Can men and women actually be friends? Part One

It’s always been easy for me to be friends with girls. I have four sisters and one brother, so feminine energy flowed well in my house. My family used to joke that I could walk into a room of girls and have a best friend within five minutes. I had a boy friend until I was about 6 or 7, which is how I learned about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but after that, my other-gender friendship timeline is a blank for many years.

It has never been easy for me to be friends with boys.

I was a dreamer in middle school, preferring reading books to talking to boys and only had a few crushes. Middle school crushes, of course, involve staying far away from the object of your affection so you don’t barf on them out of nervousness.

By the time I was in high school, I had absorbed the idea that because of my body, I was dangerous, so I just avoided boys or did my best to put myself at odds with them. I wielded my intelligence and wit like weapons. I thought the walls of antagonism and sarcasm would protect my heart from being hurt and protect boys from being attracted to me and everyone would be better for it. I thought men, even good men, couldn’t help but want “one thing” in any interaction with women and concluded that it was best to stay as far away as possible from single and married men.

I was wrong.

In my gap year before college, I traveled with a team of men and women passionate about faith and leadership. We had strict rules promoting conservative clothing choices and prohibiting any sort of romance, but I got my first experience of male-female partnership and the beauty of mutually supportive friendships. Even steeped in rules, I got a taste of healthy cross-gender relationships, and I am forever grateful.

Now, years and many single and married male friends later, I’m amazed that we’re still insisting that men and women cannot be friends. We’ve perpetuated the narrative that that sexual interest drives all relationships between women and men on some level. We’ve set up infinite lists of rules to navigate that story: no one-on-one interactions between singles of the opposite gender, no ambiguity allowed in cross-gender relationships, incredibly limited interactions with the opposite gender for married people, and acres of literature on how to figure out who “likes” who and how to get them to advance or retreat on cue.

I believe the ideology and rules that limit male-female friendships actually limit our personal and spiritual growth. There’s a different story available and it’s essential that we start telling and living it.

Here are two reasons why we should challenge the dismissal of cross-gender friendships:

First, when we deny the possibility of friendship between women and men, we’re living from a place of fear, not love.

I understand fear. I absolutely do. We’ve all experienced hurt and confusion in our relationships, possibly in mixed-gender relationships in particular. But I don’t think that absolute prohibition or heavy rules help us here. Insistence that close female-male friendships are impossible actually contributes to the chasm between men and women, which builds distrust between the sexes. Fear sets against each other, competing for a false sense of control over the relationship. It prevents us from truly being vulnerable, a vital part of healthy humanity.

Adherence to strict outside guidelines is often a sign of immaturity, as they don’t require that we build any healthy internal boundaries or individual decision making skills. Strict rules set up barriers. Rules lack the grace required for the complexity and nuances of human interaction.

When we speak rules for male-female friendships that don’t apply in same-gender friendships, we’re not building mature, loving selves, free to listen to the Holy Spirit. The same characteristics that build healthy same-gender friendships also apply for opposite-gender friendships: honesty, kindness, communication, support, etc. When I’ve been hurt or contributed to hurt in an opposite-gender friendship, it’s because healthy relationship skills were lacking or a miscommunication happened, not because of gender. If Harry and Sally hadn’t gotten together at the end of the movie, we still would have a great story celebrating the complexities and strange beauty of human relationships.

Secondly, when we fail to encourage friendship between men and women, we’re missing out on the full experience of humanity.

I’ve learned some pretty revolutionary things by becoming friends with men. The most important thing is this: men are human, too. Absolutely shocking, I know! I learned that men aren’t purely interested in talking to me because of their sex drives and that we’re more than capable of getting along without my heart being constantly broken.

If this has always been obvious to you, I’m jealous. In my experience, I’ve always heard more about gender differences than our human similarities. We’ve categorized gender by modern social characteristics and offered a hierarchy of holiness by how well we meet those superficial standards. We undercut those who don’t live up to the gender stereotypes we’ve created for them. Friendship offers us a different picture, one that celebrates individual personality and gifting. Friendship between men and women breaks down social constraints in positive ways by promoting teamwork and mutuality. It allows us to see each other as human males and human females, with our humanity as primary.

No matter what their gender, people have stories and experiences and traits different from ours. When we listen and live with each other well, we grow in ways impossible when we alienate half of humanity. When we invest in relationships with both men and women, we grow and reflect a more diverse and complete story.

I’ll continue to develop these ideas in part II, so I hope you’ll keep reading. But until then, of course, tell me your story!

Speak Up! What were you told about the possibility of male-female friendships when you were growing up? How about at church? Have you had friends of the opposite gender?

[photo: ashley.santiago, Creative Commons]

  • m@

    A very thoughtful article, Emily — thanks for sharing. I, too, remember vividly the first time a Christian woman my age provided the audacious suggestion that members of the opposite sex couldn’t be friends. Needless to say, I didn’t have the incredible urge to notify my female friends of this sad revelation. :)

    A few thoughts:

    - Christian circles seem to think that an avoidance of the discussion around sexuality seems to be the effective approach. We’ve seemed to believe that pretending that men and women BOTH want sex, we’re sexual beings, and those sexual desires can be approached in a healthy way — those aren’t satisfactory nor prudent. I always tend to equate sex drive to a volcano: yes, there’s periods of dormancy, but to pretend that it’s never going to erupt — and furthermore, attempt to stop it when it does at all costs — is a bad, bad idea.

    So, in some ways, this apprehension for friendship seems to be mostly derived from a really perverted view of avoiding the elephant in the room. If we were all just more honest about our sexuality, I don’t know if there would be such an impetus to build those walls you mention.

    - Interestingly enough, I’ve found the supporting, kind words of affirmation, and even platonic physical touch, from women to be one of the more healing things since I endured a devastating breakup several months ago. It’s those gestures from faithful women within my church community that remind me that I’m loved and respected — and (news flash :) ) men need that sort of affirmation from women in just as much an emotional way as they do sexually. Now, it doesn’t fully compensate for the sexual emasculation I experienced, but it’s put me on a more robust path toward full healing, and I’m unbelievably blessed to have men AND women in my life to provide that affirmation.

    • m@

      Urgh. Typos. I meant to say that we’re pretending that we DON’T want all of those things. Yowza, whole different ballgame there.

      And, I should also note that the volcano analogy doesn’t line up exactly. Volcanoes don’t really understand what an appropriate time is to erupt…although, that’s a good point: fulfilling your sexual urge at an inappropriate time could perhaps make an entire small community run for their lives. :)

  • Brianna

    Sometimes I prefer hanging out with guy friends, but I’ve learned I have to be very careful in doing so. Because I’m single, it can be easy for me to slip into a mode where I’m sort of “using” my guy friends as a replacement for the boyfriend/fiance/husband I don’t currently have but would like to–even if I don’t realize it at first. Now that I’m aware of my tendency to do this, I have to be a lot more careful about how I treat my guy friends.

    I also definitely agree with your point about how hurt in opposite-gender relationships often comes from some sort of dishonesty or miscommunication–those things are important in ALL relationships, but perhaps especially so in opposite-gender ones.

    • m@

      Brianna, thanks for sharing, and please don’t take the length of this response as a stern lecturing — most of it isn’t even directed toward you specifically, but is a general soapboxing. :)

      But, can you explain how you feel like you’re “using” your guy friends? I ask for clarification because that can be implied to mean two things:

      - You’re asking your male friends to provide some degree of physical/sexual comfort that should take place in a dating relationship/marriage (“Friends With Benefits”); or

      - You’re being taught that you need to temper the amount of emotional vulnerability you’re expressing around a man, so you feel uncomfortable or ashamed to share certain things with them.

      Those are two hugely different situations, from how I see it. The former is suggesting a sexual/physical need that every person has, but is often met in ways that aren’t terribly healthy. The latter, however…THIS is where the discussion seems to take an incredibly perverse tone in Christian circles.

      Why have we been conditioned to believe that authentic, vulnerable relationships between members of the opposite sex can only occur within the context of a healthy sexual relationship? I think this is the question that Emily is attempting to address, and even though I pose it rhetorically, I do wonder whether or not you’ve been convinced that you’re not free to explore such healthy, boundless, emotionally secure friendships with guys, Brianna.

      I can be honest and say that, as a single guy in his thirties, I simply don’t have the time nor patience to engage in relationships with people that are not authentic nor leave space for vulnerability. And I realize that everyone is on a journey, but I’ve just had way too many encounters where I’m sharing my hurt with both men and women, and all that is evoked is a non-empathetic “well, I’m praying for you.”

      Many of our walls are a function of past hurts — and you’re absolutely right: many times the sexual draw magnifies those hurts. The walls my ex-girlfriend constructed at even the slightest mistake I made were nearly impenetrable, and it was her tumultuous relationship with her dad that provided the mortar. So, we all need to understand that everyone’s fighting a battle, but peace treaties were always signed in fields, not castles.

      • Brianna

        Ah, yes, you ask for a helpful point of clarification–I specifically meant using guy friends in an emotional sense.

        It’s not that I don’t think authentic, vulnerable relationships between the sexes CAN exist in a healthy way, they just often don’t. I had several close friendships with guys that resulted in a lot of hurt, mostly on my part, and some of that came from the lack of intentional conversations about what the friendship should look like. It’s not I would completely shy away from close friendships in the future, but I definitely have learned some things to do differently in the future.

        • Emily

          Brianna, your vulnerability here is wonderful. Thank you.

          I agree that female-male relationships ARE difficult and full of pain sometimes. But we should not shy away from things simply because they are difficult.

          You are writing a better story as you mature and grow, even though those tough experiences.

        • m@

          Absolutely, Brianna, and while I only know brief snippets of what you’ve experienced through what you’ve said, I’m sorry that you were hurt in such painful ways. I know exactly how it feels. And in many ways, nobody ever EVER wants to hurt someone…ironically, it’s that fear of hurting others often prevents us from saying the very things that move it from temporary pain to lifelong trauma.

          Here’s to all of us being more authentic and courageous when it comes to loving others with honesty and grace. Thanks for sharing, Brianna.

  • Stephanie Spencer

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Your piece came at the perfect time! I used to work at a church with lots of boundaries around make-female relationships in staff. In that context, it actually makes a lot of sense. Too many churches have been through the pain of staff indiscretions. It seems to be a place the devil tries to sneak in. But, I often wondered if the boundaries were too restrictive. I feel like I missed out on some potentially wonderful friendships. Now, I just started working at a different church with fewer boundaries. All that they have is the suggestion to have an appointment calendar my husband has access to, and to let him know when I am out for lunch or coffee with a male. This feels good to me. There is the wisdom of open communication without the limitations brought by more strict boundaries. I guess I’ll see how it feels over time! Yesterday I went to lunch with a male, and it felt very normal.

  • Grayson Pope

    This will be from a married/in a relationship view, since I am married.

    While there’s certainly nothing wrong with considering someone of the opposite sex a friend, I do not think it’s wise to engage in the traditional view of friendship with them. Meaning one where you talk to them one-on-one or share experiences with only each other. Of course, it sounds “old fashioned,” but really it’s more counter cultural than anything.

    It’s not a question of whether or not it’s possible to have friends of the opposite sex. It’s a question of whether or not it’s wise. And to me the answer is “no.”

    • Emily

      Hi Grayson,

      Thank you so much for commenting! I really appreciate that you’ve shared the boundaries that work best for you and your spouse.

      I affirm your decision to set those boundaries and stick by them! I think the problem comes is when we try to enforce those boundaries on everyone rather than generally encouraging and reinforcing a narrative that men and women CAN be friends, that those experiences are positive, and that morality/spirituality dictates low levels of intimacy between men and women not married to each other.

  • Antonia

    thank goodness for this post.

    I will only add that I still think these relationships often need gracious navigating–but no more than same-gender friendships, just different, sometimes.

    “The same characteristics that build healthy same-gender friendships also apply for opposite-gender friendships.” Nailed it, Em.

    I wrote about my two bro-friends this summer, the beauty of our wacky friendship trio, and how much they teach me all the time:

    • Emily

      Love your post! Thank you for sharing it here.

      I too, have grown so much from my boy BFFs. Let’s celebrate these relationships for themselves. (And learn to navigate the “So, you must like x because you’re friends” pressures! Those are often tougher than my actual friendships with men!)

  • billymcmahon

    This is very interesting. I once had a professor offer a profound interpretation of the imago dei at the end of Genesis chapter 1. We oftentimes assume that each individual person is created in the image of God… which might possibly be insufficient in describing this. Instead, it is probably more faithful to interpret this as humankind (as a whole) reflecting God and God’s beautiful diversity. If you want to see a glimpse of the imago dei, then just look around you in community- the full experience of humanity as you say.

  • Leigh Calfee

    This is so, so revolutionary, yet so beautifully simple. It comes down to: do we trust the Holy Spirit or don’t we? Love this:)

  • Julie Anne

    From a married person’s perspective, there are some considerations. How much do you disclose to your spouse about this relationship? Does your spouse have access to your e-mails and passwords? Would your spouse feel comfortable with this relationship? Would you feel comfortable if your spouse was part of the conversation? The previous commenter asked if we trust the Holy Spirit. When one is in a good frame of mind spiritually, then it is easy to trust the HS. The danger point is when one is weak. Sin occurs when we are weak don’t listen to the HS.

    Other issues to consider: where are you in your marriage? Are you weak/vulnerable? If so, then this might not be a wise choice to reach out to someone of the opposite sex. If you are getting treated poorly by your spouse and reaching out to another of the opposite sex, you can easily use that person to fill your personal void. Two weak people can be a trap for sin.

    I have made a lot of connections with men privately through my blog. I have valued their insight and understanding of certain issues. I have learned a lot from heir perspective. My husband has trusted me and I have no problem sharing my e-mails.

    I think the story might become different when someone violates that trust (ie, changes passwords, hides, etc). Respect and trust are key and the way to get there is through regular open communication with your spouse.

    • Emily

      Julie Anne, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I love all the perspectives showing up here: singles, marrieds, etc.

      I think you nailed it right here: “Respect and trust are key and the way to get there is through regular open communication with your spouse.”

      Friendships and interacting with the opposite sex CAN add to the health of a marriage, as you described when you explain that you’ve gained insight through the relationships you’re building through your blog and telling your story. As you learn and share with others, you’re able to bring a new perspective – a more vibrant, growing YOU in many senses – to your relationship with your husband!

      I’m praying that you will receive blessing and continue to pour it out as you listen and speak.

  • Jen

    I am also married andI find it interesting that we are expected to be careful in our conversations with people of the opposite gender, but not with same gender friends. To me the healthy thing would be the same for either.

    My husband is my partner, my first commitment, my first place. There is nothing I should be keeping from him, especially if I am willing to share it with my friend, male or female. If I am talking about my husband with someone else and not with him or sharing anything with a friend I would not share with him, that is not a statement about the appropriateness of my friendship but the health of my marriage.

    • Emily

      Jen, this is so wise! Thank you!

  • Pauline Scott

    In the book “His Needs, Her Needs” it discusses one of most women’s top need is conversation. I have found in the past that when you share in-depth conversation with someone of the opposite sex it can go over to becoming sexually attractive without you ever intending it to happen.

    This happened to me when I was single after a three-year friend relationship. The other person did not feel that way, and the friendship had to end on my part.

    I will soon be married for 30 years. I feel one of the very strong reasons my husband and I have made it through the ups and downs of life is that we focus on each other as our best friend and have daily in-depth conversations.

    We only have so many hours in the day for in-depth relationships. So, we have to choose where we spend that time.

    If you are single or married, you can have friends of the opposite sex. Just beware that your feelings may cross over the line when you least expect it.

    I would still suggest meeting in pairs if you don’t intend to cross over into a romantic relationship. Most affairs are when close friends of couples cross the line.

    As the Bible teaches, when we think we are strong, that’s the area Satan attacks, not just our weak areas.

    You can have friends of the opposite sex, and you can call it “gender,” but the sexual part of you doesn’t just go away. It’s a very powerful force. So, do take care.

    • Keri

      Pauline, that is such an excellent book and an excellent point you made. I posted this article to my FB page to see what my friends thought. One person said that her male friends are only thought of as brothers and nothing more. I interjected, that, yes that may be true now, but you never know when your feelings could change. I think guarding your heart and being extremely self-aware of your feelings in highly necessary in these opposite sex relationships. This can even occur in “couple friendship”.

      • Emily

        Hi Keri,

        What exactly do you mean by “guarding your heart?” That’s a phrase I hear a lot, but I’m never quite sure what it means.

        I agree that being aware of your feelings (and communicating them well, and listening and respecting the feelings of other people) are very important!

        Thanks for commenting! Hope you share more.

  • Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa

    I agree! I was the opposite of you when I was younger – quicker to form friendships with boys than with girls, and for me the revelation was developing strong female friendships in my early twenties. It really is different for everyone, but I think if people are thoughtful, honest, and responsible we can have relationships with whoever we like without crossing any lines.

  • Seth

    Challenge accepted.

    God created us, generally speaking, to have three areas of relation (Emotional, Intellectual, and Physical/Sexual). All of these are part of who we are as a person and who we are as a spiritual person. In general, men tend to relate better physically/sexually and women tend to relate more emotionally. It’s why men go off and do something to hang out and women talk to hang out. In relationships, men tend to focus on their physical needs and women tend to focus on their emotional needs.

    I’m going to assume that when you talk about being friends, you are talking about having a relationship that is emotional and intellectual but not sexual. Normally when women say they are “just” friends, it means they are saying “This is my friend who I have an emotional relationship (my favorite) with but have no sexual interest in (his favorite).” I’m going to flip boy/girl and emotional/sexual in that sentence. “This is my friend who I have a sexual relationship (my favorite) with but have no emotional interest in (her favorite.”

    Most people (Christian women especially) see nothing wrong with the first statement and feel the second is an express ticket to fire and brimstone. We can all agree that men who go around using women to feed their sexual needs without the safety and commitment of a relationship and without offering to meet the woman’s needs (emotional not sexual) are bad, mmm-kay.

    What about women who go around using men to feed their emotional needs without the safety and commitment of a relationship and without offering to meet the man’s needs (sexual, not emotional). I would say that the secular culture idolizes the sexually driven lifestyle that glorifies the physical and belittles the emotional. But is the answer to that a culture that idolizes an emotionally driven lifestyle and belittles the sexual? Or is the solution to a over sexed culture one that recognizes that intimacy happens emotionally, intellectually and sexually and that getting too far ahead in any one area is bad.

    True story, my wife and I were dating (I being very new to the dating world) and she was asking me to “open up” and connect with her on a deep emotional and spiritual level. I said no. She was miffed and wanted to know why. I replied that it felt like she was asking me to “get naked” emotionally with her, which I didn’t feel comfortable doing. Or in girl-speak the relationship was moving to fast (emotionally for me).

    I have observed that women have a physical/sexual vulnerability when compared to men, which is why they need to guard themselves. I believe men have a similar emotional vulnerability compared to women, which is why the lyrics of the song go “watch out boys she’ll chew you up.”

    Women sometimes complain that going out to a bar is walking into a world defined by sexual relationships and sexual attraction, where their emotional and intellectual needs are invalidated. Sometimes, for a guy, stepping into church feels like stepping into an emotional meat market. Challenge questions: Women, how do you view women who go to a meat-market bar and what does that say of the culture? (ask the same question flipping the girl-bar for boy-church).

    So if you are asking if men and woman can develop a deepening intimacy emotionally and intellectually while ignoring they are also sexual/physical beings designed for a physical/sexual relationship I would say no. God did not create us as just emotional-intellectual being, he created us as emotional-intellectual-sexual/physical beings. Not recognizing that leads to an oversexed sexual culture and an over emotional church culture.

    I think that recognizing this fact is the key to being able to have opposite gender friends, in a world that is usually focused on just one aspect of our creation.

    • christina

      wow! um awesome. SO true.

    • J

      Emotional needs and intellectual needs are also present in both men and women, no offense but I don’t believe I’m necessarily driven by physical or sexual need in my relationships with that of the opposite sex. I enjoy the company of those I get along well with and those who expand my perspective or simply those who I share common interests. I’m quite content having male and female friends and I’d rather not date most of them frankly.

  • Jennifer Upton

    I love how Stephanie Spencer connected you and I today on Twitter by simply asking for my view on your post. I must share that I adore Stephanie and that she has been my biggest support in the telling of my marriage story and how adultery has shaped us and how grace has shaped us greater.
    I get highly nervous when I read posts like yours, not because I feel “whipped up” by it or don’t respect your view, but because of my own story. It is because of me, my defiled marriage bed, my choice seven years ago to engage improperly with a man I named friend. I must be honest and say that I too named his wife friend.
    I get highly nervous with the subject matter of male/female friendships because 8 years ago my husband, whom I adore this day, engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a woman he named friend. It began with lunches, sharing music, emotional talks about life and family.
    I not think this is normal or will happen in all male/female relationships, but it is common. Sadly, sadly common and I’ve lived both ends. For me, for my marriage looking back what can potentially be gained in these relationships is not worth what can potentially be lost.
    My husband and I are beautifully healed today and have forgiven all the way deep as deep can go on this earth. But the pain will never go away. This is why FOR US, for our marriage we’ve set healthy boundaries. We don’t meet alone one on one with the opposite sex…period. We have beautiful relationships with couples and singles, but operate in them together. Honestly, they probably don’t even notice our well set boundaries because it has become part of our new normal. It works for us.
    I never ever desire to risk hurting my husband again. Do I think I would cheat again? No I don’t, but I know how fallen we are and I know the intense power that triggers hold in a marriage that has felt deep hurt. A simple song can set me into a perfect spiral…I don’t dare want to feel the trigger a shared meal with the opposite sex could cause.
    Are we missing out…no I don’t think we are because this is where God has us. Am I afraid for friends and strangers whom I see engaging in a way that I can identify with as dangerous…yes I am. This is why I share my story of adultery in the way I do and love them with the way I live my life.
    Thank you Emily…I don’t typically share on this subject out of fear of the heart of my story not being heard. You have given me courage today.
    I am healed, we are healed and my greatest pain has become my greatest joy. I can only pay it forward by treating my marriage as the treasure it has shown itself to be…..

    • christina

      “what can potentially be gained in these relationships is not worth what can potentially be lost”


      as a married couple we view ourselves as one, and there is no good reason for us to have individual opposite gender friendships anyway.

      but seriously, wise fear is healthy. like fear of fire burning out of the fireplace, fear of going through rapids without a boat or life jacket, etc. fire serves its purpose, sure. rapids may start at one end as a peaceful lake. but to approach either naively is, well, naive.

  • John

    I have learned that every single friendship is unique, regardless of gender. When I get together with my friend Keefe, we can talk for hours about the latest technology and computers we’ve been working on or drooling over. When I’m with my buddy Kevin, we talk about politics or game design more than anything else. My friend Christie and I used to talk about comic books and the movies resulting from them, or the crazy things her ferret would do. There’s some cross-over, but mostly each friendship is defined – at least at first – by a different shared interest.

    So the question for me is not “can I be friends with a woman?” but “can I be friends with *this* woman?” I’ll admit, it’s been a struggle in the past. Maybe I’m the prototypical guy in this case, because my brain usually begins to consider the romantic potential of my friendships with women. Not right away, but after weeks or months it just seems to happen. The only time it doesn’t happen is when I’ve made the mental adjustment of “this one is not available” for whatever reason.

    Should I just change my default mental setting to “not available”? It’d be nice if it worked that way. At the same time, I would like to find a woman to share my life with at some point….

    Why can’t you ask simple yes or no questions Emily?

  • Jen

    I really like this. A lot. My only questions is: where’s the taco? I find myself playing, “Where’s the taco?” in your posts and I couldn’t find it… :)

    • Emily

      The taco is in part II! I promise!

  • J

    Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.
    -C.S. Lewis – The Four Loves

  • perfectnumber628

    This is great! I can totally relate to this: “I had absorbed the idea that because of my body, I was dangerous”. Also the idea of being afraid of the opposite sex. I love what you said about how we should have the same sorts of principles in opposite-gender friendships as in same-gender ones: honest communication, etc.

    For me personally- I am a woman studying engineering, so almost everybody I come into contact with is a man. Sometimes I feel like I relate to guys better, because nerds tend to be guys, and I’m totally not interested in most stereotypical girl stuff. But I guess my best friends have always been other women. :)

    • Emily_Maynard

      Thanks for commenting, perfectnumber! It seems like you have a good perspective that will help you succeed in a predominately male career field and all of life!

  • HannaH

    I feel like I’ve been told so many times that guys and girls can’t actually be friends. Making a blanket statement like that can be detrimental. From about the time I was 7 until I was 21, I was scared of having friendships with boys because I felt too pressured in those relationships. I think this fear caused me to miss out in some ways (although I don’t regret my female friendships during that time at all!).

    I am so grateful for both my male and female friendships. Today, one of my closest friends is male. But don’t freak out, because having a friendship with a male does not automatically mean I’m in love. Sometimes it frustrates me when people think that is the case.

    On another note, I appreciate that you say, “No matter what their gender, people have stories and experiences and traits different from ours.” I learn so much about people and life and perspectives when I interact with people who are not exactly like me—which sometimes means that those people are

    • Emily_Maynard

      HannahMay, you are one wise woman!

      I love watching your friendships develop with men and women. You have grown muchly because of the variety of people you listen to and love well.

      I encourage you to continue standing up for your close male friendship as valuable in itself, not just because people assume it will lead to romance or has already done so. I have heard over and over again that friendship must form the base of a healthy romance, not the other way around. The two are not always exclusive, but even in romance, friendship is primary and has greater potential for longevity.

  • Kevin Howell

    I definitely can relate to this. I think in middle school & high school I wasn’t involved in church so I didn’t have any religious perspective to gender relationships, but amongst a bunch hormone-raging teen boys, we thought it impossible to be “just friends.” That any girl we talked to, we had to be interested in. But in hindsight, as a teen I had a lot of good female friends.
    In college, as I got involved with ministry, there were plenty of boundaries set up but I made some great friendships with women, and still count one girl as a closest friend.
    It does get a little tricky as an adult with friends who are married. I don’t know, I think it’s a respect thing with guys. I don’t really feel comfortable with calling a guy’s wife up to hang out, that is unless me & the guy are close as well.

    • Emily_Maynard

      Kevin, this is good stuff. I think the key thing in all of this is that tricky doesn’t mean IMPOSSIBLE, which was what I was taught. I was taught that the challenges that come up in male/female friendships are proof that they can’t exist. Really, they are things which can mature us and keep us grounded in community.

      Thanks for bringing up the boundary that you have with female friends who are married. I think it’s one that works well for me, too. Usually I’m friends with both parties in a marriage. I’ve found that cool people tend to marry each other, so I get two awesome friends at once! ;)

  • Katie Axelson

    Emily, I know I’m a bit late in the game but I agree with you. My sister is the queen of male friendships. I’m not so keen on it (as in, I prefer time with females) but I’ve got a nice collection of male friends–single, in relationships, and married. Though each one of us has different boundaries (often unexpressed), I still know those men are there for me like brothers and fathers.


    • Emily_Maynard

      This is valuable, Katie! I appreciate how your respect your sisters friendships, even while communicating your own preferences at this point. This is vital to having a healthy self and healthy friendships with both genders!

      Glad you shared here!

  • Laura

    Completely relate to this. Most of my friends are men (I’m a woman) and the church has really frowned on this. So much so that when I was applying for a position in women’s ministry, it came up that because my closest Christian friend was male, this was completely inappropriate and I needed to stop this friendship if I wanted to progress any further spiritually. This broke my heart; I could no longer bring myself to go back to the church I loved, the community I loved, when they could not love me. Even more hurtful was the fact that the male friend in question did not disagree with this diktat, but accepted it. Our friendship no longer really exists, which has hurt me more than I can say.

    Since then, I brought up this issue with the church leaders, but since they were men they said that they were not responsible for the situation but the ladies who had interviewed me simply had my best interests at heart. The male friend was single, I was single and there was nothing romantic between us. Theoretically there shouldn’t have been a problem, but I was told to imagine ‘what if’ he was married, then what would it be like. The interview was meant to be inspiring and encourage me to give myself to the church more; I feel instead that they made me doubt myself and wonder whether I should ever be friends with a man.

    Another part of the problem is that there is nothing available for single women. Single men can enter into intense leadership training, whereas a woman doing the same ministry cannot, and is expected to work in the kitchen and with children before getting married and having some of her own. There are so many opportunities for single men, but if you aren’t engaged by age 21 as a woman, it’s almost as if you’ve failed and there’s nothing that you can do apart from wait.

    This is why I don’t have many Christian friends: my non-Christian friends judge far less than any of my Christian friends do, and ‘permit’ me to be friends with men. :(

    • Emily

      Oh Laura,

      I’m so truly sorry to hear of this experience. I don’t really know what to tell you other than your pain is valid and this situation is messed up! I am firmly committed to partnership between men and women in the church and in all of life, even through every stage of life and change. I believe it’s possible.

      I hope you continue to find places to be free and love others radically, regardless of gender or the rules of “good christian womanhood.”

      You are not alone. Change is here.

  • Maranatha John

    I think one of the reasons of this misconception is buried in our misunderstanding of people. Every human being falls in a particular class or category of persona, and until we know and understand this phenomena our relationships with each other and with the opposite sex will always be dwarfed. In “Know your men” Dag Heward-Mills does a great job expounding this verity; it’s a great book for anyone who seeks to know more about the kinds of people we deal and interact with on a daily basis.

  • Bethany Suckrow

    I love that you call us out on this, Emily. So many gender-based “boundaries” are fear-motivated. I understand the need to protect ourselves from unhealthy relationships, but I feel like the message has become, “He is male and therefore you should be attracted to him and if you are attracted to each other then you can’t be friends.”

    Every winter retreat, missions trip, school activity, party at a friend’s house, EVERY co-ed experience I ever had as a young adult led to a line that had to be drawn in the sand with the males I knew : “do I ‘like’ this guy? does he ‘like me that way’ because he seems awfully friendly…” The message beat into my head was that I couldn’t take any male-to-female interaction at face-value because sexual attraction was always there, just beneath the surface, and it had to be avoided at all costs, especially in the context of the Church. It’s so damaging! I have so many friendships with guys that might have survived if we hadn’t been so scared of being labeled “inappropriate.”

    • Emily_Maynard

      Bethany, thank you for sharing here.

      We’ve got to stop making sexual attraction and other people our enemies! Sexual attraction is biological and does NOT mean that we will inevitably act out in unhealthy, irresponsible, damaging sexual behaviors given the situation. The more power we give it, the more we perpetuate this divide between people.

  • Bauer Power

    This is all well and good, but where are the helpful hints, the how to’s? I mean, giving permission to be friends with a girl (and just friends) is a decent start, but now what? I’m a man, not much of one, but a man. That Y chromosome comes with a whole lot of differences. Since all friendships are built on a foundation of common ground, I think Part II should explain that every guy/girl friendship would be infinitely better if they all started out by reading Freddy & Fredericka (Mark Helprin) together. Get that common ground established with an concrete, re-bar reinforced, foundation. Sure this might take more work than light conversation, but think of how many wonderful friendships would blossom! And FINALLY, all of my obscure references to the Swastika 34 Egg wouldn’t be misinterpreted as anti-Semitic.

    • Emily_Maynard

      BP, thank you for this comment full of inside jokes that no one understands. You are a great friend. Thank you for reading and consistently supporting my endeavors.

      I believe in the power of great literature to build friendships, and strongly encourage everyone to read together! Start with Freddy and Fredericka or Harry Potter. :)

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  • Lee

    This is interesting indeed!!! I did a dissertation in my final semester on how postfeminism was a complete sham and that in this day and age, our culture promises women can get along with men without anything getting involved. On the other hand, the cultural landscape also say that women and men can’t be friends without something happeneing. I think this is a double sided questions. because we are created as pair equals, there is a sense in that men and women were made for each other (emotionally, relationally, spiritually e.t.c.) but at the same time, it is possible to be friends, but we need to understand how each sex views each other as well as oneself in order that we may conduct ourselves appropriately.

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  • Veronicah Rose

    “If this has always been obvious to you, I’m jealous.”

    Yes, that has been me for a long time. More guy friends than girls, and that’s the way I like it. But lately it’s been killing me. They’ve turned out to be there not for who I am, but what I am, and I’m here trying to figure out what I did to encourage it. Nothing. They all know where I stand.

    So now I’m left to wonder if there really are any godly guys in my generation even though I know that there must be. Thank you for this. Your beautiful words are helpful on this journey to figure out the friendship mess beyond principle. Things are so much harder when you have to live them out.

    • Emily_Maynard

      Oh Veronicah Rose (that’s my middle name, too!) I’m so sorry you’ve experienced this pain. I’m really grateful you shared it here. You are not alone. And you can absolutely figure out this “friendship mess.” I believe in your ability to trust God and build trusting friendships with safe men and women. It is so hard to live these things out. But we keep walking.

      Praying for you tonight, friend. Thanks for reading.

  • Dean P. Simmer

    My best friend in middle school and high school was a girl. We would talk for hours each week on the phone and saw each other 3-4 times a week, although we didn’t go to school together. We talked, we supported, we counseled, we hung out. All of the things that best friends do in high school.

    We never once had a romantic thing. Only once that I remember did we talk about “us” and it was couched in the vein of “if we’re both 30 and single, we’ll buy that one house downtown and get married.” But we weren’t serious about it.

    It’s more than possible to be friends with the opposite sex, and it’s healthy. She helped make me a better person because we supported each other through some rough times. We eventually lost touch for the most part, due primarily to distance and different focuses in life (plus it doesn’t help when one of you doesn’t like the internet for communication) but I assure you, our friendship made us both better people and I’m so happy she is part of my story.

    • Emily_Maynard

      Dean, I love this! I want to hear more stories celebrating healthy (not perfect, not sans-challenges, but healthy) friendships between men and women. So glad we’re friends!

  • barrington henry

    Get out of my brain! Seriously. I’ve tried over and over again to explain this (read: defend myself) to people who just don’t want to understand. I have 4 brothers, so growing up, it always felt much more natural for me to hang out with boys. Don’t get me wrong, I have close girlfriends too, but when I got to college, it just happened to be that a lot of my best friends, my brothers, were guys. This wasn’t a problem outside of the evangelical circle, but when I started going to church, it was frowned upon. And when I started working for a church, it was “discussed.” And when I started dating… oh man since I’ve started dating… it’s been a serious issue. Never at first, mind you. At first, it’s always kind of cool that I can “hang with the guys.” Apparently a lot of guys are into that until they want you all to themselves, because every time things have gotten sort of serious (ehem… twice!), it’s come down to an ultimatum. Hypocrisy much? Both incidences tore my heart apart, but I ended up choosing my “brothers” on both occasions. The men who have been by my side for years, and who would lay down their lives for me, but with whom there is nothing sexual nor romantic in the least.
    Anyway, that is really all just to say that I’m beyond disappointed in the way that Christians tend to address this issue. I think we miss out on so much (at least half!) of the fullness of communion with one another that God intended to be a really beautiful thing when we restrict ourselves to only having same sex friendships. I love the way you addressed the humanity that unites all of us. The same God that saved my brothers, saved me. We share the same humanity. Shouldn’t that be enough basis for a friendship? It makes me sad that some people see my friendships as “wrong” or “dangerous.” Or even when they are seen as “okay as long as I’m not in a serious relationship with another guy.” If having guy friends is wrong, I don’t want to be right! Just kidding…. sort of.
    So, thanks for saying this. For being brave. For not being cookie cutter. & for discussing so eloquently the issues with which I wrestle daily.
    Also, be my life coach! Hah.

  • Secrete Disciple

    I am a man who has had many close female friends. The only friend I have stayed in touch with since high school is a woman, and I have always had some women in the close circle of my relational life. I have not had these friendships get messy, and none of them have had anything in them that I regret. There were a couple of times when I wanted them to turn into romantic relationships, but either she or God said no. That is a whole other story.

    I will say, and I am not sure how women relate to this. Every one of them have had moments of sexual tension. Sexual tension doesn’t need to mean or cause anything in my experience unless it is very strong, and it seems to only get that strong if you pursue it. I have always figured that whatever discomfort there was in ignoring attraction (and often times it is so minor that you hardly notice it), it is pales in comparison to having and being a friend. Friendship, with men or women, involves some stress at times. I think one of the greatest benefits of all of my female friends has been that I’ve learned to navigate the emotional and sexual dynamics of relations with women. This is an essential ability if you ever have to work, travel, or study with whatever sex you are attracted to. Staying away from women doesn’t prepare a man to function well in the real world.

    That said, it has certainly been looked on with suspicion in the evangelical world. I have been questioned a lot by well-meaning friends about my true motives, and accused of leading girls on. Interestingly none of the girls have ever questioned my motives or accused me of leading them on, even if I asked. I have encountered so much disbelief from some men in the church that for a while I was very private about who my friends were, and this did have something to do with me leaving one particular church.

    I have lived far outside the boundaries that the evangelical world sets. I have been on a couple of week-long backpacking trips, just a woman and I. I have certainly spent countless hours alone with what I call my friend-girls, even on occasion with some that are married.

    None of this really happens by accident though. In pretty much every friendship that amounted to much I made sure that at some point what the relationship was (i. e. friendship and not dating) got said. If my friends are not single, I make a point to know there boyfriend or husband, and I know how he feels about what she and I do and talk about together. I consider and set the boundaries and I hold them. I don’t go to my friend-girls for comfort when I am lonely or depressed or tired. I don’t do things that feed the sexual tension. I don’t let there be any secrets in my life, I make sure that I tell certain people about what I do with my friends.

    Being friends with women often feels like a little more work and a little more stress than being friends with men, but it seems like life needs it to have balance. There has also been an unexpected benefit. My friend-girls have introduced me to some of my favourite male friends, often by marrying awesome guys that I love to.

  • Alessia

    The only real friends I’ve ever had are men. Girls didn’t want to play with me as a child, and I have a brother, so I grew accustomed to the guys’ ways. Sleeping with them never crosses my mind, though I must admit I’ve got some confessions that this is not mutual, but I don’t think this necessarily makes friendship less real. Sexuality is just complex, love is just complex, there’s so much more to romantic love than the desire for sex.
    I would really like to have girl friends, real friends not just someone you hang out with in a club, I always seek out for deeper relationships with women, but it comes from the feeling of missing out on the whole experience, not because I think I should be friends with women because with men is wrong. Basically what you said, but for the opposite. For now, I managed to come across other male buddies girls and stick with them. But I don’t want to have a stereotypical vision of girls based on the girls I had around growing up.