Can we as Christian men and women have deep, maturing, ongoing platonic closeness between men and women in friendship? As soon as one suggests the possibility of sustaining friendships between men and women the conversation immediately turns to boundaries.
Can we have clear boundaries and yet enjoy maturing closeness? Can we learn to drop our walls and move past our fears into valuable enriching relationships?
This week is therapists week on my blog. I am honored that Jean Holthaus was eager to participate this week. I have a growing friendship with Jean. I met her at the Sacred Frriendship Gathering in 2013. Jean has become a dear friend. We've had quite a few conversations about nurturing friendships between men and women. Enjoy this post.
Jean Holthaus, LISW has been a licensed counselor for nineteen years and finds it incredibly rewarding to both teach and walk with individuals as they explore who God created them to be and how to live this out in all aspects of their lives. She graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in teaching and from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in social work. She has a daughter who is twenty-six and recently returned from working as a missionary in China and a son who is twenty-four and works at an environmental science camp in California. Jean routinely speaks at and leads workshops and conferences on a variety of
subjects related to individual growth and development including intimacy with
Christ, relationships, and sexuality. In addition, she mentors a wonderful group of adults which includes both men and women from different ages and stages of life.
Having been a therapist for nineteen years, I am convinced relationship with both men and women are essential for people to become everything they were intended to be in life. In fact, research shows THE PRIMARY predictor of healing in therapy is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client (not the technique used by the therapist). In other words, what helps people to heal is entering into and living within relationships!
It would appear that what science is now able to prove, God created “In the beginning…” All we have to do is look at nature to see God’s value for relationship. He created the world so each part lives in an interdependent relationship with the other parts of creation. Take a walk in nature and you see this symbiosis in action. I am constantly amazed at how beautiful God’s interdependent relationships are and at how we take those relationships and shift them so they fit our expectations and can be “better managed.” The beauty of the woods is stunning. However, human beings want to “visit” the woods rather than live within this environment. We take parts of what God originally created and alter it to produce an environment which feels manageable…symmetrical neatly pruned yards that follow whatever social rules our neighborhood has established. When we take God’s creation and make it something that fits our expectations, we destroy many of its life-giving qualities and throw it out of balance. By raking our yards, pruning our trees, and deciding what sorts of plants we will allow to grow, we destroy the delicate interdependency and create something which is no longer self-sustaining and now needs outside intervention on a consistent basis in order to survive. The exact same thing has happened in how society handles human relationships—especially cross-gender relationships.
God created us to live in relationship and He placed us in both same-gender and cross-gender relationships to start our lives (it takes a male and a female to create life). He plopped us into families without any sense of who we are separate from others and without any capacity to care for ourselves. He created us with brains wired for relationship and made us need emotional connection in order to survive. Just as plants in the woods begin as seedlings and journey into maturity, a human being’s time on this earth is a journey into becoming who we were created to be and relationship is the context within which this occurs. Most of us have no problem seeing children as being on a journey of learning how to relate with others. We see this process as ongoing and expect it to be messy and, at times, even embarrassing for all involved. Adults allow children to make mistakes and see themselves as needing to create safety, offer feedback, and take care of themselves instead of expecting children to take care of them.
This learning starts within the brain--an amazing organ which is constantly taking the information it has and applying it to new situations. For example, what do you see in the picture below?
At first glance, most of us would say we see a triangle, but that is not actually what is present in the picture. The picture contains three partial circles. However, our brain takes the picture and attempts to fit the data into patterns it recognizes from the past. Human brains constantly take past information and use it to interpret present circumstances. We “transfer” past understanding onto current circumstances and assume because it was true in the past it remains true now. In relationships, this creates a phenomenon known as transference where an individual takes the perceptions and expectations of one person and projects them onto another person. Transference is a very fundamental process human beings are constantly doing--for better and for worse.
The things we learn to transfer often come from what we learn in our families. Family provides an amazing context within which there is freedom to explore and learn how to relate to those of the opposite gender. To this day, my brother drapes his arm around my shoulder, draws me in close, and sits beside me on the couch without either of us worrying it is inappropriate. He has told me I am beautiful and regularly tells his sixteen and eighteen year old daughters the exact same thing with deep feeling in his voice when he does so. Family is the first context where young boys learn how to relate with women and young girls learn how to relate with men. It is where our first understanding of ourselves as masculine or feminine develops and we transfer what we learn (both good and bad) onto all future relationships. Most of us start out in a context where there is freedom to learn and grow in our ability to engage relationships with both men and women. And then…
In the same way we want to visit the woods but we don’t want to live there, we want to have relationships but don’t want to deal with the messiness inherent within relationships. Just as we have created symmetrical, well groomed lawns which follow certain “rules” we create relationship rules to make sure nothing messy happens. Somewhere along the line, society decided adults had “arrived” in relationships instead of being on a life-long journey of learning how to relate with others. Children are allowed to be dependent upon feedback and correction from others, but adults know how to do relationships. Most of us intuitively know we aren’t in this place and so we work to “hide” this fact from those around us by projecting an image of who we believe we “ought” to be rather than being honest about who we are. Instead of bringing the truth of who we are into our relationships and allowing the fullness of who we are to be loved and taught how to relate to others, we hide anything deemed potentially unacceptable in our relationships (even our marital relationships) and create enough rules to insure that nothing “bad” happens. Because there seems to be so many ways for “bad” things to happen within cross-gender relationship, they become the most rule-filled relationships…especially within the church. This leaves our true selves isolated and alone without the feedback and loving acceptance necessary to grow and become all we were intended to be. When this isolation and the pain it produces becomes overwhelming we: act out in ways that create pain, self-medicate in an attempt to stop ourselves from feeling, or go to therapy in an attempt to figure out how to get rid of the pain.
Going to therapy is entering into a relationship. Whenever we enter into a relationship (whether it is therapy, marriage, or friendship), we bring what we were taught about who we are and what it means to relate to others—both male and female—and transfer it onto the new relationship. This means we begin to relate based upon how we expect the other person to be rather than figuring out who they actually are. When we do this within friendships and romantic relationships, often things “blow up” in some fashion and we run, hide, or pretend as a result. The therapeutic relationship, in contract, expects this to happen and provides a safe place for it to be labeled, owned, processed, and corrected when it is unhealthy. In other words, therapy provides a safe sort of environment that is loving and corrective much like family (and the Body of Christ) is intended to be. This safety allows people to look at their assumptions about how to relate with men and women and continue making corrections and learning how to become someone who can relate with both men and women in healthy ways.
I believe all relationships—both same gender and cross gender—are designed to be places where people routinely experience the safety and love necessary to explore their transference and continue growing and becoming. In order for us to love in the same bold and passionate way we do within families and which Scripture describes, we will need to embrace the “wild” and “messy” nature of relationships and let go of attempting to turn them into the sterile “lawns” that are safe and symmetrical but don’t produce life and are unsustainable without constantly pruning away essential parts of the original creation. While this might seem counter-cultural and scary, the deep, transforming love and life that results is well worth the risk!