Boys and Girls

“A woman can become a man’s friend only in the following stages – first an acquantaince, next a mistress, and only then a friend.”
– Anton Chekov
The question of whether or not men and women can really be “just friends” is one that comes up over and over. Clearly, this is a situation where intelligent, thoughtful people can disagree. (I constantly disagree with myself about it.) (Ya know, in a non-schizophrenic fashion.) It even came up in church last night, when Pastor Steve was encouraging the men in the congregation to involve themselves more in women’s lives. In third service, we get to ask questions at the end of the sermon, so my hand shot up: “How can men do that without misleading women about why they’re there?”
Steve, to his constant credit, conceded that he didn’t know. He even asked the congregation for their ideas. The room was silent. This is one area where we are all short on wisdom.

I have some of my own ideas, and I will lay them out for you. Let me acknowledge right now that I may have some flawed assumptions. If you notice one, or otherwise take issue with anything here, please share your disagreement. Maybe we can get at something that approaches the truth.
I think there are a couple of reasons that people come to believe that men and women cannot be friends:
1) Much of the time, a man only pursues “friendship” with a woman because he already has romantic feelings for her, which skews our perception of the whole situation. (I suppose women might do this, too.) If you watch that popular YouTube video on this question, this seems to be what every single guy interviewed is trying to do.
2) I think our egos sometimes make things much harder on ourselves. What I mean is, if we perceive that somebody is not attracted to us, we may come to want them to be. And wanting someone to like us is so closely tied to liking them ourselves that we can completely confuse the two.
3) When we think about this, we tend to reflect on the times when we had a relationship get complicated or completely fall apart due to romantic feelings. But we ignore all the healthy, positive platonic relationships we have otherwise. This is confirmation bias at its finest, my friends.
So, what can we do to avoid this trap? What are some ways we can invest in the opposite sex – and hopefully build them up – while limiting the risk for miscommunication and unnecessary heartache? Well, I have another list for you.
1) Make sure you are pursuing a friendship for the right reasons. If you have a desire to be hospitable, if you share common interests, awesome. But if in reality you only want a cross-gender “friendship” as a stop-gap between relationships, you’re using another human being selfishly. If you’re in it to have your ego swollen and to feel attractive, you are playing with fire. Take a serious look at your motives and make sure you want a friend for friendship’s sake.
2) Set up clear boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with doing “couples” sort of activities, but doing so can be a big step towards creating confusion. Spending most of your time together in groups can diminish that. But if it looks to an outside observer that you two are dating, it might look that way from the inside as well.
3) Speak directly and honestly – but do so gently and without presumption. If you get the sense that you or your friend might be developing feelings, it could be worthwhile to make clear where you want things to go. Be sensitive and respectful, and don’t hold it against them if they feel differently than you do.
4) Be aware that your feelings could change, and so could theirs.
I know there’s a lot more that could be said on this topic. I do think Chekov is wrong in his appraisal. But I think it really comes back to a simple rule of thumb: act with the other person’s best interests in mind, and from there celebrate and enjoy what makes them who they are. Sometimes romantic love will spring from that experience, but sometimes it might “just” be friendship. As though friendship were somehow less valuable than romantic love. But that’s a whole other blog post entirely.

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8 thoughts on “Boys and Girls

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Steve. As usual, you have great insight 🙂 Question pertaining to your final point: if feelings of one individual do change and the other’s feelings do not, how should that be handled? Can you be “just friends” if one person desires something more? (Also, I loved your comment on friendship not being less valuable than romantic love. SO TRUE, though something most people don’t consider.)

    • Wow, that’s a tough question. My initial reaction is to be direct about it. “I didn’t have these feelings going in, but getting to know you better has revealed to me a wonderful person and I’d like to pursue a relationship with you.” And so forth. It’s better sooner than later, and definitely best well before a sense of desperation or defeatism sets into the mix. But I’m not sure. I’ll definitely be thinking some more about that.

  2. Ha! I very much enjoyed this post. As one who squandered his most opportune dating years in the friendzone, I’ve done much thinking about this. While it can be analyzed into oblivion, my thinking has pretty much brought me down to this:

    Disregarding initial motives, what are the possible outcomes of deep friendships with the opposite sex?

    First, one could develop feelings for the other, while the other does not reciprocate. Pain.

    Second, one person starts dating someone, and once that happens the friendship–even if still on good terms–must become less. Well, that sucks, I just lost a great friend. Even if you can still get coffee occasionally, friendships with opposite genders are REALLY cut back once someone gets married.

    Third, both people magically develop feelings for each other. I say magically here because it happens so seldom that it could be considered magic.

    What I’m talking about primarily is best friendships. I have no qualms with regular girl friends. Ones you see at church, hang outs (with other friends), etc. Anything more than that (one on one hang outs, frequent communication) and you start to muddy the waters.

  3. Steve,

    I really appreciate how you are approaching this. Also, I was out of town this weekend, so I am looking forward even more to hearing the sermon once it is posted. Bear with me as I put forth some thoughts from a girl’s perspective – which I have thought about greatly, but not necessarily put into as many words before. It’s probably going to be a bit jumbled…

    I have found myself becoming more and more passionate about this subject over the years, specifically as I have gained more life experience, encountered the NWC bubble, and been disappointed by the church’s (universal) lack of addressing the subject, much like their avoidance of practical teaching on marriage, sex, and relationships as a whole (though that is a subject for a different day). The thoughts I present are a combination of personal life experience, observation, searching Scripture (forgive me for not citing multiple references, otherwise this post would be substantially longer), and informal counseling of various friends and acquaintances (though I still find it slightly odd that many friends come to me for advice regardless of the fact that I have been single to date). Feel free to interact or disagree with me.

    Can guys and girls be “just friends”, have a substantial relationship, and still be Godly/holy/not “muddying waters” or messing things up? I think so – not only do I think it is possible, but I think it is good, and to some degree, necessary. Hard? Absolutely, but so is any relationship that has any substance – it takes work, patience, communication, selflessness, and a host of other things.

    Given the various admonitions in Scripture to be in fellowship with one another, be accountable to one another, help keep each other from falling, and such, it seems slightly absurd to me that we should observe all of those commands to only mean a spouse, and anyone else who is the same sex as we are, relegating the rest of the world to live as mere acquaintances, or fringe friends. I do believe there are certain lines/subjects that are not appropriate to be broached for accountability, etc., but I also believe that is applicable in other relationships such as mother/son, teacher/student, etc. I have often appreciated and benefited from the perspective of some of my guy friends on various subjects (be they theological, life-related, etc.), and I believe God did indeed create men and women with unique ways of thinking (as He also created each person with somewhat unique perspectives) to not only give support and guidance, but also to show us more of Himself as He is displayed through us.

    But let’s turn from philosophy to the nitty-gritty practical side. First up is the phenomenon that has been recurring in my life over the last several years – boy meets girl, the fall in love, get married, and suddenly can no longer be friends with anyone who is of the opposite sex. Oversimplified, I know, but you get the idea. I do believe there should be a “leaving and cleaving” and a noticeable change that the two are now functioning as one unit, but I have too often seen the beginnings of marriages be way harder than they need to be because the bride felt like she could no longer see or hang out with her “brother” guy friends, or the groom could no longer hang out with his “sister” girl friends, unless the other spouse was present. Of course I know the dangers, and I do think they should know and hang out with each other’s friends, but I also don’t think they should abandon those friendships upon marriage. Will they shift and adjust? Yup, but as we all know, so does the relationship between the bride and her mother, and the groom and his mother…sometimes the changes are easier than others, but all relationships change.

    And as far as the “single” side of things…

    I love what you had to say about motives. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, again, a lot of “romantic” relationship “problems” fall in the same categories as other relationships – we need to be aware of our motives in any relationship we engage in. Once you know your motive, be honest about it, both with yourself and others. Know yourself. I think a large portion of confusion in relationships stems from the fact that people don’t know what they are looking for, don’t know what they want, and/or are looking for someone to fulfill them. They may not even realize it, it may be subconscious, but until we know our own hearts and minds, we will not have the capacity to be honest with ourselves and others. And if your motives/feelings change, be honest about that. Establish all relationships (as much as it depends on you) with open, honest, safe, truthful communication.

    At the risk of scaring you (or sounding very shallow), I’m going to share a piece of my brain. Several years ago, I sat down and thought a lot about how I thought about people. I found that I had been subconsciously classifying people, much as I classify a lot of things that I encounter in day-to-day life. For now, I’ll just give details on how I thought of single guy friends. Though there are variations on these categories/lists, the bigger headings in which guys fell into were these:

    -I don’t know you at all
    -I don’t know you at all, and the only reason you are talking to me is because you are drunk, so I really don’t want to know you
    -I just met you, and from what I know of you, you seem like a decent person.
    -I know you somewhat, and you’re someone I wouldn’t mind getting to know better
    -I know you somewhat, and you’re not someone I think I would really enjoy spending time with
    -I know you pretty well, and you’re one of “the guys”
    -I know you pretty well, and I wouldn’t be opposed if you were potentially interested in more than “just” a friendship
    -You are one of my closest guy friends, I would do anything for you, but I am confident that we are supposed to be friends, nothing else
    -You are one of my closest guy friends, I wouldn’t be opposed if you were potentially interested in more than “just” a friendship
    -You are one of my guy friends (in any one of the above categories), and your interaction with me is highly confusing

    As I said, there are variations and cross-overs of all of these, but I realized that I was evaluating the various people in my life. You may even say judging, but judging doesn’t always have to have a negative connotation – I was not stating whether or not they were a good or bad person, but rather whether or not I was interested in them having any involvement in my life.

    One thing that I got really good at while in the NWC bubble was my emotional interaction with anyone who had a “I wouldn’t be opposed if you were potentially interested in more than “just” a friendship” added on to their category. More than anything it was a recognition of the standards and characteristics I saw in various men, and appreciated them. It was not a “I wish they liked me” issue at all (for the most part, if I were to be honest – we all have our moments). Turns out that not only did I appreciate certain standards and characteristics, but so did all of my close college girl friends, who ended up marrying a lot of my guy friends. I think that my ability to appreciate the work of God in their lives, yet not be emotionally strung out, wishing for them to want something “more” is what has allowed me to reman friends with both guy and girl friends. I work really hard nowadays at assuming that guys are only interested in being friends unless they blatantly say something otherwise, regardless of their behavior or interactions. It not only saves me more heartache, but then I am more free to be a selfless friend.

    The hardest category by far to figure out what to do with is the “You are one of my guy friends (in any one of the above categories), and your interaction with me is highly confusing”. Most often the guys in this category were either flirtatious in general, or intentionally flirtatious at times without really realizing it (often this category had sisters, and just treated all girls like sisters). Though some were easier to work through than others, I slowly but surely learned to just be honest and address it – and ask them if they were intending to lead me on, or if I was reading it wrong. It was awkward at times, but ultimately it was best. The friendships that were solid remained even through the bumps (as do any relationships that are solid), and I was then in a position to tell them when their behavior (with me and others) was being interpreted as flirtatious or “interested”.

    I also got much better at keeping my heart in check, and not reading into anything/making assumptions/”getting my hopes up”, because it did hurt when I found out I had been misreading things. Ultimately I had a choice to make: did I really value their friendship? Because if I did, and I valued them, then I would want what is best for them, and God’s best, even if that wasn’t me (though I might have wished it would be me). It really came down to whether or not I believed God to be good – because if He was good, and His perfect will was for me to be the best friend that I could be to them, then my job was to align my heart with His, and be His servant. There were times that this process of learning really sucked, and hurt, and I railed against God, and thought all guys were idiots (sorry guys, I know you’re not, just want to make sure you don’t think I’m perfect) but it taught me a lot about sacrificial love, which is something that should be a part of every relationship, no matter the nature of it. In the grand scheme of things, though, sacrificial love most often isn’t really anything more than sacrificing the “good” for the “best” – being willing to relinquish what I would see as good for what God ordains is best. It’s hard, but being a biological brother or sister is no cake walk either, yet you learn how to love each other, and do what is best for the other.

    I know this has been really long, and I’m not entirely sure how much sense it makes outside of my head, but I believe there are reasons for various relationships. I have had close guy friends whom I consider as brothers cry on my shoulder, or talked for hours about something they were really having a hard time dealing with, or a number of other things. I know this is probably somewhat to do with the fact that I have always had a “mothering” aura about me, but I also believe there is a way to do guy-girl friendships right. In C.S.Lewis’ book “the Four Loves”, he goes into great detail about friendship love. I do believe it can be platonic and still have great depth and meaning, without “crossing the lines”, but it takes a lot more grace, trust, and courage to navigate it than it takes to avoid it altogether.

    Sorry about the novella – I’d love feedback/further questions as this is still a subject I am working on understanding, and one that I assume I will be pondering for the rest of life.

      • I just re-looked at my comment…I believe I owe you an apology for the sheer length of it – bad form for a comment to be longer than the original post. I think I will refrain from actually commenting on posts while I am working overnight shifts, and make myself edit them the following morning to determine if they make any sense at all. 🙂

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