Close male-female friendships can be fun and engaging, but are women putting their emotions at risk?
The other day I was having lunch with a friend, and she began to pour out an all-too-familiar story. The guy she'd been hanging out with four nights a week, the one who'd made her a jazz mix CD and asked her to be his date to his office Christmas party, the one who'd gone to late-night movies with her and made her pasta — that guy — had crushed her hopes (again) with a single, nonchalant statement: "I don't see myself in a relationship anytime soon."
I tried to reassure my friend that the guy probably thought she was beautiful and fabulous and smart but had just made a choice to be single for now.
"But we have such a great connection," she moaned. "We're such good friends!"
I felt anger well up. This was not the first time I'd heard this story. I could count nearly half a dozen friends who found themselves in this same frustrating situation. After investing months in late-night talks, meals together and flirty emails, each woman faced the sad reality that the guy actually wasn't planning to upgrade their friendship to, well, marriage.
It's Not Our Fault!
I decided to discuss this trend with a few of my guy friends. I specifically targeted Brad, whose boyish good looks and abundance of charm had lured in more than one hopeful woman and gained him a reputation as a heartbreaker.
"Do you think it's wrong for a guy to initiate one-on-one time with a woman when he has no intentions with her?" I asked.
My friend paused, savoring the question. "I think," he said, "if a woman wants something to be there, she's going to see something there."
His buddies smirked knowingly.
"But don't you think seeking her out and spending time with her encourages it?" I prodded.
"She's the one who's choosing to view that as special treatment," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "It's her interpretation."
"Can you tell when a girl's interested in you?"
"Then why would you lead her on like that?"
"She's free to say no anytime. Until then, I'll assume she's OK with it."
By "OK," I guessed he meant the girl could handle it emotionally.
His buddies slapped him on the back.
"That's right," one of them piped up. "Women are always going to read into something. If you catered to it, you'd have to give up female friends completely."
The most helpful book I never read was a little relationship book called He's Just Not That Into You. The title alone provided the answer to a decade's old inner struggle I've had. You know, the one that causes a single female to hope a relationship will develop out of a friendship despite a complete absence of evidence of the fact.
In her book Relationships, former college professor Dr. Pamela Reeve discusses three levels of friendships: acquaintances, companions and intimate friends. Dr. Reeve observes that men and women cannot sustain an intimate friendship without one or the other harboring romantic expectations. She recommends that men and women avoid being intimate friends outside of courtship and marriage.
Companions, she says, generally spend less than two hours together a week. When a man indicates he would like to see the woman more than that, but claims they are "just friends," he sends a mixed message.
Dr. Reeve writes: "One party can selfishly enjoy all the benefits of a relationship, the warmth and relief from loneliness, the satisfaction of the attention that feeds the ego — all without the accompanying commitment. One party luxuriates, while the other party feels cheated and is left with deep unsatisfied longings."
I've recently observed several non-dating relationships that seem to fall into the "intimate friends" category. In every case, it is the woman who is paying the price emotionally. Why? When a guy starts investing his heart, he can do something about it by making a move. And if the girl rejects him, the friendship ends or changes significantly. A woman, however, can hang on in this kind of relationship indefinitely, hoping the guy will eventually share her feelings. She makes herself available to him as a "friend," all the while hoping the friendship will blossom into something more.
Unfortunately, even if the guy senses the woman's interest, like my friend Brad, he has not made a direct offer to her and therefore feels no obligation to clear up the matter. Maybe we could chalk that up to communication differences between men and women: A man may be oblivious to unspoken signs that he has been placed in the "future husband" category. What he may be viewing as an innocent dinner, she sees as an indication that the friendship is developing into more. But men should assume that if a woman is spending a lot of time with him, she is interested and she is investing her emotions. (I suspect men realize this more often than they'll admit, but hold onto these ego-boosting relationships anyway.)
Women, on the other hand, need to assume less. A woman should not assume that a guy friend she's spending time with is: a) just too shy to make a move; b) thinking she's the woman of his dreams but the timing isn't right; c) in denial of God's will that they be together.
We get it. A woman loves to read into a guy's every action. That's her relational crime. But the guy does her a disservice by allowing her to be his "buddy girl" — a female friend who provides the relational benefits without the commitment.
In his article "Physical Intimacy and the Single Man," Matt Schmucker points out that men defraud their sisters when they indulge in this type of relationship. "Simply put," he writes, "a man defrauds a woman when, by his words or actions, he promises the benefits of marriage to a woman he either has no intention of marrying or if he does, has no way of finally knowing that he will."
Single men and women are failing each other. Uncommitted intimate friendships may satiate immediate needs, but they lead to frustration and heartache. Not to mention, for singles ready for marriage, these "friendships" waste time and energy.
Men and women who find themselves in a dead-end friendship, should take responsibility. A woman is responsible to be wise with her heart. Solomon said, "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23). If a woman feels her heart longing for a man who's not pursuing her, indulging those feelings is unwise.
Song of Songs puts it this way, "Do not awaken love before it so desires." As a generation of women drunk on chick flicks, we want romance to happen so badly we allow ourselves to fantasize about relationships that have no founding.
About a year ago, my sister, a college junior, was receiving regular phone calls from Nick, a guy friend who had transferred to another school. During their conversations he would shower her with compliments, ask her what she was looking for in a guy and talk about taking her out to dinner at a fancy restaurant when he visited. At the same time, he congratulated her for being the only girl he could really talk to who wouldn't "get the wrong idea."
Despite her desire to be that exception, Sarah found herself increasingly confused by Nick's attention. She realized she was beginning to entertain romantic thoughts. After seeking counsel, Sarah decided she needed to cut back on her interactions with Nick to protect her heart.
During their next phone conversation, she explained how she felt. Nick admitted he wasn't interested in her as more than a friend, but he seemed shocked and offended that Sarah wanted to back off.
Just as a woman should take measures to guard her heart in relationships, a guy should seek to protect the emotions of his female friends. Paul instructed Timothy to treat young women "as sisters with absolute purity." I can say this from experience — you never have to wonder if your brother is romantically interested in you.
I have interacted with guys who are genuine and friendly without making me wonder if they want me to have their children. Like a good dance partner, the guy gently eases me to a place where I understand he considers me a friend only. We may engage in a meaningful friendship, but he does not give false signals by inviting me to dinner, emailing me daily or initiating extended time together. While these actions are fine if the guy is interested, they are misleading if he's not.
Make Room for Romance
Ecclesiastes croons, "There is a time for love." If, as a woman, you are indulging in an intimate friendship with a man who is not pursuing you, you are accepting a cheap imitation of love. And by spending all your time with a guy who will never put a ring on your finger, you may miss a potential suitor.
If, as a man, you are spending large quantities of time with a woman, you may want to consider if perhaps the relationship is deserving of an upgrade to an intentional relationship that explores the possibility of matrimony. If not, do your sister the courtesy of making your stance clear, freeing her to be pursued by another man.
Above all, if you find yourself in an intimate friendship with someone of the opposite sex, ask the Lord for wisdom and discernment. Describing the complexity of relationships, Dr. Reeve uses the words of a poster she once read:
Involvement with people is always a very delicate thing....
It requires real maturity to get involved and not get all messed up.
"Never," she concludes, "is this more true than in relationships between men and women."
I couldn't agree more with the good doctor. When it comes to male-female relationships, lacking intent, the buddy system is a bad idea.
Copyright 2006 Suzanne Hadley. All rights reserved.