The Challenges and Rewards of Male-on-Male Friendship

By Michele Willens

Adult men have long struggled to maintain meaningful bonds with other men—but that might be changing.

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My father and I were great pals, but I don't recall his ever discussing anything remotely personal with me. (Except when he told me to stop losing weight, and later to stop gaining it.) So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that he—in his mid-60s at the time—had co-started a men's group with about ten others. All successful in their fields, and secure in their marriages, they set out to meet once a month to discuss the stuff of life. Three decades later, a few have divorced and remarried and several (including my dad) have died, but the Tuesday Knights live on.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, my 19-year-old son works hard at maintaining his extremely close posse. Even while they are off at different colleges, these young men return home and pick up where they left off. Can this be sustained through marriages, careers, not to mention the aches and pains of aging? Are his kid-ships now the Tuesday Knights of the future?

"One reason why boys can stick together in a way men can't is that disparities in achievement haven't begun to make themselves felt," contends Neil, a friend who had a searing "break up" over how much money should be spent on a joint event with his former Ivy League classmate and best friend of 20 years.

It may be true that males, in their wonder years, are capable of true friendship, but squander that ability during the following decades of striving and stress—and that as a result, when the kids are gone, the professional peaks climbed, and the spouse's stories a bore, they are buddy-bereft. When my husband, for example, learns I can't go with him to a sporting event, he gets that deer-in-headlights look. "Who will I ask?" Now, if I have an extra ticket to something, I can easily pluck 20 names out of my contact list.

"It is true that men do not easily show intimacies and revelations of strong emotional responses," says New York psychiatrist Dr. Roger Gould. "It does not mean the relationships are not filled with trust, deep regard and respect, fun, and sometimes crisis support. Men relate to other men quite well, just not the same as women relate to other women."

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As I conduct my own informal polls, I find that many men—particularly the Boomer and beyond variety—are simply out of practice. Part of this is due to the fact that women are generally the social planners in the house, whether by choice or default.

"Men who do not have male friends often rely too much on their women and expect too much from them," says psychiatrist Dr. John Jacobs, who specializes in couples therapy. Meaning it is not good for the marriage, for starters, and may leave serious emptiness at some point. (Remember in I Love You, Man when the groom couldn't find a best man?) Historian-author Richard Reeves, whose wife of 33 years died this month, revealed on his website that, "I'm not sure I've made a decision without her since the day we married."

When men do get together, it is still often to watch sports, or, if their muscles haven't atrophied, to engage in them. But how often do they get past discussing Brady vs. Manning or the best drives of their day? "When my husband (64) comes back from a day of golfing with a bunch of guys, I ask him specific questions about the others," laughs Myra, a New York non-profit executive. "He will always say he has no idea. I say, 'Well, what did you talk about for five hours?' When I am with my girlfriends, we never stop talking and the curiosity is insatiable."

Yet, there are exceptions, and proof that as men reach a point where the past is longer than the future, they may be ready to go deeper. Television political reporter Jeff Greenfield is among a small group that has been meeting regularly for lunch for decades. (The late film critic Joel Siegel was also a member.) Although they have shared their ups and down, they have each enjoyed success in their fields, which include screenwriting and cosmetic surgery. "I think the lack of competitiveness helps, even if unconsciously," says Greenfield. Gore Vidal once said, "It's not enough that you succeed—your friends must fail.' This is cruel and I hope not really true, but it's probably good that we are not in similar professions. It makes it easy to genuinely root for each other."

Homeland star Mandy Patinkin is one of a few good men who have enjoyed monthly male dinners for many years. "It gave us a chosen family," says the actor. "We met through our then-young sons at a party and while guys in the other room were talking sports, we just had this amazing conversation and I said, "this is how women talk!'

The Father's Group, as they called themselves, was particularly important when one member grew ill and ultimately passed away. "After Mark died, the dinners became less regular and soon stopped altogether, unexpectedly," says Sherman. "Despite this, we are still there for each other."

One positive result of that group—unlike the norm—is that because of the men, the families grew close. Perhaps most important, it set the scene for the next generation. "When Mark died, our son had these immediate surrogate fathers and role models," says Kyle Good, the widow.

How we raise those sons is key to the kinds of friendships that will develop and endure. "I think the template for male bonding is set by late adolescence," says Dr. Jacobs. "And the template is probably based on their relationship with their father, and how they viewed their fathers' friendships." Both parents need to get with the program, but Dr. Olga Silverstein, author of The Courage To Raise Good Men claims there are still too many who feel "we will contaminate our boys with female qualities."

Even those who have excelled, or are becoming better at, male bonding, attest to the challenges, particularly in those decades between boyhood and retirement. "One could argue that pressures of work and family ought to increase the desire of men to seek advice from others," says Warren Sherman, who is part of the Father's Group. "But after spending years avoiding talking about personal matters—as most of us learned to filter our emotions, raised to believe that being sensitive was being weak—and without the skill set to engage in the process, why try when there are so many demands on our time?"

There are no hard statistics, obviously, on the subject, but things may be looking up for male friendships. According to an extensive survey commissioned late last year by Chivas Regal, the independent-minded 20th century has given way to the interconnected 21st. Even if men don't want to be touchy-feely in the flesh, they can communicate more often via Internet, The report—based on interviews with experts and academics—showed that while men are still much less active than women in social media, they tend to focus on a tight knit core of friends. The study also showed that some of the barriers to male friendships are coming down, including the assumption that two men doing anything together must be gay, and the fading stereotype of what makes a real man.

"Male identity in general has been changing," says therapist Dr. Vivian Diller. "They can now show warmth, care about each other, and be more vulnerable without losing their maleness."

The culture may be reflecting the gradual enhancement of, if not genuine male friendship specifically, at least the kind of man who is capable of it. TNT's Men of a Certain Age, starring Ray Romano, made a valiant attempt to portray contemporary men confiding in one another. Of the five Best Actor Oscar nominees this year, note that: Joaquin Phoenix is a broken war veteran; Denzel Washington a cocky, drug-addicted pilot; Bradley Cooper a rehabbed teacher trying to regain equilibrium; Hugh Jackman, a former prisoner who, at one point, is described as both "mother and father;" and Daniel Day Lewis as an icon who weeps with his wife and combines political savvy with a wounded soul.

Are our sons up to the challenge? Can they remain Old School in the cool ways of male camaraderie, and New Age in creating a better model? One positive sign is that they understand the benefits (not those kind) of having friends of the opposite sex. (Thank you, Friends and Seinfeld.) This may both soften them up when it comes to openness and sharing, and negate the pressure to find male companionship if, or when, they're left alone.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/the-challenges-and-rewards-of-male-on-male-friendship/267284/