Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can men and women actually be friends? Part One - Prodigal ...

It?s always been easy for me to be friends with girls. I have four sisters and one brother, so feminine energy flowed well in my house. My family used to joke that I could walk into a room of girls and have a best friend within five minutes. I had a boy friend until I was about 6 or 7, which is how I learned about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but after that, my other-gender friendship timeline is a blank for many years.

It has never been easy for me to be friends with boys.

I was a dreamer in middle school, preferring reading books to talking to boys and only had a few crushes. Middle school crushes, of course, involve staying far away from the object of your affection so you don?t barf on them out of nervousness.

By the time I was in high school, I had absorbed the idea that because of my body, I was dangerous, so I just avoided boys or did my best to put myself at odds with them. I wielded my intelligence and wit like weapons. I thought the walls of antagonism and sarcasm would protect my heart from being hurt and protect boys from being attracted to me and everyone would be better for it. I thought men, even good men, couldn?t help but want ?one thing? in any interaction with women and concluded that it was best to stay as far away as possible from single and married men.

I was wrong.

In my gap year before college, I traveled with a team of men and women passionate about faith and leadership. We had strict rules promoting conservative clothing choices and prohibiting any sort of romance, but I got my first experience of male-female partnership and the beauty of mutually supportive friendships. Even steeped in rules, I got a taste of healthy cross-gender relationships, and I am forever grateful.

Now, years and many single and married male friends later, I?m amazed that we?re still insisting that men and women cannot be friends. We?ve perpetuated the narrative that that sexual interest drives all relationships between women and men on some level. We?ve set up infinite lists of rules to navigate that story: no one-on-one interactions between singles of the opposite gender, no ambiguity allowed in cross-gender relationships, incredibly limited interactions with the opposite gender for married people, and acres of literature on how to figure out who ?likes? who and how to get them to advance or retreat on cue.

I believe the ideology and rules that limit male-female friendships actually limit our personal and spiritual growth. There?s a different story available and it?s essential that we start telling and living it.

Here are two reasons why we should challenge the dismissal of cross-gender friendships:

First, when we deny the possibility of friendship between women and men, we?re living from a place of fear, not love.

I understand fear. I absolutely do. We?ve all experienced hurt and confusion in our relationships, possibly in mixed-gender relationships in particular. But I don?t think that absolute prohibition or heavy rules help us here. Insistence that close female-male friendships are impossible actually contributes to the chasm between men and women, which builds distrust between the sexes. Fear sets against each other, competing for a false sense of control over the relationship. It prevents us from truly being vulnerable, a vital part of healthy humanity.

Adherence to strict outside guidelines is often a sign of immaturity, as they don?t require that we build any healthy internal boundaries or individual decision making skills. Strict rules set up barriers. Rules lack the grace required for the complexity and nuances of human interaction.

When we speak rules for male-female friendships that don?t apply in same-gender friendships, we?re not building mature, loving selves, free to listen to the Holy Spirit. The same characteristics that build healthy same-gender friendships also apply for opposite-gender friendships: honesty, kindness, communication, support, etc. When I?ve been hurt or contributed to hurt in an opposite-gender friendship, it?s because healthy relationship skills were lacking or a miscommunication happened, not because of gender. If Harry and Sally hadn?t gotten together at the end of the movie, we still would have a great story celebrating the complexities and strange beauty of human relationships.

Secondly, when we fail to encourage friendship between men and women, we?re missing out on the full experience of humanity.

I?ve learned some pretty revolutionary things by becoming friends with men. The most important thing is this: men are human, too. Absolutely shocking, I know! I learned that men aren?t purely interested in talking to me because of their sex drives and that we?re more than capable of getting along without my heart being constantly broken.

If this has always been obvious to you, I?m jealous. In my experience, I?ve always heard more about gender differences than our human similarities. We?ve categorized gender by modern social characteristics and offered a hierarchy of holiness by how well we meet those superficial standards. We undercut those who don?t live up to the gender stereotypes we?ve created for them. Friendship offers us a different picture, one that celebrates individual personality and gifting. Friendship between men and women breaks down social constraints in positive ways by promoting teamwork and mutuality. It allows us to see each other as human males and human females, with our humanity as primary.

No matter what their gender, people have stories and experiences and traits different from ours. When we listen and live with each other well, we grow in ways impossible when we alienate half of humanity. When we invest in relationships with both men and women, we grow and reflect a more diverse and complete story.

I?ll continue to develop these ideas in part II, so I hope you?ll keep reading. But until then, of course, tell me your story!

Speak Up! What were you told about the possibility of male-female friendships when you were growing up? How about at church? Have you had friends of the opposite gender?

[photo: ashley.santiago, Creative Commons]


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