The Eternal Problem…part four

Ah, the Eternal Problem. It’s been a while. Over two and a half years in fact. As usual, I’m re-visiting it in response to some things that have come up recently – specifically via Threads, a new website that’s effectively an online magazine with a cracking Twitter account. [I’ll admit I may be a bit biased, I did get commissioned to write something for their launch this summer.]

Anyway, they tweeted two articles, both by guys, both regarding the issue of male/female friendships. My attention was caught by both of them, given my prior interest in the topic, and it got me thinking – a lot. Then, to top it off, on Thursday I was tweeted by Threads asking if I had any advice to give in response to their first ever Agony Aunt/Uncle letter – in which a woman in her late 20’s bemoaned the fact that what seemed to be a blossoming relationship with a guy had turned out to be nothing more than a guy who was an idiot and had led her on. Oh dear… [And oh, the irony. No, I didn’t write the letter myself.]

xkcd 'Friends!'Another bit of xkcd genius – check out the rest of this cartoon.

The first article was interesting, in that its writer in some ways shared a similar opinion of the Eternal Problem as the male friend with whom I have argued for several years. It was also fascinating because the thoughts stemmed out of the Theos lecture the Archbishop of Canterbury gave on Monday, in which he reportedly said: “I am neither a machine of a self-contained soul, I am a person, spoken to, seen, loved into existence” As Danny, the author of the blogpost reflected:
“So whether the relationships are clarified, confused, distorted or direct, it is the patchwork quilt which we inhabit that makes up much of what defines as a person rather than any anatomical structure.”

In other words, relationships are important – full stop.

Danny goes on to talk about his own friendships with women and how they might have been mis-interpreted by those involved, leaving the conundrum of how to approach things in the future:

“I could seek clarity from every friendship I form with a girl. We could have a contract, it could be laid out whether or not we were pursuing anything other than friendship. There could be defined steps and processes, it could be recorded and audited, inspected and refined. It would remove the confusion that haunts as you lie in bed at night and wonder the precise meaning of the final words, or intent behind the body language you thought might convey something approaching affection.

It would also destroy the beauty that forms as you approach someone else, hesitant, faltering, nervous. If I knew all the answers I would ask no questions, and if I did not question the nature of the other I would not know just how different it is yet how alike we are. If I am only affirmed in my personhood by relationships with others, that relationship, whatever form it might take has to come before any determination of where it might end.

Ambiguity is part of the fun. Let’s enjoy it, and not run away scared.”

Let’s not run away scared. Like I’ve said before, having friendships with the opposite sex has got to be possible, otherwise we’re denying ourselves of the pleasure and right of engaging with half the world’s population. But what about when ‘the sex thing’ gets in the way? As someone who has been haunted at night by the confusion of a male/female friendship that seems as though it ought to be something more, I would love more clarity. I’d love men to realise the impact their actions have. I’d love women (ok, me) to be able to guard their hearts more. I would love men who are interested in something more to be intentional in their actions and I’d love those who just want to be friends to think about what they say or do before they do it.

But it isn’t easy. Boundaries are hard and often seem unreasonable. There can’t be set rules for everyone, because different situations need to be dealt with in different ways. But you have to know yourself, to know how you respond in such situations and try and work out what you need.

Which is what made the second article, earlier this week, all the more interesting. It was all about boundaries – specifically, the ones a male, married, pastor puts into place when meeting with women that are not his wife. Sammy Adibiyi has a set of rules he’s put in place to ensure that there are clear boundaries between him and other women – including never eating or riding a car alone with a woman who he is not married to. He also copies his wife into emails with other women.

I totally understand why he’s doing this – he wants to be clear, accountable and removed from even the slightest temptation. He’s not the first Christian guy I’ve come across who works in that way and I know of some churches (even in the UK) where similar (though slightly less extreme) rules are enforced. But really, do we seriously live in a society where such behaviour is necessary? I’m not sure that I’d want my husband to behave in such a way – I’d want to be able to trust him to make wise decisions on his own, knowing what the consequences of his actions would be. Yes, I have my own rules about meeting with single men in my work with the church, but as a single female vicar-to-be, that’s essential.

[Now might be an appropriate moment to share a distressing/amusing exchange during one of my BAP interviews:
Pastoral Adviser: “So, you’re single. How will you deal with being single in a parish and potentially wanting to date one of your parishioners?’
Me: “Well, I’m hoping I might not still be single by the time I’m ordained…”
Pastoral Adviser: “Let’s assume you will be.”

Sammy and Danny are both writing about rules. Sammy has them; Danny thinks that they would destroy ‘ambiguity’. Neither is wrong and neither is right. We need a combination of rules, sense and ambiguity – but it’s seemingly almost impossible to find the right balance.

When I read the letter this person had sent in to Threads’s problem page, I could have cried. She wanted to know, at the end of her letter, “How will I know another time if a guy really does like me or he thinks we’re ‘just friends’?” If only I/we knew, the world would be a much happier place! I don’t know, but I have learnt things I can apply to future situations, bits of advice I can (and do) give friends in similar situations, and I pray that I won’t make the same mistakes again.

Right at this moment, the idea of ambiguity makes me angry. I don’t want yet another woman to lose months or even years waiting for clarity on a friendship that could be something. Nor do I want what could be amazing friendships lost because of the risk of what might be construed. But it’s hard. Really hard. The problem really is an eternal one…


  1. (part 1)
    I think one of the things that really saddens me about this subject is how human interactions are continually viewed – by both sides – as about one thing, and one thing only: whether or not we’re going to have sex (lets be honest here).

    Now, sex is a pretty strong driver in human interaction, especially as we live in a highly sexualised society. But it isn’t the sum total of human relationship. There are lots of reasons why two people may want to know each other, may appreciate each other, that aren’t based on sex.

    Isn’t it possible to like and appreciate someone for their intelligence, their passion, their sense of humour? Isn’t it reasonable to, when meeting someone who seems intriguing, fun, even exciting, to want to spend more time with them, to get to know them more? Don’t you do that all the time with people you meet – male or female – decide who you want to know better, and who you don’t…?

    If I meet someone for the first time, I only have that moment on which to judge them. I don’t – and can’t possibly – know them. I can only make a, largely subconscious, decision in that moment about whether or not there is enough visible there to make me want to get to know them more. And thence begins the journey of exploration…

    If that other person is female, I still have little information on which to form a judgement. Maybe there is an instant physical attraction, maybe there isn’t. The reality is that it will still take time for me to know if this is a person I am attracted to, and then for me to judge the why of the attraction and whether or not I feel it is a good idea to pursue something more than just a friendship.

    You don’t – you can’t – know those things at the start. You have to take time to explore them.

    There are lots of reasons why you may have genuine attraction to someone and yet legitimately not want to date them. There are plenty of genuine reasons why you might want to be friends with someone – generally think they are a great person and a good friend – and not want to sleep with them. “Is he interested in me?” – yes. But interested in what way??

  2. (part 2)

    The issue is often compounded in Christian circles, because the impulsive, experimental approach to dating popularised by the rest of society is frowned upon. Christians are meant to be looking for The One, and they are not meant to date everyone else in the process of that search.

    My personal reflection is that this puts a lot of psychological pressure on Christian guys, especially, to be very sure about what they want before they make a move. Dating as exploration of another person is not good. So you need to be sure of what you want before you make a move. And you need to be very sure that you want Jo instead of Jolene, because you damn well can’t date both of them.

    I think a lot of Christian guys become – perhaps legitimately – paranoid about hurting the women around them. You know that most of the women you know can only be your friends and not your (ex)girlfriends. You genuinely do not want to hurt your friends by being too open and promising too much… by dating them in the process of discovery and then discarding them along the way.

    That would be bad.

    And yet, you still have to get to know someone to know if they are a possible partner. That involves one-on-one time. It involves emotional openness and possible risk. And yes, all that may genuinely lead to nothing…

    …nothing if (and only if) the purpose for both people is only coupling up. Because, if you can deal with the emotional uncertainty, then actually you might well end up with a new friend. And that isn’t a bad thing, is it?

  3. (part 3)

    Having read the Agony Aunt letter, I’d like to say that I think this particular guy is being a bit of a plonker. He clearly was interested in her. This was clearly part of the exploration of “the other” I was talking about above.

    But that said, I still think it is legitimate for him to explore and conclude he wants nothing more. Just as it should be for her, too. Because if we don’t allow ourselves that, how are we ever going to legitimately encounter another person? The issue here is more how he communicates that to her (and, if we’re honest, whether she is prepared to allow him the right to get to know her and then decide he doesn’t want to take things further – a right I’m sure is painful, but one I am equally sure she would want to afford herself).


    Does this ambiguity hurt? Yes. Is that wrong? Well…

    Ask yourself what the alternative is. We could go back to a society where men & women do not interact until they are betrothed. Where betrothals only happen because of the interventions of our married superiors. Where we have more safety, but less agency.

    If we did that, there would be less confused men, and less women crying into their pillows at night. But I think we would all be poorer for it.

  4. You have some (ok, several) valid points…

    No, we can’t decide if we want to pursue things with someone without getting to know them first. But I think the point I was try (and probably failing) to make above was that it needs to be done without creating false impressions. Maybe that’s impossible?

    And yes, the Christian world makes it harder – I think we went through this in one of the other posts on this subject (or maybe one of your posts did), because of the pressure on finding the ‘right’ person and multiple relationships being frowned upon. Not to mention the outnumbering of women to men meaning successfully finding a spouse is statistically harder.

    I’ve got another post brewing on this which may look more at the Christian singleness thing – your post on the single church will be drawn upon…

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