I have a strong friendship with a woman named Susan who is much younger than me. We have been tight for about three years. We don’t spend much time with each other and mostly connect by email, phone, seeing each other at church and now Facebook.
We each greatly value the friendship, even as neither of us quite understands it. There have been a couple of very synchronistic connections between us that have helped to cement it, to make it feel special – even as they have added to the not-understanding-it dimension.
One element of this not-understanding has been confusing to me in the past, even a little troubling at times. My friend, in addition to being much younger than me, is also very attractive. There have been times along the way that I’ve not quite known what to do with being attracted to her. Was something romantic or sexual supposed to happen between us? The idea didn’t make sense, but i did not know what to do with the attraction i felt.
Then a few months ago, something shifted. My friend was stuck in a hotel room in a distant city and initiated an online “chat” with me. “Chatting” is an unfamiliar medium for me, one that i find awkward and often not very satisfying. But it’s much more comfortable for my friend, and it was how she then wanted to connect, so i hung in. i think that being in this way out of my element may have helped something shift in me.
About 20 minutes into our online exchange, i had a flash: “She feels like a daughter to me!” I could feel thoughts and emotions in me instantly begin to rearrange themselves: click-click-click-click. Suddenly my confusions and at times inner conflict about the chemistry between my lovely friend and me all fell into more comfortable places.
When i was little, i wanted a younger sister. I had read a novel in which the male protagonist adored and protected his younger sister. The story opened a part of my heart with which i was unfamiliar and which felt very precious. I never did have a sister: one blood brother and five step-brothers, but no sisters.
My life has been in many ways organized around relationships with men: brothers, fraternity brothers, patients in two VA hospitals where i have worked, corporate managers whom i have coached and consulted to – many of whom i have greatly admired and liked. I have been in men’s groups for about 30 years. I love men and the world of men: they more and more all feel like my brothers, even those from whom i am in many ways very different.
I also love women: i have had a wife and several lovers and some very precious close women friends. It is clear to me that they are a different species, that there are elements of their world that i will never completely understand. But they open my eyes to parts of the world – and parts of myself – that i would never otherwise be able to see.
I have a son, Terry. He is the light of my life, the heart of my heart. Since i have only one child, i am very very glad that he is a boy – my species. We have things in common – share ways to be with each other – that would never have been the case with a daughter. And i have always wished that i could also have a daughter.
I have two nieces who are very precious to me. They also have tapped a part of my heart that might never otherwise have opened. I watch my brother and how good his daughters have been for him, all the ways that they have opened his heart. But they are my nieces, not my daughters – it’s different.
Then Terry found Alma. They have been together for about six years, married now almost a year. Well before they wed, Alma started to feel to me like a daughter. Her beauty has never been in any way problematic for me. Was it a taboo? “She’s my son’s girlfriend, so i must not be attracted to her.” It never felt that way: she had somehow slipped easily into a niche in my life – a kind of relationship that i had never experienced, but that was waiting for her to occupy it. This father and daughter relationship between Alma and I has grown stronger since she and Terry married, even as my love for her has continued to grow. She likes to tease me by calling me her FIL (father-in-law).
I’m sure it was my close relationship with Alma that opened the door for my click-click-click-click with Susan. The father-daughter part of my heart had come to life through Alma. But i had not, until that “chat” a couple of months ago, experienced these kinds of fatherly experiences with a young woman who was not in some real-life way actually a kind of daughter to me.
My friend Susan doesn’t quite get it. When i immediately told her in our online conversation about this revelation i had just had, she didn’t quite know what i was talking about. She apparently doesn’t share this same spin on our relationship – and doesn’t need to. She hasn’t had the uncomfortable attraction theme to make sense of.
My relationship with Susan is now for me dramatically freer and more relaxed. I love her more than ever and find her attractiveness miraculously easy to enjoy and appreciate – it no longer is in any way distracting or confusing to me.
And I’ve had little mini-experiences of the same kind with other young women, women with whom i am not as intimate. Attraction will surface in me, make me a little tense – then there will be a little click and i will go, “Oh, she could be my daughter”, and i will completely relax and a kind of sweetness will float up in me. This is certainly not the case for me with all attractive young women, but i do enjoy it when it happens.
I have always been a nurturing father. And in some ways a nurturing lover. But these fatherly relationships with young women are opening a nurturing part of my heart that i find tremendously sweet and satisfying: providing a safe, warm, affirming, loving presence for Susan and other young women may, in fact, be nurturing for them. But i know that it nurtures me.