American men are starving for friends, writes sociologist Lisa Wade in Salon. Or, more precisely, adult white heterosexual men have fewer friends than any other group. The friendships they do form are often superficial, involving less support and “lower levels of self-disclosure and trust.” The sad part is that surveys show that men desire closeness and intimacy from their male friends just as women do. So why don’t they have it?
Around the age of 15 or 16, Wade suggests, friend-like traits such as emotional openness, vulnerability, supportiveness and caring become risky for boys to show; these qualities get suppressed in favor of self-sufficiency, stoicism and competitive fire.
Wade sifts through the work of researcher Niobe Way, who interviewed high-school boys over four years about their evolving same-sex bonds. One kid, Justin, said this about his best guy friend:
“We love each other … that’s it … you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person … I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other.”
Three years later, Justin came down to earth:
“[My friend and I] we mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever … I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff … I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever … It’s just something that I don’t do.
Chalk up this heart-squeezing shift to our limiting ideals of masculinity, which define themselves in opposition to all things feminine. Friends are empathetic, affectionate, not afraid to leave their tower of self-reliance for occasional support. You know who else is like that? Women. “Being a good friend … as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being girly,” Wade writes, so the boys end up opting out.
Wade doesn’t mention the rainbow elephant in the room, but I wonder whether men are less afraid of girliness here than homosexuality. In many ways, it’s a distinction without a difference, since homophobes tend to imagine gay men as effete. But if a man ever is allowed to relax his stone face, it’s around his romantic partner. Being open, communicative, vulnerable — all of these behaviors evoke love relationships. It makes a sad kind of sense that boys trying to assert their masculinity would steer clear of playing the “boyfriend” around other guys.
Ironically, of course, in Greco-Roman society, homosocial bonds were associated especially with the hypermanly warrior class. (These days, we’re so mystified by strong fraternal feeling that we can only understand the connection between Achilles and Patroclus as gay — and then scrub away the awkwardness in the movie adaptation by making the two warriors cousins.) Long before Tom and Huck or Seinfeld and Costanza, the best male friendships were regarded as sublime and spiritual. In the 16th century, Montaigne wrote of his friend Etienne:
“All the eloquence in the world cannot sway the certainty I have of the intentions and resolutions of my friend. Not one action of his, no matter what it is, could be presented to me, of which I could not immediately determine the moving cause. Our souls had drawn so unanimously together, they had considered each other with so ardent an affection, that I knew his as well as my own; and would have trusted my own interest much more willingly with him, than with myself.”
Men! Don’t tell me you don’t want this. (And don’t tell me you don’t want to live a longer, healthier life, which Wade points out is associated with having friends.) Maybe buddy movies like I Love You, Man or even The Avengers provide a way back to Montaigne’s friend zone of unanimous souls.
In the meantime, though, we should stop asking whether men and women can ever truly be friends with each other, since evidently our culture makes it too hard for men to befriend anyone.
© 2013, Slate