“Healthy Cross-Sex Friendships”
“Are you two a thing?”
“No, we’re just friends.”
The knowing stare of disbelief that usually follows this answer is telling; our society struggles to accept cross-sex friendships.
Heterosexual males and heterosexual females are generally considered to be at the mercy of their biological urges, unable to be in a relationship with an individual of the opposite sex without harboring a romantic attraction. This view is quite prevalent in our society, “demonstrated in some of the most popular American television series and movies of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s – Moonlighting, Cheers, When Harry Met Sally, Friends, The Office, Scrubs, He’s Just Not That Into You – all of which thrive on romantic tension and excitement portrayed between cross-sex ‘friends’ who end up either in a romantic partnership or a temporary attempt at one.”, says scholar April Bleske-Rachek. In fact, a 2011 YouTube video called “Why Men and Women Can’t Be Friends”, which has garnered nearly 10 million views to date, apparently ‘proved’ this point beyond a shadow of a doubt.
However, while much of society may believe this, experts disagree. Cross-sex relationships, or, non-romantic friendships between persons of different sexes, can be incredibly rich and rewarding. One reason that society has so much difficulty accepting these relationships, according to Dr. Tracy Shaw of UCLA, is that “people confuse intimacy and sexuality.” Understanding the difference between the two concepts is important for those in cross-sex relationships, wanting cross-sex relationships, or even observing friends in cross-sex relationships. Developing a supportive, encouraging and close relationship can be divorced from sexual attraction, and result in benefits for both parties outside of physical pleasure. The healthiest cross-sex relationships will have benefits, but will also have defined boundaries to keep a desire for intimacy from compromising sexual integrity. Here are three benefits and three boundaries that ought to be present in healthy cross-sex relationships.
Benefit 1: Diverse friendships
No matter one’s view on equality of the sexes, Christians ought to all agree that different sexes are a God-given blessing. Cutting oneself off from the other sex in every way but sexually misses the mark on what God intended for his people. Setting aside the issue of more than two genders, the God-created male and female are meant to be in close relationship, and refusing intimacy with half of the world’s population misses the beautiful diversity of the image of God. As Dylan Selterman, psychology professor at University of Maryland, writes “cross-sex friendships [also] provide people with unique insight into the mind of the opposite sex, which can be very fulfilling and enlightening in a way that same-sex friendships are not.”
Benefit 2: Social Ease
This one may seem trivial, but it is no secret that men and women often have difficulty interacting with one another effectively. Different expectations, needs and patterns of communication can lead to strained relationships and unpleasant interactions between members of opposite sexes. Until my own upperclassmen years in high school, I had very few female friends, simply because it was more comfortable to be in the company of other boys and I did not have to worry about how I would be perceived by females. When I came to college and was thrown together with more women, I was initially tentative and unsure of how to interact with women, and while I cannot pretend to be a pro at this stage, I now have a comfortable level of social ease around members of either sex.
Benefit 3: ‘Bilingual’ Communication
Whether due to social conditioning or biological inclination, women and men can tend to speak totally different languages. For anyone seeking a marriage relationship or even just a long-term relationship with a member of the opposite sex, learning to ‘speak the language’ of the opposite sex is vital. Contrary to popular portrayals, most of a long-term relationship lies in simply living with your partner. Learning how to live everyday life with a member of the opposite sex is an important skill that ought not be overlooked before stepping into a long-term relationship.
While these benefits are important, we cannot ignore the fact that cross-sex relationships can be complex, and certainly have the potential to blossom into romantic feelings. For anyone with cross-sex relationships, especially if you are in a committed romantic relationship as well, boundaries become incredibly important to keep a healthy relational dynamic.
Boundary 1: Physical
Project Six19 teaches a series called Life Up Close, illuminating to high school students what it means to live with sexual integrity. One important piece that is presented is the need for physical and situational boundaries – and these must also be applied in cross-sex relationships. While non-romantic relationships are of course possible, it is best not to ask yourself for trouble. The reality is that even strictly platonic relationships can and should have good boundaries. Once you begin to cross lines, limiting a once-romantic relationship into a healthy, comfortable, platonic relationship may be more difficult than you might expect. Physical boundaries give both you and your friends the respect you deserve and keep your relationship healthy.
Boundary 2: Situational
Similarly, situational boundaries can eliminate difficulties for you and for the people in your community. If your friendship consists of the two of you only going on secretive walks or choosing to see romantic movies, not only is there more likely to be a shift in relational dynamic, but perception of your relationship can be warped in the minds of those around you. Now, you might be thinking ‘how could he say this, he just told me to ignore what society says about cross-sex relationships!’, and in a sense you are right.
However, having a clearly defined cross-sex relationships can reform the perceptions of society, not build further suspicion of romantic attraction. If you are in a romantic relationship, it is not fair to your partner to constantly ask them to trust you as you spend hours alone with another member of the opposite sex or go to ‘date’ locations. It is also worth noting that when married or in a serious relationship, it is best not to strain the relationship by intimacy with members of the opposite sex.
Boundary 3: Expectation of friendship
Finally, this is perhaps the most simple but profound lesson of all. It is really more of a shift in mindset, rather than a tangible boundary. All too often people enter cross-sex relationships thinking of every new face as a potential mate. Instead, enter relationships with an expectation of friendship. Of course, it is possible that something may arise beyond that friendship; in fact, I have personal experience with this phenomenon. However, the important piece is that learning to see members of the opposite sex as friends rather than potential spouse-to-be’s is important to having healthy, productive cross-sex relationships.
Cross-sex relationships can be hard, and just as with any relationship, need to have some boundaries. If done correctly, however, they can have unique and beautiful benefits beyond what one might normally expect from a friendship with a member of the same sex.
– Phillip Allevato