“Men and women can be friends, as long as they maintain proper borders and boundaries, separating the casual from the intense, and the romantic from the friendly.
Dionne Gravesande examines the age-old enigma of male/female friendships, and whether as Christians, it’s possible that both genders really can just be friends
It is not unusual to hear that most women have other women as their best friends. However, many women also have male best friends, too. Today’s generation does not have a problem with cross-gender friendships – in fact, they are becoming the norm, but culturally this has not always been the case.
In my parents’ generation, cross-gender friendships were not encouraged outside the family structure, and certainly not encouraged within church. Such friendships were viewed as suspicious and deviant, so were not encouraged. Girls and boys are intentionally separated, the assumption being that unchecked friendships are the breeding ground for unhealthy relationships. And, in some cases, the experience of young women and men in churches describes scenarios where friendships are encouraged to the point of matchmaking, and other friendships are actively prevented in discreet ways. That said, over the last decade things have changed.
I was surprised to learn among adults, aged between 25 – 34 in the UK, that more than one in ten said their best friend was a member of the opposite sex, which is probably true of young people attending church. The benefits, they say, are multifold: men get to share their inner thoughts with female friends that they aren’t able to share elsewhere, while women get undemanding friendship and often a playful sense of humour.
However, platonic friendships between the sexes need certain rules, particularly if each person is single. Men and women can be friends, as long as they maintain proper borders and boundaries, separating the casual from the intense, and the romantic from the friendly. I think there are some people who can form friendships with the opposite sex, and have it remain a friendship and nothing more. They are aware of their own personal boundaries, and have the ability to enforce these boundaries at will. More importantly, they are also able to distinguish the difference between friendship and a romantic relationship, which may be the key to their success.
Hence, strong friendships between a man and woman are sometimes difficult to understand and accept, though relationships between two women or two men are more readily accepted by our churches. It is also true that intimate friendships between men and women can produce confusion and frustration. Close friendships, by their very nature, tend to involve extensive time talking and hanging out one-on-one. They tend to involve a deep knowledge of the other person’s hopes, desires and personality, and the sharing of many aspects of each other’s daily lives and routines. In other words, male/female friendships encompass much of the type of intimacy and companionship involved in and meant for deeper relationships, including marriage.
But I still believe it is possible to be “JUST” friends with people of the opposite gender, but it depends on your maturity and mindset.
A recent research study conducted in a New York church asked the question, Can men and women just be friends? One interesting reply stated:
“To be friends, a man and a woman would need to share genuine love and care for each other without any feelings of attraction. Love and care happen to be two of the three most important components of a relationship (the third being attraction). It’s so easy to fall for a friend when you already have most of the feelings towards that person that you would have for a boyfriend or girlfriend. All that’s missing is attraction. Attraction, however, is much more important for men than it is for women. For women, attraction is something that builds over time and attraction alone is not enough for a woman”. (Ani Ram)
The reason platonic friendships are so taboo is because our popular culture assumes all sorts of stereotypes about men and women, and about sex and friendships. Among these are that men only want to talk about things like sport or work, and aren’t interested in ‘trivial female subjects’. In many cases this simply is not true; my male friends worry about the same things as my female ones do: about meeting the right person; their uncertainty about having children; their unrealised dreams, and the rather large gap between expectations and reality. They often love having the chance to talk about these things with female friends.
To help give a Christian framework for friendships, it’s worth remembering Timothy 5, which describes a relationship among Christian men and women who are not married to one another – as that of brothers and sisters. The Lord has mercifully called us not to live the Christian life alone, but as part of a community of believers. As churches, we need to debate and work out our interpretation of this fact.
While the younger generation appears to have come to an understanding and acceptance of cross-gender friendships, our churches have not; they remain very comfortable with the traditional roles of men and women, and have yet to make a significant journey into the gender debate.
Dionne Gravesande is Head of Church and Young Peoples Relationship at Christian Aid