Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: The male friendship crisis

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Sociologist Lisa Wade says that white heterosexual men have fewer friends than any other demographic.
Photo / Thinkstock
Sociologist Lisa Wade says that white heterosexual men have fewer friends than any other demographic. Photo / Thinkstock

When my little brother was a child, he and his best friend would amble about the playground chatting non-stop, their arms draped around each other's tiny shoulders. They were the textbook example of the platonic human "click" we all experience, hopefully, at some point in our lives. If we're lucky, more than once or twice. Friendship in its purest form: unselfconscious, gentle, and trusting.

When boys are small their friendships seem more gentle and warm. This tends to fade as they grow older.
Photo / Thinkstock
When boys are small their friendships seem more gentle and warm. This tends to fade as they grow older. Photo / Thinkstock

Fast forward ten years, and my brother's male friendships were unrecognisable. Like most teenage boys, they traveled around in packs, so he was never without physical proximity to his "mates". But the emotional proximity had all but gone. In its place was swagger, a protective bravado that saw his language and posture change immediately in their presence. The closeness I'd witnessed had dissipated, like mist.

Then I grew up, and had boyfriends, and noticed the same thing. Nothing as blatant as teenage bravado - these were men in their 20s and 30s - but even when they were close to their male friends, it was still just close-ish.

Plenty of hang-time, but very little - if any - emotional disclosure. Which, for someone like me (whose girlfriends have seen me crumple like a hysterical rag doll numerous times, and vice versa) appeared stifled and fulfilling. A blatant slap in the face of friendship's capacity to nurture and support.

A recent piece in Salon addresses this conundrum. Citing both her own and others' research on the topic, sociologist Lisa Wade says that white heterosexual men have fewer friends than any other demographic. This, despite their yearning for closer, more intimate platonic connections with other men:

"When I first began researching this topic I thought, surely this is too stereotypical to be true," she writes. "Or, if it is true, I wondered, perhaps the research is biased in favor of female-type friendships. In other words, maybe we're measuring male friendships with a female yardstick. It's possible that men don't want as many or the same kinds of friendships as women.

"But they do. When asked about what they desire from their friendships, men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy. And, just like women, their satisfaction with their friendships is strongly correlated with the level of self-disclosure. Moreover, when asked to describe what they mean by intimacy, men say the same thing as women: emotional support, disclosure and having someone to take care of them."

Deep friendship, she says, requires empathy, vulnerability and warmth: qualities that equate with girly-ness. Which equates with being lesser. So straight men tend to develop what friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif calls "shoulder-to-shoulder" friendships (doing things) in contrast to the "face-to-face" friendships (discussing things) typical of women.

As a result, "If a man does have a confidant, three-quarters of the time it's a woman, and there's a good chance she's his wife or girlfriend."

One thing Wade doesn't explore in her piece is homophobia, and the stigma men attach to "acting" or "appearing" gay/effeminate. This would explain why they're generally comfortable showing "girly" traits around their girlfriends and wives, but not other men - they're willing to let the macho mask slip because there's no need to prove their heterosexuality to their partner.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. And like so much of the social studies of note, Wade's is US-focussed. But I'd wager her conclusions resonate with a significant proportion of New Zealand women who have ever stopped to observe the nature of their partner's friendships.

Jill Goldson, a veteran Auckland-based relationships counselor, says she's often struck by her male clients' lack of emotional outlets:

"Generally speaking, they enjoy and value their male friends, but whilst they'll be there for each other at times of crisis, they tend to be 'there' in a different way from women: with the spare couch to sleep on, or a beer. They often tell me they don't really talk about 'feelings' with their friends. Rather, it's their mother, or a female relation of some sort.

"Some of the most poignant stories are from the men who could never get close to their fathers, because of the emotional distance they felt he imposed on him as a boy," she adds. "It's as though they learned the ground rules within the family and then kept replicating those 'norms'"

For many men, trying to get "closer" to their male friends would probably feel risky. It'd mean revealing the parts of them that are soft, unguarded and open. The very things they're taught it's not okay to be. And the very things that, even in small doses, take friendships deeper.

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