The Messy Business of Intimate Friendship


Because I’m a bit of a novice speech-giver, I have been working on my presentation for the Sacred Friendship Gathering for a little while now. I’ve been pulling together my thoughts about the topic of love without boundaries, culling my blog for tweetable quotes, and combing through the Scripture for examples of various friendships.

That last one has been a bit eye-opening.

Not because I haven’t read these passages before. Stories about friendship always resonate with me. My two favorite books are Charlotte’s Web and A Prayer for Owen Meany, both of which deal with close friendships. So stories in Scripture about friendship have always held a special place in my heart simply because I love those kinds of tales.

But in reading them again, I discovered something about these stories that I hadn’t really noticed before.

The language of friendship in the Scripture is profoundly intimate.

In 1 Samuel, we read of the friendship between David and Jonathan. We read phrases like, “Jonathan loved David as his own soul,” and “their souls were knit together.”

In Ruth 1, we hear the beginnings of the story between Ruth and Naomi. While these women had been put into a relationship due to marriage, that bond no longer held any sway over them. And yet, Ruth says to Naomi that she will stay with her. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

These are powerful, intimate words. So much so that we often hear them in marriage ceremonies.

But we are often uncomfortable hearing them in the context of non-romantic friendship. I find this particularly true of those who are Christians. Intimacy in friendship is something that we encourage in one breath, and then warn against in the next. And often those warnings are much louder than the encouragements.

A little while ago I asked why people thought that might be on Twitter and Facebook and I got back basically two kinds of responses.

The first was that we have so sexualized the idea of intimacy that we are almost paralyzed when we apply it to friendship. The purity culture has taught us to guard our hearts to such a degree that many often look at any kind of intimacy as potential for sexual immorality. We know that two becoming one means S-E-X and we end up forgetting that the Scripture also teaches us that we are to be one with each other.

This was the primary thought that I had with regard to this topic. Because my two closest platonic friends are a man and a lesbian, I am keenly aware of the sexualization of intimate friendship. I know that there is always the risk of the side-eye when I talk about how close we are. So this response seemed fairly obvious to me.

But the other response that I received from several of you was that we fear intimacy because we fear authenticity and the potential for rejection.

I hadn’t considered this, but there is so much truth to it.

There is a lot of pressure as a Christian to have your act together. No lingering sadness. No moral failings. No doubts. Nothing ugly.

Except that we’re humans. Which means that we deal with shit that is ugly and sad. We fail people. We question. Things aren’t always as Jesus-y as we want them to be. As Jesus-y as they’re supposed to be.

But that’s okay if other people don’t know. At arm’s length, people look okay. We know no one is perfect, but just how deep that imperfection goes is perhaps a bit less obvious. We can ask for prayer for a hurt. Once. We can reveal a struggle. Once. More than that and maybe we’re not really Christians. More than that and people might not want that humanity to dull the Jesus shine.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at friendship and intimacy. But recent events have shown me that I still have some growing to do. There have been some situations in my life that have been hurting me a lot lately. In the “sit in my living room and ugly cry” kind of way. And despite believing that intimacy is essential in relationships, I have been hesitant to share the depths of these hurts with my husband or my close friends.

I still want to seem in control. I don’t want to be seen as too clingy or needy. I don’t want to be labeled a Drama Queen. I don’t want to expose my mess.

I want closeness, but I want it my way; one that reflects a better me than I am.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is John 15:13. It says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I’ve always thought of that passage not strictly as a literal laying down of one’s life, but also of laying down your particular desires or needs for another person. I still think that’s part of it.

But maybe it’s also about laying down that need to be seen as having it all together. Laying down pride so people see the really grimey, disgusting parts.  Taking the risk of being the Drama Queen because sometimes life is hard and we need someone else to help us carry those burdens. Sometimes our heart aches and we need someone to help ease that pain.

Laying down my life puts me in a vulnerable position. It’s exposed. It’s naked. It’s intimate.

I want to love those close to me in a way that is greater. And in order to do that more, I need to allow them greater access to all of me. I need to embrace intimacy. And I need to do that even when it’s messy.

No, especially when it’s messy.


Photo Credit: By Loveteamin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Joy in this Journey

    I can’t really write anything other than that you just laid something out there that resonated so deeply with me. This is so similar to the way I resisted accepting help when our daughter was really sick. I didn’t want to be the one who needed help. I wanted to be the one GIVING it. It sucks to be the needy one who can’t handle life. But I had no choice, because I really couldn’t do it without help. We are proud when we can offer help to another, and we feel shame when we need to accept it. But true love doesn’t feel either of those – it just loves.

    Love you, friend. Mess and all.

    • Alise Wright

      Exactly. I love to help. I hate needing help. But I deny people the opportunity to do the same for me that I want to be able to do for them. But I know (especially after today) that it’s not an option. I have to accept help.

      And I love you back. Thanks.

  • Makeda

    “I still want to be seem in control. I don’t want to be seen as clingy or needy. I don’t want to be labeled a Drama Queen. I don’t want to expose my mess”

    YES, YES and YES!! You might as well have snatched those words right out of my heart and posted them on here. Recently God has brought a new friend into my life. He is male and we are both single but I know that he is not meant to be someone I date. Instead I am convinced God has brought him into my life to help redeem the idea of intimacy for me, especially intimacy with the opposite sex. Intimacy equals sex in my head and I believe God is using this new friend to help change that for me. The thing is as our friendship has grown I find myself pulling back from sharing and being intimate. Not because I’m afraid of things turning sexual because I know it won’t, instead I’m afraid of seeming needy or clingy and dear lord I HATE feeling needy. God is breaking this in me though and I am grateful.

    Thank you for this wonderfully written post. And for providing such a beautiful witness in your own story that intimacy without sex is both possible and healthy. Love you friend!

    • Alise Wright

      It’s funny – that is me exactly. I’m not stressed about sex stuff AT ALL with my friends, but lots more about being needy. Because yucko. Who wants that? Except that it’s not like anyone who loves me is annoyed by this. Bah.

  • Heather Goodell

    Thank you for you post, I love it! I can totally relate to everything you were saying!

  • Jessica

    This post is so much awesome, Alise. I love it when you write on this topic. It makes so much sense when you type it out loud!

    • Alise Wright

      I had a couple days of “intense friendship” over the weekend. And it made me go, “Oh, here is where my life is not lining up with what I write about. I should probably address that.”

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    What beautiful descriptions of friendship! Why do some read that and think seeeeeex? Why don’t they think brother / sister / family? Family is not just blood kin, but those bound to us by love, those we would sacrifice for, those who leave holes in our hearts when they die, those we trust and feel safe with, even with all our faults and quirks.

    • Alise Wright

      I think sometimes family comes with its own baggage. I think because family implies no choice in the matter? I don’t know. But I do agree that it’s strange, particularly in Christian circles where we talk about “the family of God” that we’re so concerned about sex!

  • skippingstones

    So much of this resonates with me. I cut into myself much more deeply here in blogland than in “real life”, but I still don’t expose as much of my inner workings as I could. I always fear giving someone a negative impression of myself that I’ll never again be able to rise above. I want – and need – to share my personal hurdles, and doing so enables others to provide me with support and guideance for how to overcome them. But it’s tough to make myself open up and feel vulnerable.

  • Miles O’Neal

    One of the things I have discovered over the past few years is that if you simply love people, some of them will love you back. And if you love them back and they love you back, friendships are born. Intimate friendships. The much dreaded “soul ties” that were so fashionable to fear a few years ago (and perhaps still are?) The kind of love we see between Jonathan and David, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and the disciples, Jesus and various Marys…

    I definitely get the feeling that if Jesus came back today, he’d be up against the religious leaders even more because of his intimate friendships than we read about two millenia ago.

    I realized something odd after I’d been youth pastoring a while. Most of my friends were youth or had come up through the youth group. This was not at all intentional. I eventually realized that part of this was because so few of the adults I was around could deal with intimacy. Could deal with being real. The youth were all about real.

    For a while, most of my intimate adult friendships were over the internet. This may seem oxymoronic, but I managed to meet many of them face to face, and the friendships deepened. Today I have a wider range of those I can be intimate with. Part of that is simply because God has put a lot of like-minded people here in Austin. Part of it’s because I just love people, and some of them love me back.

    But I still have a high percentage of teens and young adults as friends, just because the ones I’d already become close to keep introducing me to their friends. I guess a lot of them have found it just as hard to find adults they can trust as I have. I hope and pray and do all I can to see them stay open and real. I have a LOT of hope for this generation.

    And I’m ever so grateful for you and teh community here.

  • Jim Fisher

    I really wonder whether the sexualization of relationships is limited to our American culture. Traveling in France and biking around Italy, I found that cross-gender intimate asexual friendships are not only common, they are respected, honored, and sought-after. The Italians refer to these intimate friends as “amici stretti” — tight friends.

    The tightest friends my wife and I have are single moms. Many are covenant friends, as in me-Jonathan, you-David. All are loved without regard to gender or marital status. We hang together. We eat together. We dance together. And sometimes these quality times together include my introverted wife and sometimes not. Sometimes it is just extrovert-me and my “kid sisters” — “amo le mie sorelline”.

    There is no longer male nor female … we get that, Alise. Thank God! Sacred friendships <– YES!! to that!

    More will come to realize that agape-love must not be conflated with eros-love, but we are fighting both our cultural norms and religious norms on many fronts.

    I have waaaay more thoughts on this than a mere blog comment can contain … as you can probably surmise. More here:

  • Melanie Redington Somnitz

    I have been meaning to get over to this all week. I had almost this same discussion with a friend recently. I am so very thankful for the intimate friendships that I have. One of the biggest difficulties as an adult making friends, is that we don’t have the same opportunities to become intimate that we might have had when we were younger (even in our early 20s). It feels like these friendships take longer to cultivate and do not become as deep. Well, as deep as the ones with early broken hearts and disappointments. My new adult friends always seem more guarded. Strangely, running with a few women has really deepened those friendships. Having great success (or failure) Hours to divulge our secrets makes them closer, more intense.

    Thanks for this post…sharing.

  • kathyescobar

    a prayer for owen meany is one of my favorite books! thank you for this honest post and i really look forward to hearing you share next month and just getting to hang out a little. vulnerability is so freaking hard! xoxoox

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