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

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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