07 February 2013

Best of both

We take a look at the risks and likely benefits of platonic friendships between men and women. How acceptable is it for believers to have close friends of the opposite sex? And even if it's acceptable, how useful is it? Perhaps the benefits outweigh the difficulties, at least sometimes.

Childhood friends
This post is part of the February Synchroblog 'Cross Gender Friendships'. Links to all the contributions are listed at the end of this post.

Cross-gender relationships of any kind (except for romantic love and marriage) have long been regarded as 'dodgy' in church circles. There is, of course, the potential for inappropriate romantic feelings to develop and that's something to be aware of, but is that risk a valid reason to avoid such friendships altogether? I think not.

Platonic friendships have long been regarded as not only possible, but potentially valuable. If we avoid them out of fear or anxiety are we missing an important aspect of human social interaction?

I have a wide circle of male and female acquaintances of all ages as well as a smaller number of close friends, again both men and women. Some of my close friends live nearby and we meet more or less regularly. Some live far away and we meet very rarely.

Rather than try to analyse this topic I'm just going to share some personal experiences and observations. Read on and see what you think.

Relationship, energy and danger - I'll begin by telling you that I am a man (in case you haven't already worked that out). I generally find friendships with women go deeper than those with men. For one thing women tend to be more relational and less superficial. Let me point out right away that I'm generalising here - there are plenty of exceptions to what sounds like a general rule. It's no such thing. Don't be fooled for a moment!

I have something of a shepherd's heart and like to encourage and build up. So I get a lot of energy from conversations and relationships where I can listen and respond, but very little from talking about football or fishing. I find women are more likely to engage in ways I can relate to.

Turning to the dangers of relationships becoming more than platonic in nature, in my experience I can honestly say this has never been an issue. It seems to me that most women are quite unwilling to allow a friendship to develop unless and until they are sure it will not go in an inappropriate direction.

What I have valued most in cross-gender friendship has been the opportunity to learn and grow in understanding and mutual respect. I've had many rich conversations on a host of topics, the benefit of peaceful and thoughtful insight, shared appreciation of music and literature and the natural world, and a great deal of wisdom and sound advice.

A balanced life - I am blessed by good balance in my friends. Here's a diary of my current week; it's as good an example as any.

  • On Monday mornings I meet with Paul for coffee, a chat, and some Bible study. We are currently working through John's gospel together.
  • On Monday evenings I meet Sean at his house to chat, read the Bible, pray, and listen. We watched a DVD of Victor Choudhrie.
  • On Tuesday I meet my friend Chris for a coffee in town and we'll talk and pray about a house of prayer for St Neots and the area around. He is very keen on following up the Ffald-y-Brenin approach to local prayer and blessing.
  • Later on Tuesday I met Megan for coffee and a chat at Caffe Nero's.
  • In the evening Donna* and I joined her Open Door Small Group in a nearby village. We ate a meal together and spent time in prayer and praise and discussion.
  • On Wednesdays I usually meet with Roger, but not this week. We are working through 'Freedom in Christ' together. 
  • At lunchtime on Wednesday I visited Jody to catch up and hear news about the meetings she and Peter host at their home every week.
  • On Thursday evenings Jim, Sean and I usually meet to chat and pray.

That's a grand total of four men and two women (*Donna is my wife) that I have spent one on one time with this week. All of them are friends, all are valued, all bring something special and unique to my life. In addition there'll be others, men and women that I will meet singly or in groups, and others that I'll contact by email, text, phone or on Google+. They are all special and they all contribute something valuable and irreplaceable.

What I'd miss - I would miss any of these people if they were removed from my life. Without them I would not be me. Or at least I would be a different me, a poorer me. What would life be without the richness of community? Our communities are not islands, they overlap in significant ways. Important lines of communication go out joining communities into a single, huge, world-wide network.

I can hardly imagine what life would be like if I had only male friends. It would be greatly impoverished. My advice to anyone without cross-gender friends is to be wise and careful, but to certainly consider broadening your range of friends. A friend cannot be manufactured artificially. But as friendships develop naturally around shared interests and ideas, don't say 'No' merely on the basis of gender. Far more important is to hear what the Spirit of Christ is telling you. Pray about it and be guided by what he shows you.

Another observation that I can share is that, in friendship as in marriage, the different approaches of men and women to so many things in life are complementary and have a counterbalancing effect. We have to pay attention to one another to benefit from this; we have to listen and watch and learn. But friends are usually pretty good at doing that and do it very naturally.

Here's one final point. Amongst my closest friends have been two married couples. Perhaps this is where the greatest freedom in friendship may be found. In my experience there can be no closer togetherness than a group of four or six consisting of happily married couples. As in any kind of friendship there will sometimes be fallings out and misunderstandings, disappointments and confusions. But there's real joy in it too. If such a thing happens in your life it may turn out to be truly blessed, and very, very special.


Questions:

  • Have you limited your friendships due to a fear of disapproval by others?
  • Jesus related well with both men and women. Did he follow the social norms of his day?
  • Can you leave a comment to share your own experiences of cross-gender friendships?

See also:


Synchroblog links:

16 comments:

  1. Many years ago there was a young woman at my church who moved into a bedsit. there was a shared bathroom a shared kitchen 3 separate bedrooms and a single entrance. The other bedrooms were both occupied by men. A church member saw a man leaving through the shared front door early every morning when they went to work and told the pastor. The other problems that this young woman she had made it very difficult for the pastor to communicate with her. She could not see what she was doing wrong, after all she did not have either of these men in her bed room, so why she should be accused of anything. Things got so bad that she left the church for a while.

    It is not doing the wrong thing that is a problem it is being in a situation where it looks as though you could be. That includes being in the same car or building as someone of the opposite gender that you are not married to. It could be innocent but there again it might not be and the issue is avoiding the appearance of evil not just evil.

    I, like a few others in the church, thought that the father in law who got on well with his daughter in law was all innocent. Then both marriages broke up and they married each other so they could bring up their child together. Sin gets everywhere and we must steer clear of temptation. If they had set up appropriate boundaries and stuck to them then a lot of people would have been saved a lot of pain.

    There is no problem with friendships, whatever the gender, as long as appropriate boundaries are set up. For example, I would not expect a man from the church to come to my home without being chaperoned.

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  2. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree with you, of course, that we need to be careful and wise (and indeed I say so in the article). What that means in practice will very much depend on the people involved and the circumstances of their lives.

    The most important thing is that people should always keep their own conscience clear and respect the wishes of the other party. There should never be pressure on anyone to go further than that.

    Paul had something to say about the principles behind this, though he was talking about meat sacrificed to pagan gods in Greece. He made two points and they apply here too. I am free to do anything, nothing is wrong in and of itself. But in my freedom I must be careful not to cause my brother or sister to go beyond whatever they feel to be right. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

    Paul is clear, it's a matter of love, not of knowledge. If I love my brother or sister I will not do anything that might cause them to stumble and fall.

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  3. Great post, Chris. Thanks for sharing your experience and healthy friendships!

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  4. I was particularly touched by your comment about friendships between several married couples. I think you are on to something, because married couples are at some level ordering their lives in similar ways. At the risk of tooting my own horn, this reminds me of what I said in my Synchroblog posts about friends recognizing something in the other person we'd like for ourselves. I think it's very encouraging that you can see that part of you in the female halves of those marriages and consider them your friend as well.

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  5. Chris - I made a mistake when I created the list of links. I should have used the name "Maria Kettleson Anderson" rather than "Maria K Anderson" If you can I would appreciate you making the correction. I apologize for the inconvenience.

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  6. Hi Chris,

    Many things you said resonated, but this I wanted to comment on:

    "It seems to me that most women are quite unwilling to allow a friendship
    to develop unless and until they are sure it will not go in an
    inappropriate direction."


    This is funny, because it's exactly where I stand when it comes to potential friendships with men. I think we, as women, are so reinforced to think that "men only want sex" that of course this is an important first assurance. Also, when friendship do happen, when you are sure that's not an ulterior motive, it's such a healing thing. It's so good to be able to "rest" in a friendship like that.



    Thanks for your thoughts!

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  7. Yes, these have been so precious, so formative, so helpful in my own life.

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  8. Thanks for sharing that, Amy. It's very encouraging to hear that you stand in that place. It make me much more secure in what I feel, positive feedback is good like that.

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  9. thanks for this, chris. it's a great bunch of posts. i like what you said about your life being so enriched each week by your female friendships. that's how i feel, too. my male friends make my life so much better. it's a gift!

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  10. Hi, Chris! It's so good to hear about your heart for women and friendship. I've been very blessed by (among other men) several pastors who weren't afraid to meet with me one on one and really diffused the I'm-inherrently-dangerous-because-I'm-a-female message. As a single woman who grew up without a father, my male friends who are married have been an invaluable blessing.

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  11. Thanks for the interesting additional links.
    Your comments point to one of the aspects of cross-gender friendships I value most: they free us from the assumption of shared interest (sports for guys, decorating, cooking, children for women) and allow freedom to talk about real points of connection, whatever those are.
    And they allow us to see from other points of view - which is why I still find it so important to have friendships with both single and married, as well as younger and older men, as it's important to maintain friendships with single women and married, older and younger than myself.

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  12. You clearly have a very good balance amongst your friends. Like you, I enjoy hearing other points of view and discovering those real points of connection. Thanks for sharing that.

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  13. Good on those several pastors!


    Especially in this world of e-everything and instant communication it's good to have face to face contact with real people, isn't it. I think we all need more real face time with a range of different people, so cutting out half the potential friends always seems like a bad idea to me!

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  14. It was a long list this month, wasn't it! I still haven't had time to read and respond to everything.

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