and women can be friends. It occurs regularly, with people I am close to and people I’ve just met, in all sorts of contexts. And it is often much on my mind: you see, I have a lot of female friends.

It’s the “When Harry Met Sally” Problem. No, not the issue of faking orgasms in public spaces (which is much less common than you might think – at least in this country). It is Harry’s contention, on which the films plot hangs, that men and women can’t be friends with each other. I’ll let him explain why.

In many ways this is a logical argument. Basically, sex gets in the way. Our sexual desires are undoubtedly among our strongest drives, so it’s not really that surprising that sexual tension could hamper, or even impair, cross-gender friendship. But it’s a concept that I’ve always fought strongly against. I want to explore the whole area a little, if you’ll humour me.

Attraction

I have no problem acknowledging that we are sexual beings, and that are sexual drives come into play in most, if not all of our relationships. But I do take issue with Harry’s assertion that this means genuine friendship between men and women is impossible. I think there are two big reasons for this: on the one hand, removing the possibility of cross-gender friendship effectively removes the potential of intimacy with a whole half of the human race, which is ridiculous. On the other, I think Harry’s painting of the issue is far, far too simplistic.

I believe our sexuality and our sexual attractions and attractiveness play a part in all our relationships. As do our emotional mores, our psychological proclivities and predilections, our moods, our social and ethnic standing and background… Basically all the many conscious and subconscious factors that make up our humanness. Each and every one of these, and more, come in to play in all of our interactions, to one degree or another.

Think about your current friendships. How did you meet your best friend? What drew you to them? Imagine a context where you recently made new friends; perhaps you went to university or college, or started a new job, or moved to a new church or social club. Faced with many new people who you could possibly get to know, what drew you to the people you are now friends with?

There is always an attraction. It might be an emotional one, it might be a physical one, it might be a psychological one; but there is always some form of attraction on which a relationship is formed. And that is any relationship, male-male, male-female etc; platonic or otherwise.

If that’s true though, it complicates Harry’s thesis somewhat. Sure, sexual attraction may well be at play within a male-female friendship like the burgeoning one between Harry and Sally, but it may also be a factor with Harry’s guy friends (although I’m sure he wouldn’t want to admit it). If you are going to cut out any possibility of attraction – except with those you want to sleep with – then, if you are honest with yourself, you are going to be a very lonely person.

He’s just not that into you

This whole issues has been a big one for me, because a large proportion of my good friends are female. Not exclusively, but probably more than 60%. For some reason I find women easier to get to know and form genuine friendships with than I do guys. Maybe it’s because they tend to be less threatening (a distinct lack of bravado), or maybe because they tend to be more emotionally open. I don’t know why; but I have more good female friends than I do male.

So, Harry’s thesis has actually been a bit of a source of guilt for me. I think I know myself well enough to know where there is sexual, or emotional, attraction on my part, but I can’t speak for the other party. But if Harry is true, then all the women friends I don’t fancy must fancy me. So am I causing them issues? Is the very fact of my friendship being unhelpful to my friends?

It’s not you, it’s me

Complicating this somewhat is a dichotomy within my own personality. I am very definitely an introvert, and as such I tend to split the world into two very distinct categories: people and friends.

“People” is most of the world – those I know and those I don’t. Through no fault of their own (mostly) I find them very hard work, and resist engaging with them. I hold people at arms length for as long as possible, and resist engaging with them. I appear reserved towards them; perhaps even cold, grumpy and indifferent (at l’Abri I apparently have a reputation as being “scary”, probably for this reason).

“Friends” are altogether different. Friends are people who get inside the wall, who I make efforts to get to know and be known by. They are people I really, genuinely (sometimes passionately) care about. I am very interested in my friends, and want to spend plenty of quality, one-on-one time with them. And I do, when I can.

I would imagine that the transition from “people” to “friend” would be very confusing. A transition from cold to warm, from distant to intimate. Yes, I can see that that might be confusing. Especially if you are female.

[As an aside I was, a while ago, planning to write a post/essay on this very subject entitled “To all the women I know: an apology”]

There can only be one

So attraction and intimacy. Both issues. Of course, life is even more complicated than that…

For myself, and almost everyone I know, the (romantic) relationship ideal is (at worst) one of serial monogamy. Preferably life-long serial monogamy. In other words, marriage. The thing with marriage, though, is that it automatically transforms the relationship landscape. However many wonderful people there are out there; beautiful, intelligent, passionate women, or caring, mature and handsome men; you can only be a life-long serial monogamist with one of them.

It is undoubtedly true that you will meet, in your lifetime, a whole bunch of people that you are very, very attracted to. People that you may fall hopelessly in love with. People who you want to be life-long friends with. But you can only (ideally) marry one of them.

[As a good friend said to me once: “No one ever plans to get divorced” – everybody intends, at the start, for their marriage to be lifelong.]

I have known, as friends and sometimes as girlfriends, many wonderful women. Some I have been very powerfully emotionally attracted to; others physically; others both. But I have only ever wanted to spend the rest of my life with one. There was no fault in the others, no sense that a relationship between us couldn’t have worked, it just wouldn’t have been the same, as good. [Although, in my case, they would probably all have been better]

All of us, I think, chose at some point not to be with someone, not because we don’t fancy them, not because we don’t love them. But because we don’t want to spend our future days looking over our shoulder, wondering “what if…”

We save ourselves, for the one.

It’s biblical

I don’t really know what I think about Christianity, and I don’t want to go all  “church-y” on people (read through the archives if you want that), but I do, still, find some of the Christian narrative helpful for making sense of the world. It’s better than any alternative that I have found, yet.

Right at the beginning of the bible is laid out a vision for the nature of creation, and the nature of humanity within that. And that account says that together, as male and female, humanity is created in God’s image.

To me, that has always meant this: that it is only when men and women are together that we are fully human, fully what we were intended to be. Yes, men and women are very different beings: for example, men tend to be (primarily) visually attracted to someone; women tend to be (primarily) emotionally attracted to someone. Yes, at times we can fail, utterly, to understand each other. But the reality is that it is only together that we are all that we can be, informing and complementing each other.

I really do believe that cross-gender, heterosexual friendships are not only possible, but genuine, deep and rewarding. I think they are what we are made for. Yes, such friendships can be very complicated – they can be messy, even painful. But so can any form of intimacy. If you shy away from all possible risk, you end up a very lonely person.

It’s complicated

Is Harry right? In part, probably. In full, no.

I think all relationships are messy, risky and potentially painful. But I also think they can be hugely rewarding

I think it is possible to be friends with someone you fancy, even someone you love (although I would suggest, in that case, an honest conversation and some healthy boundaries). I think it is possible to be emotionally attracted, even in love, with someone and not physically attracted to them. I think it is possible to find attractive someone of the same sex, and still be heterosexual. I think monogamy can work. And I still, perhaps naively, believe that a true platonic friendship is possible.

Congratulations on reading all the way through (if you haven’t just skipped to the end). I hope it was worth it.

The conclusions are this: all human relationships are messy. All friendships are affected and inflected by our needs, desires and peccadilloes. But despite that, they are all, so, so often, worthwhile.

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Consequences

I was watching the film Closer this morning, and it reminded me of this piece. This was also written in the Autumn term at l’Abri, but was never read out, as the subject matter is a little more intense than the usual High Tea fare. It developed out of another piece, around conversations with another writer about the process of recovering from a broken relationship. Again, it is written in a female voice, and was intended to be read aloud. 

Just to warn you, that it i not the easiest read…

Consequences

Damn it! I just can’t make sense of it, y’know?! I mean, what the hell happened!

God, this is crazy.  I have got to pull myself together; I can’t live like this… It’s been six weeks now. Six weeks! Six weeks of howling and hollerin’ and gnashing of teeth. And tears. Oh, so many tears.

I keep going over it in my head. Replaying those last few days, that last fateful conversation. Where did we go so wrong? I can’t believe I said those things, such hurtful, hateful things. I can’t believe he’s gone.

The bastard! He walked out on me! Four long years of life together and he just gets up and goes!? I can’t believe he would do that? I can’t believe it’s the end…

[*sigh*]

Sometimes I replay those last words, those last shouted and screamed hours together, and I wonder how he could not go. I think I would go, if it was reversed. I think I would have gone, had he not gone first… How can you remain after things like that have been said?

But… four long years! And they were good years, weren’t they? Well, I mean, mostly…  We had our fights, but then doesn’t everyone? We weren’t forever in the throws of sexual ecstasy, but is that even possible? They were mostly good; largely good…

[pause]

I have some good memories, looking back. We spent some great times in each other’s company, did some fun and crazy things, and it seems to me that some days colours were brighter and more vivid from being perceived alongside him. I wonder though if that can be true? Weren’t Mondays still Mondays, even back then? The sun still yellow, the sky still blue. But my mind says those days are treasured, and these not, and the absence keenly remembered.

I can remember fights and frolicking, passion and persuasion, jealousy and joy. I look back through clear and hazy rememberings and search for some clue, some explanation. Some indication of where the hell things went wrong. How did hell come out of heaven?

 I wanna find a key, a lever, a magic button that if turned, pulled or pressed will return the chaos back into its box. What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong? Did I do wrong? Or was wrong just done unto me?

 There are things he said, things he did… *Aaugh*! My blood boils! But there are things I did, things I said… things of which I am deeply ashamed. I desperately wish I could undo some of those things, unsay some of those words. Does that make this my fault? Does that make this hurt self-inflicted?

 [pause]

 I sit here, and I cry. Or I scream. Or I drink wine until I can’t feel any more. I just can’t get over it; I just can’t.

 He. Left. Me. He left me. That’s not my fault! He was the one doing the leaving! How can that be my fault?! How is it that I sit here day and night and scream inside ‘what have I done?!’

 I didn’t walk out, I didn’t slam the door, I didn’t leave and not come back. So why do I feel guilty? Why do I berate myself all the goddamn time? Why do I search endlessly for things I could do, or say, or undo to persuade him to return? Why do I want him back so much, when it was him that hurt me?

 And if it was my fault, if it was all my fault, then why am I so angry with him? Why does it hurt so?

 It can’t be. It can’t be just him. It can’t be just me. But here we are, in this big, smelly shit of a place, and we tried so damn hard! It seems so wrong

[pause]

How do you deal with the consequences of your actions? How do you even know for sure what those consequences are?

I can deal with the fact that third cup of coffee is going to stop me sleeping. I don’t like the reality of the tossing and turning, but I can appreciate my mistake and take some ownership of it. But this? The messy end of a relationship, where you can’t even be sure you know where the mess starts and the relationship ends. Which consequences, of which actions?

It’s such a big goddamn awful mess, and I just don’t know how to make sense of it all. I know I done him wrong, and I know he wronged me, but does that justify the pain, or the end? I can’t find that lever, no matter how hard I try…

 [pause]

 The past plays through my mind like a film in a theatre. I watch my actions like I’m seeing some other girl up there; see his from a distance. I’m looking, searching for the turning point, the tipping point, from which hurts easily forgiven become long remembered, from where its all downhill.

 I just can’t see it. I see things he did that make me scream; things I did that make me cringe. I see things that make me laugh and smile. But every which way I play it, I can’t see or make sense of when the change comes – when we stopped being lovers, but were enemies in the same bed. It must be there, mustn’t it?

 Where did we go wrong?

Singles Church

Last night, a friend was telling me about their theory that Megachurches develop and thrive because they provide a forum for social mixing. Essentially my friend was saying that churches become large because they provide opportunities for boys to meet girls (and vice versa).

Ok, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, but somewhat compelling (in a twisted fashion).

man woman

As the topic has run round my head, I thought that this was a good opportunity to try and tackle a (related) thorny issue I’ve been putting off blogging for a while: that of Christians and marriage. OK, on reflection, that should be Christians and singleness. Continue reading