No picnics. No mini muffins. And never Adele…

Boundaries. It can be a bit of an obsession in Christian circles, particularly with regard to men, women, friendships and relationships. Essentially, this post is part 6 of my Eternal Problem series – but I thought I’d give it a rather more interesting title.

A few weeks ago, current favourite sitcom New Girl featured a scene in which one male character outlined to another the things a guy could and could not do for a female friend. Not familiar with New Girl?  (Why wouldn’t you be? It’s all kinds of awesome!) Three guys (Winston, Schmidt & Nick) and one girl (Jess) share an apartment; the guys learn all sorts of things from their quirky female flatmate; one guy (Nick) and the girl have something of a will they/won’t they friendship; and it’s very, very funny.

New Girl titlesI basically want to be Jess. Or Zooey Deschanel. Or a hybrid of both…

The scene in question takes place when Winston confronts Nick about his friendship with Jess, which appears to be rather more complicated than it ought to be. Winston basically creates a list of ok and not ok things to do with or for a friend who happens to be a girl:

It’s because you don’t have boundaries! 
As a friend, you can lift a heavy object, but you cannot drive her to the airport.
You can hold the elevator, but only if you see her coming down the hall saying “hey man, can you hold the elevator?”.
No picnics. No mini muffins. 
And never Adele. Never Adele.
Most importantly, you will not help her build that dresser. It’s furniture that implies that one day you will share it with her. And that’s not going to happen.

It sounds ridiculous, but are such rules necessary in our relationships with others? Is it reasonable to expect people to respect or initiate boundaries? Are Christians (especially) over-obsessed with the idea of boundaries, particularly in male/female friendships?

If boundaries help to prevent us from getting hurt, then they’re a good thing. If they stop us from ever drawing close to people we should be close too, they’re a bad thing. But I think that there can be a happy balance between the two.

Personally, I know that there are friendships in which I should have applied the picnic boundary early on – perhaps I wouldn’t then have found myself having to specify boundaries several years later, when trying to move on from a complicated friendship. (You can laugh with me, but you’re not to laugh at me – or encourage others to do so…”) Then again, I think of the male friend who helped me build my bed a few years ago, and know that it didn’t mess with either of our heads!

Asking the question “is this helpful?” in a situation in which you know that there are feelings or complications is definitely sensible – on the part of both parties. Of course, it’s also hard to say no when you really want to be spending time with someone. Who wouldn’t want to have a picnic on a sunny day with a nice person? Or to help someone out with their newly purchased Ikea flatpacks? Or to listen to Adele… (Maybe not!)

Talking over the New Girl plot with a friend, we realised that this was possibly the only time we’ve seen the concept of boundaries feature in a TV show. There’s a long history of ‘will they/won’t they’ plots throughout TV history, but I’m virtually certain that this conversation has never happened before. A quick look at some of the obvious subjects would suggest this:

  • Ross & Rachel in Friends – Joey warns Ross about the “Friends zone” but boundaries were invisible! (To everyone in that rather incestuous friendship group, actually.)
  • Joey & Dawson in Dawson’s Creek – Much theorising about relationships and teenage angst takes place, but boundaries never crop up. Again, things might have worked out better for all concerned if they had.
  • Lorelai & Luke in Gilmore Girls – Lorelai just doesn’t do boundaries!

There are many, many other examples, but these were the first that came to mind. In fact, as our conversation progressed, I pondered the fact that I always root for these relationships to work out. Just the other week, I was re-watching the end of Gilmore Girls season 4 – the episode in which Lorelai & Luke finally get together. I first watched it on a train and found myself clapping when they kissed. Commenting on Twitter that “Would you just stand still!” are the best words Amy Palladino ever wrote, I received several replies from people who felt the same as me. For four seasons we’d been rooting for that relationship to happen. In TV, will they/won’t they friendships always end positively, at least for a while – Rachel got off the plane; Dawson eventually slept with Joey; Luke kissed Lorelai – you never have a situation in which it doesn’t work and they have to come up with a set of boundaries in order to move on.

TV gives us unrealistic expectations that the same will be true of our own ‘will they/won’t they’ scenarios, which sucks.

It dawned on me that I always root for these TV relationships to work out because it hasn’t (yet?) worked out in my own will they/won’t they scenarios. Luke was always my favourite of Lorelai’s boyfriends, because they were just meant to be together. Ever since New Girl began, I’ve had a thing about Nick – yes, he’s a bit of a loser and rather depressed but there’s a part of me that finds those to be endearing qualities in a man. Plus, he clearly cares for Jess and was doing things that ticked all the boxes I’d want a man to tick in my life – picnics, furniture building, mini-muffins and heavy object lifting…

Then Winston dropped the boundaries bombshell. TV finally got real.

Nick & Jess

I’ve no idea what happens next with Nick and Jess (I know the second series is nearly over in the US, but I like to avoid spoilers). I suspect they’ll get together, at least for a while. I hope it doesn’t end badly because my romantic sensibilities couldn’t handle it.

Boundaries. They can be a total reality check, but I think that’s why we need them.

The eternal problem…part three

I’m not usually in the habit of doing long-winded or long-running blog posts, but there appears to be an issue that keeps cropping up, both in real-life conversations and the blogosphere – that of male-female friendships. [In the last week, it’s even featured on national radio – there’s a long debate on last week’s Chris Moyles podcast.]

It’s the eternal problem of whether (in the words of Harry, of When Harry Met Sally fame) a man and woman can be friends ‘without the sex thing getting in the way’. I’m wondering if perhaps the amount of thought being put into it makes it a book-worthy subject, perhaps with chapters authored by men and women alternately – could be an idea…

Also unusually, this post is going to require some background reading on your part (if you care that is, if you don’t you’ll probably be fine, but I like to give people the option!). You’ll also need a working knowledge of the movie, if you haven’t seen it, there are useful YouTube clips within the links that follow. Last summer I wrote on this topic twice (on consecutive days in fact), inventively entitled The Eternal Problem and The Eternal Problem Part Two – I’m going to try not to repeat myself and in some instances my thoughts back then have now changed. Those posts prompted some interesting conversations in various circles and for one particular blogging friend it’s a question that he’s pondered quite considerably. Last week he wrote at length on the subject and this post is intended as something of a response to his thoughts – a female perspective if you will. (Originally, this was drafted under ‘Rebuttal’ but that’s actually too strong a term when I don’t really intend to argue with him.) I was already beginning to collate some thoughts when a mutual friend suggested in the comments that perhaps I might weigh in with my views, so here they are:

Friends and Teenage Angst
It’s not particularly surprising that friendship between the genders is subject to such a question, when the idea that sex has to be involved somewhere is perpetuated throughout society. Take TV for example, the classic Generation X ideology of Friends shows that no friendship group is without its complications. On the one hand you have the marriage that emerged from Monica & Chandler’s friendship and the on-off relationship that defined a generation – Ross & Rachel. But if you look more closely (and being the Friends geek that I am, I know this without having to check) every friendship had sexual attraction (or something similar) thrown into it at some point. Monica fancied Joey when he first moved in; Ross and Phoebe nearly made out in a flashback episode; Rachel & Joey had a dalliance; Ross and Joey couldn’t cope when they realised how good napping together was… Using a different example, what about the incestuous nature of Dawson’s Creek? The un-ending saga of Dawson and Joey – sexual tension between two friends of different genders at its most potent.

Joey & Dawson

The prevalence of such relationships would suggest that it’s something that everyone will struggle with at some point eventually – so maybe Harry is right? But in fact, in the examples above, it didn’t actually spell the end of the friendships. My own theory is that Harry is wrong, not because sex isn’t an issue, but because it doesn’t have to prevent good friendships from developing and lasting.

Bringing Plato back from the dead
I think a big part of the problem that society has is that it seems to have forgotten or ignored the existence of platonic love. We seem to be so conditioned to look for romantic love that when we feel the emotion of attraction we assume that it’s that, not simply a genuine filial love. I can remember feeling distraught when moving cities and leaving my (first of several) gay best friend behind. For quite a while I couldn’t work out if what I felt meant that I liked him too much, even though I knew he wasn’t interested in me that way. After much soul searching, I realised it was simply a case of having formed a close platonic bond that I was genuinely sad to be changing. A year later when a close female friend left the country I was similarly upset, yet wouldn’t ever have wondered if I felt something more – because she was female! In his post, Andy talks about the role of attraction in friendship and he’s right, there has to be some attraction there in the first place for any kind of friendship to begin. We’re just rubbish at understanding that different forms of attraction are just as valid as sexual attraction.

It’s not the end – it’s only the beginning
Realising that you have feelings for a friend (and not having those feelings reciprocated) also needn’t mean the end of a friendship. Harry seems to assume that this is the case – given the utterly immature way in which both he and Sally respond to their one night stand, this is unsurprising – but he’s wrong. Yes, there will always be people who either can’t deal with knowing someone likes them or that their feelings aren’t returned, but in mature, open and honest friendships this really shouldn’t be an issue. You need healthy boundaries and plenty of honesty, but it is doable. Personally, I’ve struggled with this. There have been incidences where I’ve been terrible at ‘guarding my heart’ (a classic Christian cliché) and got badly hurt in the process, but I’m making progress. Things will never be perfect, but just lately I’ve learned a lot of important lessons that I think will result in a healthy, long-lasting friendship.

It’s deeply disappointing that being open and honest doesn’t always work – it’s cases like those that make Harry seem right, but I think they’re exceptions to the rule. I honestly don’t think that God intended for the two sexes to remain separate from each other in this way. The idea that women shouldn’t be close friends with men exists in certain Christian circles, but why be restricted to just half the population? Being friends with the opposite sex is of vital importance. Whatever some might say, the genders usually process things differently – for example, I’ve often found male friends’ relationship advice more useful than women’s.

It’s all Enid Blyton’s fault
Many of us are screwed up in this area because their formative years were spent in a single-sex environment (Part 1 explored this a little). Educationally I’m of the opinion that this is beneficial and I know that the decision to go to a girls’ school age 11 was my own, but it really doesn’t do you many favours socially. I’m now 28 and only really began having good male friends when I was at university. My mid-20’s were overshadowed by a deeply complicated friendship and only now am I starting to make better judgements. Just a couple of weeks ago a good friend at church discovered that I’d attended a local girls’ school and her response – “well that explains a lot” – says it all really.

Last summer, in between Part 1 and Part 2, I had a discussion with a male friend on this question. [Fortunately it was online and I saved the text, so now have it for reference purposes – however, just because it’s what we said at that time, doesn’t mean it holds true today.] One thing he said that really irked me was:
I think men can be terrible in how they can behave towards women, but when it comes to friendship, I think the issue falls more with the girls, because most guys can spend time with someone, get to know them a bit, and not automatically assume that this means the girl wants to date them/marry them/take them to bed…”we spent a whole hour at the party just talking! He must like me!”

At the time I insisted he was wrong, or at least that at some point girls go through a stage of thinking that, but we grow out of it. Now however, I’m not so sure. I wonder, because this is an issue so many of my friends have, if women are naturally conditioned to seek out love and affirmation and therefore are more inclined to jump ahead of themselves. My friend Katie and I refer to this as having a ‘Grolsch moment’ (an explanation for this term can be found in this advert). I’m definitely guilty of it – not in the base way in which it’s described above, but I know that affirmation can mean so much to me that a bit of positive interaction or flirting can get me carried away.

However, that’s no excuse for avoiding friendships. We as women need to make sure that we take male friends’ words and actions as they’re intended on a platonic level, rather than desperately searching/hoping for a subtext. At the same time, men need to be careful about how their actions might be interpreted and ensure that they aren’t guilty of leading their female friends on. If you’ve discovered that a female friend has feelings for you, it’s probably not a good idea to place your hand over hers while holding an umbrella, because that just sends out confusing signals. [FYI, that’s a genuine example, hence its specific/random nature!]

It’s complicated. Last year I was very nearly of the opinion that it was so complicated that it wasn’t worth bothering with – I think I meant the question as opposed to cross-gender friendships – but now I think it’s something to be borne in mind in an effort to reform society’s attitude. Along the way we also need to spend more time considering our friendships and ensuring that they are as healthy as they can be. Maybe, if the two things come to fruition, Harry will forever be wrong…

The thing is, friendship is a beautiful thing. (That’s something else I was scornful of in my discussion last year, thinking it too mundane and every day to be beautiful – I was wrong.) It enhances our lives beyond measure and, while it can be painful at times, we can’t live without it. In the last few weeks I’ve been astounded at how amazing my friends are (that sounds unbearably cheesy and was nearly a truly pathetic Facebook status, but it’s true). Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the difficult aspects of it that you miss out on the opportunities it provides you.

[Incidentally, I don’t think this will be the end of the matter. I’ve got a pile of research now and could rant on forever, but I think that’s enough for today!]

Overheard on the 19.28 from Richmond to London Waterloo

“Well, it’s not as though you’re 35 and have to marry the first man that comes along or be single forever…” 

“Marry him right this minute!” 

“Only on the cheeks? How very 1940’s of him. Next time maybe you should take the initiative.” 

“You found things to talk about for NINE hours – of course there’ll be a third date!” 

“Ooooh, maybe we could double-date?! I LOVE double-dating!”

In these five extracts from a phone conversation that lasted from Richmond to London (approximately 15 minutes) we have many of the problems that exist in female friendships:

(i) Ridiculous relationship advice. The woman spent the entire conversation practically insisting that her friend must like this latest man, even though the friend in question was rather confused about it all.

Don’t get me wrong, advice between friends is excellent. Whenever I have an issue there is a distinct circle of people who are consulted (always the true researcher, this usually includes a varied sample of ages, faith backgrounds, relationship statuses and occasionally genders), but their advice is considered on its individual merits. But, there will always be ridiculous advice that’s not worth taking.

(ii) Over-excitement at friends getting into relationships. When one is a smug-married (and I know this girl was, her boyfriend was right next to her, immersed in a book and muttering at intervals) the temptation is to drag every single one of your friends kicking and screaming into smug-marriedness with you – regardless of whether or not they are interested in someone or if someone is interested in them.

(iii) The classifying of men and the adoption of stupid nicknames. Referring to her chum’s potential new man as “1940’s man” owing to his chivalrous tendencies was odd, referring to her own boyfriend as “1960’s man” was even weirder. Thing is, I think a lot of women do it. Amongst my friends there are men referred to as ‘idiot boy’, ‘J-God’, ‘Fish’ and ‘Tim’. (Yes, the last one might sound like a perfectly normal name, but it is in fact code.)

Anyway, why would someone have such a conversation, loudly, with a highly irritating tone of voice and laugh (think Janice from Friends) in public? It’s the friend she was talking to that I feel sorry for. I bet she’s delighted that an entire train carriage have heard the details of her dating adventures!

The eternal problem…part two

What I wrote yesterday effectively opened a can of worms. Actually, that’s a little harsh, it resulted in a long, deep, slightly emotional discussion with another friend who had asked the same question I did to another group of people some months ago. He had some different ideas to me, so I thought the topic was worth re-visiting, in order to present a more balanced point of view.Also, weirdly (following a quick look at Wikipedia) today marks exactly twenty years since the film went on general release. That explains why a number of people I’ve had this conversation with haven’t actually seen the film!

So…last night I had a conversation almost worthy of Harry and Sally, except ‘Harry’ actually disagreed with the theory. Appropriately, he was coming from the viewpoint of a guy with lots of female friends, and I was coming at it as a girl with a limited number of male friends (and someone who’s had their fingers burned in the past).

The argument against Harry went as follows:

  • Christians (especially) should have close friendships with the opposite sex because “if Genesis 2 means anything, surely it means that as human beings, we only fully reflect the image of God together – as two sexes – which is our purpose and that can’t just be about marriage, because otherwise every non-married person would be unable to fulfil that God-ordained purpose”.
  • Women shouldn’t assume (and nor should men for that matter) that just because someone of the opposite sex spends time with them, it ‘automatically’ means something.
  • Apparently, “most guys can spend time with someone, get to know them a bit, and not automatically assume that this means the girl wants to date them/marry them/take them to bed”. Good to know.
  • Ultimately, we’re all human and all messed up, therefore we should remember that – treading carefully and treating people well. We also should remember (and I love this) that “hormones are a bitch”. I think it probably should also be remembered that hormones can turn one particular sex into bitches…

Is it right, therefore, that many women’s conferences and good, mature, Christian friends have told me to avoid forming close friendships with men? That if I do that, I’ll only end up getting hurt in the long run? I’m increasingly thinking they’re wrong. Of course it’s right to warn someone to be careful if boundaries are becoming blurred and feelings get involved, but is banning them all together healthy?

My final conclusion to this part of the discussion was the following, which I think we should all remember:
“Men and women have met, fallen in love, fallen out of love, been friends – whatever – for as long as there have been humans. It’s never going to be perfect and we should just accept that & stop trying to set unattainable standards for the people in our lives.”
[Of course, this was preceeded by ‘ I think I’m probably on the verge of thinking that’s it’s all crap, pointless, and a waste of time worrying over’, but why be so negative?!]

But do you know what. It turned out that the most important aspect of this discussion had nothing to do with whether or not Harry was right. It was its conclusion that ultimately there are many things in this life that we have absolutely no control over – so why worry about tomorrow?

With that kind of attitude to life, who cares if Harry’s right!

Harry, Sally & Katz

One final note: After all the questions about the value of online communication lately, at least it means there’s a written record of complicated discussions, should you need reminders or direct quotes!

The eternal problem…

Thursday night I found myself in the kind of mood that can only be resolved by a RomCom and some low-fat ice cream (not sufficiently enough of a bad mood to justify the really good, full-fat stuff). The film of choice was a long-term favourite: When Harry Met Sally.

when-harry-met-sally-w1280

(Actually, I vividly remember announcing that this was my favourite film during Year 8 French conversation. Can’t quite work out how I’d managed to watch it at that age, but it certainly surprised my teacher!)

Somewhat predictably, it made me think about that eternal problem…can men and women ever be ‘just’ friends? It’s essentially the whole point of the film. Right at the start, Harry insists that it’s impossible, because ‘the sex part always gets in the way’. Exceptions to the rule are suggested, Harry decides they don’t exist.

Is he right? Admittedly, I’m coming at this from the female perspective (I don’t think Sally was ever convinced by his theories), but it’s an interesting question.

What’s in Harry’s favour?

  • Even in Christian circles, it’s an issue. We Christians (especially those of a more evangelical bent) are particularly bad at boundaries. I’d like to say that it’s mainly a male issue, but that would be unfair – women are just as bad. Thus, ‘the sex part’ is out there & gets in the way.
  • Ever been to an all-girls school? Spent time with the ‘well-adjusted’ women of the world they produce? Deprive adolescent females from the opposite sex during their formative years and it’s a recipe for disastrous friendships!
  • Women think far too much and put meaning into absolutely everything, which can be quite an issue when they start analysing even the most platonic feelings towards a guy.

And against him?

  • The obvious one being gay men, always useful for a very “safe” male perspective (and companion to social functions).
  • Married men. I’ve got plenty of married male friends who, whilst not necessarily being in the ‘close friend’ bracket, are nevertheless friends and I don’t think there’s an issue. Plus, again they’re in the safe category.
  • Whatever Harry might say about men still having issues with women they find unattractive, I don’t think the same can be said for women and unattractive men! (At this point I realise I sound very, very shallow – sorry!)

I don’t know. It must be possible, I think it’s possible, but we are all human, and sometimes feelings crop up that you didn’t really intend to happen. But we’re all grown ups and therefore should be able to deal with it in a grown up way!

At this point, maybe I should confess that I’ve not got a good track record as far as this issue is concerned, but I am learning. (I blame seven years of single-sex education personally.) Plus, it’s definitely not been an issue with every single male friend I’ve had over the years!

Flatmate’s just started the same conversation (totally independently, spooky!) and she thinks it’s possible – but argues that it’s impossible if you find your male friend(s) attractive.

What do we think? Possible or impossible?