Differing Attitudes Toward Friendships With the Opposite Sex

By | October 13, 2010

I recently read a blog post by Dan Brennan which I thought was very good. (Unfortunately, at the time of this writing I have not yet had a chance to read his book, “Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions” though it is high on my list.) I wanted to take the time to unpack my explanation of the subject, because, while the article is good, I think it could be hard for people to understand due to being unfamiliar with the debate and due to certain words commonly being misused.

The topic at hand is intimacy between people of the opposite sex. First of all, intimacy has often been used to refer to only physical intimacy, or sexual intercourse (though these aren’t even the same). However intimacy is much more than that, and doesn’t even necessarily include that at all. Intimacy is relational closeness. Dan does a good job of describing it: “What I mean by intimacy is a chosen vulnerability, a capacity that is open to being affected by the other as well as to affect the other. A fully engaged intimacy is not merely expressing our ideas, dreams, and emotions, but an authentic openness to enter into an ongoing communion with the other.” He goes on to say, “Are you willing to have your beauty drawn out by another? Are you willing to see the beauty in another? To be open to another’s beauty is life-transforming.”

There are differing views on appropriateness of and context for intimacy between people of the opposite sex. I’ll start by reviewing the conservative end of the spectrum, in part because I’ve heard more about it in the past. Conservative christianity seems to be focused on morality more often than not. One of the big moral issues is that of sex, which conservatives believe is only allowed between a married man and woman. Our culture is certainly very sexualized, so there is a certain sense of urgency among conservative christians to fight against illicit sex. Fueled in part by 1 Corinthians 7, the thinking goes like this: people have a high degree of sexual desire, and the only proper context for sex is marriage; we’re afraid that single people won’t be able to remain chaste, so we should encourage people to marry as soon as possible.

While I can see where they are coming from, and the argument sounds good, something doesn’t seem quite right about it either. At the extreme, people are told they need to marry early in life, men are often blamed for the problem and are chastised for not “settling down”, and people are even told they are living in sin if not married by 30 (or some other age). However, getting married seems to be more complicated than all this. In every case I’m aware of, getting married involves two people. So even if you decide you agree with the conservative viewpoint, and believe you should get married to the next person you meet, you’d have to find someone whom agreed with your way of thinking—that is likely no small task. In short, marriage and relationships in our culture are complicated, and subsequently getting married typically isn’t as easy as wanting to.

Anyhow, the fear of singles having sex has lead to the sexes often being segregated in conservative groups, where it is culturally inappropriate for people of the opposite sex to do much but talk in groups. (Physical contact may be out, as well as any one-on-one dialog.) So from the conservative viewpoint, marriage becomes the only context not only for physical intimacy, but for any intimacy between sexes at all.

On the other side, Dan argues that intimacy between the sexes is not only possible outside of marriage, but even desirable, and that distance placed between the sexes in some groups is actually hurtful more than helpful. Christians have the belief that love and relationship are a core part of God, as God exists in three persons—the trinity. Our being made in the image of God has to do with us being made for relationship. Intimacy is deep relationship, and having intimacy is life-giving because it is a part of our core nature. Intimacy is possible between both people of the same sex and people of the opposite sex. We are all familiar with the desire to be loved and to love shared among pretty much all people (whether they recognize it as such or not). Dan is basically saying that we shouldn’t limit this life-giving intimacy between people of the opposite sex only to marriage.

To give an example, I noticed a long time ago that when I had significant interaction with quality women, I felt much better about myself and less anxiety about getting into a “relationship” than times when I didn’t have this kind of interaction. Simply spending time talking to girls and exchanging hugs in strictly platonic friendships are examples of the interaction to which I’m referring (correspondingly, quality time and physical contact are my top “love languages”).

Dan affirms this type of friendship and more as a positive. Some conservatives also recognize it, however to their way of thinking, it is bad because it may lessen the drive toward marriage. To Dan and others, looking at it this way makes marriage an “idol”, or in other words, elevates it too high, as the solution to all problems. Also, viewing marriage this way essentially adds “insult to injury” to singles, many of whom are already frustrated about not being in a marriage as they desire to be. It exacerbates the problem by saying that they aren’t in as good of a position as those who are married, can’t be happy, and could even be sinning. Also, by separating the sexes outside of marriage, Dan argues that it may actually be making it more likely that they’ll fall into sexual sin rather than less likely. That is because, by depriving people of needed intimacy, it increases the desire to a point where people are more likely to break all the rules in order to get some taste of it. If, on the other hand, people have friendships with the opposite sex, there is less pressure to “jump into bed” with someone just to get some sense of connection (though of course sexual desire doesn’t go away).

I previously hadn’t been too aware of any other viewpoints beyond the conservative one. While I didn’t hold to that fully, I didn’t really have a clear idea exactly what to think. However I’m currently more over on Dan’s side. Now cross-gender friendships are certain fraught with potential problems and challenges. First, there is the popular notion that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” (“When Harry Met Sally“) If both single, there is certainly the possibility that one person could “fall in love” with the other, but not have the sentiment be mutual. That’s certainly not fun (I’ve been on both sides of that, unfortunately). How do you handle this? Developing a friendship can be complicated too; especially in our culture, you’re expressed interest may be taken as “hitting on” the other person. And there is also the problem of determining and keeping within appropriate boundaries, especially if one of the people is in a “romantic” relationship with someone else. For example, some if not many view becoming emotionally intimate with someone else of the opposite sex as cheating on your partner.

A few years ago I happened to run across a website/article about polyamory. It said something to the effect of, “polyamorous people ask, ‘Why can’t I love more than one person?'” While I don’t support polyamory, I think this is a reasonable question. While I may be doing a disservice by associating these two things, I think cross-gender friendships give a satisfactory answer to this question. It affirms that we are made to love, and that we can love more than one person. The difference is that we don’t have to engage in sex with a person in order to love them, and so this view upholds chastity as well as love. One of the big keys in cross-gender friendship when one is in a relationship, is openness. Doing things is secret is likely asking for trouble. Conversely, a reality check is built in when a friendship is out in the open, and it also invites other friends to keep you in line, if that is even necessary. (This is not to say that everything in a friendship needs to be publicly displayed, but that the general nature of the friendship shouldn’t be hidden, especially from a significant other.)

I think that wraps up this lengthy introduction to this subject. If you are interested in reading more, I recommend Dan’s blog, beginning with these posts (1, 2, 3), which will begin to give you an idea of some of the deeper aspects of this subject.

(Update: I expanded my thoughts on this subject here.)

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  • Dan Brennan

    Doug, I LOVED this post–and you interpret spot on!

  • Dan Cassidy

    I liked this and hope to share this