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Friends with Emotional Benefits: the trouble with the “just friends” culture

February 26, 2010

Disclaimer: The following post is in response to an online conversation surrounding the article, “Not Your Buddy”, by Suzanne Hadley.  The article argued that the practice of being platonic, “intimate friends” with members of the opposite sex poses serious risks, particularly for marriage-minded women. I am directing these thoughts primarily to those who are fellow Christians and view traditional marriage and raising children as a worthy goals, and something they desire for their own life. If you do not share these beliefs or goals, you are welcome to read along, but my arguments will hold little weight, for we are working off different assumptions and values.

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Not Good

God is the great promoter of male-female friendships.  It has often been noted that the first “not good” of the creation account was declared when Adam was seen in his solitude: it is not good for man to be alone!

The nature of the bond between man and woman was designed by God, and set apart by Him as the pinnacle of human intimacy.  It is a relationship purposed to be both live giving, and God-imaging–pointing both to the nature of the Godhead, and to the everlasting marriage between Christ and His beloved bride, the church. 

This is something different, which is precisely my reason for cringing at the “just friends” culture.

The “Friendly” Culprit

Traditional marriage is under assault from all angles. Christians spend a great deal of time examining the worldly influences that maliciously break up marriages, and for good reason.

But while we weren’t looking, a far more palatable stumbling block to marital bliss has crept in and made a comfortable home within the Christian culture. Its modus operandi is not to directly assault marriages, but to add confusion and delay. The culprit: the legitimization of the “friends with emotional benefits”* status.

The Waiting

Of course, not all male-female friendships fit into this category. (I’m not advocating a rope of segregation here!)

How would you describe such a relationship? It’s a lot like porn, difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Nearly every girl I know (and some guys too) has felt the frustration of being in an ongoing, undefined, flirtatious relationship with a member of the opposite sex.

While both sexes have felt this confusion, women are hit with the most frustration because as well-trained “wives-to-be”, we have been taught to wait for the man to initiate…and wait.  Through good intentions and faulty assumptions about what is proper, we render ourselves powerless.

The “Fellowship” Excuse

The Free Love movement, followed by militant feminism taught the lie that men and women are essentially the same, and that it is possible to have uncommited sexual intimacy without causing emotional harm. That message was rejected by the church, but a more insidious lie crept in: that men and women can engage in free emotional intercourse without eventually risking sexual confusion or frustration. 

We dress up these interactions with spiritual language in the church, referring to it as “fellowship” with our “brother” or “sister” in Christ. Despite how it is labeled, when it crosses that line, it is manifested as confusion.

Body Language

Such relationships might never cross physical boundaries: they don’t have to. Our sexuality extends beyond our behavior to our very person, thoughts, and emotions. We are gendered sexual beings and God made us that way!

The gender of our bodies tells of our purpose and identity as male and female. It not only speaks of who we are now, but how we should relate to one another, and what direction we should take in those interactions. By trying to deny that reality in our dealings with the opposite sex, we are believing a lie and setting ourselves up for confusion, frustration, and temptation.

Obligatory Ambiguity

Let me pause here and say that every relationship will involve periods of ambiguity. It is rare that a man will come up to a woman and say right off the bat “I want you to be the mother of my children…let me buy you dinner,” That would solve a lot of confusion, but it would also be very, very creepy.

Periods of misunderstanding are unavoidable. It is likely that every relationship will go through that awkward, undefined stage. But that is just it, for those wanting marriage, the “friends with socially acceptable benefits” stage should be just that, a stage, not a destination.

Owning Our Part

As women, how and why did we get ourselves into these situations? More importantly, why do we stay in them?

Often we are afraid to lose the “friendship” by becoming vulnerable and telling the man what we need. And let’s be honest, no matter how frustrated we get, we enjoy having someone to flirt with, and we’ve lost hope that anything better will come along. We would rather live with frustrated companionship than spend a Friday night alone.

We think that we are being loving, patient, and “submitting to the Lord” by waiting endlessly for the guy to make the next move. We’ve convinced ourselves that it is our sisterly duty in Christ to offer him a zero-commitment shoulder to cry on.

“Save the Males!”

What we so often fail to realize, is that by enabling these going-nowhere relationships, we are not only hurting ourselves, but the very men we seek to offer our emotional “benefits” to. It is not good for man to be alone! When God spoke those words, He did not have in mind for Adam a female “buddy”, instead He sent him a woman to be his wife, his only wife

Marriage is good for us.  As sociologist Linda Waite and researcher Maggie Gallagher explain, “a good marriage is both men’s and women’s best bet for living a long and healthy life.” According to their research for the book, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially, finding and keeping a wife significanty increases a man’s longevity and income level. The proverb is true which states “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD.” (Prov. 18:22)

Baring the “gift of celebacy”, in general, it is a wise man who makes finding a wife, and starting a family a top priority.  Women will do well to encourage men towards marriage, and one way to do this is to communicate in a way that is honest and consistent with our needs and desires. On the other hand, one of the easiest ways to add confusion into the mix is to allow, encourage, or initiate “buddy” relationships with men.

Buy the Cow

By making it easy for men to receive emotional intimacy from us, we are inoculating them with just enough tenderness to make them immune to their deep longing for that one relationship where they can fully explore complete intimacy and commitment. As we stop treating their symptoms of loneliness, the cure becomes more attractive.

My dear sisters, sometimes the most loving thing we can do to help our brothers in Christ grow, is to allow them to feel their need for holy intimacy. We do this by holding out on our emotional nourishment until they become hungry enough to “buy the cow”.

Our culture has added confusion to the proper functioning of relationships and by applying natural consequences and being clear about what we desire, women can help reintroduce traditional order:  “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) And if he will not be intentional, he shall receive the blessed joys of your company!

Brutal Refinement

But marriage is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning. It must not to be viewed as the solution to our problems. In fact, it is likely to be the source of many problems, and for a time, may increase our misery as we become painfully aware of our own faults and selfishness.

So why do we seek it at all? It is not the marital status that fulfills us, but that process of healing and sanctification that can only come about as we become completely vulnerable and accepting towards one another.  As Rev. Ted Hutchinson writes,

“The deepest and most enduring longing of my heart and yours is to be fully known and fully loved. It is a God-given need. In spite of our faults we gain strength when we are valued and treasured…The greatest gift I can give the one I love is to become a safe place for her to be fully known and fully loved.” 

No other human relationship has greater capacity to satisfy this longing. That is why I seek the brutal refinement found only in healthy marriage, and that is why I don’t want to settle for being “just friends”.

* * *

*Props to my friends Ashley Clemmer, and Ted Hutchinson who helped coin this ingenious term!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Christina permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:01 pm

    Thank you Terra! As a woman who is looking for someone to love, I am seriously considering ending a friendship with a guy who is never going to ask me out. At the very least, I have become convinced that I need to establish very strong and clear emotional boundaries, such as not spending much time alone with him, and not sharing lots of personal, intimate details. I want something from him that he doesn’t want to give, and it isn’t healthy for me to continue to long for something I am never going to get. I know from personal experience how hard it is to do this. I cherish this guy’s friendship, and he is genuinely a wonderful man, but our first thought as women has to be to protect our own hearts.

    • February 26, 2010 9:15 pm

      Christina, I hear this so often! (Which is why I wrote this article!) You said that he will “never ask you out”. I don’t know the details of your situation, but how do you know for sure that he won’t? If you haven’t already, I would highly encourage you to read Candice Watter’s articles: “Pulling a Ruth: Parts 1&2” and “Ruth Revisited”.

      Stay strong! You are a treasure.

  2. Rebekah Whitehouse permalink
    February 27, 2010 2:38 am

    It’s about time Terra Mork joined the world of blogging officially!!

  3. Ian permalink
    February 27, 2010 6:17 pm

    Cool blog, you’re prolific. I really like your profile pic. You look like a hardnosed reporter, or a head writer for SNL who now writes and stars in her own show. You’re a good role model for humans.

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