Men and women have not lived in a stand on your own two feet kind of world.
No one wants to become a prisoner within their intimate relationships. No one wants their vulnerability exploited by another (spouse or friend) or to feel stuck inside an unhealthy relationship. No one wants to be enslaved by an individual who keeps the relationship intact through manipulation and emotional blackmail. Healthy intimacy is never, ever about someone using fear, guilt, or obligation based on exploiting intimate knowledge to win compliance within the relationship.
And, for women in particular, no woman ought to be bound by tradition that restricts their fullest sense of self to the borders of intimate relationships within marriage, family, or same gender.
None of us want to be trapped.
Not by our spouses.
Not by well-meaning friends who are hungry and needy for deep relationships.
Not by pastors who tell us, “trust us, no matter what.”
Not by churches.
Not by tradition.
The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus doesn’t want us ensnared either.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore,
and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.”
In the first Sacred Friendship Gathering I hosted back in 2012, one pastor expressed his curiosity to the rest of us. Why don’t we express our relationships with men and women with the biblical language of siblings instead of using the term friendship? Now, if you’ve read my book, you know I am a strong proponent of understanding the depth of the sibling metaphor between men and women. We are brothers and sisters before marriage. In heaven, we will still be brothers and sisters, forever! The interpersonal bonding of sibling loyalty is one of extraordinary depth and richness. It is an important metaphor which shapes the conversation.
However, friendship is an intimate relationship between two individuals who come into the relationship standing on their own two feet—and continue the relationship, no matter how deep it goes—standing on their own two feet. The thought of this stirs deep anxiety in male-dominated evangelical patriachal world. Women standing on theit own two feet? In other words, friendship is a relationship which clearly shows that each person has a clear and solid sense of self within the connection.
A solid sense of self standing on one’s own two feet.
Within a longstanding Christian tradition post-Jesus, neither marriage nor the sibling relationship has offered creative and positive freedom for women to stand on their own two feet with a clear sense of self in those relationships. Their sense of self has been defined by men within a longstanding patriarchal system which included marriage and sibling relationships. Women have been dependent on men in intimate relationships.
Friendship in the twenty-first century Western world now means both individuals may sustain and even bond together in deepening intimacy within the freedom of both friends having a clear sense of self. So, between men and women it is friendship where we can now experience and enjoy their quest for full human potential by standing on their own two feet.
Friendship is important for some evangelical women and men in this season of massive social change. Friendship goes beyond the concepts of partners, allies, co-laborers. It has the deep potential for significant, satisfying intimacy and personal community. Is there also room within marriage for an intimacy which recognizes both parties as standing on their own two feet? Kristina LaCelle Peterson explores this in marriage:
In any other friendship one person is not ‘the boss’; rather, the relationship moves forward through a process of mutual give and take…The use of power in a friendship destroys intimacy to the degree that it is used, because one person does not have the freedom to fully express herself or himself.”
The word for this, some would say, is differentiation.
There are a growing number of evangelical leaders and thinkers who see differentiation as a significant part of spiritual and emotional maturity. Jack Balswick and Judith Balswick (yes, they’re married), Stephen Sandage and F. LeRon Shults, and Esther Meek are just a few examples.
Esther Meek, in her book Loving to Know, writes, “Differentiation, once again, is the ability to maintain one’s own personhood and identity while staying connected to one’s close system of vital others, such as one’s family or church or office group.” In other words, a solid and clear sense of one self in the midst of close, important, or intimate relationships.
It’s not a coincidence that many of the men and women I know who are trailblazers in the evangelical world regarding women in leadership, equality, and friendship, gladly embrace differentiation.
Can I confess something to you all?
I wish I had known about differentiation twelve years ago when I plunged into friendships with women. I would have made healthier choices. With naïve enthusiasm coupled with good intentions, I impulsively rushed headlong into several intense friendships with women. This happened back in the summer of 2002 and with the clear knowledge and support of my wife.
It felt safe and exhilarating.
Most of my relating to them came via emails and AOL chatting (remember that??). This was intense, but how bad could that be? In hindsight, I realize that I moved into this arena with naïve good intentions but it was a recipe for emotional chaos and emotional fusion. I had a clear sense of marriage, but I exercised poor judgment in rushing into these friendships. It is good, appropriate and beautiful to have an honest hunger for intimacy, but to let this develop mutually over time. By rushing headlong into connection and intimacy, I misjudged and failed to anticipate many of the invitations for enmeshment that should have been red flags warning of unhealthy relationships.
It is good to savor fresh and new connections with potential depth but not to dive into the deep pool of instant intimacy—whether beginning a romance or a friendship. Close connection can and should develop, but it has to develop over time. Both individuals need to exercise discretion and discernment to be sure they are maintaining a clear sense of self as they work together to develop a common understanding of what the relationship is and is not going to be.
The women I befriended were all wrestling with various issues of authentic faith versus the issues of fundamentalism, of an-all-or-nothing approach to life. In retrospect, I now see that the background for my poor differentiation was a culturally shaped biblicism in which I had thoroughly immersed myself for the previous two decades. Esther Meek, I think, highlights a well-differentiated person of faith:
Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves,” and can disagree without feeling alienated and embittered. Sometimes there are things we resist knowing because we feel threatened to lose ourselves in the grandeur of the discovery or its dissemination, or the rejection of others, or we can find change required of us by the discovery that we do not welcome. Similarly, we can be so “married” to preconceived notions that we can feel the attempt to move beyond them as alienation, a threat of loss of sense of self. (Loving to Know)
In my experience in the conservative evangelical community, sincere believers had great challenges exploring issues of faith regarding so many secondary issues (beyond the Trinity, Christ’s deity, and resurrection). Many evangelicals have experienced personal crises of their “selves” because they encountered different teachings regarding creation, eschatology, miracles, social justice, politics, and the particular place of women in the home, church, and the world. I now see that evangelical pastors proof-texting on a topic could easily provide an enmeshed evangelical church (enmeshed meaning poorly differentiated people stuck to an authority--they feel a sense of a loss of self or faith for example, if their belief in literal six-day creation was seriously challenged).
This background is highly important because evangelicals who are married to each other with a clear functional understanding of marriage can still experience an enmeshed culture of faith which embodies a compulsive anxiety to keep in line with what “the Bible clearly says.” I had been immersed in that culture in the twenty-five years prior to entering these friendships.
All this to say that I now see my background before 2002 as a male not really shaped to encounter multiple intimacies and healthy differentiation. This is not an excuse. This is important background. I own my responsibility for whatever I contributed that was unhealthy and poor judgment in those early friendships. I was both an agent and a victim. I did not handle them well. In poor differentiation, it is so easy to act out of anxiety to seek the other’s validation or seek to control from anxiety. These relationships were messy.
Standing on Your Own Two Feet
My growing understanding of that differentiation helped me forge a clear sense of self, standing on my two feet in intimate friendship. It was forged in the midst of the messiness of the relationships. That opened a whole new world to me for understanding healthy marriages and friendships between the sexes. For years I was under the mistaken impression that intimacy equals the experience of emotional closeness. So when I dived into the deep end of intimacy with women in friendship I didn’t recognize til later that it was like diving into the deep end of the swimming pool with good intentions to swim even though I had no prior experience of swimming. Differentiation operates with a different kind of connection in the sense that it calls for a clear sense of self standing on our two feet in the presence of close connection with the important people in our lives. It takes responsibility for ourselves and respectful love for the other in relationship.
A few years ago, I read David Schnarch’s book, Passionate Marriage. In that book he makes this distinction: “intimacy is not the same as closeness, bonding, or caretaking…[Intimacy] involves the inherent awareness that you’re separate from your partner, with parts yet to be shared.”
This meaning of intimacy began to suddenly dawn on me. It’s not that the deep end of pool is so dangerous one should never dive. It’s learning that human intimacy in friendship doesn’t start at the deep end. It's also important to have a clear sense of self and what the relationship is. In working through that place of a solid sense of self I had to process through the lens of conservative evangelical teaching that said self-centeredness is the problem in all relationships. If there is going to be a robust evangelical view of friendship between men and women that goes all the way up to pastoral leadership, it must address a robust view of responsibility for a clear sense of self in intimacy. Friendship can be a healing path for men and women to overcome patriarchal anxiety. Friendship calls men and women to a creative responsibility of mutual respect, mutual engagement, and mutual freedom.
For two decades as a faithful evangelical I did not know about this stand on your own two feet kind of intimacy. How about you? How many women heard this? How many men? In the evangelical world there existed only two kinds of intimacy popular in the twentieth century: marital intimacy with man as the spiritual leader and an isolated spiritual intimacy in your quiet times. It became increasingly clear as I began to listen to women’s stories. My eyes were opened to evangelical patriarchy reaching into the depths of a woman’s self and a man’s self.
This kind of intimacy for women and men would be utterly paradigm-shifting. Friendship isn’t about men and women learning to become nice to each other. It’s not about “I have opposite sex friendships, but they stay in line with evangelical groupthink.” That's cool for many people on where they are. I respect that. But it in this growing conversation it is usually a translation for: we don’t think God can use personal friendship to challenge the roots of sexism and patriarchy with our evangelical social pessimism and our view of sin.
Friendship provocatively stirs the pot because we discover that so much of evangelical patriarchy is still alive and well when we start peeling away evangelical constructs of both the female self and the male self. A robust evangelical view of friendship between men and women is going to rock the boat in claiming our responsibility for making choices must comport faithfully with our fully human identities in Christ.
Despite its many risks, the call to responsible positive freedom in friendship is simultaneously a call for women to be adults (equal) in close relationships with men—and men to be adults in close relationships with women. I do not regret my decision to enter into intimate friendships with women. Friendships with women have refined me, challenged me and shaped me to enjoy healthy deep intimacy. Differentiation has helped me make many choices out of ensnared dilemmas in recent years. It has been a healthy way forward in personal relationships and in this growing movement.
I went from an adolescent kind of weak male self who trusted pastors (because that’s what good Bible believing Christians did when pastors are the experts in biblical authority) to a differentiated faith with a clear sense of self standing on my own two feet in the presence of faithful wife and female friends. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
This is the kind of intimacy and mutuality trailblazers are passionate about!
I have developed a clear identity of who I am in intimate friendship. I don't think it gets any better than the friendships I have in my personal community the last few years. We are nurturing closeness and powerful bonds with a stand on your own two feet kind of intimacy. Because of differentiation I am fully able to give my entire self (differentiation) to friendship with women (and men). What if differentiation was a stand on your own two feet kind of intimacy? Imagine the healthy possibilities if men and women see intimacy as one of the deepest paths for healing the alienation and anxiety between men and women. Do you have a stand on your own two feet kind of intimacy?
Restraint and passion are the paradoxical experience of the holy. Holding the self
and then giving the self away are equally important, but it takes time to learn
how to do that properly. You grow into your ability to love one another
in a way that totally gives yourself and entrusts yourself to them, and yet
honors their boundaries and yours too. In my opinion, Jesus does both well.”