This pandemic, Lauren, has thrown a spotlight on friendship, hasn’t it? And for men, who have always struggled with this issue, the pandemic has exposed that men are indeed dying inside for friendship. I’m certain that the male friendship dilemma goes way back before Covid-19. The Tall, Rugged Silent Stranger, whether he’s on horseback, or a well-cut suit, has been a Hollywood trope since talkies.
Guys, we don’t need friends, do we? As Dr. Cox said to J.D.(Scrubs, season 3, ep. 4):
And most importantly of all, the only way to be respected as a doctor – nay, respected as a man – is to be an island. You are born alone, you damn sure die alone. Isn’t that right, Spike? The point is, and you just might want to jot this down: only the weak need help.
If you’ve watched even one episode of Scrubs, you know that Dr. Cox is not the epitome of men’s mental health.
Men and friendship. This is not a new struggle. I googled “men’s health and friendships” and had 2,040,000,000 hits. These last few years, I’ve seen research and articles that try to explain what is wrong with men’s friendships. Our friendships, these pieces said, tend to not be as long-lasting or as deep as women’s. A lack of friendship plays havoc with men’s life satisfaction and health as we move into middle age and beyond, I read. A lack of work/life balance plays havoc with our ability to get together with our friends.
Men tend to not open up to other men, yet shared emotional commitment is a building block to friendship. Most men prioritize work and family over friends. Many of us have soul-crushingly lengthy commutes which steal our free time. We are lonely. Men’s suicide rate peaks in our late 40s, through the 50s and into the early 60s. One reason I read repeatedly- depression is related to overwhelming loneliness.
David, I feel like you and I both truly enjoy people, and I think that is so helpful in making new friends. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you never know who could be standing next to you in line, so you gotta be open and willing to chat. I was quieter and more shy as a kid, but these days I’m definitely the person in the group who will get-up from the table to get extra napkins and end up disappearing for 15 minutes because I started a conversation with strangers and made new friends while passing by the bar. I’m sure the fact that I’m a short, smiling, unintimidating, English-speaking Asian woman is also helpful in those initial exchanges. Do I become friends with everyone I meet? Of course not. Does my kindness and willingness to talk to people get mistaken for flirting from time-to-time? Yep… can’t a girl just be nice? Does that stop me from doing it anyway? Absolutely not.
Shifting a nice interaction into friendship can feel difficult though. When you’re a kid, you sort of find friends by proximity. Who is in your class? Who else attends Youth & Government with you or is on your sports team? Which of your parents’ friends have kids? You see those people all the time, and often they become your friends.
Moving on. Let’s talk about men and this friendship thing.
Men bond over shared activities.
My son is now 29. We’ve moved beyond the typical father-son stuff. He’s a grown-up. We’ve moved into more senior-junior friend status. What do we do when we do when we want to talk about stuff that matters? We play golf or go to the practice range. Out there, we let down the guard, both of us, and we actually share our souls. Sure, sometimes we do that watching a game together or shooting free throws. But I promise, Lauren, it’s never going to happen with a bottle of wine as we sit in front of the fireplace like women do in a Hallmark movie. And the stuff we share is just as intimate as anyone’s, but it’s more comfortable with an activity as a backdrop.
I don’t hunt, but I have friends who are lifelong deer hunters. They’ve gone to deer camp with the same guys for 40-50 years. And get this – their dads went hunting together, too. 2 or 3 generations of guys hanging out, sharing stuff. Hell, I know a bunch of them don’t even hunt. They just go to deer camp to be with the guys. I guarantee, late at night, when the card game is over and the last bit of bourbon poured for the evening, men will share.
If we want men to bond, they need space and approval for their shared activities.
Men can share their emotions but it takes time to get there.
Men, we are pack animals. We jostle for position in the pecking order. Think of wolves and puppies and gorillas and deer. We’re like that. Here’s the secret: In a boy’s childhood, if he shows weakness, whether physical or emotional, he gets pushed down the ladder. Early on, boys learn to tough it out in the presence of their peers. From an evolutionary perspective, where we end up in that order matters.
Lauren, most men being reasonably sentient animals, we are not locked into that mindset. But we are animals, and we need to work to remind ourselves that our mating privileges are not determined by how other males perceive our toughness. I’m fortunate; I have had several close male-male friendships in my life. It took time. Men, even men who understand the dynamic of how we size up other men, are willing to share their stuff, but it takes months, even years, to get there.
If we want men to share their stuff, they need time and security.
Men prioritize work and family over friendships.
54% of households are dual income, right? 30% of moms stay at home. (FYI- About 17% of Dads are at-home parents.) The average US two-way commute is about 60 minutes. Do the math. One conclusion blares out at you. We have no free time. Most men who work outside the home, if they want to see their spouse and kids, whether she works outside the home or not, must cut out friend time for family time. Of course, working moms wrestle with the same dilemma.
Our work-first culture has created a gender-neutral friendship-eating monster. Friendships take time. For men, we need a bonding activity and those activities take up even more time. Here’s the breakdown:
120 total hours in a 5-day work week.
55 hours/week of (work + commute) + 40 hrs sleep/week = 5 hours/day ‘free time’
Those 5 hours each day during the work week must cover house chores and fitness and meals and meal prep and that precious wee bit of family time. Who can give up time with the kids to go watch a soccer game or football game or a softball league or a glassblowing class or have a guitar-keyboard-drums jam with a couple buddies? Not many of us.
As an adult, that proximity thing can still be hard to break out of. We get used to being friends with people nearby – roommates, coworkers, neighbors, folks we meet in book clubs, and friends of friends. It’s much harder to stay friends with people who are outside of your regular routines – out of sight, out of mind. We live in the age of the internet and social media, and that can help, but are you really friends with someone if you are simply “liking” their posts?
In 2015, it dawned on me that I was falling into this “location, location, location” style friend trap, wasn’t making a lot of time for my friends from high school and college who had moved away, and wanted to do something about it. So I made my new year’s resolution to visit a “faraway” friend at least once a month. This meant me visiting folks in Socal, and other states, but it also included visiting people on the other side of the bridge in the Bay Area – mentally, that is extremely far, I swear. I visited friends all over the place that year, and it was amazing and so much fun! I don’t always have the time or money to travel and visit in 3D regularly, but that experience changed how I made decisions on maintaining friendships. Making time was the hard part, but spending time was easy.
There’s no “right” way to be a friend, but I want my friends to make me feel good and be people I enjoy spending time with. I think a lot of folks hold onto past friendships that may no longer serve them. For me it’s about a positive exchange of energy – when you vibe with someone, or can tell you’re on the same wavelength. But different people can hold different parts of my energy. I enjoy being around all of the people I choose to keep close, but I don’t expect any of them to be everything for me. The people that I can get nerdy and ponder random topics with aren’t necessarily the same people I exchange dating and sex life stories with or play board games with. I’m not looking for clones of myself. I want interesting, kind, thoughtful people with some shared interests or commonalities but who might have different experiences and opinions. That’s it. That’s the criteria.
Regardless of what type of friendship you hold with me, it’s a label that I don’t take lightly. It’s a relationship – and like any relationship, it takes time and caring and effort from both sides. Friends are the family we choose; and once you’re a friend of mine, I make sure you know it. I want to spend time with you and support you in any way that I can – physically, emotionally, socially; and I hope you’ll do the same for me.
Part of that formula is about staying in touch. I feel weird saying this, but numerous people throughout my life have told me that I’m very good at this. I’ll own that, and that’s because it’s intentional. I have several friends who have told me that I’m the only person they’re still in contact with from high school. I will message or call you on your birthday with well wishes and weird facts, or maybe – if I have my act together in time – even mail you a gift. If I think of you randomly and realize we haven gotten a chance to catch-up in a while, I’ll reach out, out of the blue, to see if we can find a time to “shoot the shit” by phone, video, or in-person. We all go through busy seasons in life though, so regular communication isn’t always possible. Surprise, I’m also a weirdo who does my best to send out holiday / happy new year cards – almost every year, probably since college. Snail mail is underrated, and I have also had pen pals in adulthood.
My hope is that post-pandemic, we continue to understand that we are effective at work-from-home at least 2-3 days per week. If not, our friendships will continue to slide down the maw of the carnivorous friendship-eating dinosaur.
Yet, I am a relentless optimist. With my younger friends, men in their 30s and 40s, I see a new resolve. These men are not so willing to give up their friends and relationships for work. They recognize that emotional maturity is not keeping it all under wraps. They’ve learned that true emotional security is the courage to put yourself out there.
When I see a male professional athlete or a tech genius multi-millionaire (they are the bellwethers in our society, aren’t they?) stand in front of a mic and say, “Hey, well, I’m going to step back for a bit. I have some emotional issues to manage for a while,” I want to stand up and cheer. Only people with supportive, solid friends have that level of emotional courage. Men most assuredly crave security and closeness. Yet, it is only in the last 20 years that I’ve seen a male generation with the cojones to put themselves out there.
A month after my Dad died in 2019, I wrote a sonnet about it (no surprise, eh?)
Sonnet Number Twelve
Men ache to share the tortures of our souls.
We swim upstream and battle every day,
To share what flows inside and makes us whole;
A barbaric yawp set free, and we pray
that we’ll be heard before we reach the end
Our hearts spread open, guts upon display
No more, we shout, our essence not misspend
No more, no pain, the lustrous dawn’s new day.
We must do better, my brothers and my kin,
And be the men we know that we can be.
To open up our arms and feel within
The nature that we share; yes, you and me.
Slay; Kill the fear that keeps you locked inside;
Sacrum Vitae, when cursed fear doth die.
But, since I started out with Scrubs and Dr. Cox, it seems like a fine idea to end with a line from the show’s theme song by Lazlo Bane:
“But I can’t do this all on my own. No, I know…I’m no Superman.”
At this point in my life, I have friends all over the country. It would be great to visit them, like I focused on several years back, but that can take time, coordination, and money – which we don’t always have. Plus, the recent pandemic really put a damper on hanging out with people in-person anyway. Luckily, I love people too much to let that get in the way, and I like to get creative with my connections. Sometimes you just need an “excuse” in order to make time to spend with others. I don’t wait to find a class or an event or a conference to hangout with other people, I’m all for making up our own reasons. Even in the last couple years, I have created two ongoing crafternoons, am part of three different book clubs, and started a play community with some colleagues that meets once a month. I’ve also made up one-off “events” with friends like a GIF costume party via Zoom, an outdoor “Burger Battle” taste test, group movie showings, and a full-on at-home, red-carpet-attire Oscars viewing party – with commentary, of course. I know… that’s a lot. I once off-handedly said to my friend Maddy “What am I doing?” and she said “the most.” People energize me, David, I can’t help myself.
But it’s not simply about staying in touch. I have many great friends who I might not communicate with at all, for months on end or even a year; but when we do get back in contact with each other, it feels like no time has passed at all. Sometimes the energy that has already been built between us, from the experiences we’ve shared over time, is strong enough that it doesn’t seem to dim with time at all.
This Post is republished on Medium.
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