Girls Loving Girls - Part 1
- 2006 24 Nov
My sister-in-law, Chantal, and I decided it was time to leave the family behind and go for a walk down the beach, just to catch up.
Sporting our sun glasses and black “illusion” bathing suits, we began our walk. A few minutes into the walk in a burst of enthusiasm, Chantal reached over, grabbed my hand, tucked my arm under hers, and leaned her head on my arm (I’m about 8 inches taller). For Chantal, ethnically Lebanese, hugs and hand-holding are as much a part of her blood as flat bread and strong coffee, but as she did it, I instantly became aware of how weird we might appear: sun-glassed women walking down the beach, holding hands. In a flash, before I could even stop myself, I thought, "I hope people don’t think we’re gay!"
Bothered that that thought even came into my mind, I just kept walking with her, choosing to enjoy the warmth and affection that this sweet sister-in-love (as we refer to my brothers’ wives) had to offer. I couldn’t shake being bothered, though. Reflecting on it later that day, I realized that I was both saddened and angered that the thought had even entered my mind. I was saddened because I grew up in a very touchy-feely family – a family for whom back rubs, kisses, hair tousling, and long hugs were just givens. None of it was self-consciously intentional, none of it was remotely sexualized, and all of it was simply part of the rhythm of our interaction. But somehow, that previously assumed wall of protection surrounding the expression of innocent affection and healthy friendships between women had been breeched in my imagination. I felt angry.
I have talked about this with a number of my girlfriends, and across the board, there seems to be an increasing self-consciousness about all kinds of affection between women. …
Recently, I got into a conversation with a woman who is a wife, mother, grandmother, and college professor. As we chatted, she said she had seen in college age women a greatly heightened sensitivity to the question of sexual identity, one which she said would have never crossed her mind in her college days, forty plus years ago. She talked about how her best friend from college was a “dear,” a friend to whom she would pour out her heart, and to whom she would gush about her love for her. They had sometimes slept in the same bed and pledged life-long friendship. None of it had ever taken on a sexual dimension, even in their imaginations. Now, she said, she almost feels embarrassed to talk about it in front of younger women because to their ears it sounds so iffy. …
I don’t really know, then, what has happened to the wall protecting that kind of unself-conscious physical and emotional affection. Has it been knocked down by a hyper-sexualized culture that attributes an erotic motive to every motion? Was this wall also hiding a darker side to women’s affection, and therefore has needed to come down? Could it be a little bit of both? …
I know that once the walls protecting and defining innocent and healthy affection have fallen in a culture, they are hard to rebuild. This is especially true when many do not want the walls that used to prohibit same-sex, sexual expression rebuilt. I think of the popular movie from a few years ago, "The Hours." Incredibly well-acted, it sent the quiet sideline message that sexual ambiguity between women can be a given — between sisters or friends, in this century or another – and ultimately, lesbianism is just another option – at least as long as you choose it from your heart. I disagree with this message, and I know to some, that makes me a killjoy who wants to dictate what’s right and wrong in sexual expression. Backed into a corner, eventually I fall back on the teachings of the Old and New Testament, but that only carries weight with certain people.
Still, even with that one line drawn, not every question is answered. What is a girl to do when it comes to loving other girls well? Reluctantly, I am thinking that naiveté as an option must go. Some guiding image of “Shirley Temple meets the Ya Ya sisterhood” isn’t a strong enough picture to define or protect female friendships in this era. The competition is just too strong. Think of Victoria’s Secret catalogues filled with images of woman as predator. Scary. Or there’s the almost “hip” mystique that same-sex sexual experimentation can take on. One high school girl explained to me that at her boarding school, all the cool girls were “bi.” Throw on top of that a culture that is intimacy deprived, and the potential for real confusion is obvious. Even when the questions aren’t overtly sexual in nature, there’s much discussion about enmeshment and boundaries in friendships. Clearly, the walls have come down and a lot of us are wondering how to proceed. Somehow, a way has to be consciously re-forged – within the realities of a real, twenty-first century, hyper-sexualized and intimacy starved culture – for girls to love girls well. …
A number of years ago, I read an editorial about marriage by Meg Greenfield, a writer at the time for both Newsweek and The Washington Post. Marriage, she reasoned, is strained in our country not because it is valued too little but because it is valued too highly. We expect too much of it, she explained. The emotional needs and relational desires that used to be met through both nuclear and extended families, which themselves were grounded in larger communities, are now telescoped onto only one relationship: that of husband/wife. That, she argued, creates a level of pressure that no marriage was intended to sustain. How much more so then, I have to wonder, does this apply to individual friendships – especially among single women?
Imagine a single woman, perhaps living away from her family in a busy, professional world. Due perhaps to serial disappointments, past wounds, a lack of available marriage candidates, busyness, or simply fatigue, her hope or even desire for marriage begins to wane. But with no solid community to which she can belong and contribute – it’s hard to come by in urban, transient, harried settings – where will she go to experience love? She might start trying harder with men. She might pour more of herself into her work. Or, as I often see with single women, she might eventually default to her friendships with women, or perhaps one friendship in particular, for her soul’s sole provision.
I began seeing signs of this in myself as I moved into my late twenties. The men in my life – a few of whom I was quite open to and desirous of – seemed so much less constant or reliable than the women. My roommates were there to hang out and eat dinner with; half the men I met would throw out a dinner invitation and then never call. My roommates and I would stay up late having meaningful conversations about life, our beliefs, and our dreams; many of the men I met – with some notable exceptions – not only had little language for these things, but little interest in gaining it. So, I found myself relying more and more on my close friends.
On one hand, there was nothing wrong with this. Women have relied on one another for emotional support for eons. But on the other hand, I felt new and strange flashes of jealousy, need, desire, and anger cropping up in disproportionate amounts in a few friendships. It was as if I was hooked by the potential of “connection” in friendships that in reality weren’t designed to bear the kind of weight I hoped to put on them. I could not articulate this at the time, but I knew enough about health to know that this wasn’t it.
Emotional dependence, says author Lori Rentzel, “occurs when the ongoing presence and nurturing of another is believed to be necessary for personal security.”25 Unhealthy dependence can be particularly seductive because it can give us a feeling that “we have at least one relationship that we can count on and that we belong to someone.”26 For the most part, I have been spared a lot of the pain that comes from getting utterly dependent on one friend. But I can think of one friendship in which there was a painful break a few years after college, and the break hurt me deeply. Too deeply.
In retrospect, I genuinely loved and still love this friend, and her rejection of me at the time was a legitimate loss. But in fairness, there was also a shady side to my sadness. The pain was also the result of having, on some level, worshipped my friend’s life-giving intelligence, beauty, and depth. So losing a connection with her felt uncannily close to losing a connection with the Source of Life itself. Of course, I never would have said that, because I knew she wasn’t God, but something in my heart had been leaning on her in this wrong way, giving her more emotional power in my life than was good for either of us. And I didn’t know it until she pulled away.
Actually, that wake up call helped me begin facing the fact that any relationship can get twisted. Moms and dads, heroes and feelings (like pleasure, intimacy, power, or comfort), or men and women – no one and no thing is immune from being put on the altar and wrongly worshipped. Gratefully, and probably as an expression of God’s grace for my weakness, I’ve experienced the protective fences of a schedule filled with meaningful work, a sensitive conscience, husbands who’ve come along for my friends, a family to keep going back to, a relentless desire for a husband, the presence of a few older, wiser friends who’ve let me voice my loneliness and disappointments without shame, and a God who can simply fill up my soul with himself, supernaturally.
Still, especially when I’m feeling emotionally thirsty but busily swimming in a sea of salt water, I’m not immune to the feeling of an emotional “pull” to make people my savior. Conscious of it, I sometimes must simply choose to resist the pull. While, as one friend says, it’s “much harder and not nearly as instantly gratifying to allow my needs to be met from a whole array of resources,” it seems to be the strategy that is the most life giving. I’ve got to believe that God will give me, today, my daily bread. And I’ve got to trust that, as another friend put it, such provision includes food for my heart.
25 Lori Rentzel, Emotional Dependency: How to Keep Your Friendships Healthy, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1990.
26IBID, p. 18
Adapted from "Revelations of a Single Woman: Loving the Life I Didn't Expect," © 2006 by Connally Gilliam. Published by SaltRiver Books (an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers).
Connally Gilliam earned a Master's of Teaching (English) from the University of Virginia and has taught high school and college writing. She now works for Navigators as a Life Coach for Twenty-somethings in the Washington, DC, metro area. She loves sharing coffee with friends and discovering how God is real, even in a crazy, changing and unintentionally single world.