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.


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.

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

Mary and Martha

[UPDATE: I’ve just found a wonderful, far more in-depth and scholarly version of my exposition here

The tirelessly enthusiastic Carla Harding posted yesterday on Mary and Martha. It’s a good post, and it paints a great picture of her life at the moment; the busyness and the struggle to hold onto a spiritual life when things get manic. I made the mistake of posting a smart-alecky comment at the end of her post, and I want to publicly apologise.

Carla, your post captures the difficulty of balance in a busy life really well. It reflects the earnestness of your heart to search after God first and foremost. I want to encourage you in that above everything else, and I’m sorry I said what I did in your comment stream.

I’m going to go on and try to offer an explanation, but this is not intended to diminish the apology. I don’t get to rain on peoples parades, regardless of my personal bugbears. Sorry Carla!


The story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10 is one of the most popular stories in the bible. It is the source of many a homily, and if you grow up in the church like I have, you have heard something like the following countless times:

Jesus is visiting the house of Martha and her sister Mary. Martha busies herself with preparations for the meal, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him. When Martha complains that she could do with a little help, Jesus tells her that Mary is doing the better thing: it is better to spend time with Jesus than to be busy with too much work.

OK, that is a ridiculous paraphrase, I’m sorry.

And its not that there isn’t value in this message. It’s what Carla describes so well; our busy lives do get in the way of our relationship with God. Faith can so easily get squeezed out due to the pressures of our clock-driven society. We can look at this passage and be reminded of that need for balance. That is an important lesson to learn.

What winds me up though, is that this interpretation of the passage is heard much more often than the main point I believe Luke was trying to convey. It is a valuable homily, but nowhere near as radical or as challenging as the contextual message.

Jesus is visiting the house of two women. There is no mention of husbands here; these are two unmarried women, and he is quite happy to sit in their house, have dinner with them and teach his disciples there. This is something unheard of in righteous Jewish practice of the time.
What’s more, while Martha is clearly doing a woman’s role in the women’s part of the house, Mary is in with the men! And she’s sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him!

That phrase, ‘sat at [Jesus’] feet’ is key. Luke uses it again, as part of a preach of Paul’s in Acts 22. It means to learn from, to be a disciple of, a rabbi. Paul ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’, a leading Pharisee of the time. It is probably Gamaliel that taught Paul to be a Pharisee himself.

Luke deliberately links the two phrases, he deliberately uses Martha’s indignation to emphasise the countercultural context of the situation. Rabbis didn’t go into the houses of single women. They certainly didn’t teach women. Yet here is Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning to be a disciple with the men. And when Martha complains that Mary should be in the women’s part of the house with her, helping prepare the meal as a good subservient woman should, Jesus says that Mary has “chosen what is better”. Jesus is not passive in Mary’s learning here; he actively affirms it.

One of the main augments used against women in Christian ministry is that Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything on it. Yes he did; he says it here.

Like Carla, I find the classic homily taken from this passage helpful at times. But I do wish we heard the real, radical contextual meaning of the passage more often than we do. Still, that’s no reason for me to down the words of others.
Apologies again Carla.