It stuck me afresh last night while Sheila and I were in conversation: the deep blending of authentic friendship between men and women within marriage and transmarriage.
You know how it is us. At least it is this way between Sheila and me: there is this rich layer of subjects that both husband and wife return to again and again in their dialogue between each other because those subjects are near and dear to their hearts and souls.
More than ever before, I am conscious of this gift I have been given--this blending of authentic friendship between the sexes within marriage and transmarriage. Lilian Calles Barger's observation that, "It may be that sex scandals and broken marriages among Christians is the result of a famine in cross-gender friendships" struck me afresh. It also got me thinking about David Benner's chapter on soul friendships in marriage in his book, Sacred Companions.
I commented to Sheila last night as I was marveling this gift that we have and are experiencing, that the intimacy and depth of my cross-gender friendship surpasses the intimacy and depth within many Christian marriages. I know married couples who don't have the depth of freedom, comfort, and respect to explore their vulnerabilities, their inner worlds, their joys, and their longings of spirit, as I do in cross-gender friendship--and we as do in our marital friendship.
I don't mean to slight these realities at all--but sexual and romantic passion (or idealization of our partner through modern romance) are not the foundational stuff to build marriages or authentic friendships between the sexes. We Christians have to deconstruct modern romantic ideology in Christian spirituality in order begin to appreciate and unwrap the gift of spiritual friendship between the sexes--both within marriage and beyond it. We don't move toward maturity in Christian marriages by spiritualizing the ideology found in modern romance novels. Yet, Christian leaders so often do that in their books on marriage--thinking they are saving and protecting marriage rather than perpetuating unattainable illusions. We don't help singles prepare for authentic friendship in marriage by idealizing obsessive absorption in dating relationships. "The one-flesh biblical metaphor for marriage does not mean a fusion of two people that results in a loss of the identity of either or both" (David Benner). Quoting Benner again, "Attraction and compatibility are an insufficient foundation for marriage."
Soul friendship within marriage and beyond it (same-sex or cross-sex) is a gift. "Marriage will never automatically produce soul friendship" (David Benner).
Benner suggests cultivating three things towards soul friendships: respect, an absence of control, and dialogue.
On respect, Benner comments, "Even the term my husband or my wife carries potentially dangerous connotations of possession. Our husbands and wives are not our possessions. Nor are they extensions of us. My wife is separate from me." Respect supports the deep biblical notion we are unique individuals.
On absence of control, Benner also suggests this begins "with the abandonment of all agendas for change of the other person." He comments that "Genuine spiritual friendships wither under conditions of coercion and manipulation."
On dialogue, he notes that, "dialogue is the most important thing that soul friends actually do with each other." He comments that one of the risks accompanying genuine dialogue is the risk of change.
It's a gift--but it does take commitment and the labor of love to enter into authentic soul friendship between sexes--in marriage and beyond it.
This is a strking thing when it comes to sex and intimacy in authentic friendship. This is such a complicated issue for Christians. On the one hand, many of us remember how "dirty" sex has been in Christian thinking and spirituality. Good, passionate, mutual sex hovers closely to eros--which is normally portrayed as selfish, egotistical, etc. On the other hand, there tends to be this other complicated assumption that sexual activity or even sexual passion between husband and wife produces oneness or authentic closeness/intimacy between husband and wife. Quite clearly, Christian couples do have sex, and one or both of them enjoy some of the pleasures of sex, and yet end up getting divorced or living such strained married lives.
The metaphor and reality of authentic friendship between sexes may be more helpful and healing for marriages than any popular Christian treatment of marriage or cultivating romance in marriage.