Can Men and Women Be “Just Friends”?

Jennica Nobre has a thought-provoking new essay over at New Church Perspective entitled “There is No Such Thing as ‘Just Friends’”.  In it she proposes that there are three kinds of male/female relationships:

  1. Friendly Acquaintances: in which a man and woman see each other every so often due to circumstance, work, school, or other gatherings, enjoy each other’s company during these encounters, and do not spend much time thinking about the other person or anticipating the next encounter while not with the other person. These types of relationships are sustainable. They are the class mates, friends’ spouses, and church friends etc., who have a special place in your heart, but you would never think of spending more than occasional time together one on one just to get to know them better. These friendships can last a lifetime but do not progress on an intimate level.
  2. “Just Friends” or Infatuation in denial: in which a man and woman see each other occasionally or frequently due to circumstance or a planned meeting, enjoy the time they spend together, spend time thinking of the other while not together, and anticipate their next encounter.
  3. Acknowledged Relationships: in which a mutual interest in one another has been expressed and a closer more intimate relationship is being pursued. These relationships must continually develop or eventually come to an end.

The essay goes on to point out that before people are married, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that you’ll have “just friends” relationships that are really infatuation in denial.  It becomes a problem when you’re married, though.

When I first read the article I wasn’t sure those three categories covered everything – I’m friends with several women who I am NOT infatuated with (that doesn’t sound like denial, right?)  But even those good friendships may fall into the first category (and perhaps occasionally veer into the second category) – even with those close friends, I don’t think that I would say that I would “think about spending more than occasional time together one on one just to get to know them better” – and I’ll freely admit if I do have such an inclination, there’s usually some amount of romantic interest (although I don’t know that I’d call it infatuation).  Still, I’m not convinced there isn’t some middle ground between 1 and 2.

But, I’m not married, and I don’t have that kind of relationship with any married women, so I haven’t worried that much about the question.  But the question remains: can men and women be close friends with members of the opposite sex other than their spouses?

I think the Writings indicate that some people can – although the precautions that Jennica points out seem very practical and useful.  In Conjugial Love n. 55, Swedenborg recounts an experience of a heavenly discussion all about “chaste love for the opposite sex” – which is defined as “the love of a man for a maiden or married woman beautiful in form and lovely in manners, which is free of any idea of lasciviousness, and vice versa [that is, the same sort of love of a woman for a single or married man].”  Swedenborg heard heavenly choirs praising this love.  Afterwards angels came and reported to Swedenborg and several spirits with him what they had discovered about a chaste love for the opposite sex after going through the various societies of the spiritual world.  They reported two things (numbering mine):

  1. “We have not yet found the prevailing love for the opposite sex to be chaste, except in those who, because of their truly conjugial love, are in a constant state of sexual ability, and these are in the highest heavens
  2. “Moreover, we have also been granted to perceive an influx of this chaste love for the opposite sex into the affections of our hearts, and we felt it exceed every other love in its sweetness, except the love of two married partners whose hearts are one.

Those are two pretty powerful statements.  First, there isn’t real chaste love for the opposite sex except among those who are in the highest heavens.  And second, chaste love of the opposite sex is second only to marriage love in sweetness.  And this is talking about a deep friendship.  Some good spirits present say,

“On the other hand, the love between a man and a woman is a love between intellect and its affection, and this enters deeply and unites them.  The union also is the love.  But a union of the minds and not at the same time of the bodies, or an effort to a union of minds only, is a spiritual love and therefore a chaste love.  This love is possible only in those who are in a state of truly conjugial love and who consequently possess an elevated sexuality, because men like this, out of chastity, do not permit themselves to feel an influx of love on account of the body of any other woman than their wife.” (emphasis mine)

So, what do we do with this?  I don’t know.  For myself, I don’t think I’m in that chaste state of the highest angels, and so I’m very careful about my relationship with married women.  And if I were married, I imagine that I would hold myself back from this kind of deep friendship with any women other than my wife – I don’t trust myself to keep it from turning unchaste.  But to what extent should a person allow himself or herself to experience that deep friendship with members of the opposite sex other than their spouse?  How far can a friendship go before it starts becoming unchaste?  Any thoughts?

About Coleman Glenn
  • http://thinkbeforeyouthink.net Sylvia

    Yes, this is something I used to think about a lot. I have a lot of thoughts, but I don’t want to reveal them on a public blog. Just know that I have them.

  • Kendra

    I wonder how maintaining type-one friends or “friendly acquaintances” is different for men and women considering the idea that “men generally have a love of the other sex, but women a love of one of the other sex” (CL 296).

    I don’t have any firm ideas on this, but I think because of the tendency for a woman to focus on just one man she may have to be more aware of the possibility of a friendship slipping into “infatuation in denial” than a man does. While he may be able to hold all of his friendships fairly loosely and therefore maintain various friendly acquaintances, because she wants to love just one it can be harder not to start thinking about one friend more than others.

    I’m NOT saying a woman can’t just be friendly acquaintances with a man, or that she has to constantly fight to stay unfocused, I’m just pointing out that because men and women are so innately different it’s understandable that they may have to go through different processes to be sure their friendships are chaste.

  • Coleman Glenn

    Kendra, I had the same thought – it’s bound to be different for men and women, but like you, I don’t have any firm ideas on it.

    It’s also interesting to note that a few women have commented on Jennica’s essay to say that their experience is different from what she describes.

  • Dan Brennan

    Yes, I have been married for 28 years. I’ve had growing friendships with two women (a married woman and a single woman) for the past 8 years. For the last three or so years, these friendships have been very “deep.” I ended up writing a book on it since there was none out there from a Christina perspective.
    http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Unions-Passions-Engaging-Friendship/dp/0982580703/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

  • http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com Alaina

    Glad you helped the original article hit my radar, Coleman…as for your reply, honestly, I think it’s too ambivalent and more of a mash-up of relevant quotes from the Writings than your own opinion. But that’s ok – seems like you’re more interested in provoking discussion than handing down your view. Since I am more incorrigibly opinionated, I responded to Jennica’s article with my own more heavy-handed thoughts.

    Since you’ve written on this topic, I would just like to say that I have valued your friendship highly for many years, and wouldn’t dream of casting off nighttime diner breakfasts with you just because I’m married to the man of my dreams.

    • Coleman Glenn

      Guilty as charged, Alaina. I really appreciate our friendship, and it’s pretty clear to me that it is possible to have more than superficial friendships that aren’t “infatuation.”. I liked your response to Jennica’s article – the first draft of my blog post was about the same thing you pointed out: why should I label my close friendships with woman as “infatuation” when a similar relationship with another guy clearly would not be?

      The question that interests me more, though – and one I don’t have an answer to – is about when it’s appropriate for a man and woman to have a really close relationship BEYOND what you’d have with someone of the same sex. I DO recognize the “infatuation” state described by Jennica, and as I mentioned, for me it does usually involve some kind of romantic interest. But I don’t know that I’d say it ALWAYS does. At what point should you hold yourself back from that giddy relationship where you can’t wait for the next time you see the other person, where you want to talk and talk for hours, etc. in a way that’s beyond what you feel for someone of the same sex? Is there anything wrong with it if there’s nothing sexual in it? The passages from the Writings about chaste love for the opposite sex are talking about something more than what exists between friends of the same sex. Where do you draw the line in that kind of friendship? Or is the idea of “drawing a line” unnecessary if you’re committed to it not becoming at all sexual?

  • http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com Alaina

    I think that if you have a “giddy” relationship w/ a member of the opposite sex other than your spouse, where you “can’t wait” to talk to them and talk to them for excessive amounts of time, you’ve certainly crossed a line. And what no-one has mentioned very well so far is that this is not only a big red flag about the appropriateness of your personal behavior, but also a red flag for the health of your marriage in general. I think that if you find yourself giddily inclined to a person other than your spouse, you should worry less about calibrating your relationship with that particular person and more about working seriously on your marriage – because if you don’t address the underlying problems in your marriage that leave you wanting to stray, there will always be another person with whom to embark on an inappropriate relationship, so even if you deal with the current “friendship” that’s gotten out of hand, the problem will come up again with someone else. Worrying overtly about dividing your social circle into “friends” and “infatuations”, and merely focusing on policing your behavior around too-interesting friends, could disguise the real need for work on your marriage – it would be like treating the symptom but not the disease. That being said, of course I am still firmly in favor of strong friendships with the opposite sex, regardless of marital status.

  • Coleman Glenn

    Alaina,

    That makes a lot of sense for a married person – the “line” you can look at is whether you’re putting another relationship above your marriage, or using it as an escape from the real issue, which is problems with your marriage.

    It’s a little trickier from the perspective of someone who’s not married. I agree that having a “giddy” relationship, etc., is crossing a line – but for the person who’s not married, it’s not a matter of straying from a spouse or looking for an escape. I have my own sense of where that line is for me, but I don’t know if I could articulate it, and I am in favor of having real friendships with married woman. I think a sign that I was be crossing a line would be if I started wishing the other person wasn’t married, or even thinking of her without thinking at the same time of her marriage as a vital part of who she is.

  • Hilary

    Coleman – I enjoyed your thoughts on the subject. Here’s another idea to throw into the mix: I think that one way a married woman can guage what kind of friendship she has with a guy who’s not her husband is by considering whether or not she is looking to his wisdom in spiritual matters. Whatever that means. But it’s a start….. (I think a number of women have experienced the agony of feeling closely drawn to a minister who is giving her counseling and feeding her spiritually in a way her husband isn’t.)


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