A piece focused on male friendships runs the risk of being exclusionary and divisive – without meaning to. It may unwittingly suggest that other forms of intimacies and friendships are somehow less sacred, less joyous or less fulfilling. Or that male friendships have a secret sauce that is elusive to relationships across the gender spectrum.
That would be both a travesty and tragedy. If anything, the opposite is true.
The reason male friendship is worth examining distinctly is because the gifts of camaraderie and community are frequently unavailable to men, especially as they grow older.
The idea of deep, nourishing friendships amongst men gets rarer as men approach adulthood and middle age – and this is worth unpacking more simply because its relevance to how men experience life cannot be overemphasised.
Loneliness is not gendered, but the pandemic of men feeling socially isolated as they grow older has been hiding in broad daylight for far too long in front of us. That loneliness is a secular, long-term, culture-agnostic trend for adult men nearly everywhere is something that both empirical evidence and everyday experience confirm.
I should know. I have simultaneously pined for and struggled with forming meaningful male friendships as the years have rolled on.
Simply admitting that to myself and saying it aloud in so many words was a decidedly more difficult thing for me to do than it needed to be. The feeling is bookended by shame on both ends. To begin with, there is an inner chastising for seeking those relationships, and then there is more shame at not having landed them.
Adolescence, for me, I can now attest, was a time of profound loss. I even took masochistic pleasure in feeling isolated until I came to see it for the cul-de-sac it was.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is a universal phenomenon. Masculine norms preach isolation under the pretext of independence so much so that men often struggle in seeing (and accepting) their need for friendships. Traditional masculinity equates and conflates the emotional intimacy that comes in a friendship with a gender (girl) and a sexuality (gay). We have a tough time simply feeling our feelings because the end game of plumbing the depths of our own vulnerability or being a co-regulator for someone else can easily turn into our most feared nightmare: not being taken seriously.
As a result, it is not uncommon for men to settle for the most commonly available substitute: an intellectual connection. The kind that is a lot of business networking events, conferences and mixers. A lot of opinion mongering and mental masturbation but very little warmth. An inability to transcend content. An unwillingness to look beyond an acquired set of narrow mental positions; as if words could not mean anything beyond what we interpret them to be.
So many men find it easier to talk about sports or politics than to admit to suffering from a low sex drive or having difficulty in an interpersonal relationship or feeling undervalued at work. We don’t know who to tell these things to or how to say them.
Such vulnerability is often off the table for men because for centuries they have been conditioned to be providers, to practise emotional repression and to – unwittingly – experience isolation. We now know from 1,000 different places that this is stifling, toxic and life threatening. For men to be cycle breakers of inherited notions of trauma and toxicity, they need to – and be encouraged to – pursue friendships that prioritise connection over performance.
Outside the issue of emotional aloofness, there is also the matter of touch. Most men are subconsciously afraid of physical contact with other men because they have been conditioned to conflate all touch to romance or sexual connection. Casual platonic touch between two men is only acceptable in our culture when in a field for sports or at the gym; it is shunned in every other context, lest a heterosexual man be misconstrued as gay and hence (hatefully and unfairly) less of a man. This conditioned homophobia around touch has dire consequences and many men miss out on the incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch.
All this often leaves men casting their wives and girlfriends as lover, partner, confidante, career advisor, stylist, cheerleader, mom (to him, their future kids, or both) and sometimes even as a therapist. An unfair arrangement for both spouses. It’s an accident waiting to happen, when one person is your everything.
While these old ideas of masculinity that brought us to this place of isolation may be on their way out, the new ideas of masculinity and masculine norms are still inaccessible because they remain invisible to most men. We have few models of male intimacy and vulnerability. The men we celebrate and champion in our public and private lives are all stallions of stoicism and touchstones of toughness who – ostensibly – do not know what it is to have a chink in the armor.
The pressure to be brave is complemented by the narrow definition of bravery itself: to suffer in secret and stealth. Speaking for myself, I have erroneously believed that I need to figure it out and do it all on my own. That needing help, let alone asking for it, is a sign of weakness – that ultimate death knell when you identify and are identified with the traditional tenets of masculinity.
Today, I know that my ultra-independence is a trauma response – an inability to reach out and ask for help. It doesn’t have to be this way.
So how might we ordain a new reality?
To begin with, we need to recognize that it is not that men are incapable of forming friendships with each other. It is that they have been socialised to act brave and not seek help even if their life is falling apart.
This has to change and the simple act of explicitly getting together with the intention of opening up, to have our foibles, failings and frailties witnessed, can be incredibly healing. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.
Men become better fathers, husbands and bosses when they become better friends. They become better friends when they befriend themselves and are seen and recognized just as they are and not for what they do.
Men need their male friends to talk about intimacy, tenderness, joy, fear, all of it for no other reason than they just do. For, a world where men can be considered safe for others cannot be separated from a world where men are safe to be themselves.