Do Guys Fight For Their Friendships? (Hint: NYT says “No”; I say “Hell, Yes”!)

When I was a rower in college, many Saturdays during the winter we would meet in the cemetery on the edge of campus, set on a particularly long and steep hill. The road up twisted and turned, flattening out in a false peak, only to reveal its steepest section just before reaching the top.

Our coach Will devised a system in which each team was composed of an equal number of strong and weak oarsmen on the hill. He split up each team into three separate race squads, pitting oarsmen of similar hill climbing ability against one another. He would sit at the top of the hill on the back of his pick-up truck with a clipboard in his hand, keeping score. We generally ran 10 hills, taking about an hour and depleting whatever resources were left from the week of training.

On one Saturday, I had a memorable exchange with a younger teammate. I knew Jon had been out late the night before, but I still expected him to excel at the hills since he was the best runner on the team, often beating me at the long runs that were my specialty. We battled out the first couple of hills, snorting and swearing upon reaching the top. Then I noticed that he would stay with me for one hill and slow down on the next one. As the captain of the team, I was trying to reinforce the coach’s demand for consistency of effort and it started to gall me that Jon appeared to be dogging it. I was busting my ass on each repetition and he should be too. On the next hill I finished first. As I came down I saw him bringing up the rear of our group.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I barked in his face, pushing him into the snowbank as he tried to complete the hill.

He came up swinging, landing a couple of crisp shots to my jaw, before our teammates separated us.

That was almost 30 years ago and Jon and I are still close friends.

 ♦◊♦

Fast forward to 2012 and the attack on masculinity continues to astound me.

First it was men are all Charlie Sheen degenerates. Then it was men, especially young ones, are all slackers. And then of course we were pronounced, as a gender in our entirety, DOA (End, Over, whatever you want to call it).

Now comes yet another problem with being a man. Not just a certain kind of man, a certain geography or personality. No, just having balls means this problem is ruining your life. By definition. Like being the Charlie Sheen-Slacker-Non-Entity that the preceded this stubborn little issue.

According to The New York Times, that cultural beacon of all things true and right, us guys are so emotionally stunted that when we have a fight with each other.  Rather than talk about it we walk away. It could be a lifelong friend, but we just don’t have the toolbox to sit down and work it out (the sound you hear right now is me puking just for your information). And this in turn is causing there to be an epidemic of friendless men, apparently.

“This culture celebrates female BFFs (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Stella and Gwyneth. Oprah and Gayle), but where are the HuffPo slide shows for their male counterparts?” asks BEN SCHRANK in his just published NYT piece Can’t Guys Just Learn to Fight for a Friendship?

The source of the missing male bond is our inability to get to the bottom of our disagreements. Mr. Schrank takes one life long friendship of his lost over a silly fight and globalizes it into a vast global gender epidemic of manhood gone deeply awry (and the NYT publishes it as fact):

“Men no longer know how to fight. Don’t get me wrong — we know how to confront strangers when they cut in line at the butcher’s or block the door on the subway. What we don’t know how to do is have the kind of unpleasant talks that articulate feelings to real friends when those friends ignore our wives at a dinner, or don’t think to call us when we are fired. Instead, we either shrug off the slight or end the friendship.”

The basis for this claim beyond his own lost bud?  Ben’s friend Jeremy, an anthropology professor and a cabinetmaker. And a reading of the literature on our current President:

“This inability is not just limited to New York men of a certain age. Our current president seems to be known for not being intimate with anyone except his wife and children. In Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics,” we learn that behind the scenes, Joe Biden gets the vital deals done. He knows that he must have the awkward talks it takes to keep our government going. But the guys in front can’t because of their precious sovereignty.”

Can I just say, in all seriousness, WTF?  Really?

 ♦◊♦

My whole view of manhood was born out of the depth of friendship, through thick and thin. For me it started with college athletics as a rower, but it continued after college in the business world, and then through a long list of god awful situations I found myself in where I relied upon male friends to listen to me, fight with me (damn right), tell me what they thought I should do, and love me unconditionally in a particularly gritty male kind of way (not that it’s the only kind of male love in the world it’s just the kind that works for me).

I don’t know what planet Mr. Schrank is living on, nor the New York Times, but I’ve been involved in starting a whole bunch of companies during which fights were a daily occurrence that was part of the process of improvement. I’ve been spending a lot of time in church basements for fifteen years now with guys that beat the living shit out of each other in a desperate attempt to get and stay sober. In short, if you are my friend I not only will go “in the back alley” to protect you if some other jerk tries to take you down. I will get right up in your grill and fight you to protect you from yourself and protect our friendship.

In my case I stumbled across a word for my general mode of being with my guy friends, teammates and business partners—assaholism—while reading the famous biography of Steve Jobs. What that means is brutal honesty in a confrontational manner pretty much all the time in an attempt to improve. Far from not fighting in the context of my male interactions, fighting is the very stuff of which my most precious relationships have been erected and my proudest moments of success as a man built up over pools of blood left on the floor in the pursuit of a greater good.

 ♦◊♦

Like so many other gender issues making flat unqualified statements about one gender or the other is insane given the diversity of human beings and just as harmful as making flat statements based on race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

The fact that male BFFL don’t show up in the media, like they do for women, is purely a manifestation of the limited (and wildly inaccurate) portrait of masculinity dishes out by the mainstream media. Men being emotionally bonded doesn’t fit the moron-slacker image that we have been cast into.

From what I see in my limited view of the world, male friendships are alive and well with men navigating fights among themselves without stomping off never to speak again.

But amongst my friends PERHAPS there is a difference in language. A woman might tell me, “You hurt my feelings when you did X.”

My male friends would rather slit their own throat than say those words. Not because their feelings weren’t hurt but that is beside the point. They’d say, “hey dickhead, you were dead wrong when you did X.” The idea that then would then opt out of the friendship is ludicrous. But the words might indeed get heated over who was in the right whether in words that were said or disloyal deeds done.

 ♦◊♦

Up on the top of the hill, sitting on the back of his pick-up truck, our coach Will smiled. He told me later about the Olympic gold medal crew that reached the dock after their victory and broke out in a brawl. The process of developing underlying trust as a team involved spilling your guts along the way, even showing raw emotion. He had made clear from the very beginning that this was about rowing, but it was really about a lot more. It was about growing up and learning the hard way how to avoid making excuses. He liked to say that he was really an educator and an artist who happened to choose boats and oars and men as his medium.

The measure of success was how well our crew rowed. But he firmly believed that excellence on the water had less to do with technique and strength and more to do with the development of the soul. We worked hard not so much to condition our bodies, though that was a necessary prerequisite, but to condition our minds. The payoff was that this development of the mind could be applied to any situation in life later on, whether on the water or off. To his way of thinking, the fight on the hill was a sign of progress—a sign of growing faith in one another.

###

 image:  my son and nephew playing a brutal game of four square which often results in …  fights.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Bay Area Guy says:

    What I’ve always wanted to know is WHY masculinity is so frequently depicted in a negative light by this country’s lamestream media?

    Are feminists, or those with left wing views sympathetic to feminists, so influential?

    Or do those with influence in the media have another angle?

    I’m always being told that men are dominant in this country, and yet I find it odd the way the supposedly dominant group is always being demonized, in contrast to women, who are so much more soulful, caring, disciplined, mature, cooperative, and better suited to lead today’s modern world.

  2. Tom, since you’re fighting with the Times, I have to assume you’re not really mad. Just relating.

  3. Thanks for the article Tom.
    I understand what you are saying about this concept of masculinity and the way that men can often work things out physically and sometimes quickly move on without ever really talking about the emotions/feelings that were touched. However, this way of communicating and building relationships is clearly not working for all boys and men in our society. Boys are taught that toughness, violence, winning and being at the top is the most important aspect of proving their masculinity creating much isolation, hurt, shame and violence.
    In my view boys and men need to develop emotional intelligence that goes beyond toughness – where they can grow in intimacy, learn to listen to their bodies and communicate a full range of feelings including vulnerable emotions. Why? Because men are getting hurt physically by other men, they are hurting themselves through self-harm and suicide, they are hurting their relationships through avoidance and inability to communciate, they are hurting.

    I like your story about your friend and while and I have friends like that – however there are many men who have had life long friends who they have never been able to share what they really feel and even say, when not drunk….”I really like being with you” – and so many men really don’t know, they are left guessing that can lead to isolation.

  4. I agree with you, James…there is a diversity among men (and among us all, really) in how we resolve conflict….

    An old friend of my husband’s used to brag about how he got into fistfights with each of his mates and how they still remain on good terms (ie., he used to always tell the story of how he knocked out B.’s tooth over Thanksgiving dinner with B. at the table with his wife)….

    This same friend, while head of a techie company in Asia, would regularly get into drunken bar brawls at night while his co-workers would frantically call his wife to come and get him at 3AM in the morning….

    This same guy would say nasty, insulting things to me while his wife was in her last uncomfortable month of
    pregnancy to try to provoke me into a argument with him…I just smiled cryptically and backed off….this homey don’t play that game…When I told my husband that he should apologize for what he said, he refused (he said he had nothing to apologize for)….Long story short: I cut off all contact with him, and years later, my husband did, too….I think we were both fair to him and cut him much slack over the years, but emotional intelligence can’t save all relationships, no matter how long and deep…

  5. Tom Matlack says:

    Leia and James:

    A couple things. I totally understand some men fight isolation. Hell I fight it all the time. To me that is a human issue. It’s hard to be fully honest with people you care about. The whole Project was born out of my experience getting sober and seeing how powerful it was for me to spill their guts, in their own words and in their own way, to each other. It changed everything.

    This other idea of guys getting drunk and physically fighting. That is completely missing my point. No one does anything meaningful when they are drunk. Period. Yes, when i was in college I fought my friend physically. I haven’t had a physical fight since (30 years) but I have a ton of important conflicts with my male friends that caused me to get closer to them not further apart.

  6. Skull Bearer says:

    The loss of male friendships in media is something that seems relatively recent. I only really noticed it because I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. The latest adaptations of the books (The Guy Richie films and the Sherlock tv shows) have holmes and Watson, probably the most iconic male friendship, appear to outright hate each other. No wonder the new adaptation in the states, Elementary, has Watson as a woman!

  7. I wish that men would go back to slugging it out. I’ve had 450 male employees, all of which I have bent over backwards to help and educate and just plain worked to make their lives better. What I’ve gotten back has been backbiting, cowardes, and jealousy their is no reciprocation of emotional openness in the male world today, and men don’t stand up for anything. They cower when their in front of you and when your far enough away they send threatening text or phone calls. When loyalty and honesty fail there’s nothing else you can do but punch each other out. But the childishness is so deep now over simple matters people are trying to destroy another persons life rather than talk things through. Masculinity that I remember growing up is dead. A mother raised generation has turned men into scared little girls.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Chad I respect your experience but not sure that calling men little girls is going to advance the gender discussion much. Again, the reason we founded GMP was because I found in my own life the transformational value of men getting brutally honest with themselves and each other. Sounds like your employees could use a big dose of that.

  8. Hunter @Green Detective says:

    Silent homes of the 50’s conditioned men and women to swallow feelings. We are all in the same boat, learning to communicate today, as parents and leaders. Blame and name calling are passive-aggressive frustration in-progress. Suggest conversation start with honesty. None of us has the answers. Equal relationships have never existed in society. Challenge.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Yes Hunter. I agree with this. I do think that, in my experience, that the challenging can be somewhat different between men and women. That doesn’t take away from the bottom line which is that brutal, raw honesty is the only way to get anywhere.

      • Todd Mauldin says:

        My experience is that male friendship is alive and well and critical to growth as a man. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who finds the conclusions in Ben’s article difficult to swallow. The article seems to try to make the author’s specific deal with friendship, and a friend he’s had a problem with, universal… and generalization is flawed thinking when applied to an individual. So, in the last paragraph, I think he reveals what’s really up: “I care about him too much to fight with him,” and I humbly suggest that’s the real matter here. Ben may not want to have to fight for friendship, or his friend may not, but that’s seems the only solution. It’s a hard deal but I don’t find it to be uncommon and it is one of the most foundational for growth as a person… getting crossed up with a friend. I believe confrontation usually leads to growth and strengthening, at least in my experience. So I wish Ben well, but I can’t put much stock in his premise, that all or even most men don’t know how to fight for each other’s friendship, aren’t capable of working stuff out and maintaining friendships, or won’t do it. Things don’t really even start getting real in a relationship until somebody is about to walk away, that’s when things are adjusted, renewed and strengthened. And yeah, it’s honesty and vulnerablility and tenacious fighting that usually lead to that adjustment. Just my $0.02 on a very interesting topic.

      • While I agree that honesty will mend a strained friendship, “raw” and “brutal” honesty in all situations can alienated as much as mend. The NYT writer is extrapolating his experience into a gross generalization, as if justification for his inability to contact his friend. I have a grade school buddy who’s all pissy because I called him out on blowing me off. If I hadn’t, if I didn’t care, what would that say about our friendship. We haven’t talked in a couple weeks but we will, because that’s how it’s always been. Our mutual friend, his best friend, died two years earlier, and he was the guy who could talk feelings and get you to talk feelings. He’d ask questions. And I know my buddy misses that, but this how we do it. Point being, each friendship, each relationship, is as varied an idiosyncratic as the individual.

        • Tom Matlack says:

          I agree with that Robert. Not only are people individual but so are the friendships one person can have with a variety of (men).

  9. We have to remember that the ways in which people relate have so much to do with their family of origin and their histories.

    In my family, nothing anyone says goes unchecked–men or women–going back generations. I mean, nothing. We dissect and discuss and debate everything. It’s a way of engaging with your family and having an intellectual exchange. If they think you’re not intelligent or sturdy, they won’t bother with you. But bringing that dynamic into another family or friendships doesn’t always go off easily because regardless of gender.

    It seems to me that gendering the discussion about whether men fight for friendship really misses the point. Certainly men were taught by mid-century culture to be an emotional island, but I don’t think that ever became “the truth” about men and relationships.

    The reality is, we bring our own historical and cultural contexts into every single relationship. Italian-Americna families have always embraced emotional engagement to some degree, Cold War Culture be damned.

    • Todd Mauldin says:

      Yeah, maybe Joanna, but gendering may be appropriate too. I fight with (and for) my female friends differently than I fight (and for) with my male friends. Don’t you find that to be true?

    • Tom Matlack says:

      @Joanna being married to an Italian American I know of which you speak. I will note that in my wife’s family the way conflict gets dealt with is a bit different by gender. But I digress. The original point was to take on the NYT for gendering the discussion and laying claim to the idea that men don’t fight amongst themselves. My biggest point is that is absurd. As is the idea that male bonding is dead.

      • Joanna Schroeder says:

        Yeah, I think there are loose generalities along the lines of gender, but I don’t think gender is the biggest predictor of how you resolve problems amongst other guys (or for women, with women). I think gender is a part of what comes into the bigger context of family history.

  10. Not buying it says:

    @Joanna

    I don’t think Tom is gendering the discussion unnecessarily though since the behavior & the approach men take on average is different then women’s , as many other things.

  11. Laramie White says:

    I have been close friends with 5 men since college , starting in 1975. We have lost 2 of our brothers one in 2003 and one in 2011. The last 3 of us remain close even though we are in different parts of the country now, we talk at least once per month. We also track each other through social media websites.

    We never had to fight each other but sometime he had to put the hard facts out on the table when someone from our group was messing up their life. We remained close friends even if hearing the truth was painful for that person. We still supported each other through the good times and bad time. Being there when someone lost their parents or other family members. Seeing our children being born and growing up through the years.

    I thank The Lord for having these other four brothers in my life. Someone to call when needing to talk. Visiting them when I traveled home to visit. Just being able to call them my friends and brother since 1975. Not being afraid to tell them I love ya man for being my friend and brother.

  12. No I totally understand what your trying to do with GMP that’s why I follow you and try to contribute. What I’m trying to say is that I am brutally honest with everyone but have been confronted with fear jealousy and very pathetic attitude towards it. I see what your saying about gender specification or exclusion but we still have to accept that men and women are different. We are raised with different responsibilities and therefor develope different mindset if for no other reason than our bodies and how they function. What I’m saying is we have missed a step in this generations development in that people are not willing to even speak up to protect children themselves or their loved ones let alone their relationships for fear of “getting involved” or something happening to themselves. How I was raised is think of your actions and how they impact others. Be aware of how people feel and do your best to direct the world around yourself and that is the only way we can truly affect the bigger picture. But when I see the cowardes with which said attitude is received I just want to scream. So yes I probably at times choose the wrong words but harsh seams the only way to get through to people at times.

  13. Actually it’s kind of funny. So many people, men and women, always try to tell me that women can’t take criticism or handle conflict well enough to sort issues out, and often break away from each other for that reason. I don’t agree with that either. It’s just ridiculous to attribute the personal tendencies of a few politicians and celebrities to an entire gender.

  14. Just to do a little devil’s advocacy, there are lots of factors that work against strong male friendships.

    Lingering sex role questions. A lot of guys are trying to earn a big dog’s payday while simultaneously trying to live up to a marital ideal where they need to be the number one, emotionally, to their SO, AND be a good dad. These things burn up time.

    Nobody goes bowling anymore – basically, people stay home a lot and that keeps new friendships from getting off the ground.

    The equality that you knew in high school or whatever that fabled time in your life was when you had lots of male friends – for some, the military or sports – fades away. It’s awkward when somebody who was just another comrade back in the day has moved up the ladder into a whole new echelon. One too many blowoffs from someone who is too busy or too important and I, like the NY Times guy, will put the friendship on a shelf. Not saying he’s dead to me and bunch of other shit, I’ll answer his call, but I’m not in pursuit mode anymore.

    Good, vital topic. I’m off to email a buddy I haven’t heard from in a while.

  15. First it was men are all Charlie Sheen degenerates. Then it was men, especially young ones, are all slackers. And then of course we were pronounced, as a gender in our entirety, DOA (End, Over, whatever you want to call it).
    Don’t forget the part where we were all supposedly stupid and cheaters a la Tiger Woods.

    The source of the missing male bond is our inability to get to the bottom of our disagreements. Mr. Schrank takes one life long friendship of his lost over a silly fight and globalizes it into a vast global gender epidemic of manhood gone deeply awry (and the NYT publishes it as fact)
    And the source of that inability to get to the bottom of our disagreements is based on the emotional stunting that we are raised with from the beginning.

    Bearing in the mind the dangers of trying to draw conclusions about an entire group based on a few examples I do think it’s worth taking a look at this from the perspective of men not being allowed to have our full emotional range, which is a valuable tool for getting to the roots of our problems, inside and outside of troubled friendships.

  16. Sometimes male friendships end because the other guy is an asshole.

  17. @Tom,
    Do you think that how you relate to your friends is more a function of your upbringing and not that you’re a man? I’ve read several of your articles so I know you are, white, a successful entrepreneur, and reading that you were a rower in college is (and let me know if I’m wrong) telling me that you were probably raised in an upper income household and were athletic (and everything that comes with that, being outgoing and confident foremost). I really think your background has made your view on this much different than mine.

    I can say that I’ve never fought for a friendship, and in fact neither have anyone I’ve grown up with, but I can tell you that we probably had very different upbringings and friends from very different backgrounds. My friends and I are mostly Hispanics/Latinos who come from middle to lower income households. Post high school I’ve had problems with three different friends that resulted in loss of friendship which was either temporary or permanent. In none of these situations were there any fights, yelling, or physical punches thrown. It should be no surprise that all of these situations involved women.
    In all three of the situations there was basically no contact between me and the other person. In two of the three cases we eventually made up years later, but we made up with thoughtful discussion or a drunken apology. The third was a total cut off of the offending friend, not even to suggest he get his substance abuse issues under control because honestly at this point I don’t care if they guy gets help or not.

    In the cases I can think of where I saw an actual physical fight break out between people in my frind group (all either in HS or college) that was the end to the friendship as well. It wasn’t something that eventually brought people closer or helped the situation at all. I really think you should take into consideration how different cultures treat freindships. I don’t have the time or energy to waste on people who impact my life negatively. If a “friend” were to come at my physically you can be sure that relationship would be over.

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