Society generally tends to be leery of friendships between members of the opposite sex. Famously, the movie When Harry Met Sally made the point that such friendships are impossible without one or both parties eventually falling in love with each other. Meanwhile, the church, as I know it, often reads too deeply into interactions between guys and girls, vacillating between “no look no touch” mandates and *wink wink nudge nudge*.
As a teenager weaned on the culture of “every guy could be The One,” I wound up mentally screening many of the guys I bonded with for “potential.” It used to make me resentful that I was ultimately only ever seen as a sister figure, never a romantic possibility.
But since I came to accept God’s gift of singlehood, I’ve come to see what a blessing it is to have guy friends who are just that—friends. My bros have come to my rescue, chatted with me for hours, and shared meals and movies with me—all without being romantically interested. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of getting to know them in their “natural habitat,” without the trappings of us trying to impress each other.
Jesus Himself offered a wonderful example of the beauty of intergender friendship. He was close to the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany. Not only was He a welcome guest in their home on at least two occasions, they were quite open with one another. Martha was comfortable enough with Jesus to ask Him to tell off her sister (Luke 10:40). The sisters were bold enough to ask Him to come and heal their brother while He was in the midst of His ministry (John 11:3). Jesus openly wept with them in their distress (John 11:35).
Jesus embodied how men can care for and relate to women honourably as a brother, especially at a time when women were very much second-class citizens compared to men. And in turn, Mary and Martha showed how women can reciprocate such respectful treatment through a pure friendship that made their love for Him evident.
In this modern day and age of mixed signals between members of the opposite sex, how can we cultivate healthy intergender friendship?
1. There’s always a common ground
I learned to drive much later than many of my peers. In order to get better at it, I hit up a group of guys I knew since high school who were brave enough to get into my car once a week to coach me. That request birthed a great friendship, and we would often end up watching movies together and having intense discussions on important issues in the context of fictional superhero problems.
Stepping into a guy’s world was fairly easy for me since I grew up around boys and shared many of their interests. But regardless of what type of girl you are, I think there’s always a common ground to be found with guys. Hobbies and interests aside, we all share life experiences like school and work. And for believers, one shared interest we always have is Jesus Christ.
I’ve been a part of some great co-ed Bible study groups where I was able to benefit not just from the wisdom and advice of the men, but also from their willingness to open up about their struggles. Simply being offered the opportunity to pray for them enabled me to minister to my Christian brothers in a sisterly way.
2. Don’t overthink a show of courtesy
When I was in New York to meet some friends, I was utterly floored by how gentlemanly the guys were. They would hurry to open doors for myself and another girl friend and step back to let us enter first, they’d make sure we got to our hotel safely. It was a kind of instinctive courtesy I hadn’t seen in a long time. But I was brought back down to earth when I returned home and watched five of my male colleagues stand by while a girl struggled to move a table by herself.
“Chivalry is dead,” many a woman has bemoaned. But I’ve come to realise lately that maybe it isn’t. It seems that at some point in our history, being a gentleman became less of a natural reaction for a guy and more of a special behaviour that’s awakened only for his romantic interest. As a result, doing a chivalrous act can feel like a land mine situation for some guys, who fear that their gestures may be misinterpreted, and could lead to awkwardness.
In the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of overthinking gentlemanly gestures, and have wound up changing the way I acted around a guy because of that. Responses like this have turned potential friendships cold and may have discouraged some guys from being courteous to a girl in the future.
These days, I aim to encourage chivalry in my bros by making sure I view their kind acts as just that—kind acts. I let them be courteous with me, and I express my gratitude whenever they offer to pay for a coffee, or to drive me home to spare me a commute. And that’s it. Unless there’s a clear communication of interest, courtesy is just courtesy.
3. Communicate your status clearly
I know a girl who makes it a point to directly tell her bros that she’s only looking to be friends, period. On the surface, it seems odd to be so up front about it, but I find it a wise move. After all, a major factor in a good intergender friendship is being clear on what you are to each other. There are times when guys do “test the waters” with a girl through gestures, and they can feel led on if the girl in question readily accepts the gestures while thinking they don’t mean anything. Thus, the best way to avoid any confusion on this end is to communicate openly that you only think of a bro as a bro.
As a general rule for such friendship, I also avoid one-on-one time with guys unless it’s with bros who I’ve already reached a clear “just friends” understanding with. If we’re not in a place to have such a frank discussion, I’d rather hang out in a group setting to make the boundaries clearer, and to limit suggestive talk from observers.
4. Don’t let gossip affect how you see a bro
Some years ago, I was spotted by church aunties having breakfast with a close bro after Sunday service. The following week, one of them sidled up to me and asked about my relationship with him. I clarified that we were only buddies, but apparently it wasn’t enough to quash talk that there was (or should be) something going on with us.
The power of suggestion has often become a stumbling block to burgeoning intergender friendships, especially those between single guys and girls. Gossip and excessive hinting plant ideas in the hearts and minds of the parties in the friendship, causing them to question and rethink their relationship as something “more”. What might have been a good friendship is then strained by expectations that might not have been there otherwise.
In such situations, it’s important that you and the bro you’re being “shipped” with are clear on where you stand with each other. And once you are, steer clear of the “you’d make a cute couple” talk, and politely ask aspiring matchmakers to refrain from meddling with your friendship.
When it comes to intergender friendships, it’s always important to guard our hearts and minds and make sure that we continue to treat our bros appropriately, whether we’re contently single or ready to mingle. Paul gives us the blueprint on how in 2 Timothy 5:1-2: while unmarried, guys and girls are to treat each other like family.
For us girls, it means we don’t test out flirting skills on an unsuspecting bro or desire to be his priority when we have no claim. It means we are intentional in choosing to view men in church first and foremost as brothers, to see them as Jesus does. We pray for them, we seek to spur them on to a deeper relationship with Christ (or to a relationship with Christ, if they don’t know Him yet), and we encourage them towards “love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).