Because of some things that have been going on in my life, and because I’m a guy, and like women, I’ve spent some time, lately, thinking about male-female relationships, and what their nature is. Since the time my peers and I have gotten old enough to feel sexual attraction (and, later, old enough to be contemplative about it), I have been in at least a dozen conversations over whether guys and girls can ever really be “just friends”. There’s always a divide in such conversations between those who appear to be either bare-bones realists who insist that any conversation between a (non-related) male and female is essentially a romantic one that may just be cast as something else, or lofty idealists who vehemently insist that they themselves have real mere-friend relationships with those of the opposite sex. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and I think the truth lies in some middle ground between the two extremes.
First off, I do have friendships with people of the opposite sex with whom I’ve never had any blatant romantic encounter, and with whom I have no plans to pursue such an encounter. They’re probably reading this now. This tells you something about where I stand already. I, like our flowery idealist, do think that genuine, non-romantic relationships can exist between men and women. But, I think that such relationships will inevitably be limited in the depth and honesty they can involve, and I think that most “friendhips” between men and women are just dishonest, shallow facades masking the explicit, romantic interest one or both of the participants feels. I hope that I can make sense out of that with a little help from the smartest people who ever lived, the Greeks, and a concept they found helpful – the telos.
In deep discussion on topics like human nature, right and wrong, and love (to name a few) the concept of telos has been helpfully employed for thousands of years. Basically, a telos is the specific end or goal for a thing; a thing’s innate purpose. For a pair of scissors, it’s telos is being an excellent paper-cutter. For a tiger, it is to be an excellent hunter, to be fast, agile, stealthy, ferocious to it’s enemies, and a protector of it’s family. For a person, it is to be kind, honest, deep, brave, cunning, compassionate, forthright, charitable, physically efficient, and appropriately individualistic and communal. Everything has a telos. That is, everything has an ideal, excellent state to aspire to. This state is most easily described (as I have above) as a mixed concoction of traits that all melt together into one state of total perfection that is the thing’s goal. It is this perfect state unique to each kind of thing against which we judge the thing. To the extent that a thing lacks the qualities involved in that one perfect state, the thing is defective. If a mother tiger is fast, strong, and a good care-taker of her cubs, but is clumsy, and so has trouble catching food at times, we judge her to be a poorer example of a mother tiger than one who has all of those good traits, but we judge her to be a better example of a mother tiger than one who lacks all of them.
In thinking through the telos (or “teleology”) of a thing, you will inevitably find yourself uncovering great, practical insights that will make you a better person (help you achieve your telos!). Since most everything has a telos, and since the telos of a thing is normally pretty easy to uncover (at least partially) it will aid you in thinking through a lot of different stuff. Even relationships.
The question, then, is to ask, “what is the purpose, or end-goal of a relationship between two people?”. To answer that, we first have to identify several different sorts of relationships between people. First, I think there are two essential types: person relationships, and role relationships. A role relationship is one where two people relate to each other, not on the basis of their own personal ideas, feelings, values, and personalities, but instead relate to each other through pre-dictated roles they’ve adopted. An example would be the way a boss and employee relate to each other (think Bill Lumberg, the smarmy boss from Office Space). The boss and employee usually, from the time they walk through the door feel the pressure to don polite, smiling masks of agreeability and eagerness. These work-faces are nothing other than masks forged to visibly contradict the emotions, and personality traits that are unwelcome at their place of work. Social environments like jobs, schools, malls, and churches often exert powerful pressure on us by sending the message that our true selves are not welcome there because the values of those environments are threatened by inner honesty. So we feel forced to interact with each other through roles as waiters, customers, employers, church-goers, and students, all the time using such masks to hide our selves. If you doubt that this is so, ask yourself: when was the last time someone asked you, in one of these environments, “how are you doing?” and you responded honestly? Probably never. This is because these roles are designed – their telos is – to perpetuate the institution that fosters them. The role of a waiter is not to relate to people honestly as an individual, but to keep a restaurant open. The role of a shopper is to keep the mall busy and thriving.
The second sort of relationship is person relationships. These relationships are characterized by honesty and openness. They don’t necessarily have to be perfectly honest and open, but will certainly involve the progressive de-masking of those involved. We live in a society dominated by artificial roles, so any real friend relationship here will involve a process of uncovering our true selves beyond the roles, and then offering the self to the other. This is the telos of true, person relationsips – to know and nourish one another as individuals.
We are concerned with more specific kinds of relationships though, namely mere friendships and romantic friendships. First, both of these fit naturally into the category of person relationships. I say “naturally” because there is a constant threat of these relationships dissolving into thin, role relationships where one, instead of unmasking the self and offering it tremblingly to the other, merely looks to the role of “buddy”, “bff”, “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”, “husband” or “wife”, and seeks to merely imitate that socially defined role, a role that never includes genuine self-revelation to the other, but seeks only to reinforce and feed the institution that defines it – western pop culture.
So we know that romantic friendships and mere friendships belong to this category of genuine, people-oriented relationships. We also know that this category has a general goal of promoting intentional self-revelation, and loving nourishment of those involved. But how do we get from there to romantic vs. non-romantic friendships? We have to employ one more idea – natural roles.
While I may have made it seem that person relationships are role-less, that is not really the case. Every relationship seeks, in some sense, to thrive within the borders of a role. Before you throw your hands in the air and your computer out the window, grab onto this – the role-relationships I’ve tried to slaughter so far have all sought to conform to roles that are alien, destructful, and contradictory to human nature because they seek to serve inhuman institutions like malls, businesses, teenie-bopper pool parties, and impersonal marriages. Such things shouldn’t even exist as they do, so the roles designed to serve them shouldn’t either. There are other roles though; roles natural to genuine humanity, designed to serve and support the human race itself as it seeks to grow in open, honest love. These roles are those that define different sorts of genuine relationships. Examples would be the role of father and mother, child, brother and sister, friend, lover, husband and wife, community leader, etc.
These roles don’t require the self contradiction that other, evil social roles do. Instead of seeking to consistently suppress elements of human nature such as emotion or personal values, these roles seek to specifically harness specific characteristics people have and employ them for the good of humanity. The difference is that, in an artificial role relationship, like the role of “waiter”, emotional honesty would be unwelcome because it would make the customer uncomfortable, and so would hurt the business. Your emotions, as a waiter, are then unwelcome. In a natural role relationship though, personal characteristics are not unwelcome, they may occasionally be irrelevant to the role, but they won’t really be a hindrance to it. As a community leader, one’s love for chocolate, or sadness over your dead dog won’t be unwelcome. They just won’t matter in relation to the goal of the role itself.
So then, not all roles are bad; just the ones that require you to be ingenuine, unkind, impersonal, dishonest, greedy, callous to the needs of others, or to adopt any other wicked character trait. Some are good, and even need to be adopted in order to benefit ourselves and others. Where does friendship, romantic and non-romantic, fit in though?
First, I don’t think friendship is a role. There are no cute, game-like rules that govern friendship, no matter what high school taught us. Friendship is nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than two people relating to each other in progressively deepening honesty, kindness, thoughtfulness, selflessness, love. Ideally, everyone should be a friend to everyone else, though, obviously not everyone can have a deep, nuanced friendship with every other person – there’s just not time enough for that here. But, everyone should be able to count on every other person to care about them and to do what is right concerning them, and everyone should be willing to do that for every other person. The uniqueness of friendships comes, then, from the depth they’ve developed over time, and the character that the relationship takes on as the personalities of the two participants mesh.
Second, friendship, like everything else, has a goal, a telos. The purpose of relating to each other in truth and love is to nourish the other – to help them become whole, conscious, virtuous, wise. In essence, the telos of relating to each other rightly, is to help each other achieve our telos. The Greeks had a word for that state. The state of human perfection is called eudaimonia. It means something like “the good state of the soul/self” where one is complete, conscious, morally excellent, and at peace.
How does romantic friendship fit in? Well, we know now that friendship is nothing less than two people walking down the road of life together offering mutual guidance, correction, encouragement, and support. That is it’s telos. I think romantic friendships have the same telos, with one extra element – propagating the human race. You might be tempted to think that I’ll say here that the act of propagation is what sets romantic friendships apart from mere friendships. But you’d be wrong. You can have a totally legitimate, fulfilling romance even if one of the members is sterile. I don’t think that that means your relationship is flawed (though maybe one of you are).
The difference can be seen in recognizing that the path to eudaimonia that every friendship walks is a narrow one, and can only be traveled in a certain way. Being a good person (achieving our telos – eudaimonia) is a specific, detailed, objective thing, and helping each other be good is a skill that requires wisdom and virtue. It is difficult. This is because humans are complex, and a perfect human might be even more complex, so helping each other achieve perfection will be tricky. We encounter this all the time. I am insecure about my intellectual abilities. If I speak on something I think I understand, and a friend listens and thinks I’ve spoken stupidly, they are in a spot to wander from the path to wholeness that our friendship walks. Should they, to avoid hurting my pride, be dishonest and tell me I’ve spoken well, or should they risk hurting me and help guide me to truth. Most people who call themselves friend to another would probably be dishonest, never realizing that they’ve only solidified my truthless state, and made it more difficult for me to live a whole life in the light of the truth. They have been no friend.
Where does this fit with romance though? Well, walking the path to eudaimonia is difficult and requires skill (people don’t often think of friendship as a skill, but it really is!). That means that people, in order to achieve perfection, need specific things. They need wise words at the right time, encouragement sometimes, chastisement at others. People need someone to remember their birthday and buy them a beer. They need someone to remember the date their mother died and go to the grave with them. People need to be maintained. Man does not live on bread alone.
This is where romance reveals its uniqueness, because people are designed to be maintained in many different ways – by large communities of equals that help us along by giving us a sense of belonging and an environment to participate as individuals, by whole family units that do the same but also know us more intimately and can guide us more specifically , and by individuals friends who can speak to us as equals (unlike our parents) and reassure us that we are worthy of voluntary love (where our parents may often do it out of obligation). You may have noticed a pattern of narrowing there. The further down the list you go, the more specific and intimate it gets. We humans have been designed not only to be able to interact at various levels of intimacy, but also to actually need these different levels. Notice how strange and scarred we become if we lack those levels. A man who knows only his friends and family, but no larger community may seem sheltered and socially awkward. One who knows community and friends, but no family, will often feel a gnawing need for love from their seniors. We need all these levels to be complete, and one more.
Humans with all the above still need a deeper level of intimacy. While we may have large scale social interaction, a tight family, and close friends, we need a level of supreme intimacy. This level goes beyond mere friendship to include a near total loss of boundaries between the selves where each self becomes subservient to the other in every way it can without destroying itself and the other. This is the heart of sex. One, in seeking to serve the other, loses oneself in the other, and, to its great surprise, receives astounding pleasure. This is the heart of humanity – he who loses his life will find it; we should love the other as ourself. This is a level of intimacy that can only be achieved if it is exclusive (because a total giving away of yourself to another can’t be done with two people at once), and so is more than a mere friendship. It is a friendship – but it is also a super-friendship that goes beyond and takes priority over all the others. So much for bros before hos, eh?
So, what’s the deal? Can men and women be “just friends” or not? Well, like I said, I think so, but there are limits. Just as the road to wholeness is a progressively deepening, narrowing one, so friendship itself will be. We see here that meeting each other’s needs in truth and love (friendship) is a specific, detailed sort of thing. This puts limits on a guy-girl relationship. As two people progressively relate in natural, honest, loving ways, they will naturally grow closer, and as their deeper feelings, needs, desires, thoughts, and character are revealed and refined, there will arise a need to relate in deeper ways. Every person has a need for someone to promise to be there for them no matter what. Every person has a need for someone to show them affection at various levels of intimacy – from a handshake, to a hug, to a kiss, to face-to-face, naked, lovemaking. And, as a male and a female honestly seek to be good to each other, and to be honest with each other, and the friendship progresses rightly, those needs will be exposed, and they must either be met, or there must come a time when both explicitly agree that they have reached the point where they are no longer both willing to progress. This is the limit of male-female relationships. The telos of a male-male/female-female relationship is lifelong frienship. The telos (I think) of a female-male relationship is total commitment and total intimacy. Every male-female relationship must then explicitly seek that end (marriage), consider seeking that end (dating), or acknowledge that that end will never be achieved, and limit itself to something less than ideal that will likely pass away when one or both of the participants finds the super-friendship of a spouse.