Saturday 13 June 2015

The Multiplicity of Relationships

Today is Seraphic Singles Saturday, and I'm going to dedicate this post to the crazy idea that there are dozens of different relationships possible between men and women, not just parent/child, husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend. I think. the world's obsession with romance and/or marriage is incredibly limiting.

First go read Anthony Esolen Buono, who wrote an article I have serious issues with. I shall take snippets out and fisk them, not because I have a personal problem with Mr Esolen Buono, whose work is largely unknown to me, but because I think his ideas on male-female relationships are limiting. They're also very male.

Friendship has to do with intimacy with another person. 

Not necessarily, say I. If we want to get all Aristotle about friendship, friendship in the strict sense is a relationship only between two well-educated, wealthy and cultured men. Forget that. Friendship has to do with creating ties or, better, a web of relationships that support you and make you feel you belong to a community.   

This intimacy has to do with two hearts that grow close to one another.

Once again, not necessarily. Friendship, to me, means accepting people for who they are and forgiving them constantly for any minor faults or personality quirks because they are just that lovable to you. 

 A couple dating and a married couple naturally develop intimacy, thus close friendship.

This is so not like friendship with girlfriends, however. Friendships with girlfriend involve emo talk; lots of cathartic spillage of emotions. Friendships with men involve a lot of gossip and jokes. In friendships with girls and with guys, there is often cooperation and collaborative enterprises. Collaborative enterprises bring people together. Consider the war buddy. What really helps a married couple naturally develop intimacy is sharing a bed and a future and such enemies as taxes, moths, etc., et al.

That is a very good thing, and should always be maintained. In fact, it should never stop growing, and should always desire to go deeper.

Intimacy and friendship are concepts, not people. They don't desire anything. Meanwhile, in marriage, loyalty and constant forgiveness and trying to do better oneself are more to the point. The longer you are married to someone whom you love and who is  kind to you (and to whom you are kind), the more the invisible glue thickens. You don't have to "desire" anything. Meanwhile,early experiences of marriage showed me that if I need a female shoulder to cry on, poor old B.A. just won't do. A husband, though great, cannot take the place of women, if you're a woman's woman. 

What we are concerned with in friendships (perhaps obviously) is the role of our bodies. It is doubtful that you will ever find two friends who can honestly say they have never touched each other in any way. It is a natural part of friendship to touch each other. There are plenty of appropriate and non-genital or sexually arousing ways to interact physically with a friend. A hug is probably the most popular one.

This is where I go nuts. Waaaaah? The role of our bodies? A natural part of friendship to touch each other? Has this guy been to the UK? Has he met my family? My mother expressed affection for her tiny children by hitting us lightly on the head with a cardboard tube from a roll of kitchen paper. I almost never hug people. Almost everybody gets the air-kiss. Mwah, mwah and, if Polish, mwah. 

Same-sex friends are physical in these appropriate ways, just as opposite-sex friends are. It is safe to say that the body’s interaction in friendship is an important element of friendship, though it is not a necessary part of it (though, again, other than certain saints who had successful and deep non-physical opposite-sex friendships, it would be hard to find two friends who don’t have physical exchanges within their friendships).

 "The body's interaction in friendship." Sigh. "Important" but not necessary. What?

I’m always amazed how naive people can be sometimes. Does it not make sense? 

 No. It does not make sense. "You should not walk around naked in front of your opposite-sex friends" makes sense. "You should not give opposite-sex friends long lingering hugs until their sexual appetites awaken" makes sense. "Backrubs--strictly out" makes sense. The body's interaction in friendship being an important element in friendship though not necessary does not make sense. 

I think maybe people have forgotten about the effects of original sin and assume too much that man or woman can readily and always control what is fundamental about our sexuality as men and women and as God created us.

Actually, with women it's more about imagination. You don't have to touch someone to lust after them, that is for sure. Same with men. Custody of eyes, people, keep your shirts on, and quit the lingering full-frontal hugs. 

More than that, it seems there is a lack of understanding in the direction of friendship. Friendship desires intimacy.

No. Friendship doesn't desire anything. It is a concept, not a person. We desire intimacy, but we desire other things too. Sometimes we just want to pass the time of day. Sometimes we just want to see a smiling face.  

 A man and woman who are close friends will naturally want to get closer. 

Not necessarily. Real friends, REAL man-woman friends, respect boundaries, and only want to get closer if they are in love. I do not want to get closer to my priest friends, for example. And I do not want to replace mothers in the affections of my younger friends. Real friends, paradoxically, loosen their ties to allow their friends space for boyfriends, husbands and children. 

It is a cornerstone of marital love and inspires sexual desire, which is the only place for the continuation of their friendship.

Where is the role of the celibate in this? Are priests and nuns not allowed to have opposite sex friends? I would argue that priests in particular need female friends, REAL friends who respect their vocation and will not make inappropriate emotional demands and won't  let them get away with stuff.

Children, of course, are the ultimate "continuation" of the friendship and intimacy in marriage, for they are the tangible incarnation of that mystery of love between a man and a woman. That is why the Sacrament of Matrimony is primarily an exchange of "rights" to each other's body, and as a result of those "rights", a deepening of love can happen and children may be conceived as a result.

As far as marriage goes, I agree with that. Marriage is for children. And for keeping you from behaving like someone from Sex and the City if you are that way inclined. Or for saving the man you love from falling into the hands of Bad Women because he is lonely and too good for them anyway.  

But taking the physical component out of it, it is still just as dangerous for a man and a woman to have a friendship, even if there is mutually no desire for it to be physical. The connection made with their hearts, as special as it may seem, can still be a threat to the persons these friends will date or be married to.

This is just bonkers and is reducing friendship to soulmate-ism.  What about your buddies in arms? Your college pals? Your office mates? Your cousins? Your brothers? 

Why? Because it is flat-out uncomfortable for the person you are dating or married to. 

Or maybe not. B.A. gets along great with the women at work, older and younger. He is good pals with one or two of the volunteers in their 50s.  He gives older brotherly advice to younger women colleagues. One enthused that he is her Older Brother She Never Have. I think this is awesome. If I find any of them kissing him in the woods, of course, I will shriek and carry on and threaten divorce and look up cheap flights to Canada. However, I sincerely doubt this will ever happen. 

A woman dating a man who has a female friend he is very close to will feel threatened by that woman; not necessarily threatened that she will lose this man, but threatened that she may not be getting “all” of him and has to share intimacy with someone else.

Hello. She isn't getting "all" of him. He has a mother, doesn't he? A family? Male friends? It really depends on the woman, and how they interact. If they're office buddies with lives of their own, no problem. If he's on the phone with her constantly, talking to her as if he were a girl, weirdness.  So I do agree that if a guy's bestest buddy is a girl, or a girl's bestest buddy is a guy, that is a problem. 

You might say, “That’s a sign of an insecure person and is a red flag to me.” Well, hold on a moment. That’s not insecurity; that’s just a natural reaction. No woman, for example, wants to feel she has to “share” certain deeper levels of friendship she has with the man she is dating or married to with another woman.

 If the deeper levels he's talking about means physical, than yeah. Also, I find out B.A. complains about me at work, he is toast. If he needs to complain about me to someone, he can complain to his married male pals. Whoop! Just found out B.A. never moans about me at all! The man is a saint. Bless him. Oh wait, he says he occasionally makes "British remarks" about "The wife." Ah well. British bloke bonding, you know. 

So what’s the answer? You don’t want to lose this person you are friends with, but you also don’t want to lose the person you are dating (or cause your marriage to suffer). One answer is to turn this personal friend into a friend of both of you as a couple. But be ready to end the friendship, because the person you are dating or married to may not be open to that.

We have moved from friendship to "this person", which I assume is a bestest buddy type. Well, there is another option. If you are not married but just dating, you might ponder whether or not you should ditch your cranky "dating partner" and marry your bestest buddy instead. If you're a girl and he's a straight guy, GUESS WHAT?  This is probably what he has been longing for all along. Sorry. Marry him or cut the poor chat lose. 

There are quite a lot of male-female friendships between the merely nodding acquaintance, e.g. Favourite Bus Driver, to a lifelong erotic/familial bond, e.g. Husband of 50 Years. 

There are childhood playmates, including your brothers and cousins and really young uncles. There may be high school pals you've kept up with. (I have one of those, and I pray for the ones who have died.) There may be some male college buddies, too. (I've got some priest pals from my theologate days.) There may be professors, excellent bosses or other mentors, to whom you will be loyal, through thick and thin. (I've got at least two of those.) There may be spiritual directors, or your spiritual directees. There may be priest-pals, or priest-mentors. There may be guys a generation younger than you, who need a motherly ear, or somewhere to stay after their housing arrangements fall apart. There are work colleagues. There are parish communities. There are people who are thrown together in an emergency that changes their lives forever. 

There are all kinds of friendships. They do not all turn into BFF friendships or marriage. They are what they are, and at best they are what they are supposed to be.  And each one is unique to the two people in them. My friendship with SPS, for example, is different from SPS's friendship with Annabel, even though Annabel and I are both married. Annabel is a college pal; I'm a church lady with a popular husband. 

This brings me to my next point. It is way easier to have authentic, well-boundaried friendships with the opposite sex when you are happily married then when you aren't. The worst is when you are unhappily married. But being Single definitely has its challenges. If you terribly badly want to be married, you are going to think about filling that "husband-shaped" hole in your life, and may even so resent men for not being "the One", that you want to have nothing to do with ones who quite obviously aren't him. You'd rather go out for a potentially awkward day at the beach with a complete stranger you met over a dating website than go out for dinner with work buddies or college pals you haven't seen forever. 

And I think this is totally understandable but also very sad. One of the greatest freedoms, for me, in married life is that I can now relate to men, especially strangers, as potential friends. I suspect that this is why I have more (non-priest, non-seminarian) male friends now than at any other point in my adult life.  I'm more relaxed. I'm less self-conscious. I am interested in men solely for who they are (except at swing-dance, where I just want them to ask me to dance), and not at all because they might make me a good husband one day.

But I think seeing men as potential friends BEFORE judging them as potential husbands is the key to a happy social life for the Single woman. Yes, there are challenges. The biggest challenge may be taking "No" for an answer from men friends who like you, but just not that way. Accepting their platonic friendship with good grace brings a lot of benefits. I first found out about Benedict Ambrose from our pal Aelianus, whom I recognized immediately as a Very Good Catch, but was most definitely not interested in me in that way. And I forgive him cheerfully for that because, lo, he was the first to bring B.A. to my attention. 

So to boil down a long post, my advice is to be careful, but not paranoid, about friendships with men. Go out into the world with an eye to making male friends, remember that not all men actually make good friends, and assume that one of the male friends you make one day, some decade, will want to marry you. Husbands don't come out of an Amazon box. They very often come out of a circle of friends. Yours may very well be the friend of one of your male friends. Hooray for male friends!

UPDATE: Sincere apologies to Messers Esolen and Buono for getting them mixed up in my head. The article I linked to is by Anthony Buono.


  1. Whoa, quick fix, Seraphic! The post reads "article by Anthony Esolen" but you actually mean Anthony Buono. HUGE DIFF! Anthony Esolen is actually an awesome teacher and writer, at Providence College, I believe. He is NOT the Ave Maria Singles guy.
    Anyhow, please fix quick before a lot of people are confused and disappointed in Esolen!

  2. I do feel rather sorry for Anthony Buono at this point. Reading his article again, and being familiar with many other articles he has written at, it seems his intentions are good. He does mention he is not opposed to opposite sex friendships across the board. My impression is that in general he is pointing out that it is possible for an opposite-sex friendship to interfere with a vocation to marriage, perhaps as a general caution.

    Monsignor Pope received a lot of acrimonious fire for investigating whether there is a vocation to the single life: (He asserts there is not, in a way that can be viewed as refreshing and freeing.) As part of the article he states that “those who marry as well as those who enter religious life or the priesthood are not permitted to date others or enter into romantic and particular relationships with others.” It seems that the keeping a relationship from becoming “particular” would be the challenge of a married or religious.

    I suppose there is an aspect of poverty that goes along with embracing marriage vows or vows to religious life, that indeed all others truly are forsaken, and then the spouse/Spouse is the one to whom life is dedicated.

    1. Great comment, but we don't really do "Anonymous" at my blogs. I invite you to pick a name for future comments. If stuck, "Fuzzy Caterpillar" is the first thing that came to my mind. I like fuzzy caterpillars.

  3. Well, poor man. The problem is that male-female relationships get these terrible labels slapped on them, and people pay no pay attention to the multiplicity of relationships. We don't live in Saudi Arabia, after all.


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