In Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, Socrates and Critobulus are discussing household management, in which the wife plays a major role. The exchange goes this way:
“Anyhow, Critobulus, you should tell us the truth, for we are all friends here. Is there anyone to whom you commit more affairs of importance than you commit to your wife?”
“There is not.”
“Is there anyone with whom you talk less?
“There are few or none, I confess.”
Friendship between husband and wife is, of course, only one possible kind of friendship between the sexes, though an important one. But most classical thinkers—with the exception of Epicurus—were inclined to think friendship between men and women impossible.
No doubt this can be accounted for in part, perhaps large part, by social and cultural circumstances—differences in education, a public life from which most women were excluded, constant warfare that drew males away from home. In my own view, these circumstances have changed considerably, but not everyone agrees. Thus, for example, Mary Hunt, author of Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (1991), says: “Economic, political, psychological, and other differences between the genders result in the fact that women find it difficult to be friends with men and vice versa.” Though I think Hunt is somewhat mistaken about the reasons, it is true that the relation between the sexes is in our society a tense and often anxious one. It still makes sense to ask the classical question: Is friendship possible between men and women? Or, more modestly put, are there reasons why friendship between men and women may be more difficult to sustain than same-sex friendships?
When we ask this question, the first problem that comes to mind is the one raised by Harry Burns in the 1989 movie, When Harry Met Sally. In the opening scene, as he and Sally are driving together from Chicago to New York, Harry says: “Men and women can’t be friends—because the sex part always gets in the way.” Harry has a point—indeed, an important point. And, though I do not think that this is finally the deepest issue that confronts us here, I shall devote a good bit of attention to it.
Aristotle, whose two books on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics are recognized almost universally as the most important piece of writing on the subject, tends to agree with Harry. Aristotle recognizes, of course, that there is a kind of friendship between husband and wife, but it is one example of what he calls friendship between unequals. In such bonds the equality that friendship always requires can be present only if it is “proportionate” rather than “strict”—only, that is, if “the better and the more useful partner . . . [receives] more affection than he gives.” Still, of the three types of friendship that Aristotle discusses—based respectively on advantage, pleasure, or character—the highest, based on character, can exist even between unequals as long as the proportion is present. And Aristotle seems to think that, given the necessary proportionate equality, such a character friendship is possible between husband and wife.
More generally, however, Aristotle suggests that a relation grounded in erotic love will not be the highest form of friendship. (When he takes up the question, he has in mind, it would seem, pederastic relationships, but this does not affect his view of the relation between eros and philia.) He distinguishes a bond like friendship, grounded in a trait of character and involving choice, from a bond grounded in an emotion. And, while there can be friendship between lover and beloved, it will not be the highest form of friendship. It will be a friendship grounded not in character but in pleasure—and it is, therefore, likely to fade. “Still,” Aristotle grants, noting how one sort of love may grow from another, “many do remain friends if, through familiarity, they have come to love each other’s character, [discovering that] their characters are alike.”
It is important to note that eros and philia are indeed different forms of love, even if they may sometimes go together. In making a somewhat different point, C. S. Lewis suggested the following thought experiment.
Suppose you are fortunate enough to have “fallen in love with” and married your Friend. And now suppose it possible that you were offered the choice of two futures: “Either you two will cease to be lovers but remain forever joint seekers of the same God, the same beauty, the same truth, or else, losing all that, you will retain as long as you live the raptures and ardors, all the wonder and the wild desire of Eros. Choose which you please.”
In recognizing the reality and difficulty of the choice we discern the difference between the loves. That difference Lewis captures nicely in a sentence: “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” Friends, therefore, are happy to welcome a new friend who shares their common interest, but eros is a jealous love that must exclude third parties.
Lewis believes that friendship and erotic love may go together, but in many respects he agrees with Harry and with Aristotle that the combination is an unstable one. He suggests that friendship between a man and a woman is likely to slip over into eros unless either they are physically unattractive to each other, or at least one of them already loves another. If neither of these is the case, friendship is “almost certain” to become eros “sooner or later.” This is not far from Harry’s view of the matter. Having asserted that “men and women can’t be friends—because the sex part always gets in the way,” Harry adds a corollary when he and Sally meet again five years later: “unless both are involved with other people.” But then, in one of his characteristically convoluted pieces of reasoning, he adds: “But that doesn’t work. The person you’re involved with can’t understand why you need to be friends with the other person. She figures you must be secretly interested in the other person—which you probably are. Which brings us back to the first rule.” A little more optimistic than Harry, Lewis suggests that lovers who are also friends may learn to share their friendship with others, though not, of course, their eros. Still, that does not address Harry’s chief concern: the instability of friendships with members of the opposite sex when those friendships are not shared with one’s beloved.
We ought not, I think, deny that friendships between men and women—friendships that are not also marked by erotic love—are possible. We ought not, that is, let a theory lead us to deny the reality we see around us, and we do sometimes see or experience such friendships. Nor need we express the view shared by Harry and Lewis quite as crassly as did Nietzsche: “Women can enter into a friendship with a man perfectly well; but in order to maintain it the aid of a little physical antipathy is perhaps required.” Nor, surely, need we hold, as my students sometimes do, that friendship between men and women is possible only if at least one of the friends is homosexual (a view that will make same-sex friendships difficult for those who are homosexual, unless, of course, their experience of eros is in no way jealous or exclusive). At the same time, however, there is no reason to deny some truth to Harry’s claim, even without the additional support provided by Aristotle and Lewis, for our experience also suggests that there is something to it.
The difficulties of combining eros and philia are the stuff of our daily life. Equalizing the relation of the sexes, bringing women into the academy and the workplace, has not made these difficulties disappear. Indeed, in certain respects they may have been exacerbated. Men and women are radically uncertain about how they are to meet in such shared worlds. Friendship requires an easy spontaneity, a willingness to say what one thinks, talk with few holds barred and few matters off limits—precisely the sort of thing that some will find difficult on occasion to distinguish from sexual harassment.
I have discovered that college students often wish to argue that Harry is wrong, that there need be no obstacle to friendship between the sexes. That, however, may be because they have great difficulty managing erotic attachments (which are quite a different thing from sexual encounters). Fearful of the kind of commitment eros asks of us—fearful of being drawn toward one who is completely other than the self but to whom the most complete self-giving is called for and before whom one therefore becomes vulnerable—they take refuge in groups of friends, hoping thereby to achieve what parents of thirty years ago saw as the advantage of group dating: the domestication of eros. But eros is a wild and unruly deity, unlikely, I think, to be tamed so easily.
It is wiser to grant the point. Friendship between men and women will always have to face certain difficulties that will not be present in same-sex friendships. There will almost always be what J. B. Priestley calls “a faint undercurrent of excitement not present when only one sex is involved.” This may even give to the friendship a tone not easily gotten any other way. Thus, as Priestley again puts it: “Probably there is no talk between men and women better than that between a pair who are not in love, have no intention of falling in love, but yet who might fall in love, who know one another well but are yet aware of the fact that each has further reserves yet to be explored.” Priestley offered this opinion in a little book titled, Talking: An Essay, published in 1926 as one of several volumes in “The Pleasures of Life Series.” But he might well have been describing what many viewers found appealing in When Harry Met Sally. In one scene, Harry and his friend Jess are talking while hitting some balls in a batting cage:
Jess: “You enjoy being with her?”
Jess: “You find her attractive?”
Jess: “And you’re not sleeping with her?”
Harry: “I can just be myself, ‘cause I’m not trying to get her into bed.”
And yet, of course, not too much later comes the party at which Harry and Sally dance cheek to cheek—and recognize the presence of Priestley’s “faint undercurrent,” which we call eros. This is, let us face it, a problem for friendships between men and women, even if it may also be enriching. Eros always threatens; for, unlike friendship, eros is a love that is jealous and cannot be shared.
If we grant this, we may not agree with Mary Hunt, whom I quoted earlier. She ascribes the difficulties facing friendship between men and women to “economic, political, psychological, and other differences”—unwilling, almost, to admit the power and presence of erotic attraction between men and women in human life. Nonetheless, it may be worth thinking briefly about what she recommends: namely, “new models of mutuality” which are most easily found among women friends. We ought not, she argues, take Aristotle’s model of friendship and suppose that he simply forgot to include women when he talked and wrote of it—an omission we can then easily correct. We should not take his model and then just add women’s experience “as if they should have been there in the first place.”
What is mistaken about Aristotle’s model? Chiefly, it seems, that “[h]e considered friendship something that decreased in quality as it increased in quantity; the more intense the friendship, the fewer people with whom it was possible to enjoy it.” Thus, according to Hunt, women need not worry about classifying friendships as carefully as did Aristotle, nor need they worry about whether friends are best friends or just good friends. “Only ruling-class men whose survival is not in question have the dubious luxury of looking up and down at their friends, companions, and acquaintances.” Women, by contrast, in a society which—in Hunt’s view—is oppressive, cannot concern themselves with levels of friendship. For them the simple truth is that “friends, lots of them, are necessary for . . . survival in an often unfriendly environment.” Paradoxically, however, to the degree that Hunt’s assessment is correct, her thesis can have little to do with friendship between men and women or, even, between those of the same sex. For, by her own account, women would have every reason to seek as many women and men as possible to be friends, and men who were not “ruling-class men” would be in similar circumstances. Neither would have reason to seek the kind of close, particular, and preferential friendships that Aristotle—and many others since—have considered the highest form of friendship.
What Hunt seems not to realize is that she is, in fact, like Aristotle in at least one important way. “How,” Aristotle asks, sounding very much like Hunt, “could prosperity be safeguarded and preserved without friends? . . . Also, in poverty and all other kinds of misfortune men believe that their only refuge consists in their friends.” As it stands in the Nicomachean Ethics, of course, this is for Aristotle only one of the received opinions about friendship that he will refine, and it will turn out that this is not for him the highest form of friendship. More important, however, for Aristotle friendship is not only a particular and preferential bond that must be limited in number. He knows also a different kind of friendship, which we call “civic friendship”; indeed, for him philia is the bond that joins together the members of any association. The concept of civic friendship deserves more attention than we can give it here. We need to ask whether it is coherent, whether we really wish to call it “friendship,” and whether—if there is a coherent notion and we do call it friendship—it is helpful or harmful in life. Those who, like Hunt, emphasize such a concept of friendship may, despite their political concerns, have difficulty explaining one of the terrible things about injustice: how it may deprive us of the “luxury” of a private bond like friendship. But in any case, in her emphasis upon friendship as a public, political relation, Hunt is far more like Aristotle than she realizes; but, lacking his interest in those more private bonds we have in mind when speaking of friendship, she can shed little light on the problems of friendship between men and women.
These problems go deeper than the presence of erotic attraction alone. They involve the very nature of the bond of friendship. The friend is, in Aristotle’s influential formulation, “another self.” At several points, Aristotle considers whether friendship is more probable among those who are like or unlike each other. And, although he notes defenders of each view, he holds that friendship “implies some similarity” and that in the highest form of friendship “the partners are like one another.” In arguing that a person of good character should not—and ultimately cannot—remain friends with someone who becomes evil, Aristotle again appeals to the notion that “like is the friend of like.”
Anyone who reads Aristotle’s discussion of the friend as another self is likely to find it puzzling in certain respects. It grows out of a peculiar treatment of self-love as the basis of friendship, of love for the friend as an extension of the friendly feelings one has for oneself. And there are, in fact, aspects of his discussion that I would not claim fully to understand. What he has in mind, however, in depicting the friend as an alter ego is something we might discuss in terms of the social origins of the self. The friend is the mirror in which I come to know and understand myself. I have no way to look directly at myself and must come to see myself as I am reflected by others—and especially, perhaps, by close friends. In the friend I find that other self in whom I come to know myself. That is why friendship “implies some similarity” and why, at least in the most important kinds of friendship, “the partners are like one another.”
Friends wish, Aristotle says, to pursue together activities they enjoy. “That is why some friends drink together or play dice together, while others go in for sports together and hunt together, or join in the study of philosophy: whatever each group of people loves most in life, in that activity they spend their days together.” I myself think that Aristotle is largely correct here. We want in the friend someone who cares about the things we care about; yet we want the friend to be “another” who cares about these things, another with whom we can share them and with whom we come to know ourselves (and our concerns) better. The friend must be “another,” but not entirely “an-other.” Perhaps we do not, therefore, seek from the friend quite that sense of otherness which the opposite sex provides.
This takes us beyond the issue of erotic attraction alone—into much deeper, perhaps unanswerable, questions about what it means to be male or female. I do not know precisely how we can make up our minds about these questions today; we have a hard enough time just discussing them openly and honestly. A child of either sex begins in a kind of symbiotic union with its mother, without any strong sense of differentiation between self and mother. But as that sense of self begins to form, it develops differently for males and females. In attaining a sense of the self as separate and individuated we take somewhat different courses. Thus, psychologist Lillian Rubin argues, boys must repress their emotional identification with their mother, while girls, though repressing any erotic attachment, can leave the larger emotional identification with the mother (and, more generally, other women) intact. The process of becoming a self involves identification with those who can be for us “another self”—those, as it happens, who share our sex.
This does not, in my view, mean that friendship between men and women is impossible. It does mean, though, that J. B. Priestley was right to say of their “talk”: “It will be different from the talk of persons of the same sex.” These differences are the stuff of best sellers—and of much humor. Thus, for example, Deborah Tannen, who teaches linguistics at Georgetown University, could write a best-seller titled, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Full of illustrations in which one often sees oneself, Tannen’s book suggests that for men life is “a struggle to preserve independence,” while for women it is “a struggle to preserve intimacy.” The sort of problem this creates is illustrated clearly in a story Tannen recounts:
Eve had a lump removed from her breast. Shortly after the operation, talking to her sister, she said that she found it upsetting to have been cut into, and that looking at the stitches was distressing because they left a seam that had changed the contour of her breast. Her sister said, “I know. When I had my operation I felt the same way.” Eve made the same observation to her friend Karen, who said, “I know. It’s like your body has been violated.” But when she told her husband, Mark, how she felt, he said, “You can have plastic surgery to cover up the scar and restore the shape of the breast.”
Where she felt the need for understanding and sharing, he discerned a problem to be solved.
If this can sometimes be disconcerting, we need not be too serious. And these differences have provided the occasion for much humor. Dave Barry, the columnist, can title a column “Listen up, jerks! Share innermost feelings with her”—and most of us are likely to read it. “We have some good friends,” Barry writes,
Buzz and Libby, whom we see about twice a year. When we get together, Beth and Libby always wind up in a conversation, lasting several days, during which they discuss virtually every significant event that has occurred in their lives and the lives of those they care about, sharing their innermost feelings, analyzing and probing, inevitably coming to a deeper understanding of each other, and a strengthening of a cherished friendship. Whereas Buzz and I watch the play-offs.
This is not to say Buzz and I don’t share our feelings. Sometimes we get quite emotional.
“That’s not a FOUL?” one of us will say.
Or: “You’re telling me THAT’S NOT A FOUL???”
I don’t mean to suggest that all we talk about is sports. We also discuss, openly and without shame, what kind of pizza we need to order. We have a fine time together, but we don’t have heavy conversations, and sometimes, after the visit is over, I’m surprised to learn—from Beth, who learned it from Libby—that there has recently been some new wrinkle in Buzz’s life, such as that he now has an artificial leg.
Our world is full of attempts, not always terribly humorous, to remove such differences from life. In Tannen’s words, “Sensitivity training judges men by women’s standards, trying to get them to talk more like women. Assertiveness training judges women by men’s standards and tries to get them to talk more like men.” Better, perhaps, she suggests, to learn to understand and accept each other.
In this effort, I have found Priestley’s old essay quite helpful. If talk between men and women is different from talk between persons of the same sex, it will not give the same kind of pleasure. But it may, Priestley suggests, compensate in other ways. The first condition of such talk is, he says, “that sex must be relegated to the background. . . . The man and the woman must be present as individualities, any difference between them being a strictly personal and not a sexual difference. They will then discover, if they did not know it before, how alike the sexes are, once their talk has dug below the level of polite chatter and they are regarding the world and their experience together and not merely flirting.” That is, to revert to the terms I drew from Aristotle, they must find in the friend another self, another individuality, but one whose otherness is not so overwhelming as to threaten to engulf or invade their selfhood. No doubt this is not always possible, for reasons we noted earlier when considering the impact of eros on friendship. But when, for whatever reason, “passion is stilled,” men and women may meet as individualities who care about the same things or seek the same truth.
There may, however, be something dissatisfying about the suggestion that a crucial aspect of our person—our sexuality—must, as it were, be bracketed for such friendship to be possible. And this would be unsatisfactory, I think, were no more to be said. Priestley goes on, though, to suggest that friendship between men and women can go beyond the play of individual personalities. “Secure in this discovery” of how alike they are, men and women “will then go forward and make another one, for at some point they must inevitably discover how unlike the sexes are. . . . This double play, first of personality and then of sex, is what gives intelligent talk between men and women its curious piquancy. . . .”
In this second movement, when individual personality no longer brackets sexuality, Priestley ultimately discerns something more fundamental still—a third factor, which goes beyond the level of individual identity. “Men frequently complain,” he writes, “that women’s conversation is too personal.” And, even writing in an age that knew not Carol Gilligan, Priestley finds some truth in this judgment. I will quote him at length:
[Women] remain more personal in their interests and less concerned with abstractions than men on the same level of intelligence and culture. While you are briskly and happily generalizing, making judgments on this and that, and forgetting for the time being yourself and all your concerns, they are brooding over the particular and personal application and are wondering what hidden motive, what secret desire, what stifled memory of joy or hurt, are there prompting your thought. But this habit of mind in women does not spoil talk; on the contrary it improves it, restoring the balance. . . . It is the habit of men to be overconfident in their impartiality, to believe that they are god-like intellects, detached from desires and hopes and fears and disturbing memories, generalizing and delivering judgment in a serene mid-air. To be reminded of what lies beyond, now and then, will do them more good than harm. This is what the modern psychologist does, but too often he shatters the illusion of impersonal judgment with a kick and a triumphant bray, like the ass he so frequently is, whereas woman does it, and has done it these many centuries, with one waggle of her little forefinger and one gleam of her eyes, like the wise and witty and tender companion she is. Here, then, is a third kind of play you may have in talk between the sexes, the duel and duet of impersonal and personal interests, making in the end for balance and sanity and, in the progress of the talk, adding to its piquancy.
In this sense, friendship between the sexes may take us not out of ourselves but beyond ourselves—may make us more whole, more balanced and sane, than we could otherwise be.
Indeed, I myself think that this is one of the purposes of friendship. And by such teleological language I mean: one of the purposes God has in giving us friends. We are being prepared ultimately for that vast friendship which is heaven, in which we truly are taken beyond ourselves, and in which all share the love of God. Something like this understanding of friendship, though without the strong theological overtone I have just given it, can be found in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia—a book about, among other things, friendship, and a book that it would be misleading to describe simply as a children’s book.
The friendship in the book is one between a boy and a girl, Jess and Leslie, though they are a little too young for eros yet to have an overt impact on their relationship. In different ways they are both outsiders in the world of their peers at school, and that very fact draws them together. They create—largely at the instigation of Leslie—a “secret country” named Terabithia, in which they are king and queen. This country—a piece of ground on the other side of a creek, to which they swing across on a rope—is, in Leslie’s words, “so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.” And, at least at first, it must be that way. Were they to follow Mary Hunt’s advice, were no friendships of theirs to be special and particular, were they to have no secret country that others did not share, they would never come to know themselves as fully as they do. Thus, for example, Jess finds that his friendship with Leslie opens up new worlds for him. “For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self—his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.”
Jess says that Leslie is his way not only to Terabithia but also to “all the worlds beyond,” but he learns that truth only slowly and with great bitterness. When the creek is swollen from a storm and Jess is gone, Leslie still tries to cross to Terabithia on the rope. It breaks, she falls onto the rocks, and is killed. Grief-stricken and alone, without his alter ego, Jess can barely come to terms with what has happened. But he does, finally, and in doing so learns something about the purpose of all friendship.
It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. He had thought that was it. Wasn’t king the best you could be? Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile?
To learn to see beyond our own secret countries—to what is at the same time both terrible and beautiful—is, from the perspective of Christian faith, the purpose of friendship. And to the degree that friendship not only with those of our own sex but with those of the opposite sex may more fully enable such vision, we have every reason to attempt it, despite its inherent difficulties.
We should not, therefore, underestimate the importance of the most obvious location for friendship between men and women: the bond of marriage. There are many differences between our world and that shared by Socrates and Critobulus. By no means least of them is the formative influence of Christian culture, with its exaltation of marriage as the highest of personal bonds. To be sure, precisely because the husband or wife as friend is not only “another self” but as fully “an-other” as we can experience, friendship in marriage cannot be presumed. If there is any truth in Lillian Rubin’s analysis, each spouse may fear the otherness of the partner and the loss of self that intimacy requires. The man fears engulfment, “losing a part of himself that he’s struggled to maintain over the years.” The woman fears invasiveness that threatens the boundary she has struggled to maintain between her self and others. Each is tempted to avoid such otherness, to settle for a friend more like the self. But if we can overcome that temptation—in this case, perhaps, with the aid of eros—we may find a bond that truly helps us see beyond ourselves.
When Harry finally realizes that he loves Sally and wants to marry her, he ticks off the reasons: the way she’s cold when it’s 71 degrees outside; the way it takes her an hour-and-a-half to order a sandwich; the way she crinkles up her nose when she looks at him. All these might be only the signs of an infatuated lover looking at the beloved, not of a friend who stands beside the friend and looks outward. But last in Harry’s litany of reasons is that Sally is “the last person I want to talk to before I go to bed at night.” And J. B. Priestley—though worrying that spouses’ lives may be “so intertwined, that they are almost beyond talk as we understand it”—has a view not unlike Harry’s: “Talk demands that people should begin, as it were, at least at some distance from one another, that there should be some doors still to unlock. Marriage is partly the unlocking of those doors, and it sets out on its happiest and most prosperous voyages when it is launched on floods of talk.”
In marriage, if we are patient and faithful, we may find that “balance and sanity” which friendship between men and women offers, and we may find it in a context where eros too may be fulfilled without becoming destructive. Against the view of Critobulus we may, therefore, set the wisdom of Ben Sira: “A friend or companion is always welcome, but better still to be husband and wife.”
Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the First Things advisory council, holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. This essay was first presented at a program on “The Changing Face of Friendship,” sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University, and it will appear in a volume in the Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?