“Everything I've come to believe about the goodness, faithfulness, wholeheartedness, and wild Beauty in friendship, I've experienced it in you.”
That’s what I wrote to a cross-gender friend recently.
Just for clarity sake, she is not my wife.
When Sheila my wife saw what I wrote she said, “Beautiful! You are so right!”
I pondered what Brown says about choosing to love with our whole hearts as it applies to wholehearted love in cross-gender friendships:
“Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people—including yourself” (The Gift of Imperfection).
I also pondered it as a follower of Jesus. Following Christ for a Christian is nothing less than an invitation to live and love with our whole hearts. It’s so unmistakably clear.
It will come as no surprise to my regular blog readers that I support healthy wholeheartedness in cross-gender friendship. It’s the way of Christ for men and women in the 21st century. I love connecting the language of healthy wholehearted love with cross-gender friendship!
Of course, I’m well aware that doing so is quite provocative and downright scary for many who still think wholehearted love is only reserved for romantic relationships and marriage.
No question we need maps for the journey of wholehearted love. I know many are pining for a paint by the numbers, cookie-cutter, or formulaic approach to cross-gender friendship. I continue to resist such appeals (I’ll elaborate more on that in a moment).
Map # 1 Healthy wholehearted love is the journey of boundaried love from beginning onward.
Boundaried love between men and women is the path of shalom, healing, wholeness, sexual integrity, well-being, beauty, and deep community. Wholeheartedness is not about letting it all hang out in male-female relationships. It’s not about boundaryless relationships. It’s not triangulation. It’s not emotional adultery. Healthy wholehearted love is not advocating poor boundaries between men and women.
Healthy wholehearted love = boundaried love. They’re the same at every step of the journey.
Let’s start at a very basic, generic posture of love: commitment to the other’s well being. From the beginning of every encounter of a man and woman, a healthy wholehearted love desires this. This encounter can happen anywhere: online, church, ministry, discipleship, mentoring, school, college, therapy, work, recreation, and thousands of other places where encounter happens.
Map# 2 Healthy wholeheartedness is a discerning openness that can just as easily say an enthusiastic yes or a full-blooded no in every male-female encounter (married or nonmarried encounters).
This “map” I stoled from Robert Augustus Masters (Spiritual Bypassing) but I give him the credit. This is boundaried love: wholeheartedness no matter what the relationship and context.
This map serves well for all kinds of male-female relationships: online contact, therapist-client, spiritual direction, nurturers/nurtured, workmates, ministry associates, companions in crisis, allies for a common cause, intimate friendships, “neighbors”—covers all nonmarital relationships I missed—and yes, marriage.
Map # 3 Healthy wholehearted love is the journey of recognizing we all (men and women) live in a fallen world and we all bring baggage into our relationships.
Choose whatever lens you want to look at this. Let’s face it we’re going to encounter disconnects as we relate to men and women. There are some men and some women who cannot enter into intimate friendships because of their brokenness, immediate weaknesses, or vulnerabilities.
It’s the reality of this map that encourages a posture of ongoing ambivalence (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or all the above) toward the opposite sex. It is this map that stirs the distance in rules, boundaries, formulas, and cookie-cutter approaches.
It is the reality of this map that discourages passion in marriage and in friendship. Many men and women are afraid to fully enter into a healthy wholeheartedness even in marriage because of the risks of becoming attached to someone because we live in a divorce culture.
There is no doubt we must give weight to this map. However, if we put too much weight to this men and women would not date or progress to marriage. Statistics show that non-sexual violence occurs in 25% of all dating relationships—85% our women. Date rape according to some accounts for 67% of sexual assaults on college campuses. Also, you have the whole hook-up culture on campuses. Then there are the statistics of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in marriage. In addition to this, in United States, we have one of the highest divorce rates in the Western world.
Do any of these brutal statistics cause us to stop advocating romantic relationships and marriage between men and women? Do any of these statistics stop men and women from working closely side-by-side with each other in work, ministry, and social causes?
No question it is a sober map. It’s stark reality fosters all kinds of formulaic, rule-bound approaches to male-female relating.
We believe it is possible for healthy wholehearted love to develop and flourish in marriage even while acknowledging the reality of this map.
As followers of Jesus why can’t we also see that male-female flourishing in marriages and beyond marriages (friendships)?
Map # 4 Healthy wholehearted love is the journey to embrace all the present and progressive good and beautiful by the other.
“Love begins when we are touched, stirred, and moved by another thing’s goodness and beauty. Something about the other person speaks to us, enters into us, and draws us out of ourselves” (Patricia Lamoureux and Paul Wadell in The Christian Moral Life).
This is my wholehearted conviction in light of my journey of intimate cross-gender friendships after many years: all that is good and beautiful in friendship is never a threat to one’s marriage. All that is good and beautiful in cross-gender friendship strengthens, heals, and empowers the marital bond.
Wholehearted love in the Christian story is not a narrow, infatuated, romance-absorbed, emotional exclusivity within marriage. This has been the dominant script for male-female love post-Freud. But this script is losing power. Some authors are even calling our current age the “post-romantic age” (Marriage Confidential, Pamela Haag).
On the Christian side, Scot McKnight follows this same thought of “post-romantic age” when he talks about married love: “I’d like to suggest that the word romance is not the right word because it doesn’t go far enough” (One.Life). There is something good and beautiful about romantic love. But we have bought a narrative about romantic intensity that is not shaped by a healthy wholehearted love.
No matter which way we look at it, we are experiencing major shifts in how men and women relate to each other in marriage in the 21st century.
Healthy wholehearted love in marriage is not about codependency or unhealthy possession. Dr. Bonnie Jacobson, a New York City clinical psychologist says, “Jealousy over an opposite-sex friendship can be the result of projection.”
Respected author and psychologist David Benner states, “Possessiveness always betrays a destructive element in any relationship…Jealousy is as destructive in friendship as it is in marriage” (Sacred Companions).
There is an important and healthy sexual exclusivity in marriage. There is something profoundly good and beautiful in that exclusivity. It is more than just sex. It is an ongoing cherishing, trust, and commitment to your spouse in a posture of healthy wholehearted love.
But in the Christian story (both in the present age and in the next) relational goodness and beauty between men and women (openness, responsiveness, creativity, trust, commitment, initiative, receptivity, affection, vulnerability, generosity, etc.) are not narrowly confined into a high-walled romantic ghetto.
Map # 5 Relational goodness and beauty between men and women is about healthy wholeheartedness that creates “already and not yet stories.”
These “already and not yet stories” are stories of wholehearted love as we seek to practice the way of Jesus in our journey. There are many good stories out there with healthy relationships between men and women in the world.
This is God’s world and his presence can show up in any relationship anywhere in the world without an explicit Christian affirmation. But as followers of Jesus we see the way Jesus loved women wholeheartedly. We are to love as he loved.
In “already not yet stories” men and women are committed to boundaried love in their marriages and friendships.
These stories may end up as powerful stories of redemptive love between spouses and friends with deep trust and wholehearted love. These stories are powerful expressions of healing between men and women.
Friends in these stories work through disconnect, hurt, disappointment, and misunderstanding that are inevitable to happen. Friendship is a school of love where we learn how to be patient with one another, how to be kind, how to be there for the other, how to open up to the other, etc. As Brown notes, "Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity."
But part of “already and not yet” stories in friendship is our embracing the realism that boundaried love goes through various challenges, tests, and restructuring. Friendships are not static. Some friends we are close to now we may not be as close (in terms of immediate sharing of our lives) to down the road for various reasons.
Some of us may nurture closeness between friends because of a common ground or interest and once that commonality disappears the closeness may fade away. Or discerning openness may choose to withdraw intimacy for various reasons. Yet, still others may end up nurturing an intimate bond in the healthy freedom of friendship that may endure for life.
Powerful “already not yet” stories are expressions of a wholehearted love to engage the other in marriage and friendship (spiritually, emotionally, physically, etc.) with a discerning openness to goodness and beauty.
Jean Vanier wrote that, “Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing.” He adds it is, “mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves, where both are called to grow in greater freedom and openness to others and to the universe."
Choosing wholehearted love is going to frighten people who live by paint by numbers when it comes to men and women. It's going to anger some people who want to stay stuck in unhealthy patterns. But it is the way forward for surprising beauty and goodness between men and women in the 21st century.
This is the journey of wholehearted love in cross-gender friendship.