I here remind the reader that I write primarily for men on this site. And this is a pretty broad article. I didn’t want it to get any longer, but I’d love discuss the stuff I’ve left incomplete in the comments section.
An aeon of internet time ago, that is, three weeks ago, a friend of mine and I exchanged a couple of tweetitudinous comments on whether or not men and women can be friends, inspired by this article. I told this friend that I loved her too much to be friends with her. She suggested I write about it; I do so now.
And yes, I’m calling her a friend just to be annoying and confusing. Or to make the point that some of the debate depends on how you define “friend”. I’ll allow for some flexibility in defining the term; I do believe rather inflexibly that it is inappropriate for a man to have a relationship with any woman who is not his wife that can approach what a friendship between two men is.
Call my relationship with this woman what you like, it would be an insult to my wife and to her if I had a true “friendship” with her. In fact, I believe that by dint of culture and biology it is impossible for me to have such a relationship. And I’m okay with that; I think you the reader should be okay with it too. After all, you can’t have everything…where would you put it?
Thankfully the past few years have seen an emerging impatience with the idea that men and woman have the same desires sexually. But there is a tendency on the other side of the pendulum for people to think that men want sex more than women. Four hundred years ago everyone knew that the sexual drive of women was so strong they had difficulty being faithful and true. Today, everyone knows that the sexual drive of men is so strong that they have difficulty being faithful and true. Thinking that men want sex more than women is silly, but there can be no doubt that sexuality and desire manifest themselves differently in men and women.
And just so the male reader doesn’t get bogged down by the preceding point, here’s a parenthetical paragraph. For the sake of argument I would grant that men want sex more often than women, but I will not allow that men want sex more than women. Just more often. Sex is a relationship, which we’ll hit later. Moving on.
A young man cannot be emotionally close to a young woman without wanting to have sex with her. But there’s a sexual element to such a friendship from a woman’s perspective as well. When women have friendships with men who aren’t their man, or when they’re not attached but have several relationships of equal investment and profundity with several men, there’s some dishonesty on their part (perhaps with themselves) at play. Consider what pornography looks like for each sex. Pornography for males is very straightforward and visual, sex reduced to the brief act. And porn for men is ubiquitous. Well, so is porn for women. There’s soft porn, like the Twilight series, and there’s hard porn, like Harlequin romances. These things focus on a bunch of things that women look to get out of a sexual relationship; most of all, they focus on being wanted. Men want. Women want to be wanted.
Our society has accepted so thoroughly the idea that the sexes manifest desire in the same way that we can’t conceive of “cheating” as being anything besides physical. They had sex together. They made out. They kissed. Those are all physical things that would constitute cheating. Well, how about “they hung out at a cafe together for hours sharing each others’ dreams and aspirations”? I wouldn’t like it if my wife did that with someone, and I can guarantee my wife would hate it if I did the same. Even worse…imagine if your wife sought and trusted the advice of another man more than yours. *shudder*
You're such a good listener. My husband never wants to hear me complain about how things are at home, but you don't seem to mind at all!
There is no such thing as platonic love. Platonic love is a sexual love. It was originally meant as the more spiritually pure sexuality of the Greek philosopher: the lover of knowledge was not subject to the sexual greed that women imposed on him. The lover of knowledge, who of course is a man, disdains the earthly woman and instead has sex with the spiritually purer boy or man. Is it possible to love something in a non-sexual way? Of course. But the popular modern version of “Platonic” pretends it’s possible to abstract sex from human relationships (but is strongly associated with Uranian thought). The question that should be asked about love is not about sexual desire. It is whether the love is meet and right. Whether it is appropriate.
A potentially distracting yet hilarious cartoon.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything human is societal. And that includes romantic love. Imagine that I am married (which I am), and that a have a relationship with another woman that is equivalent to the relationships I have with my other friends. I ask this other woman for favors, I do favors for her; I ask her for advice, I give her advice; we get together occasionally for beers and dominoes; we go hiking together every once in a while (I couldn’t bring myself to say “hunting”); maybe we grab a cup of coffee before work and discuss our personal challenges and triumphs. Through some bizarre biological circumstance I don’t want to have sex with her (p’shaw). Fine.
This love is not meet and right. It’s not appropriate.
All three of us, she, I, my wife, know it’s wrong. I’m telling my wife and the world that I don’t particularly care about my wife’s exclusive claims on me. I’m telling this friend of mine that my woman and my children are not a central part of my life. And I’m telling myself that I’m an individual who is free to love anyone he likes, instead of confessing that I’m a man who owes his love to his women and children.
Why is this so?
Because the quality of the love a man can have for a woman is not the same as the quality of the love a man can have for a man.
The Greek, gnostic, and Enlightenment efforts to spiritualize or intellectualize everything, to make less of sex, fails to do so. We end up having to cut it off or find somewhere new to put it.
We think that when Christians used to speak, say, of a village having a population of 200 souls, they meant 200 “spirits”. But they didn’t. They meant 200 human beings. A soul is a human being. And human beings have bodies. They live in relationship to one another. Men are not spiritual skeletons with penises. They are full human beings, body and spirit, in communion with other humans.
Not knowing how that communion, how those relationships, are supposed to work is what introduces all this sexual confusion. The Greeks reacted to unreasonable lust for women by replacing it with irrational lust for boys. There’s no escaping sexual desire. But you shouldn’t want to escape it, you should simply want to do it right.
The inability to perceive what doing it right looks like is what makes it impossible for moderns to correctly hear David telling the dead Jonathan that his friend’s love for him surpassed the love of women. We can’t hear that without thinking of sex; we tell ourselves that we are free to love whomever we like, sexually or non-sexually. But all that ends up doing is sexualizing all love.
I have one sexual relationship. That’s my marriage. It’s the only sexual relationship I have. In fact, I’d be willing to say that the totality of my marriage is summed up by saying that it’s a sexual relationship. Does that mean that I only think of my wife as a “sexual object”? Of course not. It means that I have one sexual relationship; the sexual relationship. I have my woman; I have my children. They are my most intimate relationships.
I am free to love whomever, in the sense that I am free to show charity. But I am not free to give myself to just anyone. I’ve given myself sexually to only one person. That limits those I am free to give myself to emotionally and in other ways, and that’s fine. It’s part of the deal. The sexual relationship, my marriage, is one of the most important relationships in my life, and it is exclusive by nature of the compact we made. Christians understand that and tell themselves, “I won’t cheat on my wife, I’m just studying at the library with a fellow student.” But it’s not just about “cheating”, it’s about building trust, and showing through meaningful, symbolical acts that you hold your marriage higher than other relationships.
If I am married I’m not free to give myself to other women, and that’s what friendship is, it’s giving. I can give myself to other men. I ask other men for favors, I do favors for them; I ask them for advice, I give them advice; we get together occasionally for beers and dominoes; we go hunting together every once in a while; maybe we grab a cup of coffee before work and discuss our personal challenges and triumphs. I can trust and rely on men in a way that is not disrespectful of my wife.
And why should you be resentful of this limitation? Your woman is a whole universe to herself. You will not be done exploring her by the time you die. You can’t act as if God is being cheap with you, because you’ll never be done exploring all the blessings he’s given you. There’s just this one tree you can’t have, but of course, you resent that the tree is there at all.
I'll tell you how I got permission to come play tonight. I asked the missus if she'd mind if I started going to the ladies' sewing circle instead. And I called it "The Sweet n' Sexy Sewing Circle".
In the beginning of this post I called a woman “friend”. And she is. As I said, it depends on how you define terms. The fundamental idea here is that men and women can’t be intimate with each other outside of marriage, because of their own natures and because of the importance of their other relationships. But they can be friends. Couples can be friends with each other. I can be friends with a woman through her husband, which definitely does not mean that I invite the couple of over and then hang out with the woman. I can be friends with a woman through the intermediary of art; perhaps we’re both basketball coaches, or lovers of Renaissance history. We can be friends with intermediaries, which can be people, places, things, but we can never be friends the way I could be with a man. True friends I can put my trust in. True friends my wife can trust.
I have nothing in common with the guy who was the best man at my wedding, except and most importantly, the one thing that allows us to be truly intimate: we’re both Christians. We have none of the same interests, we have none of the same work. We talk once every year or so. For five minutes. Usually when I can’t find anyone else to answer a computer question. You’d think we have no relationship at all, but actually we don’t have any intermediary reason for the relationship. It’s pure friendship. We completely trust each other. I know that if I needed anything I could call him and he would help me. Without hesitating. People, we often finish our phone calls with “I love you”. Seriously. ‘Cause we love each other.
That’s what real friendship is. Can you imagine me having a relationship like that with anyone who wasn’t my wife? Please.
My relationship with my wife is much deeper and more intimate than my relationship with my best man. I feel like I would die if wifey died; if my best man bites the dust I’ll shed a few tears and move on. But even if I was very unromantic about my marriage, loyalty and faithfulness alone, obligation alone (all manifestations of love), would demand that I not have a relationship like that with a woman who wasn’t my wife.
My wife and I were talking today about some of the ideas in this post. In the course of the conversation she said that it was great to have male friendship the right way. Of course, she meant her marriage. Marriage is not a friendship, but you ought to be friends with your wife. And being friends with your wife does something to you that being friends with another woman cannot. It balances you out; each spouse becomes much more like the other. And not in a permanent way, either. But as long as the husband is around, it’s like the wife gains man superpowers. And as long as the wife is around, the husband gains woman superpowers. There’s a thorough meshing of selves that you will only be impeding if you insist on being “friends” with women.
I spoke earlier of the “quality” of love. I said that the quality of the love a man could have for a woman was different than that a man could have for a man. I hope you see that I’m not speaking hierarchically, as if one love were better than another. I’m speaking of the nature, form, and place of love. Think of your love for your wife as one that consumes you, that completely involves you, that takes up all the room. There’s no room for other women. Don’t you want that sort of intimacy? And if you’re single, trust me, you want to be working towards that. Getting ready to feast on the huge banquet that your wife will be, not snacking on the saltines that your “friendships” with single women end up being.