Balancing act

I recently found myself vigorously asserting that it’s crucial to have both male and female friends – and by having friends, I don’t mean friending people on facebook, but actually spending meaningful time interacting with them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one-on-one, although I tend to believe it’s easier to be emotionally real and connected in that situation, but I firmly believe that it’s important to spend quality time with friends of both genders.

Unfortunately, the friend I was talking to is not one to let a bold assertion passed unchallenged, and when he called me on it I struggled to articulate good reasons for my claim. It has left me profoundly contemplative.

As I have ranted in the past, our society still clings to the remains of an intense gender divide that probably solidified (if not petrified) in the 1950s. Men in one room, women in the other. Some stuff is men’s work, and some is women’s work, and anyone who dares to do the wrong work will be mocked by their chauvinist (if not fossilized) neighbours. You know who you are.

It is true that men and women are physiologically and biochemically different, and that their average skills are not the same. But this, of course, does not say anything at all about the skills of any specific person, and it would be a ludicrous mistake to suggest for example, that because women on average talk more, any particular male/female pair will work that way. Certainly I am the motormouth in my own marriage, but I recently met a delightful couple with the pairing utterly reversed, and I know of many others. Generalizations and stereotypes can be very useful, as long as you don’t try to apply them in individual cases.

So how does this relate to my problem with men only socialising with men, and women only socialising with women? On a society-wide scale, this strict gender divide has a number of unfortunate consequences. It makes life incredibly difficult for those of us who happen to fall on the wrong side of the lines. For the men who are fabulously nurturing childcare workers, or the women who are skilled and talented engineers. It forces those of us who don’t fit the mold into an outsider status that need not apply.

On a personal level, though, I believe it’s even more corrosive to shut the other gender out of your life. You lose access to a whole different perspective and approach to life. Men and women do tend to interact differently, whether through biology or cultural conditioning, and cross-gender friendships are different again. It is often possible to gain far more insight into a relationship problem, for example, by bouncing it off a friend who is similar to your partner, than a friend who has more in common with you.

I may get more support from another woman, but I frequently also find my prejudices and inconsistencies reinforced rather than challenged (because she often shares them, and sees things from my side). If I want my back patted and my point of view ratified, I turn to another woman. But when I want to actually understand what a man is thinking, and I can’t sort it out with him directly (always my preferred approach), or I need a little perspective, then who better than another man, who might actually have felt the same way, or said the same things at some point?

Above all, shutting out the other gender creates an unbalanced, unnatural microcosm of the world. You may feel safer, and less challenged in there, but you won’t be whole. Don’t tell me men and women can’t be friends. If we can’t be friends, how can we ever be real partners? Men and women must be friends. How else can we ever understand each other?

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