CS Lewis & Male-Female Friendship
C.S. Lewis -in his well-known book, The Four Loves - discusses the four Greek words for our one English word of “love”. These words are Storge (affection), Philia (friendship), Eros (erotic or romantic love) and Agape (unconditional love).
As with all of Lewis’ works, it is well written and it makes distinctions in the types of love which are very helpful for any discussion on friendship, especially on male-female ones. A young woman may have a long-standing male friend with whom she feels a deep, safe Philia but little to no Eros. Likewise, she may have a new boyfriend with whom she feels the wild love of Eros but not yet much Philia. These two relationships don’t have to go into a jealous war with each other and they won’t if they are properly understood. She can have a deep love for both, just of a different sort.
Lewis specifically says of cross-gender friendships,
“In a profession (like my own) where men and women work side by side, or in the mission field, or among authors and artists, such Friendship is common. To be sure, what is offered as Friendship on one side may be mistaken as Eros on the other… but to say that something can be mistaken for, or turn into, something else is not to deny the difference between them.”
Greek is not a perfect language any more than English is and most relationships are a unique cocktail of some or all of the four loves. These loves are hard to find in a 100% pure form in any one relationship. All four can exist in a relationship at various times and to various degrees. We can find all four loves in a healthy marriage but as the years come and go the love will go through stages and be noted at times more by affection, other times sacrificial love and yet again friendship or romance.
In a best friendship - the type you want to last as your days are long - there is hopefully the strong presence of three of these loves. This may be with a special someone of either gender. You feel Storge (affection) for them: you feel at peace and at ease in their company and their nearness and touch brings you joy. You have Philia with them: you enjoy doing things together be it discussing a book, playing sports or writing poetry. You fight life’s battles together. Hopefully you Agape them above all: you love them with a sacrificial love seeking their best even at your expense. These relationships make life worth living. A marriage can be one of these as well (ideally with the addition of Eros).
Though these Greek distinctions are imperfect, our culture tends to make few clear distinctions and tends to think of love relationships between men and women only in terms of intensity instead of type. For example, you have probably heard the moving lines from the poet Tennyson quoted, “Tis better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.” Now-a-days, when we read the intensity of these words, what type of love do we think of? Eros. Romantic love. That’s likely what comes to mind. But in the mid-19th century this was not the assumption. It was written by Tennyson for a close male friend who had died. He was writing poetry from a place of deep Philia. People accepted this as a natural expression of one close friend to another with no thought of Eros.
Few poems written today are written to express love to a close, non-romantic friend (of either gender). Unless our culture rediscovers differentiation in types of love - instead of just intensity of love - then friendship between the genders will always break down