Susanne Osborne and I have forged an intimate platonic friendship in the last couple of years. For the purpose of moving past so many stereotypes and fears, I think its time to share something of our story. I think we can both affirm the glorious beauty and goodness of loving each other without wanting each other sexually. This doesn't mean embodied sexuality is not present between us.
When I mention sexuality here, I am not referring to genital sexuality but the distinction Marva Dawn makes between genital sexuality and social sexuality. Social sexuality according to Dawn, "is composed of all aspects of our being that are distinct from specfic feelings, attitudes, or behaviors related to or leading to genital union." We have nurtured a love that is different from the kind you would see in Hollywood.
But it is a also different from the keep-your-distance, and maintain arm's length away love between a single woman and a married man which is the ambivalent kind of love offered up in some evangelical communities. What has emerged between us is something Jean Vanier speaks of when he writes that men and women need to learn in friendship, a relationship of "communion, gift, tenderness, and service."
In our friendship, there has been mutual growing trust, deepening conversation, and mutual risk to explore different boundaries than calculated distance. I'll share some highlights.
Susanne and I met back in 2005 when we both attended the same seminary class. It was not until the spring of 2009 that our bond began to grow. That March she came to a talk Jennifer Ould and I did on cross-gender friendship. After that meeting, we started a conversation about prayer. We decided to meet for a specific period of time and evaluate where we were at some point.
Our prayer times over the phone for a few weeks grew to meeting face to face. Ever since then we have met every two weeks for prayer and conversation. I so look forward to our time together. We share with each other what's going on in our lives and process with each other what the Lord is doing, what we are feeling and thinking, etc. Then we spend some unhurried time praying for each other.
Susanne and Sheila
Early on in our friendship, I introduced Sheila to Susanne. It is a great gift to me that there is a mutual deep respect between Sus and Sheila. We had such a wonderful conversation the first time all of us met. It is important if one is married to include the spouse in the context of the relationship. In this case, there was a simple but beautiful trust between Susanne and Sheila from the start.
I love affection and I have so loved the freely offered, mutually-engaging affection between us. If you've read my book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, I had Susanne in mind when I wrote the beginning of chapter 6: "As she started to pray she moved her free hand underneath my hand and was now praying for me holding my hand with both of hers." Sus and I affectionately, with much warmth expressed to the each other, hold hands while we are praying.
Susanne and I have both grown to trust each other more deeply in the area of physical affection. She receives my affectionate touches in the course of normal conversation, and I receive hers as we talk, laugh, or express sadness. Arthur Roberts in his book, Messengers of God: Sensuous Side of Spirituality talks about the need for men and women to model nonerotic but affectionate touch in friendships.
I asked Sus about a couple of months ago if I could kiss her on the cheek after we had such a beautiful time of sharing, connecting, and praying. She said yes and then she returned the kiss. Simple kisses on the cheek but they express such deep beauty between us. We now kiss each other on the cheek when we say good bye.
Beautiful, Deepening Conversations about Singles and CGFS
It seems like from the very beginning (2009) at least part of our ongoing conversation has been about cross-gender friendship. Prior to meeting me (and Sus you can correct me if I am wrong here) Susanne had rarely met a serious Christian who was suggesting and practicing a third way of relating to the opposite sex--a third way that embraced sexuality and platonic intimacy within friendship. She had so many questions!
But I think early on, she saw I was not advocating that we throw personal boundaries out the window. In nurturing platonic intimate friendships boundaries are important. There are limitations in friendship intimacy. But so many of our self-imposed boundaries are there because someone told us they needed to be there out of fear; or they are there because we have uncritically accepted the romantic culture claiming so many "special" things between men and women as exclusively romantic. Or the self-imposed boundaries are there because we fear what others might think.
In the evangelical sub-culture, it takes a certain amount of courage to step up to the front-line of leading a new way for male-female friendship if you are going share the depth of your friendship in public. Marie Fortune in her book, Love Does No Harm addresses the "permeability" of boundaries within the context of trust: “Intimacy does not mean the absence of boundaries. Intimacy means that boundaries are more fluid and permeable because there is trust between two people.”
A Single Woman and Female Sexuality
One of the beautiful things I have prayed for Sus in the past couple of years is that the Lord would give her a husband. She desires to be married. But Susanne has never made me feel like I am some sort of stepping stone for her while she is waiting for marriage to happen. What has powerfully blessed me and even drawn me more to her is her wonderful heart embracing me, delighting in me, and celebrating me as a beautiful gift in her life. As I mention in my book, it is not common for a single woman to express delight, ongoing delight in a married man in the evangelical community.
We have reached a mutual comfort level and Susanne embraces platonic intimacy as mutually life-giving, mutually edifying, and mutually delightful--as a single woman toward a married man. In a recent exchange she expressed, "Your voice has been a stable, loving, and affirmative presence through every step...LOVE YOU deeply."
The beauty of this is that we have come to love each other in the spirit of freedom. The intimacy has grown with no pressures or strings attached. Yet because the intimacy has grown there is a mutually deepening sense of being committed to the other.