Feelings Aren’t Facts: Living Out Friendship Between Men and Women

This post is part of the February Synchroblog “Cross Gender Friendships”. I will list the links to all the contributions at the end of this post as soon as they are available.

The short answer to the old question “can men and women be friends?” is always “yes.” I am always astounded when I run into serious adults who say otherwise.

A couple of years ago, a terrific series appeared at Slate: Strictly Platonic: Friendships Between Men and Women. Slate offers several articles dealing with a variety of issues that arise around male-female non-romantic friendship, and there are some well-written contributions from both halves of these pairings. I enjoyed reading all of the short essays, and recommend them. (Including a nice explanation of how Plato gets dragged into the whole thing.)

I especially appreciated this Juliet Lapidos post on sexual desire within friendship.

This past winter I asked Slate readers to fill out a survey on “platonic friendship.” I said I was looking for subjects with a “platonic friend,” so it’s unsurprising that more than half of the 549 respondents who answered all of the relevant questions profess no attraction of any kind: they’ve never had sex with their friend, never talked about sex, and never thought seriously about it. Just over 5 percent are on the opposite extreme, and report significant sexual tension or ongoing sex. There’s a range of experience in the middle; mostly versions of the dating-to-friendship narrative, or accounts of fleeting romantic interest.

The survey indicates that the question “Are straight men and women able to forget sex and engage in a truly non-romantic fashion?” is too narrow. It’s wrong to think of platonic friendship as a binary proposition in which couples either avoid sex entirely and make the relationship work, or they don’t and it doesn’t.Sexual feeling within friendship exists on a Kinsey-type scale, and moderate attraction does not necessarily ruin or invalidate the relationship.

Bold emphasis mine.

I think that last sentence is vital. Many folks will admit that friendships between men and women can exist and thrive, but only in those instances where neither party has any sexual attraction to the other. But according to this view, if flashes of mutual desire surface, the friendship will inevitably transition into a sexual relationship or the friendship will end. If just one party “wants something more”, the strain of that wanting will invariably create a barrier between the two erstwhile friends, driving them apart with guilt and resentment. Or so the pop psychology argument goes.

First of all, this argument ignores the very real human capacity to weigh costs and benefits and consider friendship to be a particularly valuable example of the latter. Sticking with the heterosexual examples, a man and a woman might both be pledged to other people in monogamous romantic relationship. They might both be deeply invested in those relationships and in honoring the commitments they made. The two friends might also be keenly aware that if they were each single, then a very different kind of relationship would involve between them.

This isn’t a hypothetical. Even in recent years, I’ve certainly had friends with whom something might have transitioned into a romantic relationship if we were both “available.” I tend to like as my friends the same sort of people I would like as lovers. Because I’m not in the market for the latter, and b’ezrat hashem and the crick don’t rise, never will be again, it’s all a moot point. But I’m not a fool, blindly unaware of what could be if things were different. Acknowledging to oneself that hypothetical possibility isn’t betrayal of my spouse (though endlessly ruminating on it, discussing it at length with one’s friend, or transitioning from a platonic friendship into a toxic emotional affair certainly would be a form of serious infidelity.)

We are most at the mercy of emotions we repress. We are most likely to be taken unawares by feelings we deny. Those who insist that friendship can’t co-exist with even the possibility of desire are those whose fear and loathing of those desires is most intense. It’s no accident that social and religious conservatives tend to be the folks most suspicious of the possibility of platonic friendship; their notions of sin and human weakness combine with sexual anxiety to create an argument in favor of highly regulated separate spheres for men and women. And yet, as studies have shown, these highly religious subcultures are just as prone as secular ones (if not more so) to extramarital affairs, divorce, and the sexual abuse of minors. When yet another beloved pastor strays, the flock shake their head in sad wonder at the pervasiveness of sin — forgetting, of course, that it’s their own culturally reinforced fear of sexuality (rather than biological reality or human nature) that grants sin most of its great power.

Love, as I was reminded years ago and as I remind my students and mentees today, is a verb. It is more than a feeling. Feelings fluctuate. For some of us with mercurial temperaments (and this Gemini lad knows all about Mercury), our feelings fluctuate constantly and wildly. Even now, in my mid-forties with more than a dozen years of sobriety under my belt and years of therapy and spiritual work, I am still someone who is buffeted by wild and strong emotion. Sometimes I wake up depressed and anxious. Sometimes I wake up elated, almost manic with excitement. Sometimes I look at my wife and I wonder why we are together; other times I look at her and tears of love well up spontaneously in my eyes. Sometimes I feel fleeting impulses and desires that are astonishingly intense, and sometimes those impulses are sexual. But I know something: feelings aren’t facts.

Love lived out is a fact. I stay faithful to my beautiful, extraordinary wife when I want to (which is almost always), and when I don’t (which is rarely.) I change my children’s diapers and dry their tears when I’m wide awake and cheerful, and when I’m tired and headachy and just want to sleep. I teach when I’m bubbling with enthusiasm, and I teach with the same conviction when I’d just rather be in bed. I’m platonic friends with people with whom I could never imagine being sexual or romantic, and platonic friends with people with whom I know “something could happen” were we both single. But I honor my vows, and honor my commitments to my family and students, and live out what it means to be a loving husband and father and professor to the best of my ability every damn day. I don’t fear feelings, nor do I believe all that those fleeting emotions impart. And because I’m neither afraid nor gullible in the face of endlessly oscillating desires, my actions stay pretty damn constant.

I love my wife. I love my friends. I love them very differently, but I honor them all in my actions to the best of my grace-assisted ability. I am in love with my wife and with no one else. But that love doesn’t require that I deny that if things were different, I would choose differently.

It does require that I not dwell on those possibilities, or use them as a hedge against total devotion to my here, to my now, and my what-will-be.

Check out all the great posts here.

20 thoughts on “Feelings Aren’t Facts: Living Out Friendship Between Men and Women

  1. Pingback: Link List – February 2013 Synchroblog – Cross-Gender Friendships « synchroblog

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  10. Hugo,

    Thanks for contributing to the synchroblog. I love what you have to say and think this is the kind of stuff that churches should be teaching instead of the idea that men and women should avoid forming meaningful friendships unless they intend on it leading to marriage.

    PS Please add the list of links to the other synchroblog posts. You can find the list here:

    http://synchroblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/link-list-february-2013-synchroblog-cross-gender-friendships/

  11. Great post. I appreciate how you say, “We are most at the mercy of emotions we repress. We are most likely to be taken unawares by feelings we deny. Those who insist that friendship can’t co-exist with even the possibility of desire are those whose fear and loathing of those desires is most intense.” Great connection with highly religious subculture’s fear of sexuality and the power of sin.

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  16. My best friend of 24 years is a man. He is gay and so am I. This does change things a bit I know. I remember when I first laid on eyes on him and thought.. wow what a tremendously good looking guy. I still think that all these years later.

    But the most important thing has been how rich our connection has been. And how it has changed over time much the way a 24 year relationship would inevitably. But even if I were sexually attracted to him I still think one can admire the beauty of an entire person without it being about wanting to do the person.

    These relationships can enrich our lives. And I’m really glad to see more young people engaging in this. I know several young men who have had their best man be a woman at their very heterosexual weddings. I think it is progress and much welcomed.

  17. Thanks for the links to the series at ‘The Slate’, I’ll read those too If I have time.

    I loved this passage, ‘Love lived out is a fact. I stay faithful to my beautiful, extraordinary wife when I want to (which is almost always), and when I don’t (which is rarely.) I change my children’s diapers and dry their tears when I’m wide awake and cheerful, and when I’m tired and headachy and just want to sleep. I teach when I’m bubbling with enthusiasm, and I teach with the same conviction when I’d just rather be in bed. I’m platonic friends with people with whom I could never imagine being sexual or romantic, and platonic friends with people with whom I know “something could happen” were we both single. But I honor my vows, and honor my commitments to my family and students, and live out what it means to be a loving husband and father and professor to the best of my ability every damn day.’

    Indeed, I love the entire essay. Brilliant stuff because you neither hide your head in the sand by pretending you are devoid of feelings, nor do you accept the ‘don’t put yourself in a dangerous place’ notion that some have – throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors!)

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