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?

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