*Warning: movie plot spoiler alert*
Have you seen the movie My Best Friend's Wedding? In my opinion, it is one of the best movies that deals with the intricate problems with opposite sex friendships. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, the plot centres around Julianne, a single 28-year-old food critic, who discovers she is in love with her best friend, Michael, just days before he is to marry someone else. I also believe it has one of the best endings I have ever seen. Despite her attempts to sabotage the wedding plans and win Michael for herself, she fails....badly. And in the end, she has to accept that she is no longer the number 1 woman in Michael's life. While their friendship remains, his number 1 woman is now his new wife, Kimmy.
I think this movie hits the centre of the potential problems that come with opposite sex friendships. While they can be enriching and encouraging, they can also be fraught with danger. In this post, I'm going to be concentrating on opposite sex friendships where one or both friends are married. No doubt opposite sex friendships between two singles come with their own set of dilemmas but that's not what I'm going to focus on. You see, when a man and woman are both single, they are free to spend time together if they choose (obviously there is still room for misunderstanding in the relationship) but when one or both friends are married, I believe more boundaries need to be put in place.
Opposite sex friendships between married people MUST look different to the friendships we enjoy with our same sex friends. In answer to the age-old question, Can men and women be JUST friends? I say 'yes'. Absolutely. I have been greatly enriched by the friendships I have enjoyed with men. I have learnt a lot about life and about God through their perspective on the Bible and just stuff in general. But my friendships with them are different to those I have with my female friends. I don't generally meet up with them 1-1 unless we have a concrete reason for doing so and it is always in public. I don't speak to them about the intimate topics that I speak to Duncan about. Why?
Well, because I believe that between men and women there is always going to be a certain level of attraction because God has designed us that way. That doesn't mean that I have been attracted to every man I have ever known or even considered starting a relationship with all of them. It just means that often in opposite sex friendships that question arises, Could we be more than friends someday? And just because you may never have felt that way about your opposite sex friend, it doesn't mean they haven't thought that way about you.
When I first became a Christian, I met a few guys who had very strict guidelines on how they would interact with women. At first, their seemingly heavy-handed approach scared the crap out of me and I thought, Far out I'm not interested in you that way. But as the years have gone by, I have grown to respect Christian men who communicate their boundaries in opposite sex friendships in honest, caring ways. While some have come across as abrupt, others have spoken humbly and gently as they communicated their beliefs. And I respect them for it. I do not want to do anything in my friendships with them that makes them, their wife and now my husband feel uncomfortable.
Here's what I'm NOT saying. I don't mean that if you find yourself alone with a member of the opposite sex you run screaming in the other direction or rudely excuse yourself as if they orchestrated the situation. Guys, I don't mean that if you see a woman who is upset, you ignore her. It doesn't mean that is someone of the opposite sex needs a lift somewhere that you refuse and leave them stranded.
What I AM saying is that we need to have a higher respect for marriage. Now, many Christians will say that they respect the intimacy of marriage, that it is an exclusive relationship between two people. But their actions in how they interact with the opposite sex suggest the opposite. The trouble these days is that if you are married and suggest to another person that the time they spend alone with your spouse is inappropriate, then you will probably be labelled the 'jealous type'. I remember a sermon at my old church which dealt with God being rightly jealous for our hearts. After all, he created us and he alone is our God; he will not share us with idols. So in one way, it is ok to be the jealous type. Not jealous of another man/woman who is muscling in on your marriage but jealous of guarding the relationship. One of my friends is fiercely jealous for her marriage and since we think along the same lines in this issue, we have had many good conversations. She told me once that she was annoyed at another girl who had been playfully touching her husband's butt and my friend thought this was inappropriate. Now probably a lot of people would criticise my friend calling her paranoid and the 'jealous type'. Apparently in this day and age it is not good to speak up when another person's actions are making us feel threatened in our relationship, we just have to put up with it in the name of 'fun'.
I read an article that reckoned affairs often start out as innocent friendships. Slowly a man or woman begins spending time 1-1 with someone who is not their spouse. Their level of conversation deepens from social chit chat to intimate topics such as our hopes, fears and dreams. Gradually one or both began to feel disatisfied with their spouse/s. If only they could be as attentive as this person. Often the emotional affair becomes physical. A lot of us think of affairs as purely physical. What we don't realise is that there are such things as 'emotional affairs'. Marriage is meant to be the relationship where we have the deepest relationship possible with any human being. An emotional affair is when we start sharing things with a person of the opposite sex that we should be sharing with our spouse only. It may start off as phone calls or one may suggest that they meet for coffee just to 'catch up'. Suddenly their meetings aren't based around a particular activity such as work or ministry; they are meeting because they are thriving on their illicit emotional intimacy.
I can only speak from a woman's perspective here and I think a lot of men don't realise the effect their actions and words can have on women. For a single woman, life can be lonely. So when a man gives her a compliment or performs an act of kindness for her, it really can make her day. Suddenly, he becomes more attractive in her eyes. Of course, she knows he's married and would never leave his wife for her, nor does she want him to but just that little bit of attention can fuel her need to share her emotional problems. The man listens politely thinking he's just being a good friend but to the woman he is much much more. She wishes she could find someone like him to share her life with and feels special and sexy that he bothers to pay her any attention. Now, I'm not saying that all women think exactly this way but I'm trying to point out that men need to be careful. As a friend once said, a man paying special attention to a woman is like a woman flashing her breasts to a man. Do you get the picture? Probably not the message we intended to send but it was the one that was received.
Maybe that last paragraph made men feel a bit worried. I'm not saying ignore all women or cut off all your female friends. What I'm saying is that we need to see them in different contexts to what we see our same sex friends. Men, listen to your wives in this area. Most women are not the psycho 'jealous types' so if they are worried about your relationship with another woman, they probably have a good reason. Likewise, women listen to your husbands if they have concerns about your interaction with another man. We are meant to be our spouse's emotional confidante, no-one else's. Many men think they are helping a woman by being her emotional crutch whereas it would be more loving to gently suggest she share these problems with a female friend.
Like we saw in My Best Friend's Wedding, Julianne felt a little bit more than friendship for her best friend Michael. I was talking to a someone once who has a close male friend. She was talking about how her male friend had recently got a girlfriend and she was worried about this would affect their friendship and said, "She better not expect me to give up my close relationship with him." I disagreed emphatically with my friend. Their relationship MUST change when he got a girlfriend. What woman would want to share her man with another woman? This situation shows the tendency women have to be possessive over male friends they insist they have no romantic interest in. Too bad. I might have no sympathy because I have no close male friends but I know I would not want to share Duncan with any other woman nor would I want another woman to be sharing intimate things with him that are meant to be kept from me. A friend of mine has the right idea. When a good male friend of hers got married, she sought to befriend his wife and include her in everything they did. There were no secrets and she sought to make sure there was no doubt AT ALL in the wife's mind about her intentions. In My Best Friend's Wedding, we can see that Julianne and Michael's friendship was fraught with danger from the start. He was still sharing intimate details from him and Kimmy's relationship with Julianne. As a woman, I think this is the ultimate betrayal and that's what a man's mates are for.
One of the common objections to a suspicious husband/wife is for the other spouse to say, "You don't trust me enough." I think that's misguided. We should be asking ourselves, Are we showing with our actions that we are trustworthy? In some ways, I don't trust my sinful nature or other women. There is nothing Satan would love more than for our marriages to fail because of adultery. Let's treat the opposite sex with integrity, purity and have firm boundaries.