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Men and Friendship: Letting the Guard Down First

Last weekend, I had the honor of moderating a panel at the Omega Institute’s annual conference exploring women, men, and power. When I’m moderating, I have that rare sense that I am doing one of the things I am built for — listening to the conversation on the stage, but also listening underneath the conversation and to the conversation that is begging to be had.

Sometimes, listening underneath and beyond leads me to some surprising places. As we were exploring work-family balance and pay parity — standard fare — two other words suddenly flashed in my head, bright as neon: men and friendship. So I asked the men on the panel to speak to it.

Thirty-three-year-old poet, actor, and memoirist Carlos Andrés Gómez described how a mentor of his told him that people will only be vulnerable with you if you model it first, and that men so often get stuck in shallow relationship because they are perpetually waiting for the other guy to let his guard down. “So I created an ‘I love you because list,’ with 25 reasons that I loved my best friend and gave it to him,” Carlos revealed to the crowd of 400 people, who suddenly seemed to be breathing as one.

True to form, in that moment when this young poet, this exquisitely genuine and tender and tough man, lay his guard down — so did other men in the audience. The rest of the day, in the dining room and on the paths between cabins, in the sanctuary and down by the lake, I heard men being unapologetically relational with one another. They weren’t just talking about what they did for a living or their favorite teams; they were talking about their fears. They were talking about their confusion. They were talking about their regrets. Later that night, even the former prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, admitted to feeling jealous of the intimacy and authenticity that he’s witnessed within women’s friendships with one another.

As I began digging into the research on men and friendship, I found convincing evidence on why Kevin is right to be jealous. In fact, strong friendships make us significantly healthier and happier (much more effectively, duh, than money), and men have far fewer of them — especially as they age — than women do. There is even a name for it: “the male deficit model” — essentially the sociological theory that men aren’t great at creating lasting, genuine bonds. Men’s friendship tend to be more episodic and short-term — forged over beers after work and then abandoned when someone gets transferred to another department, or born on bikes side by side, climbing up hills with rich conversation, but lost to injury.

Men’s friendships may tend to be fleeting, but the effects are anything but. Many men rely exclusively on women —their partners, first and foremost, but also female friends — to be emotional surrogates of a sort. Without us, men sometimes struggle to consciously experience and name their emotions; women, though I think we rarely admit it, sometimes feel weighed down with the burden of braving our own internal world and mentoring our favorite men to do so, too. It’s a different kind of “second shift” than the one Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote about; it’s the endless labor of emotional midwifery.
Of course there are men who are genius at friendship, just as there are women who are positively dumb at it. But, writ large, we still live in a time and a place where men’s muscles for deep and real connection atrophy as they make their way through and beyond adolescence.

In Niobe Way’s beautiful book, Deep Secrets, she challenges the idea that men are naturally “emotionally illiterate.” Instead, she finds that teenage boys describe their love for one another with a depth of feeling worthy of romance novels. But as they age, they learn that “real men” don’t speak this way, except, at rare moments, within the safe confines of sports. And so many abandon their native tongue. They adopt the limiting language of safe relationships with other men so as to prove that they’re not soft or gay or needy. In so doing, they lose one of the things that makes their lives most livable, most rich.

I would even go so far as to wonder if the impossibly high suicide rate among young men doesn’t have something to do with their paucity of friendships, where they can show up as themselves, messy and needy. Or the enigmatic trends in violence perpetrated by men — could some of it be the external expression of an internal longing to be seen, heard, and celebrated by other men?

There is good news here. Niobe Way finds that boys thrive when they resist becoming stoic and self-contained “real men” and instead choose to honor their emotional needs by forging lasting and genuine friendships with other brave souls. When my husband went through a divorce in his late 20s, it was one of the first moments when he chose vulnerability — in part because he didn’t feel like it really was a choice — and his friendships with other guys blossomed in the brokenness.

When Carlos painstakingly and bravely penned that “I love you because” list, he not only honored his friend, he honored himself. Men, like women, deserve the gift of genuine, passionate friendship. They are capable of mining their own depths without women’s assistance. But it requires rejecting the roles society steers you into if you’re on autopilot. It requires being awake, being brave. Sometimes, it requires being the first to let your guard down.

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