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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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

Sex God

Rob Bell Sex God

I’ve very kindly been leant an audio copy of Sex God by Rob Bell. I’m two chapters in, and I’m hooked…

I have a copy of Sex God on my wish list, because Jude blogged to say it was brilliant, and a recommendation like that is enough for it to get me interested. But as I’ve said before, what hits the wish list and what actually gets read are two very different things, and I confess that this was a book that didn’t exactly attract me… ‘Sex God’? Too smart-alecky by half… It was destined to be one of those books that would take at least another 4 glowing recommendations before it ever made it from wish list to reading list.

But Andrea’s best friend Eve leant her the CDs, and now they’ve been passed on to me in a “you have to listen to this and do it now!” kind of fashion. So it goes on to my PDA, and the headphones finally come out on my way home from work last night…

…and by the end of chapter one I’m weeping. Weeping!

It’s hard to describe this book especially as, only two chapters in, I have no idea where Rob is going with it. Its basic premise so far is that this is so often really about that; which in this case translates to our obsession with sex and sexuality being really about our connectedness (or lack of) with the world, each other and, ultimately, God.

In chapter two, which was my walk in to work this morning, Rob talks about our sexuality being about connectedness. We are meant to have profound connections with the people around us; with the earth itself; with God. Our sexuality is our sense of disconnection, our profound dis-ease at not being connected; at being alone. Sexy, Rob says, is being comfortable in your own skin; being fully OK with who you are.

And because our sexuality is a longing to connect, it is fulfilled not necessarily out of physical union but through genuine connection with others. Rob talks about how some of the ‘sexiest’ people he knows are actually celibate. They choose not to share that physical intimacy with anyone, but instead live in a deliberate desire to form profound emotional and spiritual connections with those around them. [This reminded me of Shane Claiborne in Irresistible Revolution, another celibate individual, talking about how he often writes his job title as ‘lover’]

***

I’ve recently been going through a period of self-assessment, and a growing self-awareness. One of the things I’ve been realising is that I’m not ‘sexy’ (in the Rob Bell definition of the word); I’m not that comfortable in my own skin. I seem to spend a lot of my life, mostly unconsciously, living in a place of profound dissatisfaction with who I am. My job, my church, my marriage, my friendships, my relationship with God, my character, my nature; in all these areas I have caught myself thinking, wishing, hoping that somehow things would be different. That I would, essentially, change to be someone other that me.

I guess I’m beginning to understand now just how screwed up that is.

[I’m stuck now as to how to finish this section, so I’m going to leave it hanging… This might be one that needs a whole separate post.]

***

So what left me crying at the end of chapter 1?  Rob had been talking about the brokenness of the world; the hurt, the pain; but also about what makes us human. At the end of the chapter he used two examples to talk about how the things of God can reach in and change the mess of the world; and it was those two examples that floored me.

Rob talked about a hero of his: a woman who, along with her husband decided that they wanted to adopt a child; someone to share their love with. As they looked into the issue of adoption this couple found out that there were children in the adoption system in their city who were completely unwanted. Children that, because of disabilities, or behavioural problems or whatever were never found a home. So this couple went to the adoption agency and said “we want to adopt a child who no one else wants; give us the most rejected, most disabled, most ‘issued’ child you have”.

And they adopted, and loved, not one of these children, but over 20 of them. They chose to see not what made these children different, awkward, ‘unlovable’, but what made them the same. Children, abandoned, in need of love and care and connectedness, just the same as us, as our birth children.

The other example Rob used was of prisoners in a concentration camp, dying from malnutrition and mistreatment, being given lipstick, and suddenly feeing human again…

Rob called these examples of Heaven invading Earth. They are explosions of light in a dark place; hope being given to the hopeless. And they are wonderful.

I’m spending a lot of my time wondering what ‘real’ Christianity looks like: what is the faith that Jesus instituted? How does that look in the 21st century? It seems to me that so often I can describe what real faith isn’t, but so rarely describe what it is….

But you know it when you see it. I still can’t find a frame of words, a picture or a parable that I can use to say “this is what my faith, my life, should look like”. But every now and then you see something, hear something, that you know is Godly. It just has those thumbprints all over it… and that one lady and her husband, adopting children who were unwanted, some of whom would be dependent on them for the rest of their lives… it looks like that.

You know it when you see it.
I want to see it more.

Peace