Yesterday I wrote about a recent Scientific American article that made the claim that men and women couldn’t be “just friends.” The study that it was based on did indicate some differences between how men and women view their cross-gender friends, but the results weren’t nearly as dire as the article painted them.
Regardless, the study does make the point that there is often attraction between opposite gender friends. Even if it’s faint, it exists, and this is usually cited as the primary reason to avoid cross-sex friendships.
I believe we need to re-evaluate this idea.
I am not keen on immediately dismissing friendships due to attraction, because in my experience, attraction is a part of every close relationship. If we open ourselves up that much to another person, there will be a level of attraction, regardless of the person’s gender. We don’t generally evaluate that attraction between people of the same gender, partly because we simply assume that people are straight, which is a whole other problem. But often we don’t look at those attractions because we expect that same-gender friends are able to address them in non-sexual ways.
For some reason, however, we assume that if different genitals are involved, the only way that attraction can be expressed is sexually. Because honestly, that’s the only way that we’ve been taught to deal with attraction between men and women. The attraction may be the same for two men, two women, or a man and a woman, but through social conditioning, we don’t have the tools that we should have to work through those feelings in a non-sexual manner.
We have learned to recognize attraction, but not to appreciate beauty. We have been taught about sex, but not intimacy.
Sadly, rather than working through some of the difficult, messy parts of close relationships, we simply recommend against them. We focus on the potential for danger and ignore the potential merit that can spring from these friendships. We choose fear over love.
We don’t call it fear. We call it good sense. We call it boundaries. We call it guarding our hearts.
But at its root, it’s fear.
If we choose to eliminate friendships where there is attraction, we will ultimately deprive ourselves of any close, intimate friends. Intimacy will always include an element of attraction, and that’s okay. Our lives are meant to intertwine with those around us. As I mentioned yesterday, Jesus prayed that we would be one. We understand that spouses are to be one, but as soon as we apply that to relationships outside of marriage, we balk. We begin to look upon those friendships as suspect. Even very close same-sex friendships are sometimes given the side-eye because we have so conflated attraction and sex.
So how do we change this mindset?
Because we see “one flesh” in the Bible when referring to husbands and wives, we have cordoned off oneness into strictly a sexual relationship. But most happily married couples are one in ways outside of the bedroom, and generally it is that friendship apart from sex that allows them to weather the storms of life.
One way we can change the idea that attraction must result in sex is to begin to look for non-sexual ways to strengthen that oneness in our friendships. One of the benefits cited in the study about cross-gender friendships was looking for shared interests. Developing those areas can place that attraction in a healthier light. What does this person bring out in you that can enhance your relationship with them and the other relationships in your life? Discovering that can help you appreciate the reason why you were drawn to that person in the first place and allow you to develop a connection that is pure in its intentions. It can also strengthen other relationships, because no one person can ever meet all of our emotional needs, and the more whole we are, the better we can relate to everyone.
Another change we can make is that when there is attraction, we acknowledge it and rather than shutting it down, we look for ways to apply it in a healthy manner to the friendship. When I love someone, the last thing that I want to do is to hurt them, and viewing them as something simply for my use does not honor them as a person made in the likeness of God nor as my friend. When I choose to go further than attraction and allow myself to love the person, I want the best for them and for the relationship. So rather than pulling away from the other person, perhaps we should instead press in past attraction and choose love.
True intimacy can be a frightening thing. Because we have been taught that attraction and intimacy are synonymous with sex, I believe we have done friendship in general and cross-gender friendship specifically, a huge disservice. We have chosen to frame friendship in terms of “When Harry Met Sally” rather than in terms of biblical oneness. But I believe this can change.
I’ve seen it change in my own life and in the lives of others who have chosen to embrace friendship rather than to hold it at arm’s length. By finding ways to strengthen oneness and by embracing a deeper love for our friends, we can begin to fulfill the desire that Jesus had for each of us in our relationships with one another.