Can men and women who are single be friends without ruining the relationship?
This feels like an age-old question in the church, and there are lots of opinions out there. Many believe such friendships are ultimately doomed and therefore should be avoided altogether. “It’ll always lead to something else for one or both parties,” they argue. The relationship will become romantic, or it’ll fade away when one of them starts dating someone else, so why bother?
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes about philia (a bond of friendship) and eros (a bond of romantic love). I’ve had some wonderful, philia-centered friendships with men; however, when we move from acquaintances to close friends, I’m very aware that philia could easily turn into eros. And is that risk worth it, especially if the eros isn’t returned?
A close friend is someone I value above others, someone I am willing to be vulnerable with, and as an introvert, I find it difficult talking with people about my emotions and personal struggles. I know some extroverts who wear their hearts on their sleeves and open up to everyone, but I can’t. It takes a close friendship for me to be willing to reveal those things, and sharing makes me feel a strong bond. For whatever reason, it’s also pretty easy for me to feel comfortable to create this kind of bond with men.
But being best friends with single men has given me trouble in the past. Two friendships in particular stand out for me. The first was with a guy — we’ll call him Iron Man — who was kind and loved spending time with me. However, I associated that time with an emotional attachment he didn’t feel. He wanted to be close friends, but he was unwilling to talk about anything deeper than the latest Zelda game. Whenever I was vulnerable, I met an iron wall in return. After a great deal of emotional anxiety on my part, our relationship eventually dwindled, especially when he started dating someone else.
After that, I was wary of becoming friends with single men. I was afraid. If I liked someone enough to be best friends with them, it makes sense that I’ll become romantically interested.
But soon after Iron Man’s exit, Thor entered. He was funny, extroverted, honest and open, and I had zero romantic interest in him. Huzzah! Best friendship, here we come. Thor, much like his namesake, had no trouble being candid about pretty much anything. As a result, a healthy friendship developed between us. I began to trust him. I began to be comfortable having personal talks and sharing details of my life with him.
Wait … what was this feeling of growing attachment? It had better not be romantic interest.
After recognizing my own feelings, I realized I didn’t know how Thor felt about me. He seemed to like me a lot, but that doesn’t always mean anything. If I had learned anything from my past relationship it was that I shouldn’t keep feelings shut inside, so I decided to talk to him. After an evening of hanging out, I was literally opening my mouth to bring up the subject when he started talking about another girl he was interested in asking out. I closed my mouth and departed soon after, holding in the tears till I was alone.
The feelings didn’t go away, but Thor’s friendship was still important to me. What was I supposed to do, cut him out of my life altogether? After struggling with my own emotions and seeking wisdom from godly friends, I ended up talking to Thor. It took me a while to rack up the courage, but I figured if he was truly my friend, he wouldn’t let the awkwardness destroy our relationship.
He didn’t. He was kind and accepting, and, unlike Iron Man, willing to talk about it. Basically, I wanted him to understand I was struggling with my feelings for him and that being emotionally vulnerable on a regular basis, like best friends often are, may not be the best idea for my mental health. Admitting my struggle was a different type of vulnerability that allowed the continuation of our friendship.
In The Four Loves, Lewis describes friendship as being about something; he depicts friends as standing beside each other, absorbed in a common interest, while lovers are absorbed in each other. I like that idea of focusing outside ourselves as a basis for friendship, and after working to maintain a healthy relationship with Thor despite my feelings, I see the truth in Lewis’s words.
Love doesn’t have to revolve around eros. There’s a risk that friendships between men and women could turn into such, but I don’t think it has to (though Lewis disagrees). Even if eros does develop, it doesn’t have to dictate your relationship. Vulnerability and opportunity for hurt don’t only apply to opposite-sex friendships; all relationships require risk. I can only keep my heart intact by giving it to no one. “Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness,” Lewis writes. “But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” Love, in romantic relationships and friendship alike, requires us to give of ourselves. And if philia grows into eros, the strengths that made for a great friendship will either continue to sustain your philia or allow it to transition into eros. Either way, it’s a love worth having.