Why Men’s Friendships Can Feel So EMPTY
Men, relying on emotionally risk-free ”friendships of proximity,” are facing a life time of social isolation
Imagine, Frank walks into a bar. He approaches a group of men from work including someone new. One guy says, “Frank, meet Bob.” They all chat for a while and then Frank says brightly, “Bob! I’m glad I met you. I like you. How would you like to be my friend? Cue the abuse and derision because Frank just broke the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule of male friendship. Don’t admit you want or need friends. Don’t admit you need anything. Be confident. Be self reliant.
Will you be my friend? Sometime around first grade, boys stop asking that question and they never ask it again, because it quickly becomes an invitation for bullying and abuse. Stop and think about that for a moment. This single observation, that men are taught to deny they want and need friends, lies at the core of everything that is wrong with our modern construction of manhood. And it is killing us.
Judy Chu’s research, as documented in her book When Boys Become Boys, has shown that boys are taught to perform this narrative as early as age four.
Researcher and author of Deep Secrets, Niobe Way has this to say about the cultural conditioning of boys and men:
Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girly, immature, or gay. Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.
Welcome to American manhood, where only if you don’t need friends will you be worthy of having them.
The Question Men Won’t Ask
There is a reason most American men would never ask another man directly to enter into a friendship. Boys and men in American culture are given little opportunity in life to master this kind of interpersonal risk taking. It creates a moment of uncertainty that is agonizing for men. To ask for friendship suggests vulnerability, flexible social standing or even willingness to admit need. All values which are roundly condemned in men.
Instead of connecting in emotionally authentic ways, American men are taught from an early age to access friendships obliquely by joining clearly defined groups, teams or organizations. The opportunities for social contact arise in Boy Scouts, on baseball teams or in schools. This kind of social organizing aligns large populations of boys, teaching them to follow clear and simple rules of how to perform being a boy. Some organizations actually provide written handbooks, manuals by which to determine rank, achievement, behavior and appropriate forms of expression. The Boy Scout handbook is one obvious example.
Within these organizations, even social stragglers are grudgingly allowed to remain part of the group regardless of their individual standing. Quickly, boys learn to self select their rank and standing. Alphas at the top, socially awkward boys at the bottom. Boys learn that advancing in the organization doesn’t require the higher relational skills of tracking nuance or holding uncertainty. Social risk taking is not rewarded. Being on top simply requires the application of confidence and assertion and a willingness to perform masculinity according to what is normative.
In this way, boys are taught to express a simplified social identity by virtue of their organizational associations. By extension, friendships formed in these organizations are also expressed in restricted and simplified ways. They are friendships that encourage conformity and avoid interpersonal authenticity.
In adulthood, men continue to seek friends in the safe but highly conforming contexts of work, team sports, church, or their wives’s social or familial connections. They become friends with the parents they meet at the PTA. They rely on the Lions Club, fraternity or their son’s scout troop. They connect by way of organizations, tracking and performing friendship in the ways that are collectively deemed to be appropriate.
Because their friendships are sourced in organizations, men can end up keeping much of their uniqueness hidden and cleave close to what is culturally normative for those institutions. This creates a high degree of homogeneity in how men express, engage and perform friendship. Joe is my friend because Joe comes to bowling every week, not because Joe is necessarily someone I connect with on any other level.
These risk-free friendships are based solely on proximity. They require that men hide any atypical aspects of their internal narratives. This leaves men feeling emotionally isolated, providing no social mechanisms for men to process the challenges in their lives. Organizational conformity guarantees belonging at the expense of authentic self expression. The result? We end up alone in a crowd.
Which is why for men, when their participation in any given organization ends, the relationships or friendships embedded in those organizations often end as well. Emotional authenticity is the glue that holds friendships together. Without it, they are too shallow and fragile to survive beyond simple convenience.
Welcome to the Man Box
In the absence of the expression of our emotional authenticity, American men become homogeneous in their expression of self. This encourages their location, willingly or otherwise, in what many writers have come to call the Man Box. The Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is, particularly in American culture.
A real man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a firefighter, a lawyer, a CEO. He is a man’s man. This “real man”, as defined by the Man Box, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity.
Men will ask women to have sex and take a “no” without skipping a beat. Men will ask a customer to buy a product, and take “no” as just part of the territory. But asking another man to “please be my friend”, represents social risk taking that’s guaranteed to end badly because, in the moment a man asks this question, he has failed to be what all men are expected to be. He has failed to be, and pay close attention to the word I’m using here, competent.
Men move in circles of competence. This competency component is central to how men are ranked in the institutions they rely on for social connection; in sports, at work and in every garage and backyard BBQ in the country. We approach each other not just in terms of common interests, but in terms of our competency in those areas. Knowing how determines status and men are highly focused on status in the larger pecking order of traditional manhood.
We approach with our personal relationships wired tight and fully formed. We are successful, smart, aggressive, opinionated and full of advice on what’s wrong with the world and how to correctly do what needs to be done. By extension, we already have plenty of friendships which spring fully formed into our lives, born magically out of our authority and status.
This nearly universally approved cultural dynamic between men creates an entirely different outcome with women.
Men are taught to validate themselves with other men by fostering the impression that they always know exactly what they’re talking about. But this focus on competence, the transactional coin for tracking and assigning status between men, becomes something entirely different when employed with women. Been wondering where mansplaining comes from? It comes from right there. It’s not men thinking they know everything. Its men’s fear that they will fail to give that impression and be shamed for it. It comes from the transactional nature of male relationships.
Trained to Hide Behind What We Can Leverage
The male focus on competence and social status is tied to our belief that our chances of success in business and personal interactions increases when underpinned by something we can leverage. Our position in the company. Our financial success. Our skill at golf. Our willingness to advance the goals of the organization. Something other than individual, distinctive selves.
We lead with: “You’ll want to be my friend because I have something you need, not because of who I am.” And men carry this same dynamic into their romantic relationships, often leading with the “good provider” story. It’s why we pay for dinner on the first date. It’s rooted in opening doors and providing service to women because somewhere deep down, we’re just not enough without the financial or service element. Or worse, because we want to hold various forms of leverage in any relationship we enter.
Either way, its ultimately about male insecurity. Male insecurity born out of the fact that we have never been taught to lead with our own authentic emotional selves.
Seeking friendship by offering what others can leverage is the central transactional skill boys are taught from childhood. Buying our way in, instead of offering who we are as human beings, sets up a circular pattern by which men are always expected to bring, contribute, produce, provide.
Collectively, we are raising men to feel insecure unless they can bring their transactional leverage. Its a lesson we were not taught by the women we date as adults, but by the boys we were first grouped with as children. That said, men and women alike participate in this generational cycle of transactional intimacy. It’s pay to play.
So we take our personal stories off the table and put our competence, our networks and our alpha narratives up front. But here’s the challenge. If our friendships are exclusively about confidence and competence, then by definition, they can not be authentic, because no one is competent across the board. No one is completely without uncertainty or confusion.
Uncertainty = Courage = Friendship
When we share our uncertainty, we start asking much bigger questions. It is in those conversations that we speak with honesty and authenticity, creating opportunities to form connection, change and grow. Boys and men are not taught to leverage these powerful capacities. In fact, they are taught to avoid them as signs of weakness or indecision.
The result is an epidemic of isolation.
A 2010 study by the American Association of Retired Persons revealed that one in three Americans aged 45 and older are chronically lonely. Up from one in five just ten years below. That’s 44 million Americans.
In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimers, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer. Tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”
Men’s friendships can feel shallow and transitory because so many of those relationships are lacking in emotional authenticity. Emotional authenticity is the glue that holds deeper, more long term friendships together. Men who find themselves surrounded by risk free, surface level friendships can end up isolated, especially in the event of life challenges like losing a job or getting divorced. The absence of a robust circle of friendships in men’s lives contributes directly to epidemic levels of stress related illnesses, depression, suicide and violence.
How do we counteract our culture of male isolation? We parent with the goal of growing our children’s relational capacities. This is all about staying in conversation with them over the years, helping them in the small daily conversations of life to see how powerful their capacities for communication and expression are. It’s about getting our children to that tipping point whereby they commit to their own distinctive voice over the scripted silences traditional manhood.
Our children can grow their relational capacities through conversation and connection within their families with people they trust. Its part of the joyful work of parenting and we can choose to make it a priority on their behalf.
Meanwhile, I, for one, am seeking friendship in more individual and authentic ways. I going to look for friends away from simple zones of convenience and proximity. I’m not going to lead anymore with something transactional that I think might be of value. Not my network. Not my business connections. Not my ability to earn approval by conforming to some set of expectations or common goals. Out front of all that, I’m just offering me. Myself. I want to lead with who I am. Getting to where I am today took a lot of blood, sweat and tears, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to be convinced to hide it away. Its not perfect, but its me.
I want to take risks. I want to be who I’m becoming, and continue to make more authentic, emotionally vibrant friendships with the remarkable men and women I meet in the world.
Put simply, I want to live a good life.
Photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
This article was written in conversation with New York couple and family therapist Dr. Saliha Bava. She totally rocks.
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Read more by Mark Greene:
Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?
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