This is a rather bold declaration for someone who has been married to the same woman for 27 years. Before you start jumping to conclusions, “no” I’m not coming out of the closet, but I am shining a light on a social plague that relegates millions of men, like me, to a life of superficiality and isolation. I was taking inventory of the meaningful friendships in my life, and it became clear to me that although I have many male friends, all of these relationships are collegial, superficial, or competitive. The friends I feel most comfortable around are all female. Now, as I am a happily married man, you can see why this tendency to gravitate towards forging relationships with other women may not be “ideal”. Here in lies the problem, and I believe it raises two questions. First, why as a society do we equate intimacy and vulnerability with sex? Two, why have we associated strong ties between men as either indicative of homosexuality or propagation of institutionalized patriarchy?
I’m blessed to have a partner with whom I share not only my heart but also my dreams and fears. I almost feel “guilty” saying this, but I want more, and that I believe, comes from the bond of a deep friendship. Unlike companionship which is merely defined by time spent together, the friendship I’m searching for is forged in trust, honesty, reciprocity, and interdependence—It’s a culmination of intimacy that is absent from most male friendships. At the risk of generalizing, I venture to say that men and women form very different friendships. Whereas women tend to want more of a connection and a sounding board, male friendships are defined more by “parallel play” and the chest-puffing notion of “I got your back, brother.”
Male relationships have undergone incredible change throughout history. “Heroic friendships” in ancient times were noble bonds stronger than marriage. Aristotle referred to Platonic friendships between men as the societal “ideal”. In the 19th century, male friendships were more sentimental and were marked with endearing language that by today’s standards, would be construed as “queer”. There was very little interaction between the sexes before marriage, so confiding in your own sex was the only option. There was a marked change towards the turn of the 20th century, as closeness between men became regarded as deviant behaviour. Later, under the Red Scare in the McCarthy era, intimate relationships between men were even labelled subversive and “communist”.
Somewhere along the way, it became more difficult for men to turn to other men for the intimacy we all long for in a meaningful relationship. As we moved away from an agrarian economy, young boys no longer had sustained interaction with their fathers, and were thus deprived of this type of role model. With the possible exception of male friendships formed in the military, the notion of an intimate male friendship, prevalent throughout history, has become yet another victim to market capitalism. Men now view one another as competitors rather than colleagues.
For me, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in which the perpetrators were male, the issue is further complicated. I’ve struggled with revealing my thoughts and emotions to other men, and when I do, it’s generally camouflaged by using jokes. Women typically build relationships based on social connectivity while men build them based on shared activity or goal orientation. Because I’m eager to cultivate stronger relationships with other men in my life, I’m attempting to combine both the male and female approach to friendship. While engaged in a shared activity with men, I am consciously working on being a more active listener—I’m suppressing my desire to “up the ante” or to redirect the conversation. Most importantly, I’m incorporating the feedback I got from my wife when she pointed out that I have a tendency to try to “fix problems” rather than simply listen to what someone is saying.
I’d like to end with one of my favourite quotes on friendship, and it comes from none other than the famous Greek historian, Plutarch. “I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.”