The Benefits of Men and Women Being Friends, Even if One Is Married

Fear of sexual tension shouldn't dissuade people from pursuing cross-gender relationships.
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One of the most famous examples of class distinctions in Vance Packard's hugely influential 1959 bestseller, The Status Seekers, focused on how two married couples would sit when traveling together in a car. Working-class couples would put the men in front and the women in back to emphasize male domination, Packard wrote, while middle-class couples would sit husbands and wives together in order to emphasize the centrality of the marriage bond. For affluent couples, however, the "right thing" would be to pair the husband from one couple with the wife from another in order to enable flirtation and a frisson of erotic excitement.

Packard's explanation popped into my head more than once as I attended and took part in last month's Bold Boundaries conference in Chicago. Organized by evangelical Christians but featuring speakers and participants from many other backgrounds, Bold Boundaries challenged the assumption that Packard and many others make: that cross-sex friendships are always charged with sexual tension and danger. Men and women can be friends, every presenter at the conference argued, and not just with their spouses. In a gesture that indicates just how far evangelicalism has evolved, almost every presenter acknowledged the heteronormative framing of the whole discussion, with several pointing out that straights had much to learn from gays and lesbians about navigating friendship. The idea that lust makes platonic friendship impossible between straight men and women was, participants insisted, as antiquated as the cars in which Packard's subjects arranged themselves more than half a century ago.

As Michael Kimmel, perhaps America's foremost sociologist of masculinity, pointed out last month, Millennials are far more likely than their older peers to see non-sexual friendship between men and women as normal. Kimmel notes that in 1989, the year that When Harry Met Sally—with its famous dismissal of the possibility of platonic intimacy between men and women—was released, only about 10 percent of his college students would admit to having a close friend of the other sex. Things are different in 2013: "Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea," Kimmel writes. "These days, when I ask my students, I've had to revise the question: 'Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?' A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class."

Kimmel's conclusion jibes with what I saw at the Bold Boundaries conference. Speaker after speaker, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, pointed out that even many sexually conservative Christian churches are opening up to the possibility of male-female friendship. As popular young writer and speaker Jonalyn Fincher put it, "If Jesus pursued and enjoyed female friends, then Christians have theological precedent for pursuing and enjoying cross-sex friendships."

On the other hand, most Christians think Jesus wasn't married, and neither (as far as we know) were the women to whom he was closest. As the speakers at the conference repeatedly lamented, evangelicals are like "everyone else" in their near-monolithic distrust of cross-sex friendships outside of marriage. Two singles? Enduring platonic friendship could work. A married man and a single woman (or vice-versa), or a married woman and a married man other than her husband? The cultural consensus is that Packard got it right: that's a guarantor of flirtatious excitement at best, inevitable infidelity at worst.

An informal survey of more than a dozen recent online advice columns showed almost universal suspicion of the possibility that extramarital cross-sex friendship could be anything other than trouble. In a piece typical of most on the subject, Sasha Brown-Worsham at the Stir called these friendships a "slippery slope" to an affair: "a little giggle, a hair toss, a dinner, some wine, and the next thing you know, you're trading marriage war stories and thinking the other person would be a much better spouse for you." Even an advice columnist who "wants to have friendships that represent all of who I am" insists that after marriage, cross-sex buddies just won't work because of sexual tension or spousal jealousy. As Bold Boundaries co-organizer Jennifer Ould, a 41 year-old single woman whose best friend of several years is an older married man, put it: "When we point out our friendship is deep but neither romantic or sexual, we're often told we're either lying or hopelessly naïve."

Yet even this suspicion may be abating. Perhaps unexpectedly, social media may be playing a key role in helping make extramarital cross-sex friendships less threatening. We're accustomed to warnings about how the internet facilitates both emotional and physical affairs, but several of the speakers at Bold Boundaries pointed out that the non-corporeal nature of online communication actually made these friendships easier and less sexually charged. This is as true, Christian blogger and musician Alise Wright told me, for friends who know each other "in real life" as it is for those who've never actually met. "When we interact with someone through Twitter, we don't have to be distracted by their fantastic arms or gorgeous legs—we are more focused on what they are saying. As a result, people are more able to connect with someone simply as a person rather than as a (sexually attractive) man or woman."

When it comes to navigating cross-sex friendships in marriage, secular folk could learn a thing or two from their evangelical Christian peers. While the age at first marriage continues to rise among the unchurched, large numbers of conservative Christians continue to wed in their early twenties. For many, that means forming their first truly adult friendships after marriage, or for single Christians, with opposite-sex friends who are already hitched. Lived experience contradicts the claim that these friendships are impossible—rather, non-romantic cross-sex friendships after marriage become indispensable, speaker Elizabeth Chapin said. "They've helped expand my understanding of what it means to be a woman who is not just an object of sexual desire, but a valuable human with ideas, feelings, and experiences."

When I first read Packard's discussion of class and car seating arrangements in college, it didn't occur to me to question his conclusion that mixing couples was primarily about maximizing erotic possibility. After Bold Boundaries, however, I'm wondering if he didn't get it wrong. What if the reason to seat a man from one couple and a woman from another was less about flirtation and more about the simple truth that even the most passionate monogamous relationship can't meet every single one of our emotional needs? Within the safe space of a car, with one's partner a row away, what better way to remind men and women alike that we need and deserve affirmation not just that we're sexy, but that we're interesting, valuable people? Whatever differences there are between the sexes don't just exist and endure to encourage heterosexual desire—perhaps they also exist to give us the different insights and perspectives we need in order to be fully human.

As Noah Berlatsky pointed out recently, the "tradition of marriage encompasses a good deal more variation" than many of its most conservative defenders like to admit. Same-sex weddings, as the Bold Boundaries conferees made clear, aren't the only controversial innovation to impact an ever-evolving institution. The next taboo to fall isn't just about who we get to marry, but about whom we stay and grow close to after we're wed.

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Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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