We do not value friendship in large part because we do not understand what a “friend” is.

Consider Facebook, which is now the barometer of our relational lives. A “friend” is constituted by someone who you know. And while everyone gets that there is something deeper about actual friendships, the inability to identify that something deeper has emptied “friend” of any meaningful content.

It hasn’t always been this way. There is an apocraphyal story of C.S. Lewis floating around that illustrates the point. A professor whom he had known for several years turned to him one day and asked him if he thought it was finally appropriate for them to use their first names in addressing each other. Lewis rebuffed him, remarking that their relationship was “strictly academic.”

It’s an extreme case, yes, and quite possibly untrue. But it highlights the distinctions between types of relationships that previous generations made. Coworkers were not friends and friends were not family. While this sort of clarity may have been problematic in its own right, it at least allowed each party to be clear on where they stood in the relational universe.

Now, however, that has changed. The formality, the careful distinctions, the idea of social roles has all gone away. And in their place, confusion reigns.

This is particularly true of relationships between men and women. Men have always been friendly–or better, courteous–to women, but they have not necessarily been friends. The difference between male and female and the potential for sexual interaction (a potential which only the very young or the very old may ignore without danger) was too great to permit close interaction outside strictly romantic (or in more base form, strictly sexual) contexts.

The question, then, is whether friendship–whatever that is–is the sort of relationship that men and women can engage in responsibly.

My provisional answer, which is driven largely by my experience, is that any young people seeking to find a spouse would do better (oddly) to cultivate friendships with their same sex while viewing the opposite sex through a strictly romantic lense. Keeping the roles and relationships separate allows us to have more clarity on our own feelings and behaviors in each relationship. I have seen many a person (guy and girl!) unwittingly become emotionally tied to someone who was “just a friend,” only to be heartbroken when they pursued someone else.

Men and women seeking to marry should not deny the role that sexuality plays in their interaction with the opposite sex. To do so is ultimately to fall prey to a gnosticism–that is, a denial of the body–which ironically leads to a weakened ability to control the impulses of the body. Is there any wonder why affairs often start between people who claim to be “just friends?”

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

17 Comments

  1. […] Friendship and the whole me Tarzan you Jane thing. […]

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  2. And what of non-heterosexuals? Is it advisable, by your lights, for them to pursue non-romantic friendships with members of a different sex? The same?

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  3. I would opt for a more balanced approach. I can certainly recognize the dangers of permitting a friendship to develop into something more significant; however, that can apply to many good things. I don’t starve myself for fear of gluttony.

    If we teach ourselves to view the opposite sex “through a strictly romantic lense [sic]”, then we will find a bit of awkwardness when we are forced to create professional relationships with the opposite sex.

    To me, it is almost as if you are advocating (or even suggesting) that young people only view the opposing gender as sex objects.

    I would simply present a “Proceed with Caution” sign, but would not be afraid to say that there can be many rewarding benefits in cultivating a strictly platonic relationship with someone of the opposite sex.

    I fear you border on legalism in creating a suggestion (that feels like a rule) that has no scriptural support. Do you think that Jesus friendship was solely with Lazarus and not his two sisters? What about the harlot anointing his feet with oil? Although the latter was not meant as a gesture of friendship, I do not think it was meant as a romantic gesture either.

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  4. “To me, it is almost as if you are advocating (or even suggesting) that young people only view the opposing gender as sex objects” …says the guy who, as I’ve heard, used to make out with all his female friends in high school.

    Not that anyone’s judging you. I, for one, just want to know how you pulled it off.

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  5. Matthew Lee Anderson May 6, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    Andrew,

    I think that’s a good question. I might still advise against it, if only because erotic and emotional attachments don’t necessarily need two heterosexuals to arise.

    Nathan,

    Thanks for the reply. I haven’t seen you comment here before, so welcome!

    “If we teach ourselves to view the opposite sex “through a strictly romantic lense [sic]”, then we will find a bit of awkwardness when we are forced to create professional relationships with the opposite sex.”

    I don’t think my approach is imbalanced at all, if only because it still allows for professional relationships with people of the opposite sex. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really think of co-workers as “friends.” While we may act friendly toward each other, I don’t talk with them about intimate issues in my life. Such conversations are reserved for a much closer group of people whom I know are committed to me as I am to them. Such an approach, I think, doesn’t need to make professional relationships awkward. It hasn’t done so for me at all.

    “To me, it is almost as if you are advocating (or even suggesting) that young people only view the opposing gender as sex objects.”

    Actually, I’m suggesting nothing of the kind. Making someone a sex object means not only that you see them only as a strictly sexual being, but as a sexual being for you. Neither of those are entailed by my position, which is simply that in relating to people of the opposite sex we should not ignore the fact that they are sexual beings.

    “I fear you border on legalism in creating a suggestion (that feels like a rule) that has no scriptural support. Do you think that Jesus friendship was solely with Lazarus and not his two sisters? What about the harlot anointing his feet with oil? Although the latter was not meant as a gesture of friendship, I do not think it was meant as a romantic gesture either.”

    Notice that your argument that Jesus had a friendship with Lazarus’ two sisters borders on being an argument from silence. It’s not clear to me that Jesus IS friends with them as he is with the disciples. I do not think that the harlot anointing Jesus’ feet with oil was a romantic gesture at all–nor was it an act of friendship. All that seems to prove is that there are other types of interaction between opposite sexes then friendly and romantic exchanges.

    At the end of the day, I think there are probably some cases where men and women can, in fact, actually be friends. But such viewing such limited cases as normative hides, I think, the tension that is typical of male/female relationships.

    Thanks again for commenting!

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  6. I’m a long time reader and subscriber, but I don’t delve into the comments too often. I believe I was the one to first point “the formidable Mr. Falk” to this site.

    I will concede (in this current discussion) that we all come from different viewpoints with respect to the definition of friend. Matthew, it would not be out of the question for me to “friend” you on Facebook (now the noun becomes a verb), but it would probably be a little bit of a stretch for us to refer to each other as friends (although I welcome that in the future). Mr. Falk is a friend with whom I’ve shared many meals. Enough of a friend that I can overlook his sarcasm (BTW, it was not all my female friends…just the hottest ones ;-) .)
    Honestly, I don’t have a Jonathan in my life. My closest friend is of the female variety, and she is quite the sex object (i.e. my wife). Vulnerability is a challenge for me, which is why I don’t have a lot of friends of the Biblical type (and I digress with my confession).
    “At the end of the day…” – I appreciate your concession in admitting that men and women can actually be friends. I would also agree with the suggested tension that is typical in male/female relationships. This is the balance I’m looking for; whereas, my initial reading of your post felt a little more dogmatic to me.

    Your Friend,
    Nathan ;-)

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  7. Poo on WordPress and its emoticons. Those are just plain ugly (IMHO), and had I the opportunity to preview them, I would have chosen otherwise.

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  8. Matthew Lee Anderson May 7, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Nathan,

    “I’m a long time reader and subscriber, but I don’t delve into the comments too often. I believe I was the one to first point “the formidable Mr. Falk” to this site.”

    Ahhhhhhh, so you’re to blame! You can leave now. : )

    (Sorry, Warren. The door was wide open…….)

    That said, to the substance:

    “I will concede (in this current discussion) that we all come from different viewpoints with respect to the definition of friend. Matthew, it would not be out of the question for me to “friend” you on Facebook (now the noun becomes a verb), but it would probably be a little bit of a stretch for us to refer to each other as friends (although I welcome that in the future). Mr. Falk is a friend with whom I’ve shared many meals. Enough of a friend that I can overlook his sarcasm (BTW, it was not all my female friends…just the hottest ones ;-) .)”

    Yes, I’m quite sure we disagree on the nature of friendship. I think the expansion of the word “friend” to include every type of relationship doesn’t meant that we’ve actually gained friends–it simply means we’ve lost a word. I am interested in retaining the word and the idea behind it.

    “Honestly, I don’t have a Jonathan in my life. My closest friend is of the female variety, and she is quite the sex object (i.e. my wife). Vulnerability is a challenge for me, which is why I don’t have a lot of friends of the Biblical type (and I digress with my confession).”

    I am, in all seriousness, sorry to hear that. It’s not an easy place to be. Close friendships are, I think, essential to living a robust Christian life. Do pray for one, as I am positive the Lord is on the side of men having good friends.

    Also, you anticipated a future post: “Husbands and Wives Can’t be Friends!” Look for that in the near future…

    ““At the end of the day…” – I appreciate your concession in admitting that men and women can actually be friends. I would also agree with the suggested tension that is typical in male/female relationships. This is the balance I’m looking for; whereas, my initial reading of your post felt a little more dogmatic to me.”

    As I said, I think men and women CAN be friends. However, I think the scenarios where that occurs in a healthy manner are so few and far between that they’re really not worth considering. But I’m pretty balanced about this, I think! : )

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  9. Matt,

    Thanks for bringing up an important topic. You make good points about inherent sex-related tensions and lack of formal distinctions in modern relationships, especially between men and women. I also agree that creating a healthy male-female (non-married) friendship is difficult, and that such relationships are perhaps rare.

    But I would disagree that they are therefore not worth considering. I believe that developing a healthy friendship of any kind is difficult, and that truly healthy friendships in general are probably rare.

    To close the door on the possibility of a close, non-married male-female friendship might be to close the door on a very valuable relationship. As with any relationship but especially so with this type, boundaries must be mutually understood, highly regarded, and closely observed. Yet intimacy does not develop overnight. If there are signs that the “danger zone” is being reached, parties can pull back, long before any lines are crossed.

    Certainly a male-female friendship cannot be as close, or closely intimate, as a same-sex friendship (between heterosexuals). But it can be dear. I can confidently say that this is both possible and desirable. The key is to keep proper boundaries.

    (Consider how difficult it is to maintain intimacy in a close relationship such as a marriage, and how even same-sex close friendships ebb and flow. In other words, crossing boundaries tends to occur before a friendship truly becomes deep. It is less likely to happen in an established friendship…you just don’t “go there.”)

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  10. […] 10.  Matthew Lee Anderson asks, “can men and women be friends?“  He doesn’t think so. My provisional answer, which is driven largely by my experience, is that any young people seeking to find a spouse would do better (oddly) to cultivate friendships with their same sex while viewing the opposite sex through a strictly romantic lense.  Keeping the roles and relationships separate allows us to have more clarity on our own feelings and behaviors in each relationship.  I have seen many a person (guy and girl!) unwittingly become emotionally tied to someone who was “just a friend,” only to be heartbroken when they pursued someone else. […]

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  11. Matthew Lee Anderson May 11, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    Bonnie,

    We are in agreement that friendship is a rare thing, and to be treasured at any cost.

    I guess one of my concerns is that people who defend male/female friendships take the typically modern route of making every exception a reason to view a practice as normal.

    You seem to agree that men and women can never be “friends” in the way that members of the same sex can be friends. Most people don’t recognize that or make the subtle distinctions you might make.

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  12. Matt, thanks for your response. Not knowing exactly what you mean by “exception,” “practice,” and “normal,” I will make an assumption, and say that I view male-female friendships as something to be entered into as one would any other friendship — with great care, but especial care due to the obvious dangers.

    Are good male-female friendships more the exception than good same-sex friendships, percentage-wise? I don’t know. They’re no doubt less common. But this should give no indication of their worth. Besides, it’s hard to quantify friendships — no two are exactly alike, and bonds are formed in different ways in different relationships.

    I certainly agree that, when entering into opposite-sex friendships, people (especially younger people, perhaps) seem to fail to consider the elephant in the room, which is sexuality. Especially in this era of rampant casual sexuality.

    But I would like to see the male-female friendship reclaimed rather than abandoned in a white-flag toss to society, or to sexuality.

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  13. […] Bonnie: Can Men and Women be Friends? […]

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  14. What would it mean to look at male/female relationships through a strictly romantic lens?

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  15. Elena,

    Matt can correct me if I do not with one mind on this, but I think this means that men ought think of and interact with women (of their same age etc.) as a “neutral potential friend” but always as “someone with whom there is potential romantic involvement…”

    And if there is no real potential romantic involvement with that person, then limit interaction with them to strictly “courtesy.”

    If there is some kind of official business to conduct, of course, then do this. But limit yourself to this business, and do not aim for “friendship,” since neutral friendship can hardly, if ever, exist.

    For single people 99% of women are not real potential romantic interests, and for married people, 0% are. From which follows, in essence, that interaction with the opposite sex should be limited to public and universal courtesy.

    In the words of Thomas A Kempis, “Commend all good women to God.”

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  16. […] 10.  Matthew Lee Anderson asks, “can men and women be friends?“  He doesn’t think so. […]

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