Some theses on friendship

This post identifies some broad themes about friendship which I hope to explore more deeply in future posts.

I welcome any feedback you have to offer, as it will help me to develop my ideas as I try to expand on what I have said here.

1. We need to begin with a recovery of the full resources for friendship which already exist within the Christian tradition.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis points out how far friendship has fallen in esteem in the modern world. Our culture devotes an enormous amount of attention to romantic, erotic, familial, and marital relationships; it devotes very little to friendship. This stands in stark contrast to earlier ages, where friendship was exalted, certainly at the expense of eros, and even at times at the expense of marriage. As a result, those who do not marry and choose to live chaste lives in our culture have few models for how to form the meaningful human bonds which are an important part of human flourishing and which can be crucial for support and growth in faith.

It can be tempting to respond to this by, for example, trying to adapt the marital, romantic, or erotic models that are prominent in our culture to some new chaste/celibate form. We understand and can relate to these models, while the existing models of friendship in our culture are anemic and seem inadequate to meet our need for intimacy and belonging.

I would argue, however, that our first task should be to reach back into the Christian tradition, which already has a rich history of reflection on friendship. Taking the time to really mine these existing veins will, I suggest, offer two benefits.

First, those who understand friendship as it was practiced by, for example, Aelred of Rievaulx, will be much less likely to think that the Bible or the Church is forcing gay Christians into a life of loneliness. Instead, they will see that a life without sexual intimacy can nevertheless be rich in meaningful human relationships.

Second, to the extent that the situation of celibate gay or lesbian Christians raises problems which are not addressed in the tradition, attention to reflection on friendship will give us much richer resources for thinking about how to extend the tradition to deal with problems which are only being explicitly faced in light of contemporary awareness of the situation of gay and lesbian Christians.

2. Sexuality is a pervasive element of human experience, but it should not be central to thinking about friendship.

Most human relationships are shaped at least to some degree by the fact of sexual difference. We relate to others differently depending on their sex. Sexual attraction is present in the background of many relationships which remain, nevertheless, completely non-sexual in any direct sense. Sexual attraction is not identical with lust; a man may notice and appreciate a woman’s beauty without desiring sexual union with her, and without willfully choosing to imagine such union. Despite the complaints one sometimes hears, close friendships between straight men and women are possible without the relationship becoming a near occasion of sexual sin. This is true even when each feels some attraction toward the other which, if circumstances were different, might have led to marriage.

All of the facts which I have just described in a heterosexual context are also true in a homosexual context. For a man who is attracted to other men, those attractions will be present in the background of many of his interactions with others, shaping how he responds to men and women. I do not think that any of this should be denied. And I think it would be unhealthy to try to pretend that one is a robot whose sexuality can simply be turned off or unplugged, so that if one chooses to be celibate, one ceases to relate to others as male or female or respond to their femininity or masculinity in any way.

However, neither should it be made central. For the most part, celibates should leave such feelings in the background, subordinated to friendship.

More needs to be said about what I mean by this and how, practically, to cultivate these emotional responses. But the basic point, I think, is tolerably clear: in chaste friendship sexual attraction should not be a central object of focus. At the same time, maintaining chastity requires attention to one’s sexuality, and one should acknowledge what is going on with sexuality to oneself, and seek to put it in the right perspective.

As long as we live in a culture which makes sexuality central, and has little to say about friendship, it will be difficult to understand what this means, let alone accomplish it; but richer reflection on friendship will, I think, give us much better resources for placing sexuality in the proper perspective.

3. Homosexual attractions can be destructive of chaste friendship.

A few months ago, a friend of mine wrote:

And yet because “homosexuality” seems like a more all-inclusive category to me than “the desire to sleep with men,” I find myself wanting to embrace it insofar as it leads me to probably greater depths of intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships than I would have (probably?) if I were straight.

First, it’s true that many of us almost certainly do invest more in same-sex friendship than we would have if we were straight, and take much more joy in those friendships than we would have if we were pursuing marriage.

However, I think it is important to remember that sexual temptation can be a serious obstacle to same-sex friendship. Because of my writings, I’ve heard from hundreds of gay Christians over the last decade and a half, and I can’t even begin to count the number of promising friendships I have heard about that have been damaged or destroyed by lust. I could also point to a number of experiences in my own life where my failure to discipline my own thoughts did serious harm to a friendship.

I do not want to over-emphasize this point; but it seems to me that some Christians struggling  with homosexuality have tended to miss the fact that the central and defining feature of homosexuality is a temptation towards a serious sin, which, if acted on, does serious damage to the relationship in which it occurs, and also each partner’s relationship with God. (If the concept we want to talk about is not centrally defined by these attractions, then it is not clear to me why we should call it “homosexuality,” or use some closely related word—like “gay” or “lesbian”—to describe it. Once again, however, enriching our vocabulary for friendship will give us a richer vocabulary for describing non-sexual same-sex relationships.)

*               *               *

I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the negative side of this. There is a reason that I emphasized the positive recovery of the Christian tradition on friendship first. There is a wealth of reflection on the value of friendship in Christian history (along with many guideposts along the way to direct us away from pitfalls which could damage friendship). This recovery is, I hope, one of the primary projects which this blog can facilitate.

I think that greater attention to friendship will help to offset the over-emphasis on sex and sexuality that is found all around us in contemporary culture. It is this positive message that I want to emphasize above all, and it is there that I will initially focus; but I think that attaining the goods of chaste friendship requires taking the dangers seriously, though without giving them undue emphasis.

In any case, I look forward to continuing to explore these topics together on this blog.

5 thoughts on “Some theses on friendship

  1. Thanks for your thoughts and candor, Ron. I am a straight, divorced woman, also chaste and celibate. Coincidentally (or not–because of this, I found you at GCN and subsequently here), my ex-husband is now gay (and involved in a relationship). I’ve found your perspective life-giving for all singles, not only gay and lesbian ones. I look forward to more spiritual friendship!

  2. I appreciated this post very much.

    One of the biggest crosses of being a homosexual Christian man is that one has difficulty not only with normal romantic relations with a woman but that normal friendships with other men also have many pitfalls.

    I have several very fruitful and intimate yet chaste friendships with other men. While temptations to unchastity have been minimal, I have had three friendships in my adulthood in which I struggled with emotional dependency — a feeling that my friend is the most important element in my life and the key to my happiness, as well as a suffocating, anxious feeling when I have no contact with this person for over a day or two.

    I have usually been able to recognize the problematic nature of these feelings and not act out on them by smothering my friend with excessive attention. Yet on the two previous occasions the only way for these obsessive thoughts to die out completely (they were a pervasive and unwelcomed element in my inner life for about six months each) was for the friend to go away for a long time so that our lives were no longer intertwined. In both cases I remain friends with these men, but have no continuing obsession with them, and only infrequent contact with them.

    Now however I am in the third such relationship. Circumstances are likely going to keep my friend and me closely connected for at least two or three more years. I want to have a healthy and mature adult friendship with this man, but I am overwhelmed by my obsessive, dependent, needy thoughts — which, by the way, I have no reason to believe he has any awareness of.

    I would also like to be able to express to him my love and affection in a chaste, manly way. Ironically with other male friends whom I have no excessive attachment to, I am much freer to express my affection and esteem. But with this friend, my best friend, I feel I must hold back — I must not hug him or tell him that I love him, though I often want to — because it would likely increase the burden of my thoughts about him.

    I would be grateful for any advise gleaned from similar experience. Thanks.

  3. Well, to be blunt, if these men are heterosexuals, I would say: stop falling in love with straight guys, lol

    Not that it’s “wrong” or bad in itself. I think many gay men have this experience. My first experience of “limerence” (which is to say, of being in love of the sort with all the symptoms you describe) for example, was a straight guy in high school, for five years. We weren’t really friends until the last year when he threw me the bone of some attention (he knew the situation pretty much the whole time.)

    But, one major difference I see with your experience here is: I didn’t view the experience in a negative light, but in a positive one. Oh, unrequited love can be frustrating and painful, to be sure, but it’s also a beautiful (if bittersweet) thing, and can still be exhilerating while it lasts, and it’s not like heterosexuals don’t face it too. The whole thing was a real learning experience for me, and really helped me grow and feel positively about my own sexuality and masculinity, etc.

    However. After that, after spending my whole teenage years on that basically, I told myself I wasn’t going to let myself fall in love with anyone again where there wasn’t at least a reasonable chance of it working out, being reciprocated, etc. Certainly, I wasn’t going to let myself fall for the unobtainable again!

    It is possible to be vigilant like this, to guard our emotions. These things don’t just “happen.” We entertain them, we nurture them. And I see little that’s functional in developing limerence for straight guys. An appreciation or detached infatuation, sure, but the keyword there is detached. I think you need to just frame things in your own head so that the idea of such a one-side emotional involvement “doesn’t even make sense” anymore, or is seen as futile from the start and thus never even develops.

    Limerence, after all, is based on some notion of hope for something, at least implicitly or subconsciously. But for what? I think you need to ask yourself that. What would constitute the “fulfillment” of these feelings if you got it? It’s not necessarily reciprocation in the straightforward sense, I know. With my straight beloved in high school…I didn’t want him to profess his love for me or have sex or anything like that (in fact, his heterosexuality was part of the attraction). I just wanted some male affirmation and attention.

    Okay, but I got it from him eventually to some degree, then in college I worked on becoming independent in that regard (so that my sense of it was internalized rather than needing to come from some external “source”) and I learned that, while the first experience was lovely, it wasn’t going to be worth it to keep chasing that rainbow. That would have been stagnant; rather I “completed that level” (I don’t know why I’m speaking as if this is a video game) and moved on. The next time I fell in love, it was with the gay guy I’m currently (chastely) “involved” with. I don’t know if that will, in the end, be another “learning experience” for me, or if it will turn into something more stable (my ultimate wish). But either way it has been wonderful too (what’s more wonderful than love and romance??)

    There’s nothing wrong with feeling really good around someone or really special when they give you attention or spend time with you, thinking about them a lot, wanting to move heaven and earth for them, etc. There is nothing wrong with getting attached to human beings. Nothing wrong, in itself, with getting positive emotional “supply” from interaction with them.

    This is why I am not entirely comfortable with this “dependency” phrasing you use, because I’ve seen that used before by Christian homosexuals and it seems to be sort of a double standard; for some reason the limerent attachment of husband and wife or heterosexual fiancees or boyfriend-and-girlfriend is not similarly denigrated as “obsessive emotional dependency” even when the “symptoms” are all objectively the same. The main difference seems to be simply that in a heterosexual relationship it is constructed as a positive thing, whereas when the attraction is homosexual it is constructed as negative (I notice you don’t even dignify it [or, even, celebrate it!] with the label “being in love” even though, to me, that’s what you’re clearly describing).

    Of course, if they’re not straight, if they are in fact gay men who could possibly reciprocate IF you told them…then that’s another whole question (for me, then, the question would probably look more like: “What exactly’s the problem, then?”)

    I think the only “problem,” then, must really be identified in the fact that it isn’t mutual. I don’t think there’s really any problem with being attached to someone in such a way. And unrequited love is something everyone with a heart that is not of stone will probably face at least once in their lives. But there is something problematic about perpetually falling for unobtainable objects. I don’t think the dynamic itself is at issue, so much as the fact that you need an amount of commitment or attention from these men that they can’t/don’t want to give in return (because they are assumably straight? Though maybe they’re gay and just don’t feel the same way for you?)

    Anyway, sorry if that’s all too personal. The major themes/questions for reflection for you from what I’m saying I think would boil down to: why are you framing these experiences negatively? Why “unwelcomed”? If it’s merely because they can’t reciprocate, that makes sense, but then why do you think you keep falling for the unobtainable? Since you seem like quite the romantic, actually, I’d advise considering the hypothetical: what if you fell for someone (ie, another gay man) who COULD reciprocate, who could want your attention and interaction as much as you want his, for whom there could be a mutual exultation in that relationship?

    I can’t probe the depths of your psyche from one blog post, but I would at least explore the idea that there is a connection between having a negative evaluation of same-sex limerence…and (subconsciously) channeling it towards objects who are “safe” in the sense that there is no “danger” that they might actually reciprocate (with all the incumbent tricky decision-making and negotiation of values and priorities and actual risk-taking and responsibility-acquiring that that would involve.)

  4. @mradeknal,

    Thanks for your comments. I don’t think your approach is really what was initially being discussed in the article I was responding to. Neither the original article nor, I am certain, my own viewpoint is that what the Christian homosexual looking for chaste friendships needs is simply eros without sex. No, we are seeking philia. Read Ron’s words again:

    “It can be tempting to respond to this by, for example, trying to adapt the marital, romantic, or erotic models that are prominent in our culture to some new chaste/celibate form. We understand and can relate to these models, while the existing models of friendship in our culture are anemic and seem inadequate to meet our need for intimacy and belonging.”

    There is, however, a place in the Christian tradition for intimate friendship that is truly friendship, not romantic love. I am not interested in sex-less romance. This is why, for me, my thoughts and emotional dependency is indeed a problem I know I need to work on.

    Furthermore, from discussions with close friends of mine who are married, I think I’m safe to say that emotional dependency, neediness, infatuation, etc. is also not helpful in a mature marriage. Indeed, it is partly because people in our culture mistake these feelings for true love that so many marriages end in divorce.

  5. Well, I guess more to the point of what I was suggesting you examine is why, if you are “not interested” in romance…are you so obviously, in another sense, interested in it?

    That’s really what we all (as celibates) have to examine as regards sex, of course, and what people who claim to also renounce all eros also need to ask themselves as regards it.

    For sex, for me, the answer is quite clear. Why am I interested? It’s a natural drive. Then why am I also “not interested”? For a variety of reasons related to both my own vision of a life, and because (for me) sexual interest would probably usually be same-sex, and I make a moral choice to reject that because I believe it’s immoral.

    For eros, however, the answer to the first question is a lot more complicated and for those who also then claim to then also be “not interested” (on top of their interest)…the second answer, I think, will likely be a lot more complicated too.

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