Why Men Don't Have Friends and why women should care
Why Men Don't Have Friends and why women should care
(Note from Jan Passion: I first received a copy of this in a class on Men and Masculinity at UMass/Amherst in the early/mid 80’s. While much has changed in the world – this article seems as relevant today as then)
He's an average kind of guy. Not bad looking, the way a lot of healthy American men are. Reasonably successful. He meets women fairly easily, and if he's not married, he's had a couple of long-term relationships. In fact, you probably know and like him. He's a husband, lover, brother or the fellow at the next desk.
If you ask him, he'll say that his life is going well. And he's right. Except he doesn't have a friend in the world. He may not admit it - he may not even know it - and you might not even care. Only his problem could easily become your problem. And it's one that's destroying more relationships and marriages than all the "other women" in the country.
Sure the "average" Joe has buddies - beer-drinking or poker-playing or fishing pals. But to whom does he talk about himself - discuss problems, admit fears, share concerns, reveal failures? Who does he ask for help and where does he let down his defenses. Probably nowhere and with no one. In our society, except to shake hands, men are not even allowed to touch each other. It's a bad rule; one that hurts men and puts an-unfair burden on their relationships with women.
In contrast to the male "buddy" system, women have friends. Women, in fact, are trained to be friends, sharing trusts, confidences, and feelings with each other since childhood. As a young Atlanta saleswoman defined friendship: "It means vulnerability. Having someone know the worst about you and still be your friend." A San Francisco homemaker added: "A friend is someone I can be my total self with, someone I don't have to wear my masks with."
With most men, unfortunately, these definitions of friendship rarely apply. Hardly ever are men allowed the luxury of such openness in relationships with each other. And even more rarely do they recognize the gaping voids in their emotional lives. In short, they don't know what they're missing.
In a recent study, British sociologist Marion Crawford found that middle-aged men and women had considerably different definitions of friendship. By an overwhelming margin, women talked about trust and confidentiality while men described a friend as "someone I go out with" or "someone whose company I enjoy." Crawford's research showed 60 percent of the men when asked who their best friend was, named a married couple, while 63 percent of the women named another woman as their best friend. For the most part, men's friendships - or "intensified acquaintanceships," as Milwaukee investment executive T.L. Nolan describes them - revolve around activities while women's friendships revolve around sharing. Men even use the term friend far more casually suggests Elam Nunnally, co-developer of a Minnesota couples program. "Friends are people men just know. A man will describe someone as "My very good friend, So-and-So," and they just met five minutes ago. Or perhaps they plan tennis together, occasionally." But friends? Hardly. At least not by the definition of most women.
Why the differences? Conditioning of course. Constant competitiveness. And the specter of homosexuality. Combined, they are a devastating warlock's brew that has successfully turned most adult American males into emotional toadstools, sprouting side by side but isolated from true and meaningful friendships with each other. In a random sampling of some of America's leading psychologists and therapists, the bleak estimates of how many men had ever had a real friend ranged from "not nearly enough" to-"too few." Most estimates hovered around the 10 percent mark. Says Cameron Johnson, a social worker and director of Family Services of Waukesha County, Wisconsin: “I would guess that the men who have that kind of relationship have it with a friend they've known since their high school, college or military days. If those early friendships do not continue, then I think new ones are very threatening for an adult male to establish in later life."
Being a friend means making yourself vulnerable and allowing intimacy, warmth and affection into the relationship. Most men have never been given that permission. Women can say to each other, "Do you think this makes me look too fat?" "If he doesn't call, I'll die." "Help me, I feel like I'm coming unglued." Men can't show these very human frailties to each other-nor can they ask one another for help. To do so, beyond the adolescent years, would be an admission of vulnerability, a soft spot shown to a would-be competitor and most men have been thoroughly convinced that all other men are potential competitors. Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist on the staff of the Manninger Foundation, explains the conditioning this way: "Men are raised in a way that makes it difficult to accept in themselves anything that might be called 'weak,' including those healthy dependency needs which you have to accept to be really close to someone else. The message that little boys get growing up is that they should be a boss, preferably over other men, and if that's not possible, at least over women and children. Men are taught to be so competitive, are so concerned with measuring up, with their image and their power, that sometimes when they're wounded or hurt or threatened in some way; they will just flee the field. Because of our socialization and because of our closer connection nurturing children, women are more concerned about and in tune with other people's feelings Men may be able to solve mathematical mysteries and not even notice that someone in the room is crying."
It isn't that men are innately insensitive, deliberately withhold affection and warmth from those around them, or even enjoy picking up their bats and balls and going home when confronted with intimacy or emotionality. It's simply that most of them have had no practice in the art of intimacy nor role models to point the way. Little girls can walk to school hand in hand, hold each other up skating, hug and cry and say, "You're my best friend. I need you. I love you." Little boys wouldn't dare. The enormous blackening cloud of homo‑sexuality is always present, and the devastating power of the snicker begins in playground days. "Fag" is a word every little boy learns to fear, and it forever after affects his behavior toward other men who might become his friends, and ultimately, toward the women he will meet.
"Deep down, I think men would like to touch and be touched, to be friends," says Cleveland clinical psychologist Joseph Zinker, "but that's not allowed. From early childhood, men are encouraged not to behave intimately with other men. There's a prevailing fear of homosexuality among heterosexual men so that any expression of warmth or physical affection is suspect and feared." Elam Nunnally states the case even more emphatically, "The fear of homosexuality really louses up a lot of heterosexual men. 'Am I a homo or not?' This is the kind of thing half the teenage boys in the country wonder about - or 'Will people think I am if I don't act just right?"!
Consequently, "don't touch" has become a formidable male taboo that further walls off men from the physical aspects of friendship women find so comforting. In fact, were it not so sad, the ritualization of touching between men would be humorous. Men can touch each other without being suspect in only a few ways. "In airports and bus depots," says Lynn Sherman, “and that little pat on the butt in sports when somebody makes a basket or scores a touchdown." The bender, the night on the town gives men another opportunity to touch and show affection in public. Most of us smile at the image of two drinking buddies staggering down the street singing and holding each other up. But basically, that's all men are allowed when it comes to physical displays of affection or friendship. "Keep your distance," they seem to be saying to each other, at least the safe distance of two arms as in a formal handshake.
And from whom does a boy learn these rules - the acting "just right?" From fathers, football coaches, John Wayne, Charles Bronson, the Fonz and a thousand other male figures who have also learned to act "just right" - no touching, no outward signs of weakness, no outward signs of affection. Former All-American quarterback and New York Giants football player Bob Timberlake - today a thirty-four-year-old hospital administrator - recalls the childhood and adolescent conditioning well. "Many men receive the initial messages from their fathers. My father exhibited anger, intensity and aggressiveness when they were appropriate, but I don't ever recall him exhibiting fear, sadness or loneliness, and very rarely did he exhibit tenderness or a touching kind of physical love to any of his children. He had difficulty with intimacy and so it was a thing I had to learn on my own. The other difficulty is that there are very few men in our culture one can model oneself after if one wants to become a tender and vulnerable male. Another big factor is the milieu in which most men find themselves working. .There seems. to be a taboo in the business world when it comes to talking about-loving one's wife and enjoying the affection of one's children-and talking about needs and hurts and being sad and lonely. The hospital setting is a bit easier because there one is surrounded-by women. I think men have the capacity to be as sensitive and as warm as women; I just don't think it's a practiced ability."
What exactly do boys and men practice then? What are the "right" behaviors for them? Men are supposed to be strong, assertive, competitive, goal-oriented, competent and tight-lipped, says television director Dan Havens, "We're taught to be impregnable as opposed to being vulnerable. The stronger we are, the more we're supposed to be able to handle things on our own - not with somebody else's help - but on our own. The tougher and more self-sufficient a man is, the more he's looked upon as being successful, as being a top-notch guy' a male's male. In forming close friendships, men not only-have a physical line to cross but an emotional one as well. It's not just talking - that's important. It's being able to communicate what you really feel and most men can't do that. I'd like to have a-really close association with another guy, but there's always that line where you just don't get close enough to form that kind of relationship. The emotions and feelings are there. They just-aren't something a man can share with somebody else."
Being a friend does mean letting your guard down, and few men who have been taught to be competitors are willing to risk that. Exposing anxiety, fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy and self doubt - which all of us experience at times - are seen as giving an edge to the opponent. Asking for help or advice is seen as a weakness, and in business, revealing a weakness is considered bad strategy.
"I think men are competitors in life," sags Carol Daley, a twenty eight-year-old media buyer in New York. "Competition matters so much to them that I don't think a man is capable of being a friend to another man. They have to get a bigger house and car; they have to live their whole lives bluffing each other. Who could they trust? Every man I've ever known from college on has been a buddy-buddy type. They like to play softball or drink beer together and that's it. I really can't imagine them pouring out their hearts to-each other. My husband could never really be friends with anyone who is above him or on the same level in his job for example. He lives with an unwritten law that won't allow him to open up to anyone he's afraid of. Thinking about the men in my life today - my father, my brothers, my husband - a friend to them would be somebody they could go out with and trade ho-ho's with. Basically, they just shoot the breeze, bullshitting each other. Men talk business, politics, women and sports, and that's it. No soul-searching. They're not really friends, not by my standards. Females get way down to the nitty-gritty. We're much more open. Women-have more friends because we know how to do it, and we're not afraid to.
For many men, there is even a competitiveness present in weekend camaraderie. Men get together to fish, golf or swap stories, and even hoisting a few may be an unstated test of who can hoist the mot. Even an intrinsically non-competitive, activity like jogging becomes a contest. "I'm into running," states Cameron Johnson, "but there is still a very competitive element to that among men."
University of Wisconsin anthropologist Patricia Grinager sums up male/female difference another way. "Women have been socialized toward people; men have been socialized toward things. You have to be pretty secure in yourself as a person, no matter what your genitals
are, to be open and to share yourself with someone else, whether it's confidences or trust or whatever. You lay yourself on the line and you take your chances. 'You win some and you lose some, but the more secure you are; the less vulnerability scares you."
Many of the rules about male friendship are learned when men are teenagers. Says psychologist Herb Goldberg, author of The Hazards of Being Male, "The high school years are so tough for a guy. There's so much posturing, so much proving yourself to everybody that there's no breathing space." In essence, all the fears, all the conditioning, all the competitive forces already may be at work preventing a teenage boy from taking those risks necessary to form true friendships. Innately a girl of the same age may not be any more willing or able to risk vulnerability; but she's simply been given the permission to do so since birth. So the behavior patterns that will continue for a lifetime have already firmly established them on different paths.
When a typical high school girl doesn't get a date for the prom, her method of coping with this very real adolescent disaster is to fling herself across the bed, weep and share the misery for hours on the telephone with her closest friend. She actively seeks out the comfort she needs and probably gets it through the simple device of honesty. She has been conditioned to express her emotions, and that works for her. Compare her with her male counterpart who may have been turned down flat when he asked a girl to the prom. Does he likewise pour out his disappointment to his buddies so that they can buck him up and reassure him that he's a worthwhile person anyway? Not likely. When asked, he'll probably downgrade the prom and shrug the whole business off with an "I didn't ask anybody this year. Who wants to spend a hundred bucks on an idiotic dance?" The only outlet for anguish or unhappiness allowed in the male adolescent's world is for him to kick a few garbage cans on the way home from school, slam the door of his locker or get drunk.
The drastic differences between male and female friendships intensify in later life. While in the throes of divorce, a woman I know recently knocked on-the door of her best friend's home one evening. The friend was a collector of antique teddy bears. When the door opened the woman simply said "I'm falling apart. I need to lay on your living room floor and talk, and hold one of your teddy bears." Nothing more needed to be said. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a man I know was stunned recently when his closest friend's wife committed suicide. She had been having deep emotional problems for several years. but her husband had never shared a word of his worries and concern with his "best friend" in all that time.
Goldberg explains the phenomenon: "Men have come to believe that an intimate relationship with another man as an-adult is somehow an adolescent remnant. Grown men don't relate like that. They relate 'appropriately'; they relate without being silly or-maudlin. You don't get affection or support from another man. You get it from the woman in your life."
So here we are. Men who don't really have friends and have probably never had them. Well, so what? They have each-other as bowling buddies instead and can hardly miss what they’ve never known: Whom do men harm by their lack of intimacy anyway? Fifty million women might answer, "me!"
In marriage, the friendship gaps in the husband's life may just tear that bond apart. Subtly implied in the decision to marry, is the wish, "I want you to be my best friend - for life," But most men don't know how to be a best friend. A woman is accustomed to sharing; a man is accustomed to cover-ups and honestly now may believe that camaraderie is the same as intimacy. But the wife can hardly settle, for less than she's known all her life. The two of them are on such different wave- lengths when it comes to trust that it's often impossible for her to crack the shell that society has built around his feelings. Is it any wonder we hear the plaintive cry from so many wives a few years later,” He never talks to me; I can't get him to open up."? How-could he? He's never had the training, the experience, the opportunity to learn that revelation isn't a sign of weakness that getting naked emotionally with another person doesn't mean getting burned.
"A husband might evaluate closeness as his wife's willingness to keep the house clean, to do things with him, and be interested in him - like a buddy," states Harriet Lerner. "But his wife has different criteria for closeness. She might feel that they're good friends when her mate is really tuned in to what she's feeling about things. He can't meet her expectations because he may never have experienced them." Joseph Zinker expands on the problem: "The wife would like to talk more; the husband would. like to sit around and drink beer and watch the football game on Sunday afternoon. Subtle variations of this occur all the time and women are probably more distressed by that particular difficulty in marriage than any other - the difficulty of not being heard, of not being responded to. Men can't be blamed just because they're men. They simply don't have the skills."
The "He doesn't talk to me" phenomenon has become so widespread that it is almost a marital cliché today, dramatically illustrated by the fact that failure to communicate is now the number one cause of divorce. Counselors across America hear the same woes every day. "When a wife complains about a lack of intimacy and the fact that her husband is not really involved with her, many men that I see in counseling don't know what a woman is talking about," says Cameron Johnson. "It's like the wife is asking him to do something for which he has no frame of reference."
Richard Farson, professor at the Humanistic Psychology Institute in San Francisco, adds this dimension: "The paradox of communication is that the more you have the more you want. In order for you to really crave a deep friendship you have to know what one is. Millions of people in America have never had one minute in their whole lifetime where they could 'let down' and share with another person their deeper feelings. The problem is that marriage was not created to meet that kind of communication need. That's an expectation we have burdened it with relatively recently. While it can be rewarding, the burden has often been disastrous."
If the lack of a male friendship experience can have disastrous effects on a marriage, what greater disastrous personal effects it can have on a man. Even in a good marriage, a man may become totally dependent on his wife through the years as his only emotional outlet - a burden she may find increasingly oppressive: As Goldberg states, "An older woman realizes all of his dependency is invested in her. That's a drag and a drain so now she'd like to ease the burden and spread it around to somebody else. By that time though, twenty years later, he's pretty burned out. If he ever was capable of taking the risks of friendship, that time is long past. Besides, emotional repression is pretty intense in many cases, so consequently a lot of adult males would find each other boring company. They've lost the capacity to be open, to tune in to sensitivity. As a result, they're confined to very external types of conversation and they run dry pretty fast.
Possibly the first realization men get of their isolated state is upon the death of a spouse. Tragically, many older men do get earlier glimmers and express the desire to die before their wives. There is the pitiable recognition that they would become complete emotional vegetables without the companionship and social skills of a woman. What would they do alone? Some of them have never even made a social telephone call in twenty years, nor called family members. Those contacts were traditionally women's work. Another glimmer of truth often occurs with divorce. Men are suddenly set adrift again in the social sea, without friends and without a way-paving wife. Divorced men remarry more rapidly than women, possibly as the only legitimate means of coping with the acute isolation and loneliness.
Another potential hazard of repressed male friendships may be shortened life spans. Speculates Elam Nunnally: "If researchers are ever able to finally ascertain with some precision just what accounts for the difference in life span between men and Women, I. think one of the things they'll find is that it's this difference in expressiveness."
As bleak as it seems, some change is beginning. Younger men today are slowly beginning to realize the value of friendship and a few are taking the necessary risks. The millions of words that have been written and spoken about male conditioning and stereotyping are finally penetrating. Consciousness-raising groups for have sprouted around the country, and men are attending as never before. Textbook changes-are starting to have their subtle effect, as are baby steps by the media in presenting more human, male role models and more meaningful, male friendships. Butch Cassidy may have been just so much more macho posturing, but Brian's Song was real love. And real friendship.
But the changes are slow and often halting. Says Minnesota's Gerhard Neubeck, current president of the American Family Counselors Association, "I see little hope in the near future for much progress. However, I do note some movement with middle-class men. Family openness is probably the best opportunity to aid the young in this area." Carol Daley agrees. "Nothing's going to help my father," she states, "so we have to start with little kids in the home today." And some mothers. - and fathers - are encouraging their sons to be more expressive, more open, more feeling.
Women's attitudes towards male friendship are changing, too. Many women no longer bristle at the idea of a husband's night out with the boys. If male friendships are ever to form and flourish, the seeds will have to grow from buddyship, and that takes time, time away from home. And it must take encouragement from women, an expressed acknowledgement that meaningful friendships for men are no more a sign of weakness than they are for women. More women will have to state emphatically that friendship is rather a sign of strength, and then their men believe it. More important, however may be new awareness’s and the new selectiveness of younger women. "I think-more women are looking for a sensitive man today," says Lynn Sherman, "and it really doesn't make any difference to us if you can lift up the couch with one hand or two. I think it's a responsive friend-type person most younger women want now. Many other women also echo Herb Goldberg's feelings when he state, "If I were a woman I wouldn't even be involved with a man who didn't have friends. And likewise, I, as a man, don't want any women who don't have their own friends."
For a woman who may already be saddled with a. friendless mate: the answer may be to be a good example. Nurture your friendships, celebrate them and, if necessary, leave Joe at home sucking his thumb and watching TV. That may sound harsh, but Goldberg and other psychologists agree that it's healthy. "One of the best ways to make-a man change is to put him in a crisis situation. I don't believe in the notion that it's her task to help him get friends. I do believe in ' her becoming a person sufficiently so that she has friends that she communicates an autonomy that says, "I want-to be a playmate with you but I don't want to be your mother, and I won't want you to be at home all the time.' And I think a woman should deal with and acknowledge her own boredom when it arises, because being around somebody seven days and seven nights without any new input is excruciatingly boring."
Goldberg continues: "The answer its self-awareness and self-care. It's each person's business to become aware of how they are destroying themselves. When men realize they're paying the price with their lives and their health, then they'll do it regardless of what anybody else thinks or believes. Until recently, the compulsion to live up to that masculine ideal has totally superseded their instinct to survive."
Men will survive and become friends when they are ready to acknowledge their own human needs, and when that happens, perhaps more marriages will survive. In the meantime, you can't do it for him, but you can help - by your example. By continuing to be the friend you've always been - to him and to others.