by Syd Shook
I’ve been married for seven years now. David, my husband, is a poet, filmmaker, international organizer, disc-golfer, translator and publisher with a wicked mullet and handlebar mustache. He is my best friend. I’ve learned with him that marriage promotes the forced ritual of re-evaluating expectations. It is a persistent exercise in surprise, adjustment, and re-creation. Despite my 19-year-old insistence that I knew what I was getting in to when I said I do to David, I faced a myriad of bombshell revelations in the days, weeks and months following my nuptials. One of the most initially shocking was the unwittingly imposed standard for cross-gender interactions that I experienced with my church and social groups soon after my wedding. In my pre-David life, I had mixed freely with my friends of every sex. We saw movies together in groups or in pairs, spent late nights chatting, went to concerts, e-mailed and AOL chatted each other about the latest goings on. Not anymore. One look at my band-clad finger and I was whisked off to a women’s or couples’ group. I found this to be especially true in church settings. This was, to say the least, unnatural if not uncomfortable for me.
In my child and teen years, I was faced with a home environment that was often inhospitable. I was lucky enough to have been taken in by a couple named Bob and Teri Clark. The Clarks had two children, Josh and Marianne. They were church-going, evangelical Christians who had a love for musical theater, crafts, and taking in strays—like me. At any given time the Clarks’ three upstairs bedrooms were filled with any number of “homeless” adolescents, theater kids and foreign exchange students. They were the mother and father of one big, extended, crazy, loving family. In my early teenage years, the Clarks decided to host a sixteen-year-old foreign exchange student from Germany named Dennis. This meant that I lived in close quarters and shared a bathroom with their daughter Marianne, and two teenage boys—their son Josh and their exchange student Dennis. Marianne and I slept in one room, the boys each had their own across from us. On the surface, it sounds like an evangelical recipe for disaster. Put adolescent female hormones near males ones, and the result is an irresistible march toward procreation.
This principle was demonstrated to me time and again in my church youth group where we donned purity rings and True Love Waits bracelets. Church camp was an almost comical exercise in camper nighttime segregation techniques. It wasn’t that the Clarks took a lackadaisical view on pre-marital sex. In fact, they were vocal about their support of sex as a marriage-only activity. But that wasn’t what prevented an upstairs orgy at their house. The Clarks had the beautiful ability to make all their strays feel like real family. They used to call me their “daughter number 2” and they fostered a sense of siblingry between all of their “kids.” They made a kind cobbled-together family I think the anti-clanist Jesus would be proud of. Josh and Dennis weren’t just teenage boys to me, they were my brothers. I remember sitting up late at night with Dennis, talking on the bottom tier of his bunk bed about faith, American culture and German food. As a girl without biological brothers, Dennis’ and Josh’ brotherly friendship allowed me to interact safely with the opposite sex. While we had no genetic relation, our understanding of one another as brothers and sisters allowed us to see each other as much more than objects of adolescent desire. We loved and respected one another as people.
In large part due to my experiences with the Clarks, I began to feel suffocated in the wedded world of women’s and couples’ groups. Upon arriving for a couples’ dinner, I was usually swept off to the kitchen for female pre-meal bonding while “the men” watched TV. My anxiety in these situations grew as my friends discovered my inability to whisk, fry, bake or bread. They were generally gracious, allowing me to help where I could and changing the topic of conversation from domestic to more general when I drew a blank. But there were pre-dinner evenings when I longed for less-probing companionship and knew I could probably find it in the TV room with the gentlemen.
And beyond the longing for a more diverse communication-style experience, I felt like I could have used some casual non-spousal masculine input in those early challenging days of marriage. But those conversations and the interactions—like tea or lunch—that provided space for them, were off limits. At church, where David and I were put into the young marrieds group, people tended to talk in the plural—and I started talking that way too, almost exclusively. It encouraged my growing notion that, as a good wife, David was to be my all in all—my partner, my lover, my best friend, my creative outlet, my buddy, my confidant—my everything. And over time David and I began to struggle. We went to see a counselor named Bret who spent several months with us explaining that we were enmeshed, after which time we had to do the exhausting work of becoming un-enmeshed—also known as becoming independent. During this painful process, I couldn’t shake my sense of wonder at how this enmeshment had occurred to begin with. Pre-marriage I was known as a spunky, independent, march-to-the-beat-of-her-own-loud-and-wacky-drum sort, and here I was with a crumbling marriage and a therapist’s looming diagnosis. What happened to that girl?
Dan Brennan is the author of a book called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. In March of 2011 Kathy Escobar, a pastor, blogger, wife and mother, interviewed him for her blog. On the topic of cross-gender friendships he wrote,
Marital friendship is a special, unique friendship. A healthy friendship between spouses avoids clinging (possessiveness) and an unhealthy, romanticized absorption which undermines so many contemporary marriages. As long as churches only offer to men and women sex-segregated paths of intimacy apart from marriage, we will reinforce stereotypes and avoidant, unhealthy attachments.
The church and my social groups had been telling us through their subtle segregation that the only God-honoring relationship between a non-biologically related male and female was one of absolute possession, and there was only one option for that: my spouse. Other men were objects of possession for other women. If I entered into a friendship with a single or married man, the assumption would be that I wanted to, in some way, possess them. The sad fact though, is that buying into this lie not only hurt my extramarital cross-gender friendships, it hurt my relationship with David. I wasn’t shown any way to be in an adult relationship with a man other than in utter absorption. I thought that making David my everything was what God wanted me to do. In reality, it’s a kind of abuse—a sly, selfish objectification. Perhaps if space had been made for me to experience my female friends as sisters and my male friends as brothers, I might have been more keen to treat David like a brother too. Instead I was working with David and Bret on unenmeshment exercises—a process aimed at nurturing respect for each other as whole human beings, rather than as items designed to meet our individual needs.
Through this journey, I realized that usury love is not Godly love. Godly love is not self-seeking. It recognizes the other as belonging to God—his son or daughter. It seeks to honor and respect the other in that role. The evangelical church speaks out against cross-gender usury love, especially in regards to sex. But when reacting to that real danger, we leave out the stories of healthy, redemptive love and friendship between men and women, especially those outside of marriage. Furthermore, we don’t often provide the space or encouragement to practice cross-gender Godly love. We have what could be described as a collective dirty mind, jumping instantly to worst-case sexual scenarios, and starting our discussion from there. In our fear, we neglect what is pure and lovely and honorable—like my teenage experience with Dennis and Josh. We need those kinds of stories in our Christian communities and we need people like the Clarks, who teach us about our true familyhood. But as is too often the case, we find ourselves focusing on what we are against instead of what we are for.
Over time, my relationship with David has healed. We’ve learned to enjoy one another as both husband and wife and brother and sister. We take time cultivating our special relationship as well as same and cross-gender relationships. Fostering our own intimate friendships across genders has allowed us to better see one another as people not solely as mutual need-meeters. It’s helped us develop both independently and as a couple.
While David was out of town recently I went on an impromptu city-wide restaurant tour with one of my closest male friends and neighbors. Each day we would visit a new food joint we’d been wanting to try out. David is a vegetarian and I lean omnivorous. I relished in the fun of guiltlessly dragging my guy pal along for less-than-kosher cuisine. In addition to enjoying the good food and company, I appreciate his insights into the male psyche, as well as the opportunity to practice being less wifely. When living in matrimonial comfort, we often forget to extend simple courtesies to our spouses. We point out things that bother us, we assume we know our mate’s intentions, we nag about things we’d like to change and we fight for control—surefire ways to ruin an evening. Spending a few meals with a close friend, male or female, reminds me that I’m capable, during dinner, of holding my tongue, swallowing my assumptions, leaving requests for later and simply relaxing a while. When David came back into town I was fresh off my food tour with a tangible memory of my ability to be friendly. I was able to be a better friend to my favorite friend, David, and I had one of my guy pals to thank for that!