#1 Men’s Friendships Today
When I was a boy, I was fascinated by Greek mythology, stories about heroes -some with superpowers -and the bold lessons of courage and daring they portrayed. One of my favorites was of Damon and Pythias, who were best friends. When Pythias is caught and sentenced to death for plotting to kill a cruel dictator, Damon begs that his friend be allowed to return home to settle his affairs. The tyrant doesn’t believe that Pythias will return, but he agrees on the condition that Damon will be executed in his place if Pythias fails his promise. On his return journey, Pythias is captured by pirates, escapes against overwhelming odds, and swims ashore, making it back to save his friend at the last minute. The tyrant is so impressed by these friends’ loyalty and love for each other that he pardons them both.
Stories like this, that extol the virtues of close male friendship have inspired us over the centuries. When we look around, however, it is difficult to find much evidence of this kind of high regard for men’s relationships today. Our friendships with other guys seem more of an afterthought, subordinated to other priorities we deem more important.
Talking with men personally in my consulting room, and following our recent research, I’m noticing a deep ambivalence in men about their male friendships. The record shows that most men do have male friends, and feel that these friendships are important to them. Guy friendships tend to be based mainly on doing things together, sharing activities – and having conversations that don’t go too deep.
The dilemma for guys today is that in private they say they want male friendships that are more emotionally substantial, yet, they are averse to pursuing these relationships or the kind of emotional skills that would allow them to be closer with other guys. As therapists, we see the clear evidence of this in the difficulty men have in engaging in individual or couples therapy, which tend to encourage emotional expression and self-disclosure.
My conclusion is that the “devil” lies in our social norms that have insisted on a hard-shelled definition of masculinity and yet, ironically, are beginning to challenge men to be more vulnerable and emotionally open. An example comes to mind of a client who wanted to tell his good friend that he was having marital problems, and yet was worried about this: “He looks up to me,” he said. “What would he think of me if he knew how badly I was screwing up my marriage!”
No doubt, it’s a confusing time for guys today – sorting out what’s expected as well as what they want for themselves in their roles as men. And this confusion not only impacts on their relationships with other men, but, also, with their partners, their children and colleagues at work.
The groups I run, and the book I am writing entitled, Inside the Friendship Lab, attempt to address this dilemma in practical ways. Our goal is to help men men redefine masculinity in ways that feel more personal, better connect them to others, and encourage emotional intimacy in their relationships.
Please share your responses and stories.
How do you feel about the male friendships in your life today? Are these relationships emotionally satisfying? What works well for you? What do you struggle with? If you are a woman, how do you feel about your friendships with men? Are they as intimate emotionally as with other women? What’s special about your friendship with guys?
Rob I wonder how you think about competitive feelings as a factor in shaping male friendship. I wonder if male bonding is strongest when men face a common “enemy” together, much like the myth you recount. The enemy (the opposing sports team, the other company, the bad guy’s army) provides an outlet for the aggression that might normally disrupt the bonding between men. Without an enemy, the aggression can undermine the friendship.
Thanks, Larry. Great question.
Another joy of mine as a kid was playing sports -baseball, basketball and football. While I hated to lose, individually or on a team, the important thing for me was to be outside playing. I never kept tally of my win/loss record over the years, but in those competitions I learned how to have fun, to cooperate, make friends, develop physical skills, be a team member, and also how to deal with frustration and embarrassment.
We care too much about winning or losing in our culture today. Winning is only one element of competition, which is complex in nature. It’s origins are from the Latin. “com” meaning with, and “peto, petere” meaning to seek, or strive; in sum, “to strive with.” Thus, etymologically, competition is not meant to signify an alienating process, but rather one where we are striving together, with others. Also, while competition is not, strictly speaking, an instinct, aggression is. When aggression gets out of control, particularly for men, it can create feelings of shame, humiliation, and anger. Shared endeavors, whether playing checkers, basketball or the stock market, are no longer fun. Things can turn ugly.
Men don’t need enemies in order to bond and maintain satisfying friendships. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t real dangers in our world that require our vigilance and attention. Finding common enemies in order to bond us together, however, can be a distraction – and a dangerous one, at that – from the critical challenge of figuring out how we can better control our tempers, check our egos at the door, be open and vulnerable with each other, and find common ground when we encounter differences in our ways of thinking. These are critical skills for establishing and maintaining close friendships.
When the men in our men’s groups, our Friendship Labs, first meet, there is the inevitable carping about how “guys out there in the world are full of themselves, don’t care about being real, aren’t interested in being close with other men.” Recently, however, one man interrupted this harangue, and, smiling, said to the other guys, “Dudes, we’re talking about ourselves, aren’t we?” He continued, “Maybe, as Pogo said, ‘We’ve found the enemy, and it is us.'” I enjoyed his comment. We guys might do well to give “those guys out there” a break and start tending to our own gardens.