Set-Apart Femininity Review #6: Mix-gender friendships and making the first move

This week’s chapter in Set-Apart Femininity is entitled “Sacred Mystique: Femininity that changes men into princes.” The idea behind this chapter is that long ago, women were masters at the art of feminine mystique, and the aura of mystery they exuded was very alluring to men and caused men to become wooing warriors and capture the heart of one of these elusive princesses (p. 107). Now, however, our modern culture has caused women to become too assertive (or adulterous), and this forwardness means that marriages and relationships everywhere are in shambles.

The answer? Reclaiming this lost art of feminine mystique by being cautious with guy/girl friendships, always allowing guys to make the first move in a relationship, and saying no to flirting.

I understand this sounded like a whole lot of hyperbole. But this is, quite seriously, the gist of this chapter.

Can guys and girls be friends?

First off, let me start by saying that, on the whole, I agree with the flirting part. I don’t think it’s bad for two single people who like each other to get a little goofy together, but by no means should that be your default setting when talking to all guys.

It is entirely possible, though, to have mixed-gender friendships that are not based on flirting but are built on mutual understanding, enjoyment, and respect. Growing up, I attended a summer church camp. During my last few years I found a good little group of friends (half guys, half girls) who liked to laugh, talk about life, and occasionally argue over whether St. John Chrysostom was Greek or Antiochian. Their humor, down-to-earth realism, and bent toward intellectual dialogue was my lifeline.

Likewise, a few years down the road, I found myself studying abroad in Scotland and in a group of friends with both guys and girls, united by a mutual love of travel, writing, and Harry Potter.

I learned a lot from these friendships, and value the thoughts and perspectives I’ve gained from them. As such, I get disheartened by books like Set-Apart Femininity that seem to sexualize these friendships, or suggest that they can never be completely genuine because the potential for falling in love or committing sexual sin is always there.

I do understand that Leslie Ludy and I are approaching this topic from two vastly different perspectives. She writes that she used to have a problem with flirtation, throwing herself at men, and getting a sense of identity from being wanted by men. That is not part of my past. As such, I’m probably less inclined to be cautious about such things, whereas someone with Ludy’s story would understandably have a different perspective. She said she didn’t feel comfortable sharing her deep issues with men or showing any further affection than a side-hug, since a front hug has too much potential for stumbling (side note: in the actual biblical context, “stumbling” means stumbling in the faith, i.e., doubting God and religion. If hugging a woman causes you to doubt God…you have issues). So if that’s what helped her in her own life then that’s great.

However, Ludy moves into this idea that having a friendship with a guy is incompatible with being married, and therefore guy/girl friendships have to go:

In reality, a guy/girl friendship–especially one that is not headed toward marriage–is not meant to become as intimate and close as other friendships, no matter what kind of “connection” you may feel. Once God brings your future spouse into your life, your one-on-one friendships with the opposite sex will need to diminish, being replaced by “couple friendships” instead. And it is far less painful to make that transition when deep, personal, intimate bonds have not been forged (p. 110).

If you are married (and want to stay that way), you won’t enter into a deep, intimate friendship with another guy; opening up personal, vulnerable dimensions of your heart to him instead of your husband. So if you wouldn’t enter this kind of friendship with a guy after marriage, why would you enter one before marriage with someone other than your spouse? (p. 112).

And this, I think, is where the cautions about relationships take an unhealthy turn. First off, before you’re married, you’re not married. I’m sorry that I even have to write that sentence. Dating someone while you’re single is not the same thing as cheating on your current spouse. Just…no. Also, what are you supposed to do if you’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual? Not have any human contact? Or what if you never get married and there’s no future spouse to worry about?

I noticed, though, that she talks about opening up to a guy friend instead of your husband. Obviously, before you even know your husband, you’re bound to talk about things with friends since your husband is not in the picture. But rather than warning about how having a guy friend will drive a wedge between you and your spouse, why not talk about the idea that men and women can be friends without it troubling your romantic relationship? Certainly, it is problematic to talk to an opposite-sex friend about things that you won’t address with your spouse. But does that potential error really justify diminishing all opposite-sex friendships?

Ludy talks about how we are like the temples of God, and how the Temple in ancient Israel was divided into parts. According to her, these parts symbolize aspects of ourselves and the varying degrees of openness we should have with other people. Guy friends, she writes, should be kept in our “Outer Court,” or the part of our lives and selves open to casual friends and acquaintances from church (p. 113). Letting them into the “Holy Place” (the place for family members, mentors, and close friends) means we sacrifice our “hidden person of the heart” and become like the adulterous woman from Proverbs 7.

I think this is an entirely unnecessary construct.

Rather than writing off an entire gender as impossible to be friends with, I think what’s more helpful when navigating male/female friendships is actually a different building analogy: the principle of walls and windows.

In the book Committed, author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the work of psychologist Shirley P. Glass, and her understanding that a healthy marriage, one that includes non-romantic friendships outside of the marriage, is healthy not because the couple avoids all contact with the opposite sex, but because they keep their proper channels of communication open and their proper boundaries with friends set.

It was Glass’s theory that every healthy marriage is composed of walls and windows. The windows are aspects of your relationship that are open to the world–that is, the necessary gaps through which you interact with family and friends; the walls are the barriers of trust behind which you guard the most intimate secrets of your marriage.

What often happens, though, during so-called harmless friendships, is that you begin sharing intimacies with your new friend that belong hidden within your marriage…You throw open a window where there really ought to be a solid, weight-bearing wall. Not wanting your spouse to feel jealous, you keep the details of your new friendship hidden. In doing so, you have now created a problem: You have just built a wall between you and your spouse where there really ought to be free circulation of air and light. The entire architecture of your matrimonial intimacy has therefore been rearranged (p. 109).

To have a healthy marriage, you do not need to cut off all opposite-sex friendships entirely, or only befriend couples. You do, however, need to keep some common-sense boundaries in friendships, and above all, keep your openness and honesty with your spouse intact. To me, that sounds like the blueprint for a much healthier lifestyle: rather than seeing half the world as a potential for stumbling, you form genuine friendships. Rather than feeling a sense of nagging paranoia about who your spouse is friends with, you communicate.

If you really are unable to have a friend of the opposite sex without becoming attracted to them, or without becoming secretive with your spouse, then perhaps Ludy’s advice would be better for you (but hopefully nobody is actually like that!). But if you’re willing to communicate with your spouse and view opposite-sex friendships like you would any other friendship, then thinking you have to cut those people out of your life is not necessary.

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Women should stand back so men can feel strong

I almost don’t want to write about this section, or just want to sum up my thoughts by simply saying I can’t even. Basically, Ludy makes the argument that in order to have a God-scripted love story and successful marriage, the guy needs to initiate the relationship. And if he doesn’t, he’ll become a lazy deadbeat you’ll end up resenting.

How’s that for logic?

Ludy’s basis for this argument is that the Bible is an image of Christ pursuing the Church, and if a female tells a male she likes him, she’s violating God’s creation. Ironically, she cites Song of Solomon as evidence, even though in that book it is the woman who initiates by speaking first and telling her lover to kiss her. The book is actually a dialogue with the partners pursuing one another. (Also noted is the fact that Ludy ignores Ruth, a woman who certainly did not take a passive stance in pursuing a man. In fact, her scoping out where Boaz worked, “happening” to show up there, and then sneaking into where he was sleeping that night is, if anything, presented as a positive thing in that book).

Ludy says that if a woman shows initiative, a man will be too intimidated and will fail to develop a backbone:

When a woman tries to take a man’s role in a relationship, she robs him of his masculine strength…He may be temporarily flattered by her aggression toward him, but in the end, he will lose respect for both her and his own masculinity. Instead of becoming her protector and leader, he will become lazy and lackluster, expecting her to do all of the work in the relationship (p. 116).

She cites her own relationship with her husband, and how her stepping back and letting her husband taking the lead was key to their relationship:

Finally, when the time was right, Eric took the lead. And one of the first things he said to me was how much it meant to him that I had allowed him to be the first one to initiate a conversation about our relationship.

“You respected my position as a man,” he told me, “and not many girls today would do that” (p. 117).

Ludy goes on to talk about how a friend of hers liked his guy for years but kept her feelings a secret until one day he decided to start a relationship with her:

“Why shouldn’t I just initiate a conversation with him about how I feel?” she wondered many times. “What’s so wrong with just being open and honest about what I think God is doing between us?” But after much prayer, she decided that she would leave it in God’s hands. “If God wants us to be together, He is perfectly capable of prompting Jason to take the lead,” she decided.

Finally, after Natalie had all but given up on the hope of a relationship ever happening, Jason approached her…It became a beautiful, sacred, God-glorifying relationship. And it started with true femininity allowing true masculinity to shine (p. 118).

There is a lot I could say, so I’ll just keep it to a few points:

  1. There is nothing wrong with being honest. There is a lot wrong with hanging around a guy you like for years while hiding from him the fact that you like him. That’s deceitful.
  2. Her claims about a woman’s honesty turning a man lazy are (obviously) false scare tactics. The best marriage I have ever seen is one where the woman was the first to say “I love you.”
  3. The attitude of “if God wants it to happen, I’ll sit back and wait” is some odd and problematic theology. We are Christ’s fellow workers. If you wait, there is no guarantee that the guy you like will pursue you.
  4. Ladies, if you encounter a man who requires you to be silent so he can feel “heroic,” promise me you’ll kick up your heels and run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. If he refuses to treat you well because you asked about where your relationship is going, then he is not a good man and not worth your time.

Who has the greater character: one who needs others to back down in order to feel strong, or one who continues to feel strong in the presence of other strong people? Who is a greater man: a man who values honesty in the woman he loves, or a man who needs her to stand back so he can feel brave?

Be a person of greater character. Be honest. Be genuine. Don’t be intimidated by what others do or how they think of you. Cherish your friends, male and female alike. Keep your walls and windows where they should be.

And remember that your story is what you make it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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