This past weekend I attended the Sacred Friendship Gathering. There was so much goodness squeezed into 24 hours that it was—and is—difficult to take it all in and comprehend all of what happened. First of all, I want to express how impressed I was with the group of people who assembled there (close to fifty in number I’m guessing). For the most part, those present were intelligent, mature, forward thinking individuals who love God and desire to truly love others without boundaries1. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting many people there and having a number of substantial conversations as well as many lighter ones.
The main theme of the gathering was that of friendship between men and women. Most of the speakers are married and therefore shared about having a close friend of the opposite sex while married. Ironically, while this is the situation which causes the most controversy, friendships between members of the opposite sex who are both single seem to be more often complicated and messy. The reason is that when one individual is married, mature friends understand that a “romantic” and/or sexual relationship is out of the question. However, when both are single, there is the legitimate possibility of entering a dating relationship. Since people are drawn into romantic attraction for many of the same reasons they develop a friendship, it is common for one if not both people to become interested in a romantic relationship with their friend. Often times, the other person doesn’t feel the same, which certainly leads to challenges in the friendship, if it continues at all. I expect I’ll blog more about this in the near future. In any case, the differences between a friendship in which one or both of the parties is married and one in which both are single are great enough that I think practical approaches to these need to be addressed separately.
I do want to say, sometimes the appropriateness of friendship isn’t communicated well online or otherwise from a distance. Online, Dan Brennan (the organizer) has been promoting the importance of cross-gender friendship, and in so doing has shared a lot about his own cross-gender friendships. Because of this, he has spent less time talking about his own marriage, which I think may have unfortunately clouded the true overall picture. It was great to meet all of these people (Dan, his wife, and a couple of his close female friends) and hear them speak in person. Having them all in the same room together, it was clear what a great relationship Dan has with his wife Sheila. The friendship Dan has with two other women did not seem odd or inappropriate at all.
It certainly worth pointing out that no one is suggesting taking away from marriage. All of the speakers were very much in support of marriage. Everyone wanted to act honorably and with integrity. A strong marriage is a good sign of the potential for having a healthy cross-gender friendship. For example, the first time Jennifer called Dan, his wife Sheila answered the phone. Sheila immediately knew who Jennifer was, which told Jennifer that Dan wasn’t being secretive. This increased her trust and confidence in Dan. In another example, one married woman was working closely with a married man. She would go over to his house to work. His wife would make them coffee and then go to do other things. This is a good sign of both the health of the marriage and of the friendship.
A couple of speakers talked about how community and accountability are the context for safety. One good sign of maturity and a healthy friendship is that a person involved is self-aware and open to self-examination. As Dan Brennan said, “Beauty is always for the good.” The people who have healthy relationships are the ones which desire and seek the good of everyone, both spouse and friends. To such end, they are willing to examine their actions in order to determine if they are behaving in a manner which is best for everyone (note, this is different than simply trying to please everyone). In contrast, it is a bad sign if someone is not open to dialog, if they seem to be hiding something, and if they don’t seem open to examining their actions.2
To my understanding, people are mainly against cross-gender friendships because of the fear of an affair (or a fear of things looking like an affair). We don’t think about this, but affairs hurt friendship as well as marriage. Many potentially wonderful friendships have been broken or never happened because of the fear of adultery. But if there wasn’t adultery, this fear wouldn’t likely exist. Can we find a solution that both encourages marriages and friendships, rather than one which encourages marriage at the expense of friendship?
The problem is, people have too often placed the blame for an affair on the circumstances. But as Jim Henderson pointed out, the problem is really inside a person, not the circumstances. Dallas Willard understands that, “Though there no doubt are times when, man or woman, we can only run from temptation, or simply avoid the possibility, that must be regarded as a temporary expedient. It cannot serve as a permanent solution. It cannot change who we are. One cannot live by it.” (The Divine Conspiracy, p. 167) If you don’t trust yourself in a certain situation and/or with a certain person, or if you don’t trust a certain other person, by all means, don’t put yourself in that situation. Act wisely. However we can’t solve the problems within us simply by manipulating the external circumstances. We must work on inner transformation.
One person posed the highly practical question of, “Are cross-gender friendships a necessity for everyone or only a nice alternative for a few?” I certainly agree with the response from the speakers, which was that Jesus told us to love, and he didn’t put gender restrictions on that. We are called to love everyone, including members of the opposite sex. I would like to add a caveat however, along the lines of the above. Some people are less mature and hardly know how to act selflessly at all. For these people, they may need to begin by learning to love their spouse, their children, their family, and other members of the same sex before developing a friendship with someone of the opposite sex. If they haven’t begun to experience inner transformation, especially in the area of lust, they may not be ready to have a healthy cross-gender friendship. Yet there is a big difference between saying this and saying that no one is ever ready or able to have a friend of the opposite sex, and that therefore we must keep men and women separated.
The most common theme from the stories shared was that of the speaker having a friend of the opposite sex besides their spouse. These friendships were completely appropriate, yet they have been attacked even to the point of breaking up friendships and leaving churches. As I described in Dan’s case, these relationships were completely appropriate. Yet others not involved could not accept them under any circumstances. Essentially, some people—many well meaning—have decided that men and women can’t be friends (unless married), period.
1 The boundaries I refer to here are those human made divisions of race, class, gender, etc. I am not suggesting we jettison the healthy type of boundaries which keep others from controlling us. When we are being controlled or manipulated we are not free to love.
2 I feel the need to differentiate between a couple of different types of criticism. We should be open to a friend or someone in our community whom we are familiar with asking us about our lives, including our friendships. To not be open to this type of dialog is a problem sign. In contrast, there are those who may condemn our position but not be open to dialog themselves. We can’t be open to them since they are not open themselves. To conform to their wishes would merely be an attempt to please everyone. So being defensive of and closed to this type of criticism isn’t a bad sign.