Thursday, August 16, 2007

All the Lonely People

Updated to correct the spelling of Paul McCartney's name. I can't believe that no one called me on this. I'm so ashamed.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

-- Paul McCartney, "Eleanor Rigby"

There's been a fascinating discussion about male and female relationships going on at this post on the Lone Prairie Blog and an earlier post of mine. In the comments section of my blog, I stated the following:
Here's my take: men don't actually pursue friendships with women. That's not to say that men and women can't be friends, as in, friendly acquaintances who like to chat when they're together in a group situation. But if a man is pursuing a one-on-one friendship, he almost always has the possibility of a romantic relationship in reserve. He may back off and say that he just wanted to be friends, after the fact, maybe because he decided he didn't want to pursue a relationship after all, maybe because he got scared, maybe because he thinks you're not interested. But simply the close proximity and interaction of an attractive woman will start things buzzing in a man.

to which Julie replied,
"Here's my take: men don't actually pursue friendships with women."

I have a hard time believing that.... is that generally true? Or is that just Keith-true? ... I have lots of guy "friends." I'm full up on that. Friends galore. No indication of anything but friends.
Well, the truth of my statement depends on how you understand it. One could understand it to mean that guys are, after all, really only after One Thing, and are incapable of dealing with women on any other basis. Which would, a) truly be depressing, and b) make me, the author of such a statement, a pig. Luckily, I'm not a pig, and that's not what I meant.

Guy Friendship and Chick Friendship

Part of the answer lies in understanding the differences between men and women on what they mean by "being friends." C.S. Lewis discusses friendship in the Phileo section of The Four Loves. Unlike eros, which is a face-to-face relationship whose object is one another, friendship is a side-by-side relationship whose object is a common interest. That's a very good description of male friendships. Men tend to be friends because they have a common interest: baseball, Spider-man comics, astronomy. Their friendship is about that common interest, and not about one another. If a man loses interest in the thing they have in common, he will generally drift away from the friendship, and usually there will not be hurt feelings, unless the other guy has no other friends and suddenly feels isolated.

From what I've gathered, female friendships, especially close ones, are not like that. Women analyze their friendships like they analyze romantic relationships. They feel much more like they have a claim on their friends; they will get offended and angry if they feel neglected by their friend. They may include shared interests, but the real interest is one another.

Guys, in general, do not have that kind of friendship with one another. They generally pursue that kind of friendship in the context of a romantic relationship with a woman. Most guys would feel a little creeped out if a male friend started making the claims on their friendship that women routinely make on theirs--specifically because they would interpret such an interest in them (and not in the shared interest of the friendship) in sexual terms.

"Let's be friends."

So let's say a man says to a woman, "Let's be friends." What are the possible meanings of that statement?

  1. I have no interest in a romantic relationship with you, but I don't want to hurt your feelings.
  2. You seem friendly/nice/enjoyable/nonthreatening, and I like hanging with you in group situations.
  3. Hey, you like hunting/theology/chess too? Cool! Wanna go to the convention next week?
  4. I find you intriguing and I'd like to get to know you better, and see where things might develop.
You may have noticed that #1 and #4 are almost diametrically opposite. Evidently women don't have the market cornered on "complex." At any rate, #1 is the standard "Let's be friends" speech. Nuff said--for now.

#2 is on the level of group friendship. This can seriously mean nothing, although sometimes shy guys will seek out no more than this with someone they're secretly interested in. It can also be a difficult platform from which to grow anything more: you feel conspicuous, like the whole group is watching your relationship develop. Is it any wonder that people in church youth and singles groups often find boyfriends/girlfriends from outside the group?

#3 is the typical level of male friendship. This is the really ambiguous level, because a shared interest is a perfect pretext for a date. What you're wanting to do here is to figure out whether the guy is mostly interested in the museum/the Renaissance Festival/the Star Trek convention itself, and just likes having you along because you said you liked it too, or if he mostly likes being with you, and the venue doesn't seem to matter.

#4 is the level of friendship that I meant when I said "Men don't pursue friendships with women." Because the truth is, men don't pursue friendships at all. They pursue football/computer games/film noir, and are glad to have someone to share their interest. But they don't pursue friendships. So level 4, to a man, is the beginning of a romantic relationship.

The confusing part to a woman is that level 4 is actually the normal level of a close female friendship (well, without the "see where things might develop" part. I'm not trying to be wierd here). They're interested in each other, as well as whatever interests they may have in common. So it seems plausible to a woman that a man might be pursuing a close friendship, and just mean it as friendship.

Mixed Messages

So what does it mean when a man's actions indicate a level 4 interest, but his words indicate a level 1 cutting off of romantic possibilities? To be blunt, he's lying.

There might be a ton of reasons why. Maybe he's afraid of commitment; maybe he's afraid his interest isn't reciprocated; maybe he's had bad experiences with dating before and decided that upping the ante will ultimately mean losing what he has now. This is where "Eleanor Rigby" comes into play. There are two people in the song: Eleanor Rigby and Father MacKenzie, both of whom are alone. They could have found love with one another, but they were blind to one another.

Personally, I think we have a whole generation like that, people who have grown up with divorce and broken relationships and a lack of cultural rules for dating and relationships, people scared to death of ending up with The Wrong One and so torpedoing every decent relationship that comes along, until they're even more scared of ending up alone, and so the next relationship magically becomes The Right One. That's what I was seeing when I was Single and Not Very Happy About That Fact, and it seems to me that it's only gotten worse.

What people need to realize is that marriage is almost always really made or destroyed within the marriage. Unless someone has made a stupid mistake (believers marrying unbelievers is the most common and biggest), marriage takes just one thing: "us" and "we" instead of "you" and "me." If I focus on what I want, to the exclusion of what my wife wants, then I'm just asking for trouble in our marriage. But if I pursue marriage with a focus on what's best for us together and not me individually, and if my wife does the same thing, then we have the potential for a fantastic marriage. It's a matter of perspective and choices that we make within the marriage, not the particular person. And if single people could get hold of that truth, it would make dating a lot less stressful.

So, what does a woman do with a man who's denying his own feelings like that? I wish I knew. The only thing I can suggest is not to make herself available for that kind of ambiguous relationship. "I can be your tennis buddy, or I can be your girlfriend, but I won't be your security blanket with nothing in return." Make him make a decision. Beyond that, both men and women could do with a little less trying to find the Right Person for themselves, and do a little more with trying to become the Right Person for someone else.

And that's all I have to say about that.
--Forrest Gump

For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God


  1. Well.

    That was...excellent.

    Wow, Keith.

  2. (So, is this true, or Keith-true?)

    Sorry. I'm just wondering.

  3. Fantastic post. I couldn't agree more with your conclusion. As I've mentioned before on your blog (or mine, I don't remember), I think the whole search for the "one person God has for me" is hogwash. Marriages work because two people are committed to sacrificially loving each other, not because they're perfectly compatible with each other.

    In regards to male/female friendships I think your analysis is spot-on. Guys, unlike girls, don't generally pursue friendship for friendship's sake. Male friendships develop out of a pursuit of something else, whether it be hobbies, career, marriage, and yes, sex. Guys don't just "hang out", they get together to achieve a goal, however trivial that goal may be. Girls (like my wife) will just get together just to be together, no agenda.

    "You're babblin'."
    ~Annabelle in "Maverick"

  4. Thanks, Julie.

    I think the stuff about men's friendships is more or less universal. But since I was always the head-over-heels guy and not the scared-to-death-to-get-into-a-relationship guy, I suppose I'm guessing a bit about that part of it.

    Another aspect, which I'm sure you already know, is that many men are intimidated by intelligent and articulate women. But intelligent and articulate women shouldn't want that kind of guy anyway, so it all works out.

    It's been a pleasure discussing this stuff. You've helped me hone my own ideas. I respect your transparency in getting the ball rolling.

  5. Thanks for your input, Bob. I sure know I'm not "typical" (whatever that means). So corroboration is helpful. Ultimately, that's the only way to know if something is really true or only Keith-true. :-)

  6. "...and see where things might develop."

    You might think I'm kidding, but I don't get this phrase.

    Not sure how to put it...

    This is the catch; I hinted at it a bit on my site when I said something along the lines of not investing the wrong kind of emotion into something that was never intended to be that.

    It might be fine for a guy to mosey along and "see what develops" but if I see this as something that is going to be a friendship like with my female friends, I start treating him as such. Not badly, but...platonic, like my female friends. To me, that is me not being a "tease." It seems smart.

    "He's not interested in me romantically, but as a friend. So I'll be a friend."

    So the guy is thinking #4, let's say, thinking this is a friendship that might develop into something else. When he finally decides to up the step of development, it's going to catch me off gaurd. I hadn't realized I should be thinking of him like that.

    Maybe that ties into the "be persistant" point on the original post about...catching a woman off guard.

    "Seeing what might develop" is sort of problematic, at least for me, because I don't want to give off wrong signals as well as find myself completely foolish thinking it was romantic when it wasn't.

    I'm a tease. I gave off the wrong signals. I led him on. He got burned again. Women are horrible.


    He never said we were more than friends. I read into it. I was foolish. It's my fault.

    I don't function much on a "see what develops" level, which is a problem in more than this area. Because of that, the other person is always going to decide when something new does develop, and I'm not going to understand this.

    I don't know. Does the guy decide when #4 "develops"? It seems like it, from the list.

    Hmm. Rambling. But do you get what I'm saying? Thoughts on that?

  7. I think I do get what you're saying. I suppose we're back to the emerging picture and connecting the dots. I used to complain that women immediately put me in the "friend" category and I could never get out of if after that; I now see that maybe it was because the signals I was giving merely meant friendship to them.

    But I see your dilemma. Either way things work out, it gets interpreted as your fault. But there are two types of people in this world: blame-absorbers and blame-deflectors. I'm guessing you're a blame-absorber (me too--and btw, I don't know if this is really true or only Keith-true: I'm making it up off the cuff as I go along.) Some people will always blame the other person if a relationship goes wrong; some people will internalize the blame. And if you think about it, many women cry when they're angry; many men yell when they're hurt. Therein lies a tale.

    I guess my problem is this: when a guy is going for level 4, in his mind, he is already showing some romantic interest. (You are now armed with this dangerous knowledge. Please use it for good.) I'm really not sure what he is to do beyond that, short of making a declaration of love upon introduction, which we all know drops him immediately into the "creep" status, which is even worse than the "just friends" status. I guess guys don't know how to walk this tightrope any better than women do.

    But few things are more frustrating to a man than to invest a lot of time, effort, and emotion into a potential relationship, only to be told, "It was all in your head." (Pretty much what happened to me with "cry on the shoulder" girl.) The subsequent effect of that is to make a man less, not more, willing to declare any intentions up front, since it was at the point of declaring intentions that the house of cards collapsed.

    As far as you sending signals, about the only thing I can suggest is simply be true to yourself. If you're attracted and feel there's potential there, and the guy seems interested in you for you, then act that way. If you're not attracted or you don't see potential, you may want to try to keep things at the tennis-buddy stage from the get-go. The second guy can't accuse you (plausibly, anyway) of leading him on. The first guy may accuse you of reading into it, but if he truly was pursuing a closer-than-typical-guy-friendship, it's a good bet that he just got cold feet for some reason, and that you were not wrong.

    Guard your heart, but try not to become hardened. That's the dilemma we all face, isn't it?

  8. Julie,

    I was rereading our discussion, and noticed your last question: "Does the guy decide when #4 'develops'? It seems like it, from the list." Well, you said you wanted guys to do the initiating. Do you, really?


  9. Mr. Darcy.

    There's your answer.

    Not sure of the exact question, but that's the answer.

  10. I acknowledge with shame that I actually had to look up "Mr. Darcy" in Wikipedia to remember. English degree, yes, but Honors English, where you could focus on what you wanted and ignore what you wanted. I was all Faulkner and T.S. Eliot and Kafka and Dostoevski.

  11. Keith,

    Thanks for sharing your insight here. I've really enjoyed reading your posts and the discussions that have followed. Fascinating stuff.

    Julie and I have had this conversation many times and, in the end, I always come to the same conclusion: it's a mystery. Love is a mystery. Romance is a mystery. Attraction is a mystery. Relationships (how they start, when they "develop" or transition) are a mystery. The more experience I have (or do NOT have) with them, the more I realize that they are an act of God: His way, His timing, His orchestrating, His revealing. At least that's how I hope it goes in my life. I've always wanted it to be up to Him, so I guess I'll just keep waiting. And reading your post. :)

    Thanks again for the great insight.


  12. Thank you, Naomi. I'm very gratified; I actually expected you or Julie or some other woman happening by to be offended at my candor. I'm grateful that my musings seem to be being taken in the spirit in which they were intended.

    You're right; it is a mystery. I can't tell you, for the life of me, how I was an utter failure at dating for years and then ended up with one of the most successful marriages I've ever known. (I was a pastor for a while. You learn waaaay too much about people.....) I remember Cecile and me just looking at each other, asking each other, "What are we doing right?" I wish everyone could have what we have.

    I appreciate Julie's and your candor and openness in getting the ball rolling. Too much communication between men and women is bitter finger-pointing. You two set the right tone for honest dialogue from the outset. Thank you.

  13. I thought I’d wade in with another comment. Keith you said: “But few things are more frustrating to a man than to invest a lot of time, effort, and emotion into a potential relationship, only to be told, "It was all in your head."

    First of all I think this is true for women as well (which you said or at least implied).
    Secondly, that comment made me think that men approach relationships with the #4 scenario because they want to look and see and make sure before they commit (sometimes even before the first date because a date would communicate intention when only interest is intended). If it were possible I think men would like to know everything about a woman before he even talked to her for the first time. I think women really enjoy exploring the relationship through the dating and conversations (the “dance”). In some ways it’s like shopping (I hope I’m not being too simplistic or crass here). Women like to browse and try things on and even buy an item to bring it home and see how it feels to own it or how it matches with the other things in their closet. And if they don’t like it will return it. In that way women like to try on a relationship to see if it fits into their lives.

    However, men don’t shop, they buy. If we can continue the metaphor I don’t think they/we like to have such a close relationship with something/someone we know we are going to “return” (except for the sleezebags – is that a word? – who just want to use women). I think men like to do their research, almost anonymously, check things out and then once they are convinced to part with their money then they decide to buy. In relationships, I think some men would prefer to get to know a woman anonymously (I know that sounds like an oxymoron), get all the facts, see if it’s worthwhile and then take the plunge. So “seeing what develops” is a safe way for men to get to know a woman to help decide if it is worth pursuing the relationship.

    What do you think?

  14. I think there's a lot of truth to what you say, Michael. Besides the different ways in which men and women naturally "shop," I think there's also another aspect. I think that men tend to be afraid that once they say that they may be interested in a more-than-friendship relationship, they will never be able to break it off without being considered a dogmeat slimeball, not only by that woman, but by every other woman in her social circle. This is incentive not to express any romantic interest at all unless the guy is more or less ready to propose.