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Cross-Gender Friendship in the Workplace

By September 10, 2014Work it Out

Friendships take many forms and impact many aspects of our lives by creating and nurturing vital connections to those around us. This week, launched the “Unavailable” series to explore these connections and challenge us to look more closely at how we value and engage with those around us.

Author and blogger Dan Brennan has graciously agreed to walk us through the territory of cross-gender workplace relationships. Dan is the author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Exploring the Mystery of Friendship Between Men & Women and blogs about contemporary evangelical perspectives on authentic friendship between the sexes.

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The Power of Workplace Desires in Cross-Sex Friendship

Exploring workplace friendships between men and women highlights the attractive power of workplace sexuality and authentic friendship. It can’t be denied that the business world has drawn men and women to experience deep trust and friendship between genders sans sex.

Just as the office is known as a breeding ground for romantic relationships, it also is quietly forging a culture of authentic friendships between men and women. Various surveys reveal that more than thirty per cent of men and women working side-by-side develop psychologically intimate but sexless friendships.

For our immediate context, I am using the phrase “authentic friendship” to mean a genuinely deep personal relationship in the workplace between the sexes as an end in and of itself with no romantic trajectory. In this post I want Christians to consider the attractive goodness in the power inherent in the workplace culture’s desire for authentic friendship between the sexes.

For Christians who are married, workplace friendships call for a mutual discernment process between husband and wife. What is healthy for one couple may not be healthy for another couple. We must honor the health and well-being of our spouse and our spousal intimacy while navigating work relationships. Close workplace friendships can be tricky to begin with. Exploring other-sex friendships at work can get real messy.

I have limited space. So I would ask ahead of time for your forgiveness for just mentioning the present chaos of sexuality in the workplace involving harassment, unwanted sexual advances, sexual innuendos, and other acts of sexualized aggression.

Authentic Friendship More Desirable than Office Romance

In the midst of hypersexualized culture authentic friendship offers this powerful formation for Christians to ponder: friendship is more desirable than workplace romance. Obviously we have to acknowledge the present chaos in workplace sexuality. As Christians we cannot sugarcoat the reality of inappropriate office romances. With our eyes wide open we need to see the fact that the office is also a breeding ground for sexual infidelity and divorce.

We must not, however, close our eyes to another irrefutable fact within this chaos: the office continues to shape a powerful social desire for deep intimate connection between straight men and women. Numerous working relationships between sexes require 1) a shared intensity of working alone over long hours during the week, 2) a close working-together over a long period time, 3) work friends traveling together, riding in a car together and 4) one-on-one mentoring relationships over a sustained period of time.

In his essay entitled, “Psychologically Intimate, Romantic, and Sexually Intimate Relationships in the Workplace,” Ronald Burke states that these authentic friendships are characterized by, “affirming each other’s worth, deep communication and disclosure, love for each other, an ability to freely ask the other for help even if it inconvenienced him or her. In all cases, this relationship was not sexually intimate.”

Authentic Friendship More Desirable than Sexualized Power

Authentic friendship in the workplace levels the playing field. By its very nature it deconstructs the longstanding history of masculine sexualized power in the office. Of course, many women (and men!) will tell you we have a long way to go to overcome sexism and sexual harassment.

That is true.

But authentic friendships in the workplace are not rehashed, veiled narratives of the past. Flirting, sexual innuendos, seduction, and coercion are replaced with respect, dignity, and honor. Social desire in office friendships seek a power with one another as healthy expression of shared depth, shared power, and shared responsibility. Friendship has no place for subtle or explicit sexualized power. There is hierarchy in the business world but authentic friends have moved past the old sexual hierarchy embedded in the office.

Work friends do not triangulate their relational power against their spouses (if one or both are married). When office friendships are seen as an end in and of itself, the shared power of marital integrity is deeply honored and respected. A friend is a deep advocate, ally, and proponent for the other friend’s healthy marriage. Friends are passionately committed to nurturing a social trust step by step by step. Marital intimacy and workplace intimacy between friends are not rival intimacies.

Christians and the Power of Social Desire in Friendship

What if we could explore a social desire that draws men and women together to bear witness to the image of the triune God revealing God’s glorious presence in the professional world? As Christians we know God as a God of peace: God is at the heart of all relational reconciliation between men and women.

When the office culture integrates sexuality with healthy deep friendships it echoes a spiritual discipline within the Christian tradition: friendship. Many evangelicals are unaware that such relational bonds between men and women have existed throughout history. Their friendship stories offer a compelling case for rich relational depth between the sexes. Friendship within historic Christian spirituality has been a disciplined shared intimacy where the presence of Christ is perceived and known.

Men and women have been blessed with unfathomable beauty, gifts, imagination, skills, and desire to bear witness of God’s unrivaled creativity, glory, beauty, and relational presence in the workplace. Office friendships—including deep relationships between the sexes—are redemptive spaces where reconciliation, justice, love, and deep trust all converge to bear witness of God’s light.

For married couples exploring workplace friendship may, increase the complexity of social boundaries through mutual discernment and solid trust. A passionate willingness to honor your partner’s desires and boundaries contributes to marital intimacy. Not all marriages are the same. Not all workplace friendships are the same. We all have unique personal histories.

Couples must be willing to have frank, honest, authentic communication about how each one thinks and feels about workplace friendships. No secrets. No hidden agendas under the guise of friendship. The well-being and health of marital integrity comes first with a commitment to honor marital intimacy. Seek to have good, healthy agreed upon guidelines as you navigate workplace relationships.

Not all workplace cultures are the same. Many workplaces foster sexualized cultures. But a growing number of colleagues in a wide variety of work cultures are forging authentic cross-sex friendships. I know I’ve provoked many questions. Workplace friendships can be tricky and risky. What will other colleagues think? What about mentoring relationships between men and women protégés?

Too often Christians have made the wrongheaded assumption that external boundaries (“do not spend time alone with the opposite sex,” etc.) are stronger and healthier than spiritual-psychological boundaries.

Other-sex friendships at work are contributing to positive social change. They are authentic relationships that can enhance productivity toward the organization’s goals. Furthermore, they empower men and women into relationships of authentic equality as a genuine mutuality emerges in friendships. Friendship between men and women is forging a new future.

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