50 Shades of Friendship
Chemistry, Crushes and the Complexity of Attraction
by Elizabeth Chapin
This post is part of the February Synchroblog, “Cross Gender Friendships.” I have listed the links to all the contributing blogs at the end of this post.
We never had the talk. You know, the “defining the relationship” talk. I knew we would remain just friends, after all, Johnny had a girlfriend back home and he wasn’t the “I can cheat on my girlfriend while at college and get away with it” type. But, by the middle of our second semester, I knew Johnny loved me too. Even though he loved me, he had chosen to be and stay romantically involved with his girlfriend at home. So, our love had limits. And limits are a good thing. We are creatures, not God, so we will always have limits no matter how hard we try to live as if we are limitless.
In many ways it was refreshing and healing to have a guy care about me without expecting to have sex with me. I had already experienced my share of “looking for love in all the wrong places” kind of relationships. Many were one-night stands with guys who didn’t even remember my name in the morning, others were, in today’s jargon, “friends with benefits” relationships, though I’m not sure how I benefited from those friendships. Most of the time I didn’t feel loved or cared for, and there were times when I felt more like an object than a human being after receiving those benefits – or was I the one giving the benefits? I’m not sure. It was all very complicated.
And then there was that time I kissed a girl, and… Oh, the experimentation of college days. She was one of my best friends and I really enjoyed hanging out with her. One night we were just fooling around and it never went any farther than that kiss with me. But, I could tell she enjoyed hanging out with one of her volleyball teammates even more than with me. I wasn’t jealous. We were still good friends. After a few months, things started to shift for her. We had many late night conversations as she wrestled with the complicated new feelings she was experiencing. The biggest question she asked over and over again as her tears mingled with her fears was, “What am I going to tell my parents?” We walked the beach until the wee hours of the morning the night before she traveled home to “come out” to her parents. Her parents eventually accepted her decision, though not without much questioning.
Friendship is complicated. And with the blurring of all sorts of boundaries it’s getting even more complicated. The big idea about why men and women can’t be friends is because of sexual attraction. But, attraction is not just limited to the opposite sex – it never has been and it never will be. As Jennifer Ellen Ould writes, “Attraction is always a part of friendship. It’s just that when it comes to men and women, we are conditioned to associate any attraction at all with sexual interest.”
So, what do we do with chemistry, crushes and the complexity of attraction in relationships? First of all, I suggest, we rethink the binary of attraction. Janell Williams Paris in The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are argues that our labeling people based on their sexual attraction and where they fit in the gender binary world we have created limits our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris, along with others, argues that we need to reframe our understanding of gender as a spectrum, rather than a binary. I would add, we need to expand our boundaries of attraction from a binary of “hot or not” to a spectrum that allows for friendships to grow and flourish between all kinds of humans.
In the “hot or not” binary, relationships between men and women are reduced to sexual attraction and our biological function. We are more than that. We are not animals. We are humans. We are created to love one another and to remind one another of what it means to be human. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian doing theology during Nazi Germany, proposes that the effects of the fall are seen most profoundly in cross-gender relationships saying, “unbridled sexuality … is a mad acceleration of the fall.”
We see this mad acceleration in the failure to recognize the beauty of friendship between men and women. We see this mad acceleration in the assumption that attraction leads to unbridled sexuality. We see this mad acceleration when a woman is attracted to another woman and assumes she must then be a lesbian. Jesus came to reverse the effects of the fall – to stop this mad acceleration of unbridled sexuality. The Bible shows us that intimate friendship between the same genders as well as cross-genders is possible. Dan Brennan writes about the significance of when Jesus met Mary for cross-gender friendship in his book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women.
To counter the distortion of objectification and oversexualization that continues to accelerate all around us, stricter boundaries separating men and women are not the answer. And with the increase in same-sex relationships, pretty soon we will have to extend those boundaries to include all humans and we will be left on our own. We are created for one another – not just to procreate – that’s Darwin’s idea. We are created for love and communion, with one another and with God. The fall separated what God had joined together. Christ came to bring us back together.
But what do we do with the chemistry, crushes and normal attraction between humans? I would like to propose that God wired us to desire attachment to one another for the purpose of loving one another and encouraging one another to be more properly human. When we reject that attraction and refuse to attach to one another in properly human ways, we work against what the Spirit of God is doing to restore our humanity. Here’s one way I have tried to cooperate with the creative goodness of God in cross-gender friendships in my life.
He was the worship leader of the campus ministry and he lived in the dorm next door to mine. We started hanging out quite often and really enjoyed each others company. We would talk about our classes, our Bible studies, ministry, and our mutual friendships. One day we went to lunch together and he told me he wondered whether I was hoping we would be more than friends and wanted to let me know his feelings on the matter. He was not interested in getting romantically involved. There were moments when I was attracted to him and wondered whether our friendship would someday turn to romance, but more than anything, I enjoyed his friendship. I could have easily given up on our friendship thinking that it wasn’t worth my time if he was only interested in being “just friends”. Or, he could have avoided me after I told him I was attracted to him for fear of causing me to stumble or some other nonsense. Instead, we decided to stick with one another and grow our friendship.
He was graduating at the end of that year, so we didn’t have much time to grow our friendship, but the time that we did have laid the groundwork for a long and joyful friendship. We kept in touch for many years after college and I regret to say that we eventually lost track of one another. But those years of friendship laid the groundwork for many future cross-gender friendships that have shaped and formed me into a better human.
Since then, I have decided to turn my feelings of chemistry and crushes into spiritual disciplines.
- Instead of pining, I spend time praying for my friend.
- Instead of fantasizing, I focus on serving my friend.
- Instead of wondering whether they like me back, I reach out and call, write, or visit my friend and offer a listening ear or words of encouragement.
All the passion that comes along with attraction can fuel faithful friendships that help shape and form us into more suitable humans – the kind of humans that don’t define friendship based on gender or sex, but rather on love. Dear friends, let us love one another.
If you are interested in exploring more ideas about restorative cross-gender friendships, join me in Chicago on April 26-27 for the next Sacred Friendship Gathering on Bold Boundaries: Expanding Friendship Between Men and Women.
Here’s the list of links to the contributing blogs:
Chris Jefferies – Best of both
Jeremy Myers – Are Cross-Gender Friendships Possible
Lynne Tait – Little Boxes
Dan Brennan – Cross-Gender Friendship: Jesus and the Post-Romantic Age
Glenn Hager – Sluts and Horndogs
Jennifer Ellen – A Different Kind of Valentine
Alise Wright - What I get from my cross-gender friend
Liz Dyer – Cross-Gender Friendships and the Church
Jonalyn Fincher – Why I Don’t Give out Sex like Gold Star Stickers
Maria Kettleson Anderson - Myth and Reality: Cross-Gender Friendships
Bram Cools - Nothing More Natural Than Cross-Gender Friendships?
Marta Layton – True Friendship: Two Bodies, One Soul
Kathy Escobar – The Road To Equality Is Paved With Friendship
Karl Wheeler – Friends at First Sight
Jim Henderson – Jesus Had A Thing for Women and So Do I