Myths of Intimacy

I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.

There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships?  Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.

One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.

Wheels within wheels . . .

At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.

Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.

To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.

I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.

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Made for Others

The American Dream: the life independent, a world in which a strong individual needs no one, always pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. It’s a dream wherein we are all masters of our fates, dependent on no external entity to get things done — indeed, often doing things despite (and in spite of) others. The Man got you down? Don’t need the government. Marriage fall apart? Don’t need committed relationships.

In fact, it rather sounds like the ideal individual under this schema is one who needs no relationships whatsoever. I’m not limiting “relationship” to the romantic domain; we all have other relationships of different natures, after all (or at least we should). But this archetypical “do it on my own” person feels no need for them; they would only be burdensome.

I confess I once fell for that particular lie. I felt I needed nothing and no one outside of myself. It took a significant amount of crashing-and-burning — or, if you prefer, humbling — to make me see the error of my ways. Even now, however, that misguided principle tries to rear its ugly head on occasion. My inner misanthrope rouses from his slumber, declares people are, on the whole, horrible, and attempts to coerce me into abandoning this whole social-relational enterprise. That voice never wins, though. I am a person who needs people, who isn’t a fan of going home each day to an empty apartment or being alone at the church office for hours on end. I have a social/emotional/spiritual/mental need for the company of other human beings, no matter what Teenage Chris thought.

And so do you. Why?

Let me tell you about a garden.

When God created the first humans, He made them in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27). These humans were settled in a garden and told to tend the earth, having authority over all other living creatures (v. 26). Of course, our first parents fell, and Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve would never regain the perfection of Eden. (But that’s a different story.)

There’s a plethora of ways to interpret what exactly it is to be made in the image of God. And no, one of them is not our own form of upright, fairly-hairless mammal-ness. Our intelligence and ability to reason, however, are called the “rational image” of God. Our position of authority above the rest of the created order and our task as stewards of same reflect God’s sovereignty and care for His creation; this is the political image of the imago Dei. We, like God, exercise free will and thus bear the volitional image. Our sense of right and wrong derives from God as well, so we talk about the moral image. Others speak of other images: the creative, the spiritual, the communicative, etc. But the facet of the imago Dei I want to focus on is the relational image.

Like the others, the relational image is rooted in the nature of God. As Christian (at least orthodox Christians), we believe God exists as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity isn’t the most understandable thing in the world, I admit, and I don’t have space in this post to give it a proper treatment, but suffice it to say (for the moment) God exists as three Persons yet one God; to expand my earlier statement, God is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. How can this be without saying we believe in three separate gods? Because the Trinitarian God exists as a relationship between the three Persons. Each is in a direct relationship with the other two, making a single entity we call God.

Now that we’re all confused, let me say this: because God is a relationship, we are created for relationships. Gregariousness and community are coded into our DNA. We’re designed to relate both to God and to other people; it’s just who we are. That’s why being alone is a punishment for our worst criminals; that’s why we get lonely; that’s why we seek friendships, have families, join community organizations and clubs. All so we can cease being solitary and unite with other human beings. It’s how God made us to be. Yes, this causes us to seek a relationship with God (and it most definitely should), but it also keeps us functioning as a society — and as individual human beings. To deny ourselves relationships is to deny part of what makes us human — part of what it means to bear the image of God.

That’s one beef I have with our current (and emerging) society: we don’t pursue real relationships. We believe social media friends are as good as the real thing. When we do have real friendships, they tend to be shallow and self-serving. “I’ll hang out with you,” we say, “when it’s convenient for me and only if I’ll get something out of it.” We don’t know how to be selfless, present, or selflessly present in our relationships. Then there’s the problem of society’s warped views of men and women which cause some to be suspicious of any close relationships between members of the same sex as well as between members of the opposite sex. Intimacy in relationships somehow became equated with sex and sexuality, and we are the poorer for it.

And don’t get me started on what passes for dating these days.

In exchanging real relationships for pseudo-relationality, we widen an Other-shaped hole into a yawning chasm which will admit any one of a number of substitutes. Technology seems to be the substitute of choice at the moment, followed closely by “no strings attached” sex. But others of us compensate (or self-medicate) in different ways: Netflix binges, alcohol, anything involves an adrenaline rush, travel, books, cars, food, etc. We throw ourselves into these because no one else is around and we’re not putting forth the effort to find someone. Don’t mishear me, though: hobbies are critical, and so is time by ourselves (doubly so for my fellow introverts). But we can’t fully replace our relationships with other people with relationships to stuff. Stuff will never feel anything towards us.

At the end of the day, the way we’re wired relationally underscores a very important truth grounded in creation itself: “it is not good for man [sic] to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Adam’s solitude was, in fact, the first thing in the Bible God declares “not good” after the goodness of the rest of creation. So we must love other people, pursue them, be in genuine, authentic relationships with them. Anything less is not good.