Can men and women really sustain meaningful, but unromantic, friendships?

This is a complex cultural question that has evolved quite a bit over the years. I used to answer this question with an abrupt, “no.” My experience told me that each time I attempted this, something went awry. But as we know, experience can be a contradictory teacher. When I intellectually consider this question, it brings to mind a number of quasi-cultural questions of morality such as, “Can people drink alcohol without getting drunk?” For an alcoholic, the answer may be no. For others the answer may be yes. I believe that some people are able to handle such relationships, keeping in mind that we are all capable of stumbling in any way.

It used to be that women were not as educated as men and that they did not hold similar occupations. There used to be very little reason for men and women to interact because their positions were not shared or equal. Things are quite different now. Women are now more likely to hold college degrees and have just as much access to knowledge and expertise as men. They are able to hold more and more positions of authority. Therefore, friendships between men and women become not only more and more acceptable, but more and more necessary. They become necessary for team building, for healthy communication, and for personal emotional stability.

As usual, the church as a whole can be reluctant to change longstanding cultural traditions that say we should not develop opposite sex friendships. People who develop healthy platonic friendships can be accused of having wrong motives or engaging in questionable activity.

I think that much of our fears stem from the way we are taught by our culture to engage in relationship with members of the opposite sex. From the time kids are young, they are conditioned to become preoccupied with finding a mate. Subtle and not so subtle media messages reinforce the idea that the main reason to hang with someone of the opposite sex is to find out whether or not we are “in love.” We have not been taught how to treat our brothers and sisters, which make up the majority of our real, everyday relationships. Yes, we know we are supposed to love them, but just how? Are we supposed to love them in an ethereal general sense, like I love all the people of the world? Love has to work in a real, everyday sense, or it’s just a concept. It has to play out in the real world with real people we know. This is why, for many of us, we fight an uphill battle of the pre-programming of our culture to consider something like this.

Our culture can make such a big deal of our sexual urges that people build their entire lives around them. Just because they find themselves attracted to someone sexually, even for a moment, so many people treat that feeling like the holy grail. They immediately think, “I guess I must be in love.” Or a person has such a feeling for someone of the same sex and suddenly conclude, “I must be homosexual.” We get all freaked out about our own physiology. It’s as ludicrous as thinking, “Man, my head hurts and I have no idea why. I guess I may as well put a bullet in it because it probably won’t go away.” Sexual urges do go away if they are not entertained. Their existence is no license to screw up your life.

On the flip side, we get married on that feeling of attraction and then later in life we say, “I just don’t love you anymore.” That statement is a complete oxymoron. If you really love someone unconditionally, you don’t simply stop loving them. Such statements prove the error in the way we think about romantic relationships. You can choose to love. You can choose to think of someone in romantic way or to think of someone in a friendly way. The emotions come as a result of such choices. Emotions that come as a result of choice are just as real as those that seem to be stumbled upon. It is just that when you love by choice, the choice makes sense. The choice is tempered by wisdom, therefore it stands the test of time. The choice can be made at any point in a relationship and it can transform a relationship.

From the start of any relationship, we can teach ourselves to think more of the needs of the other above our own. That is a great place to start. You cannot engage in lust if you are truly loving another person. As I explained in my blog on passion vs. lust, lust by definition is a selfish activity that begins in the mind. I am treating my spouse in a loving way if I direct my romantic feelings toward him. I am treating a friend in a loving way if I refrain from doing so. Both actions preserve the quality of each type of relationship.

There is no need to fear opposite sex friendships, which can be quite rewarding. However, if you’re going to engage in such relationships, you must make some choices. You and your friend must have a clear mutual understanding of the nature of your relationship. It cannot work if the waters are muddy in this regard. Safeguards and guidelines may be necessary. Each person and relationship will be different.

I am not saying that male/female friendships are always a necessity. Generations and cultures have got along fine without them. But I do know that that male/female friendships do exist in heaven as they do on earth. We may as well attempt to learn to love well while we’re doing time on earth. Maybe the question we will ask in heaven is not, “Can we be friends?” but, “Why couldn’t we?” Anything we do from a heart of unconditional love, regardless of gender, is something that will count forever.

  1. beleighve says:

    Just want to add a little comment for anyone reading this. Please understand, am a hopeless idealist, seeking for the ideal in every relationship. So, while I believe that we should be able to have a friendship with someone of the opposite sex, I must admit that most people in our society will have a very hard time doing this successfully. They may have to deal with confusing and conflicting feelings on this issue. Having a friend of the opposite sex also requires a very trusting and open relationship with your spouse. If you cannot share every detail of your relationship with your spouse, you are on dangerous ground. If that trust level isn’t there, you should not attempt this. Just thought I’d add those thoughts for you to chew on. Happy relationship building!

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