Losing Cyril: politics, abortion, Dr. Tiller, and saying goodbye to a friend

My friend “Cyril” and I are no longer speaking. After more than a decade of friendship, we stopped talking recently. We didn’t get too busy for each other; we didn’t have a misunderstanding. We stopped talking because of abortion and sexual ethics.

Cyril and I met at a time when I was first coming back to Christ at the very end of the 1990s. Infatuated with progressive evangelicalism, I found a natural ally in Cyril, who was slightly to my right but still deeply committed to social justice. For years, we met for breakfast to talk theology and politics — and to talk intimately about our personal lives. He was the first person I told when I started dating Eira. Cyril and I drove half-way across the country together many years ago — to his wedding. We ran together, lifted weights together. For the better part of a decade, Cyril was my best male friend.

In 2004, when I left the Mennonite Church, I also abandoned the “seamless garment” position on the life issues I had taken since my conversion. A staunch pro-choice advocate from the cradle, a fourth-generation Planned Parenthood supporter (my great-grandparents gave money to that fine organization back when it was still the Birth Control League), I briefly turned in my religious enthusiasm towards an anti-abortion position. It was always nuanced; I never favored making abortion illegal, but did regard the termination of pregnancy as deeply tragic and problematic. I soon came back to the more emphatically pro-choice position, and that caused tension with Cyril.

We agreed to disagree about abortion, about gay marriage (he favored civil unions only), and about pre-marital sex. We were so fond of each other, and found each other’s company so refreshing, that we made our friendship work despite those differences. As I moved back to the left and he skewed more and more to the right, we each remained the other’s loyal interlocutor, debating enthusiastically over vegetarian burritos and guacamole each week at our favorite hole-in-the-wall.

But then came my post on Dr. Tiller’s assassination last year: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”: of a doctor, an usher, and the answerer of a call. Writing in explicitly Christian language, I compared the martyred doctor to the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cyril and I had read Bonhoeffer together and discussed his influence. For a staunch pro-lifer like my friend, the post (every word of which I continue to stand behind) created deep cognitive dissonance. Cyril loved me, but couldn’t comprehend how I could speak of a man whom he saw as a murderer as a martyr. Though Cyril repudiated violence against those who perform abortions, he had grave doubts about the state of Dr. Tiller’s soul. I made it clear that I thought the doctor had been doing God’s work. And the gulf between us, Cyril realized, had now grown too vast for even a history of deep friendship to span.

We didn’t speak for several months. I had moved to West L.A. and was busy with my expanding family; Cyril and his wife had also just had a child. My calls weren’t returned, but I figured he was just incredibly busy. Finally, I sent him an email, and got a kind, serious, thoughtful reply. Cyril explained that he loved and respected me and was grateful for our years of mutual friendship. But, he said, ideas have consequences, a view he knew I shared. None of us agree with one another on everything, but there are certain core issues that are so central that the absence of a common view can strain even the best of friendships.

Cyril suggested, and I agreed, that to smooth over our differences over abortion for the sake of friendship would do violence to the seriousness with which we held our positions and to our long history of mutual respect. We would still be cordial when we happened to speak; we are both men for whom civility is an important value. But we are also people for whom there are higher values still. And because of those higher values, our friendship has ended.

(Parenthetically, we both agreed that this was where friendship and family relationships differed. Neither of us would ever abrogate a relationship with a relative over even this issue.)

I miss Cyril. But I honor both what we had and why it ended. Politics is not sports; it does have consequences. Our beliefs should never be so passionately held as to render us incapable of decency and empathy. But our core beliefs shouldn’t be worn so lightly that they can be tossed aside for the sake of amiability. I’ve lost friendships in the past because of my reckless behavior (sleeping with other people’s spouses, for example). If there is a good and honorable reason to lose a friendship, it’s the way Cyril and I lost ours. I love him and his family very much, and they remain in my heart. But my commitment to justice (as I prayerfully understand justice) trumps even friendship.

Feelings aren’t facts: on friendship, fidelity, and fleeting fancies

I’ve written before on male-female friendship, most notably here. The short answer to the old question “can men and women be friends?” is “yes”, and there’s a part of me that’s always astounded when I run into serious adults who say otherwise.

I was reminded of my old post and the larger debate when I saw this series appear at Slate over the past ten days: 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. Continue reading

Seventeen May 4ths ago — a dream fulfilled, a friendship lost

Tra la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That darling month when ev’ryone throws
Self-control away.
It’s time to do
A wretched thing or two,
And try to make each precious day
One you’ll always rue!

-Camelot

Seventeen years ago today, I started dating the woman who would become my second wife. I’d met Sara at a Twelve Step meeting in the summer of 1991. I was a year into my troubled first marriage and, at the time, just over a year clean and sober. Sara and I shared the same sponsor, and we became fast friends.

I fell in love with Sara very quickly. I’d had affairs while engaged to the woman who became my first wife, and that behavior hadn’t stopped after we’d gotten married. (This raises the excellent question of why I wanted to get married in the first place, which is another story). I never attempted anything with Sara, however. Rather, from the summer of 1991 until the summer of 1992, I spent as much time as I could with her and our friends in the program, minimizing my time in what was a very unhappy and frustrating marriage. (For which I take full responsibility. I was a wretched, manipulative, passive-aggressive, dishonest cad. I operated under the noxious principle that my own pain was so great it served to exculpate me from any pain I might cause others.)

Sara and I talked on the phone daily; I became her confidante and best friend. She figured out that I had a crush on her, but made it clear (in subtle and unspoken ways) that she didn’t reciprocate. Eventually, I left my first wife at the urging of the sponsor whom Sara and I shared; my sponsor told me, wisely enough, that I needed to find a way to be faithful in my marriage or I needed to end it. I chose to end the marriage in July 1992.

Sara and I grew closer, but even after I was single, I never attempted to start a relationship with her. I was terrified of losing the friendship, and was certain that her love for me was entirely platonic. So I pursued other romantic adventures, TAed classes, prepared for my doctoral exams, edited UCLA’s Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and lost a lot of weight. I dreamed about Sara at night, fantasized about a life with her, and kept it all to myself. ‘Twas a familiar story of unrequited graduate student longing.

On May 4, 1993, Sara invited me to her apartment in Brentwood, a few miles from campus. We had a weekly Tuesday night dinner arrangement, and these occasions were the highlights of my week. Sara and I would laugh and talk and gossip about the program; we would read poetry together and eat fat-free cookies for dessert. (Remember the “fat-free” craze of the early 1990s, long before the Atkins outbreak of a few years later?) That Tuesday night, Sara took my hand as soon as dinner was finished, and in a gentle, trembling voice told me that she had feelings for me. She explained that she’d always known how much I’d loved her, but while I was married, she’d blocked them completely. As we’d become closer friends in the months since I’d been separated from my wife, Sara explained that she’d begun, slowly, to reciprocate the feelings I had for her. She was in love with me, she told me that night, and wanted to know if we could start seeing each other in a new way.

I made it home to my apartment a little before five the next morning. I wrote in my journal as soon as I got in: “Yesterday was the best day of my life. I have never been happier.” And for the next week or two, I was walking on air. The dream of everyone who has an unrequited crush on a friend is that that friend will suddenly fall in love with them as well. It rarely happens. But it happened to me, and I was over the moon with joy.

The relationship, I’ll note, was an utter disaster. Sara and I had been magically close as friends; we were awful as lovers. It’s not that the sex was bad, but that our capacity to communicate seemed irrevocably compromised by romantic intimacy. What had flourished so easily in our platonic relationship collapsed very quickly under the weight of something very different. But we persevered. We were both — and here is the point of the post — desperate to make things work because to admit failure would have been to lose the friendship that had been the relationship’s genesis. Sara and I both felt we had no choice but to keep trying. And we spiraled downwards fast.

We were engaged before my first divorce was final, and we were married in a lavish Palm Springs wedding in the autumn of 1994. We were separated twenty months later, following my relapse after more than six years of sobriety. I haven’t laid eyes on Sara since she kissed me goodbye in a hospital in June 1996, and she remains the only ex of mine to whom I have been unable to make amends or even attempt closure. I do know that Sara ended up moving in with a woman just weeks after I saw her last. Where she lives now, I have no idea, and in this technology-saturated age, have resisted the temptation to find out. (UPDATE: A more recent post about her “coming out” here.)

A few years after we separated, a psychic told me that Sara and I were supposed to be brother and sister in this lifetime. That, the psychic explained, was the source of our intense platonic bond — and the explanation for why our romantic relationship had proved so catastrophic. “Your souls knew you were committing incest”, the psychic said, “even if you weren’t consciously aware of it.” That sounds like a lot of woo, but the point was a fair one. Sara and I had been such dear friends, so devoted to one another, that each of us had developed the fantasy that we could easily transition into an equally devoted and intense love affair. I developed the fantasy early; she developed it late, but we both came to believe in it.

And when we found that the chemistry we’d had as platonic friends turned poisonous in a sexualized context, our disillusionment and bewilderment was profound. I’ve never said such hurtful things to a partner as I said to Sara; nor have I ever been on the receiving end of hateful diatribes like the ones my second wife delivered to me. But our rage, I came to see years later, was rooted in a profound sense of mutual betrayal. Each of us blamed the other for not keeping the initial relationship as it ought to have been. Each of us clung to the illusion that we could make things work. It ended very badly.

One of the many small blessings of that second marriage was that it ended my habit of getting crushes on female friends. It’s a common dynamic: boy meets girl, boy projects a huge fantasy onto girl, girl just wants to be friends, things muddle on in a state of awkwardness. (Lots of boys in these instances have “Nice Guy” syndrome, rooted in a sense of frustrated entitlement.) I had these unreciprocated crushes and obsessions on and off for years, from 16 to 26, on perhaps half-a-dozen close female friends. Finally, with Sara, my most fervent wish came true. And the aftermath was sufficiently ugly that it served to cure me of the habit.

I could have posted about other things today. But for some reason, the date echoed in my head when I woke up this morning. More traditional posting coming soon.

“Divided you fall”: the myth of male weakness and young women’s internalized misogyny

I’m thinking once again about the “myth of male weakness” this morning.

Jonah Goldberg has a piece this morning with the whoppingly patronizing title “Where Feminists Get it Right.” (Don’t get excited, folks. Hell remains unfrozen.) Jonah concludes his piece, which largely focuses on the now-familiar yet ever-depressing litany of abuses against women in the less-developed world, with this gem:

Women civilize men. As a general rule, men will only be as civilized as female expectations and demands will allow. “Liberate” men from those expectations, and “Lord of the Flies” logic kicks in. Liberate women from this barbarism, and male decency will soon follow.

Give Jonah credit. He’s not blaming women directly for their failure to civilize men. Rather, he’s blaming certain cultures that fail to give women sufficient authority with which to do their civilizing. But that doesn’t change the basic problem in his argument, based as it is on pseudo-science, Victorian sentimentality about women’s “nature”, and a William Golding novel about pre-pubescent boys.

As I sigh at Goldberg’s piece, I think about an email I got from my friend Emily. She recounts a Facebook exchange she had with a female friend of hers, a fellow Christian. Em’s friend posted on her status update that she was “really disappointed w/the female human species.” When Em inquired why, and whether her friend was also disappointed in men, she got this response:

It appears as if men are weaker when it comes to sex, money, power. With that I am realizing that it is the women that should be held at a higher standard because we need to set the tone for our weak counterparts. If women looked at themselves as holy temples and didn’t allow anything less than excellence this may force men to step up their integrity and priorities…

We could go through the gospels, pointing out over and over again the places where Jesus demands that men show self-restraint comparable to that demanded by women. But I’m not just interested in responding to a fellow Christian. Rather, what concerns me here is one of the most troubling aspects of the myth of male weakness: it creates an atmosphere in which both men and women feel justified in policing other women’s behavior.

If men cannot control themselves, and women can, then it is (as Emily’s friend suggests) women’s task to set the limits for men which men cannot set for themselves. All bad male behavior, it quickly follows, is invariably a woman’s fault. We’re all familiar with the loathsome notion that a cheating husband or boyfriend deserves less ire than the woman with whom he cheated. (The “he couldn’t help it, but she ought to have known better because she’s a woman” theory). The end result is a culture of mistrust and hostility among women.

A great many of the young women I work with claim to have trouble liking other women. Call it the “most of my good friends are guys” phenomenon, which is sufficiently common as to merit a word other than “phenomenon”. Many young women — even in feminist spaces — will list the countless ways in which they have felt judged, policed, or betrayed by other women. Many will say things like “I expect men to let me down. But when a woman hurts you, it’s worse because she doesn’t have an excuse.”

The point that feminists try and make in these discussions is that the myth of male weakness is at the very root of this internalized misogyny. The logic is inescapable. The less self-control women believe men have, the less they hold men responsible. The less they hold men responsible, the more responsibility they ascribe to themselves and to other women. The less they believe in men’s capacity to self-regulate, the more hostile they are trained to become to any woman who seems unwilling to engage in the rituals of female self-policing. At its most extreme, every mini-skirt becomes not only a threat to the fragile order women have established for mutual protection, it is perceived as an act of both betrayal and hostility towards one’s sisters. The hisses of “slut”, “whore”, and “bitch” soon follow. Continue reading

Affirming and redirecting: a post about marriages, friendships, emotional affairs, and how Tolstoy gets it wrong

SamSeaborn asks a question:

a female friend recently asked me over to her place for coffee – she’s like a sister to me and she’s been married for a couple of years. Now she tells me how she’s sexually unhappy in her marriage that she’s wondering about cheating… and obviously felt very guilty about those thoughts. I’ve liberated myself quite a bit from my Catholic guilt, but this is a dilemma for me.

Is there a morally sound way of action for her when she wants to be with her husband (whom I don’t know as closely as her) but he can’t give her what she wants sexually and she can’t even speak to him about this, otherwise she wouldn’t turn to me to talk about these things… her happiness is important to me, and her happiness is very likely tied to a morally sound solution of this issue. So, as someone who has clearly thought about this kind of problem – if you have any idea how to address something like this, I’d really appreciate a brief reply.

First off, let me say that I think it’s important for married heterosexual folks to have friends of all sexes. I think it’s terrific that Sam has a friend whom he thinks of as a sister. At the same time, I’m not the only person who will read his query with a small bit of concern. Infidelity isn’t just about sexual activity with someone other than a spouse; emotional affairs can be as — if not more — toxic than those that are consummated physically. I wrote about the trap of emotional affairs here, and defined it thus:

(An emotional affair is) a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others.

Communicating with a partner about sex isn’t always easy. Clearly, Sam’s friend is unhappy and frustrated, and has every right to feel the way she feels. But Sam’s certainty that she “can’t” talk to her husband about sex is offered a bit too quickly. It may not be easy, it may not be pleasant, but unless there’s a clear and present danger of being physically injured as a result of raising the subject, one of the responsibilities of a married person is to bring ze grievances — in a loving but honest way — to ze spouse. If she “can’t talk” to her husband about it, the inevitable solution will be either prolonged depression or some sort of affair, either physical or emotional or both. Neither is a “morally sound” option. Marriage doesn’t impose a contractual obligation to suffer indefinitely in frustration and silence; marriage also doesn’t impose (as I’ve written before) an obligation to provide sexual satisfaction. Marriage does impose the obligation to communicate, to compromise where possible — and when not possible, to choose to end the marriage through divorce rather than through an affair or “frozen martyrdom”.

I take Sam at his word that he doesn’t have a carnal interest in his friend, and he isn’t (as Job puts it), “lurking at his neighbor’s door” waiting to step in as the answer to a sexually frustrated woman’s prayer. But I think he does have an obligation to call her out on her flat insistence that communication with her husband is impossible. It may be that this woman’s husband is so intransigent and unreachable that any attempt at counseling or conversation will fail. If that’s the case, then divorce is the morally sound and psychologically responsible option. After the divorce proceedings are begun and the husband has been informed that the marriage is over, then she’s certainly free to look elsewhere for sexual fulfillment. But it’s part of Sam’s job as a friend to point out these options.

Good friends listen to each other and affirm each other. They know that sometimes a companion needs to “dump”, and doesn’t need a solution proposed. (We all know the classic axiom about men and women in conversation, and the traditional American male desire to “fix” a problem immediately.) But good friends, true friends, challenge and push each other. They affirm feelings and validate frustration — and in a loving way, nudge one another towards making important changes. Sam’s friend is stuck, and simply talking about her frustrations to him is unlikely to get her “unstuck”. A loving and firm push in one of two directions — towards either counseling or divorce — is the most helpful thing Sam can offer. Continue reading

“I adore you; you confound me”: of old friends, Facebook, and ideological differences

When I first went on Facebook a few years ago, most of my friends were my students and “youth group kids”; I was the oldest person I knew on the site. Today, a third of my 1700-odd friends and contacts on FB are my age or older, and I’ve found it a particularly useful tool for connecting with old acquaintances from my childhood and adolescence. I suspect my 25th high school reunion, coming up next year, will be planned using Facebook.

On Facebook, I often post links to news stories and opinion pieces which reflect my views on gender, sexuality, faith, animal rights and so forth. My friends are able to comment on the stories. Since my friends — and I use that noun in its traditional sense — run the gamut politically, sexually, and religiously, the debates are quite heated. And things have gotten particularly intense since “Leigh” started commenting. Leigh is a conservative Republican through and through, and not afraid to “mix it up” with my many liberal buddies on Facebook. Some folks have written to me in wonder, expressing disbelief that someone like Leigh and I could be friends.

I’m well aware that the capacity to be friends with folks who hold radically divergent views is a virtue made possible by privilege. For example, I have friends who are strongly opposed to marriage equality for gays and lesbians; they fight against a cause I champion. But because I’m a man married to a woman, their views (while exasperating and troubling) don’t represent a direct threat to my happiness. If I were a man who longed to marry another man but couldn’t, I might be less cheerful about opening my Facebook page, my heart, and my home to folks whose views I consider a real threat to my happiness. My extended family has been one that has been fortunate enough to embrace civility, even cordiality, towards one’s ideological opponents as a virtue. White folks in the middle and upper-middle classes have the luxury of seeing political disagreements as fascinating topics for a rousing argument rather than life and death. That cheerful willingness not only to overlook, but even celebrate those disagreements was something I was raised to believe was a sign of wisdom, of a capacity to put friendship and family over partisanship or faith. I still believe that, but acknowledge that that capacity has as much to do with race and class as it does with virtue.

In any event, while I do moderate fairly heavily here on the blog, where folks I don’t know can and do comment, a more free-wheeling atmosphere prevails on my Facebook page, where Leigh has crossed verbal swords with more than one of my other friends.

Leigh (not her real name) and I went to high school together. We were particularly close our junior year, when we were lab partners in Richard Fletcher’s legendary Wildlfe and Ecology course. Leigh and I talked about everything together at 16, and did our best to stay in touch in the years that followed. Our lives, as it turned out, followed somewhat similar trajectories: we were both divorced multiple times, we both struggled early and often with addiction to alcohol and drugs. And we both were fortunate enough to get sober relatively young; Leigh and I each have “clean time” measured in double-digit years. In sobriety, we both became marathon runners and endurance athletes; unbeknownst to the other, we each ran our personal best times the same year and at more or less the same pace. And in our journey towards sobriety, we both became Christians, born again as adults.

Leigh now lives in the mountains, in a small and isolated — albeit very beautiful — community. She’s a first-rate outdoorswoman, single, still an athlete despite battles against rheumatoid arthritis. And she’s also become, in no small part as a result of her experiences as well as her upbringing, very right-wing. When we write to each other, as we do fairly regularly on Facebook, we enjoy our shared reminiscences immensely. It’s so good to have friends who’ve known you for so long, longer than spouses and colleagues and the like. Without the entangled intimacy of family, but with the perspective of decades, old acquaintances remind us of how far we’ve traveled, of obstacles overcome , and of our own impetuous, often foolish, but still loveable youthful selves. But Leigh and I also have spoken of faith, sobriety, running — and, at least since last year’s election, a great deal about politics. When it comes to the former things, we are of one mind; on the latter, we could not disagree more. Continue reading

A note on harmonious disagreement, “commitment within relativism”, and the feminist sex wars

It might surprise some readers that the students in my women’s studies classes are as politically and religiously diverse as the students in my other general education courses. The widely-held stereotype that feminist-themed courses only appeal to those on the left-hand side of the spectrum has not proven true, at least not for me here at Pasadena City College. (And is it possible that this fall I will begin my seventeenth year of teaching here? Where does the time go?) Though my women’s history classes do tend to attract slightly higher numbers of white students, and correspondingly lower numbers of students of color compared to the college average, those students who do take the class and submit journals and participate in discussions do run the full gamut.

Creating opportunities for honest, non-condemnatory and respectful dialogue isn’t particularly easy, particularly when the issues we discuss (like abortion rights, or the merits/drawbacks to abstinence, or the intersectionality of race and gender) are so potentially explosive. As diverse as my students are, most come from backgrounds where women are conciliators and peacemakers; many come from the “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” school. And as a result, while we sometimes have very charged discussions in class in which emotions run high, my students tell me that outside of school, they tend to seek out friendships with those who are ideologically like-minded. The young woman committed to abstinence until marriage, for example, seems to find it hard to form a honest frienship (rather than a mere civil acquaintanceship) with the young woman who volunteers as a sex educator and talks openly about the physical aspects of the relationship she has with her boy — or girl — friends.

Labels like “prude” and “slut” have genuine power to wound. (Some women, of course, are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of both.) Those on opposite sides of the “abstinence divide” frequently imagine that it’s harder to be wherever they are; those who advocate for or live by a more progressive sexual ethic often carry the scars from words like “slut” or “whore” or even the surprisingly not-yet-dated “tramp.” Those who remain virgins (or who become born-again virgins) insist that theirs is the tougher cross to bear, that living in a sexually permissive environment where the pressure to fit in is enormous requires courage and resilience. There is an element, I note of the old “suffering Olympics” problem, in which various constituencies compete for the title of “most maligned” and “most deserving of sympathy.” Continue reading

Men, women, friendship, and fidelity: revisiting the issue

In the aftermath of the Mark Sanford debacle, Laura at the conservative Pursuing Holiness blog asks the old question: Can Men and Women be Friends? Her answer is the expected one: no.

Can men and women be friends? Certainly. My husband is my best friend – the ultimate “friend with benefits.” But it is unwise in the extreme to invest your emotions and build an intimacy with someone with whom you can’t complete that intimacy. Even if you are never physically unfaithful, is there any way to have an intimate friend of the opposite sex without depriving your spouse of the emotional investment to which they’re entitled?

I wrote a post four years ago on this subject. I re-read that piece of mine this morning, and as is so often the case with my “older” musings, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with myself in equal measure. As I mark eleven years clean and sober this week, I note that my own spiritual journey since 1998 has been a rapid and occasionally turbulent one — and as a result, my thinking on a variety of issues continues to evolve and shift as I grow and learn. The posts I put up in my first two years of steady blogging (2004-05) tended to be much more conservative in tone than the ones I’ve put up more recently. Four or five years ago, I was only just coming out of what I call my “boundary-learning” stage; after so many years of what might best be described as exuberant transgressiveness, I was until recently perhaps over-sensitive to the potential for a sexual charge in virtually any relationship. I’m glad I practiced that level of caution; it was a needed corrective to an earlier way. I note that by last year, when I put up this post about controlling boyfriends, my views had already begun to shift.

But in light of Laura’s post, and my own words from 2005, I’d like to revisit — briefly — the issue of male-female non-romantic friendship.

First of all, like Laura, in my 2005 post my approach was blindly heteronormative. If men and women can’t be friends because of the possibility of sexual attraction, then it follows that lesbians and straight women can’t be friends, nor gay men and straight guys. And bisexuals? Clearly a group for whom radical introversion and isolation is the only possible course. One mistake we make around these issues, over and over again, is that we can predict with certainty what sort of people we are going to be attracted to. The anecdotes are legion of women and men falling in love with people of their same sex after living — in many instances, quite happily — in heterosexual relationships for years and years. As a man who has been generally drawn to women throughout his life, I’ve been surprised once or twice by an unexpected twinge of attraction to a male friend. It is culturally imposed homophobia rather than biological hardwiring that prevents more men from admitting the same thing. Continue reading

“My wife is my best friend”/”My wife is my only friend”: the Guy Code, and the inability to get naked without getting naked

I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.

We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.

A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.

One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.) Continue reading