To watch a video version of this post for Biola University’s Torrey Honors Conference, see “Harry and Sally are Wrong: Why Christian Cross-Sex Friendships Need to Happen

“In so many ways our culture trains us to be unfit for friendship.”
Paul Wadell as quoted by Dan Brennan, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions

After we got married, my husband invited his long-time friends, B and his wife, A, to visit. Their kids came along.  We took them Jeeping and ATVing.  At one point B and I took the kids for a short trip down a side road.

I was excited to show their daughter how fun an ATV was and felt proud of my off-roading skills. So when our quad slipped and the back wheel got lodged downhill under a log, I felt nervous and embarrassed. I waved B down for help. He circled around back and muscled the ATV out of the spot.  Even though we were out of danger I still felt nervous.

Being alone with B made me nervous.  I felt tense being alone with a man who I admired, appreciated, whose company I enjoyed.

If I’m honest, I really was not anxious we’d do anything elicit. I didn’t want to start making-out in the woods. But I felt nervous because I had this unexamined belief that since I was a woman I was untrustworthy alone with a man.

And though I have little evidence that I am unsafe around men (I have no marital infidelities in my record, I work professionally with spiritual direction for men of all ages in one-on-one settings, I’m open about my struggle and victory against lust, I have found Jesus strong enough to keep veering me toward love, truth, confession and change) I was still nervous.

Being alone with B in the woods made me think, again, that regardless of Jesus’ power, I’m not to be trusted with a guy, that I’ll sabotage the goodness of a marriage, that something about him would make me lose control.

Nothing of the sort happened, and I’m proud to say I’ve since investigated this strange anxiety.  There’s a reason for it.

And it’s not simply a matter of lust and sin.

Romantic Ghetto

“Maleness aches for femaleness, femaleness for the male.”
Ronald Rolheiser as quoted by Dan Brennan

My uncle used to double-blink his eyes telegraphing affection for me. I would blink my eyes back in a sign that I received and returned his love.  My grandpa used to tell me he loved me every time I greeted and parted from him.  My brother and I used to tickle and jump on each other when we were kids. These male relatives taught me ways to appreciate maleness in a way that was not tinged with romance. But if I had studied Sigmund Freud better I would have known that such affection cannot exist.

Freud has narrowed men and women’s interaction into two options: romantic or elicit. We either get married or have affairs. All physical touch is sexual touch. All female ache for male and vice versa is simply and only repressed sexual desire. Men and women cannot be friends, or so Freud taught us. When Harry Met Sally repeats the lesson.

Thank you, Freud.

If we take Freud seriously we have to be suspicious of girls holding hands, the gentle way a mother washes her newborn, the way a father cuddles with his two year old, any touch between man and woman as repressed sexual desire.

Intercourse becomes the ultimate purpose of the male and female bodies. You can imagine what this does for the modesty issue. Freud genitalizes brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. No relationship between the sexes is safe from Freud’s swath.

Freud effectually erased the hundreds of years and thousands of examples of men and women who found they could be close without romance clouding their relationship. (Take a look at Bishop of Geneva Francis de Sales (1567-1622) and the widow Jane de Chantal’s (1572-1641) 18 year friendship and their spiritual correspondence. These two were even buried together).

An example from modern times may help. I have a brother, a sibling named Jacob. That I can, contra Freud, enjoy close, creative, mutual, affectionate friendship with him doesn’t impress many people.

But brother/sister closeness is supposed to be the model for how to interact with those of the opposite sex (1 Tim 5:2, Mark 3:35). But that I could enjoy a close, creative, mutual, affectionate friendship with B, or any other non-blood relative.

Danger Zone . . . right?

I’ve found an advocate, an apologist, for the third way of male female relationships. Dan Brennan a blogger, speaker and visionary on cross-gender friendships writes in his book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions (2010), that male and female friendships are not fated to inexhorably slip into a romantic ghetto.  If you like books that stand on the shoulders of a well-read author, you’ll love Brennan’s ability to pull from hundreds of books on cross-gender friendship. He is careful in thinking, passionate and (the best!) practices his ideas. Brennan is close with women besides his wife.  He has me convinced of something I touched on in Ruby Slippers: that men and women are made for each other–beyond marriage.  Men and women were designed to have physical, emotional, spiritual closeness without romantic entanglement. This ought to be very good news for unmarried people, but it also points back to the purpose of following Jesus: to love each person, male and female, as nearly and dearly as we can love our brothers and sisters.  The kingdom of God is a place where there is no barrier between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one.  This means we can recognize the beauty and attractiveness, power and sensuality, significance and vulnerability of each person?  Can I do that with a guy? Guys, can you do that with girls?  I think we can.

I could talk for a long time about the topics Brennan introduces (a teaser at the end), but I will instead offer a few tips to pursue opposite sex friendship. These worked in ages past, they worked for Brennan and they work for me in my friendship with B.

How do I find opposite sex friends and cultivate them in integrity, love and delight without fearing I’m giving the wrong impression?

  1. Start by looking for friends who are strong people in strong relationships (marriage and friendships). These will be individuals who be versed in the practice of delight.  I’m often drawn to talk with men who understand joy (physical, emotional, spiritual) in life, they’re vulnerable enough to talk about things they love.  If this man is married I want to see if they’re good at delighting in their spouse? If they’re single do they know how to delight in their same-sex friends? How does this delight look it? It means you find beauty, laughter, play, joy in someone else.  A good husband will know how to delight in his wife without preying upon her as his possession.  Delight in another person means we know how to find and we can easily smile over the beautiful things in them: body and soul.  As we grow closer, I grow less and less afraid to compliment B.  I find I can observe what is beautiful in him because I’ve already cultivated that practice in my relationship with my husband.  My husband is beautiful in his humor, his hands, his eyes, his long listening, his curiosity (etc) and while we share more romantic intimacy (e.g. a sexual language which I share with no one else), I’ve also learned other men are beautiful. B is beautiful and I’ve found I can be happy to express things like, “I’m going to take a picture of you with your kids, this light would be perfect to watercolor you,” when he has his shirt off. To not be afraid to let him know that I notice and appreciate him, “You are very embodied in how you love your daughters, it’s cool how affectionate you are with them.” I recognize B is not a stumbling block, but a friend, a chance to see more about God and God’s love.
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  3. Natural Friendships - we are each naturally drawn to certain people over others. When I tell people that my girlfriend and I both drove 4 hours in one day to spend two hours together, I get positive feedback.  No one ever says, “Why isn’t Dale coming with you?” or more pointedly,”Why do you have a need to spend time alone with her?”  But when I choose to spend time with a guy friend, the questions begin, as if my choice indicates some unhealthy desire to be alone with the opposite sex–alone without my husband.  How can I respond to this suspicion? I begin by asking myself, “Does this man help me know more about myself, God, the world and my husband? Does time with him grow me?” If yes, I move forward. Think about men God has placed in your life. Do you love the way this guy sees things like you do? Do you like how he listens and asks question? Is this someone you’ll naturally land on subjects that make you smile with enthusiasm? Sirach says a friend is a gift from God, a sturdy shelter, a treasure (Sirach 6:14-17).
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  5. Be aware that friendship with opposite sex friends is like same-sex friendship, it involves intensity, affection, devotion and lots of misunderstandings (Ruth 1:16).  I will do our best to be honest and kind, but I will fail.  Forgiveness, grace and delight will cover a lot of sins. As B pointed out to me, it’s awkward learning how to be friends when your parents never modeled opposite sex friendships. It just wasn’t done, the romantic or elicit narratives were too strong.  So you feel anxious and awkward, like trying to swim without any models or teachers. You get water up your nose.  Calling B to ask his feedback on this post was awkward, but knowing that I love and care about him and our friendship and trusting that he is a gift from God, makes me bold to keep trying.
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  7. What can I talk about? Close and vulnerable conversations are life-giving, not illicit. However, take time to ask yourself why you are sharing? is it for the sake of loving well? or is it because you want to form a bond over and against your marriage? If the latter then we have left out principle one above, we are not strong, we are not building strength into all our friendships, we are instead pitting this friendship against all others.  It is because we delight in our spouse (or other friends) that we we have built a platform for better loving other men (or women).
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  9. What do we do about the initial awkwardness of touch?  I used to be afraid that electricity would fly between B and I if we touched. When you only have the romantic narrative to inform male/female interaction, it’s easy to mistake the makings of a friendship for a romance.  However, siblings touch without misunderstanding. I can ruffle my brother’s hair and hug him without being accused of inappropriateness. Originally, my love and devotion to A and my husband kept me away from befriending B. I avoided him and most one-on-one interaction. But this was to sacrifice knowing B. But as we grew closer as couples I found avoiding friendship and, more specifically, touching B felt more awkward than touching him.  I enjoyed our conversations and similar perspective.  What to do? It helped me to realize that Jesus modeled touch between men and women in a way that was neither promiscuous or romantic. Jesus touched women with healing, with joy, with dignity, with love and even affection.  I know my view needed to change.  Some of my favorite times visiting B and A were when B and I cooked together in his kitchen, making food for our families.  I felt at home with him.  I used to say, “I’m sorry,” if I brushed his elbow with my arm on my way to cut mushrooms. But as time when on I’ve learned. First, touching B was not wrong. This made a lot more sense as I realized how affectionate I am with my girlfriends, too. I give good hugs, I rub their shoulders when I catch them doing dishes. I hold their arms and rub their hands when I sense they’re about to cry.  I am an affectionate person.  Second, our bodies are part of the way we love those we call our friends.  Touching as I would my sibling is part of what makes a friendship grow. So I don’t avoid touching B anymore. I’m learning that a kind hand on his shoulder, a playful push, all these say, “I value you in my life, you’re fun, I trust you.” They do not grow lust or illicit sexual desire in me. In fact, they allow me to respect and admire the different ways God made men and women. For to touch B reminds me that we are different, he will always be male and I female. He is other and I love that in him.
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  11. Modesty – one question I keep close to me is, “Would I do this if my blood sibling were here, in this room?” Or if you’re married, “Would I say this if my spouse were in this room?” Vacationing together or staying in the same house, everyone sharing the sounds of our son waking up at 2 and 4 am, staying up late all build closeness (can I say ‘intimacy’?) between my husband and I and B and his wife, A.  So I will be more comfortable in my pajama pants and tank top, so will A.  My husband will wear his undershirt, B will sometimes not wear his shirt. This isn’t a crude or immodest way to dress, but rather the way close friends relax in an embodied, human way. It was also Jesus’ way with those closest to him. Remember how he took off his shirt to wash their feet (John 13:3-5). Recall how Mary undid her hair for the same reason (John 12:1-8).  Sensuality, physical beauty and even touch were not highways to sexual liaison, for Jesus, they were part of being fully human.  “Jesus opened the door not only to female discipleship but to the possibility of men and women interacting without reference to sex…To Jesus, women were more than sources of impurity, temptresses, wombs, servants, hostesses, or whores.” Carrie Miles as quoted by Dan Brennan
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Recently I asked a married couple about their closest friends of the opposite sex besides their spouse. The fifty year old husband said, “You,” to me. I was surprised and grateful. His admission gave me more freedom to pursue friendship with him, knowing he valued me and chose me.  I felt wanted and valuable.

This coming home to being wanted is what it means to be a friend with a man or woman. This is the gender peace that Jesus can bring.

Be the first one to pursue a friendship with someone of the opposite sex. Show them that they are seen and valued. Break the ice and discover how men and women together show the world more about God’s image.

Want to talk more about this? There are quite a few topics I couldn’t cover here but would love to dialog about in the comments (page numbers to read up in Brennan’s book follow).

  1. How do you cultivate the well-being of another person?
  2. What are some examples or characteristics of a cross-sex friendship from church history? (p 33-47)
  3. Why should friendship be the model for all marriages and not vice versa? (p 43)
  4. How can cross-sex friendships be a solution to instead of a cause of divorce?
  5. What does Jesus’ culture teaches us about another model of the tie between brothers and sisters? (p. 55-57)
  6. The difference between sexual desire and desire for sex (p. 76)
  7. How can sexuality mean more not less than we thought (e.g.what is sexual shalom and reverential intimacy)? (p 80-82)
  8. Why the sacred union of marriage will always be different than the sacred union of cross-sex friendship (p 85-90).
  9. How cross-sex friendships prove that Jesus was not sexually repressed (107-118).
  10. How Jesus could be bold and vulnerable with women, embracing his own and their sexuality (119-128).
  11. What is embodied chastity, what is a positive view of chastity? (129-136).
  12. How the male focus of avoiding temptation creates a false view of female sexuality.
  13. How impersonal boundaries are just as sexually chaotic as lust (139).
  14. How the bikini line is a good test for appropriate physical contact.
  15. How delight and play factor into all good friendships (153-167).

Any questions? Ask away. Perhaps Dan will even jump in to help us tease this out.