Jeff Tomczek believes men have an opportunity to create better friendships with each other.
It used to confuse me that my father – a blue collar man of the bootstrap Boomer generation – didn’t seem to make time for friendships. He was devoted to his career, his wife and his children, but rarely, it seemed, did he try to build social bonds with other guys. I never understood it. As I get older, I am starting to.
Lately, I’ve been examining my own friendships with other men. At 29, living in New York City, I find myself focused on career, family and the pursuit of a stable female partner. I’m highly engaged in personal interests & hobbies, actively dating and devoting long hours to advancing professionally. I also travel a great deal for work and to see family across the country. What falls by the wayside is time spent with other guys.
Scientifically, friendship is a vital component of psychological stability. In fact, one of the main reasons women outlive men is due to their ability to hold stronger friendships. Famous psychologist Abraham Maslow first helped us understand this phenomenon in his 1943 paper on the hierarchy of human needs. In his needs pyramid, Maslow predictably ranked physiological needs (breathing, food, water, sleep) first. Next he ranked safety needs: protection against predators, sex for procreation, health and financial security. The third rung on his ladder was ‘Love and Belonging’ where, interestingly, Maslow gave equal focus to family, friendships and sexual intimacy.
As men, we certainly know how to prioritize sex, and in this age of Viagra and ribbed condoms, most American nightstands are equipped for pleasure over procreation. The role of family is engrained – we are biologically wired to maintain those bonds. But friendship seems to be the added bonus, with a less clear correlation to a need state. Despite this lack of clarity, studies have shown that positive social connections on a more validating level are in fact just as important to overall well-being as any other relationship we hold.
In an article for The NY Times Magazine earlier this March, writer Andrew O’Hagan claimed that man has a collective instinct to ‘consort with his own kind.’ If this is true, then it is profoundly at odds with statistics that show male friendships are steadily declining. So how is it that in 2013, the male community has arrived in a place where we scientifically understand the value of same-sex friends, but lack the ability to cultivate friendship in balance with our other relationships and pursuits?
A few of the theoretical reasons behind this sudden decrease in masculine bonding may include:
1) The rise of technology, leading to loss of time spent in physical proximity to friends.
2) The acceptance of gay men into pop-culture, creating a blurred line between straight and homosexual tendencies that has straight men cautiously interacting with one another out of subconscious homophobic fears.
3) The idea that men in Gen Y have declining testosterone levels compared to prior generations and have been raised to be more sensitive by a feminized education system; making guys less capable of stereotypical male bonding behaviors that involve animalistic competition.
4) The shift in gender roles correlating with women’s progress in the workplace causing a lack of continuity amongst Millennial men when it comes to transitions between life stages, embracing adulthood and defining masculinity.
I can certainly see all of these factors contributing to my lack of close relationships with male friends. Hanging out with ‘the guys’ in my past meant an excess of posturing, hunting for girls, gorging on food & beer, and plenty of arguments. It could be downright caveman-like at times. These interactions were ideal in high school, great in college and fun in my mid-twenties when we had the freedom to roll in packs. As I age, my interests have changed, and they don’t involve the old school activities of being one of the boys. Where I can easily justify a yoga class, movie night or walk one-on-one with a platonic female friend, I can’t picture doing any of these things with a guy friend. And so, my male friendships continually take a spot on the back burner to avoid the discomfort of engaging them.
Through high school and college, I was able to form a base of friends with whom I felt trust and comfort. We did everything together and anything for each other. We rarely talked about feelings or ideas. We just hung out. Luckily, I have been able to stay in touch with these ten-or-so core friends from the past—the lifelong types who I can pick up with immediately when I see them, no matter how many months or years have ticked off the clock. However, all of these friends live in other states and are not a part of my daily life. Now, I long to be able to call a local buddy on a whim and ask him to meet up for a conversation about something interesting, or simply to ask for advice without feeling like I am asking for them to donate a limb.
Looking back I can only conclude that, in my early twenties, I spent so much time trying to collect friends en masse that I failed to assess the value of those I was spending time with. As I found myself in my mid-twenties I saw new male encounters in a different light. No longer having common circumstances or experiences to hold us together (school, team activities), I started seeing other guys for their true colors as individuals outside the filter of a controlled group context.
Without community, we develop our own unique moods and habits that make us more selfish about what we feel is worth energy. This inevitably conflicts with what others have chosen for themselves. In many respects, I find this to be a good thing; we are each finding what is right for us and cultivating it. However, we then need to be more accommodating to each other when trying to make plans. We need to find middle ground for valuable shared experience that doesn’t just meet one person’s vision for their life. Friendship, like any other relationship, is about give and take– something that modern men might have lost sight of.
And thus, I have had my fair share of falling out moments with guys who I was trying to build friendships with over the years. Some were because they betrayed trust. Others because they clearly didn’t share my values or morals. And others because they would belittle me when I made decisions that were healthiest for me, but clashed with what that person expected me to do to serve their own interests. In retrospect, despite some initial guilt, I am quite proud of choosing to cut guys out of my life that didn’t meet my definition of friend.
As I near my 30th birthday, I have decided to hone in on what type of guys I do let into my life, and selecting only those friendships that help me grow. I have even set a few rules for determining when a guy isn’t qualified to be a friend. These include assessing if a guy:
1) Simply wants me to be their friend as part of a superficially desired ideal social life.
2) Does not take on each day as an opportunity to grow and contribute to society.
3) Cannot be honest and authentic about himself and let me be the same.
In utilizing these rules, I am identifying the guys in my life who bring out the best in me. These are guys who are secure enough in themselves to let me be who I am, embrace me with love (yes, male friends can share love) and offer selfless support. I want to surround myself with friendships that stimulate me intellectually, push me to be my best morally and expand my life into new territory. Just like in any partnership, I want to be a better person because of the people I expend energy on.
In turn, I will aim to share my energy equally. I will motivate my friends to try harder, laugh longer and love themselves more each day. There is room in this world for a brand new kind of male bonding, if we all commit to it. It will just be up to us to define what it looks like.
Photo: Flickr/Damian Gadal