“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.