Back in June, my pal, Kerrah Fabacher, and I continued our monthly series on Instagram live on Boundaries in Friendship. The topic this time around? “Male-Female Friendships: What’s the Big Deal?” In preparing for this conversation, we quickly realized there were a million directions we could go.
I am, by no means, an expert on this. I am passionate about boundaries and friendship, and this topic is something that comes up with Dr. Therapist not infrequently. I think it’s possible and necessary for us to have healthy friendships with those for whom there is the potential for attraction. In practice, however, I am constantly reminded that the ideal is often far from reality.
As a pro-level avoider when it comes to situations that make me uncomfortable or anxious, I had to ask Kerrah the difference between avoidance and healthy boundaries. Here’s what she said:
“I really do think people avoid out of fear or shame or just a discomfort or anxiety. People avoid those types of friendships because they’re scared of what could happen, of where it could lead. They’re scared of how it could appear to others, maybe they have a lot of shame from past experiences. It’s very fear-based. When someone decides to have healthy boundaries in a male-female friendship, it’s really based on mutual respect.”
Here’s the thing. We know that affairs and abuse happen. I’m not going to deny that there aren’t reasons for caution. However, if we view one another through the lens of fear or shame, and if we avoid each other because of those lenses, it doesn’t help us build the kind of community in which we were intended to be. Avoidance prevents us from being honest with ourselves about what’s going on in and around us. And, as we’ve talked about here before, buried feelings don’t die.
Boundaries, on the other hand, come from a place of genuine care and respect. They also recognize what is our responsibility and what isn’t.
As I mentioned at the outset of the conversation with Kerrah, these decisions are contextual. This discernment process is going to look different depending on many factors. We take into account relationship status, power dynamics, personal baggage, red flags, triggers, the cultural forces at play, etc.
One thing that’s been helpful and healing for me is to notice how Jesus interacted with women. I particularly like the story of the Samaritan woman in John 8: 1-42. He took time in the heat of the day to have an in-depth theological discussion with this woman. The cultural dynamics at work here cannot be overstated. Not only was there animosity between Samaritans and Jews, but the dynamic across genders would also have made this interaction odd. And yet, this is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has in the Bible.* He treats her with dignity and respect. He does not see her as a dangerous temptress or someone to avoid.
And we see the women responding in kind. She engages with Jesus. She is intelligent, outspoken, and analytical. She pushes back on Jesus’ claims about living water and where worship should happen. When Jesus reveals his divinity to her, she goes and tells her community to come and see for themselves–the very community that would have treated her as an outcast. This is an empowering interaction for her.
Can we classify this as a “friendship”? Maybe, maybe not. But I think there’s a lot for us to learn from this interaction. Jesus meets the woman with respect. The woman does not shrink herself.
As we think about what healthy male-female relationships could look like in our own lives, let’s be curious about the feelings it brings up. Is there fear? Shame? Anxiety? What are the stakes? Where might those feelings come from? Talk about it with trusted friends and mentors. Bring those feelings to God.
*Freeman, Lindsay Hardin (2016). Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Forward Movement.