Men, Identity, and Friendships

Someone commented to me about a sentence from my “As the Deer Longs…” post: “For many men, our last experience of a really close male friend was in high school or college, although we may have many acquaintances.” She agreed that this seemed to be true and wondered why that might be.

It’s a great question. What first came to mind was C.S. Lewis’s chapter on philia (friendship) from The Four Loves. Commentators on this chapter have noted that C.S. Lewis’ description of friendship applies well to male friendships, of which he had many, but perhaps not so much to female friendships; not surprising, given his experience of being in almost exclusively male environments from the early death of his mother on. In the following, I have friendships between men in mind.

Lewis notes that an appropriate portrait of friendship would features two faces in profile looking at something else together – unlike romantic love, in which the two faces would gaze at each other. Friendship, he writes, arises as an unforeseen but delightful byproduct of a shared, intense interest. This is certainly true for men: e.g., I and an acquaintance both like hunting; or poker; or the Chicago Bears; or playing and singing 70s soft rock; or golf outings; or English literature; or Marvel comics; or Halo. We get together to do these activities or talk about what we’re a fan of. 95% of our time is focused on the common interest – but in the process, we start to get to know each other, in bits and pieces. We learn a bit about each other’s parents and siblings; a fair amount about each other’s spouses and children, and each other’s workplace and colleagues.

Dave Barry, the syndicated humor columnist, has a lot of great stuff regarding “how guys work”. In one column, he talks about how he, his wife, and another couple go camping. His wife and her friend spend the weekend catching up on each other’s lives, kids, hopes, dreams; at the end of the weekend, they’ve laughed and cried together and their bond is deeper and richer. Meanwhile, the most intimate moment shared between Dave and his friend is that his friend got to the Unseen Presence level of a video game the latter has just gotten into. Absolutely. I’ve gotten off the phone after an hour chat with a Chicago friend, Jim, and my wife Mary will ask: “So how are Beth and Will (Jim’s wife and son)?” “Um…the subject didn’t come up.” (Jim and I had instead been wrestling over some theological or political points.)

In contrast, my wife and her friend Nikki will get together and dive into emotional, meaningful topics without a preparatory pause. I call it their “Cone of Silence”: bombs could go off, archbishops can stop by and greet them (the latter actually happened at a church function), and their intense, female conversation would flow on uninterrupted. Both of them are energized afterwards; whereas most guys (myself included, and I’m a psychologist, into emotions, right?) would be exhausted by a fraction of their conversational depth. We don’t like to go to emotions very much, or for very long. Men’s faith-sharing groups I’ve been in take – literally – at least six weeks to scratch the surface of emotions women’s groups get to during their first meeting. When male friends do talk on a more emotional level, it actually can be very good and meaningful for both; something each will remember as a special and important experience. But it tends to be a window that opens briefly and then closes quickly. Even rarer but greatly valued is when male friends directly express their love and appreciation for one another – memorable for both, but an even briefer window.

One would think that men can’t have close friendships, then: friendships where there’s a deep love for the other; great enjoyment of the other’s company; really missing the other when they’re separated; thorough understanding of how the other works. Or that men’s friendships are necessarily not as deep as women’s. But that’s not the case. It’s quite mysterious, but very real. A men’s Bible group a friend and I started about 10 years ago is still going; one at my current parish has been going about 15 years. Very rarely have we talked on a deep emotional level, or shared much about personal crises or struggles. Much of the time, it’s the playful, affectionate giving each other a hard time that is a constant in men’s gatherings. The rest is talking about the Bible passage we’re studying, although wwe tend to go far afield on very loosely related topics. But we all get a great deal out of it: the groups keep going, and growing. We enjoy each other; a real bond has grown; we wouldn’t want to miss it. Within the group, one-on-one friendships have also developed.

All of that said, it is still easier for men to get together with other men in a group setting than to make the transition to one-on-one friendships. We do enjoy such things, when they happen to “happen”: that is, if there are guys we hang out with at work, or other baseball or soccer dads we get to know through coaching or attending our kids’ games, fine. And if our work or recreation throws us together one-on-one with someone we enjoy, and a friendship develops, that’s great.  But we hesitate to seek out a men’s group activity, still less individual friendships. Why is that?

External factors such as greater isolation from neighbors (for many reasons, we stay indoors a lot more now than 50 years ago, and our recreation isn’t neighborhood-centered) and increased transience certainly play a part. Yet women deal with these same factors and remain more socially connected. So the deeper reason has to do more with how men and women differ in their motivation for relationships.

Women’s sense of self-worth and contentment tend to be closely tied to the quality of their relationships, and how those they are connected with are doing. Men’s self-esteem and contentment are more related to how competent and respected we feel (at work and in other activities), as well as to how much recreational fun we can have. Our respective energies are therefore directed to what we value most. Women are often better at maintaining family and friendship ties even when geographical distance intervenes; women tend to seek out new friendships when they move; women feel more comfortable moving from the group to the individual level in friendships – because being connected helps them feel better. Men tend to be better at staying focused at work (compartmentalizing) regardless of issues outside of work; and we put effort into ensuring that peers and supervisors regard us as reliable, competent workers. We also like to keep an eye out for recreational opportunities: we like to have fun, and we know how to do so!

So for men, friendships are a pleasant but not central concern that we may pursue in our spare time – away from work. Often, by the time we’re finished with tasks at home and time with the spouse and kids, we’re tired. We may watch some TV, chat with our spouse, and then go to bed – to rise next morning to repeat the cycle. Our wives often have plenty of stuff for us to do at home, and with their emphasis on family relationships, they will expect (reasonably enough!) that we spend quality time with the family.

Because relationships are a priority for them, they will make the extra effort to have time with their friends during the week or on weekends. They may also pursue friendships with other couples: but often, the wives maintain bonds better outside of the couples get-togethers, so that the women are the glue holding the friendship between the couples together. But for men, friendship can get lost in the shuffle of our other priorities.

In a related vein, the woman who encouraged me to write about men’s friendships noted – and I have to agree – that wives, more than husbands, tend to be possessive of their spouses’ time. If the wife wants to get together with her friends, the husband is more likely to say, “Fine – have fun!” then is the wife in the reverse situation. The wife is more likely to ask for and be aware of a need for such time. And not being as relationally driven, the husband is unlikely to push for social time with his friends. He instead settles into socializing only with his wife, her family,  and couples who are more her friends. There may be a sense of something missing, and a nostalgia for the kind of buddies he had during his school, or the military, or at some friendly work setting – but he won’t feel it deeply enough to remedy the situation.

Often, a man’s wife is his only real confidante. This is a real loss, because however well-intentioned a wife, she can’t possibly know a man’s struggles from the inside out. And it’s more difficult to challenge him with the kind of bluntness-with-affection that a guy friend can employ. Men need male confidantes – and I don’t mean just therapists!

Men with good friends are simply happier then men without – and when I say “good”, I mean in terms of character as well as reliability in friendship. John Eldredge, in his marvelous, indispensable book on Christian manhood, Wild at Heart, notes that God places in every man’s heart the desire for a “band of brothers”. Eldredge uses the “fellowship” in The Lord of the Rings as a brilliant and stirring example of men (well – males, since it includes hobbits, a dwarf, and an Elf!) who share a quest and challenge each other to heroism and virtue, while thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and having a lot of fun. Men with male friends make better men – and incidentally, better sons, brothers, and husbands. I urge wives reading this to encourage their husbands in their friendships; to make sure that they have time to get together with “the boys”. We need it more than you know.

Recently, some friends and I started playing poker together monthly: it is totally irrational how much I look forward to that! We have a blast. Men have a deeply ingrained need to just have fun with other men – and the fun together bonds them. Once we experience it again – often years after our last good friend, in high school or college – it gives us a new lease on life.

For men reading this who are aware of a gap in the area of friendship: I urge you to get something started yourselves. The poker night referred to above got started when I felt envious of a client who had a regular group of buddies getting together for some (I don’t remember what) male bonding activity. It was great that the guys I approached for the poker night have been just as enthusiastic as I – as if they were just waiting for someone to get it started. So start it! If you’re on the shy side, get an outgoing buddy of yours to.

Jesus says to us, “I no longer call you slaves…but friends” (Jn 15:15). I wonder if that verse speaks even more poignantly to men than to women. Besides the special effects, humor, and adventure they feature (all great – watching “The Avengers” in Imax 3-D was practically a religious experience for my son and me!), movies like the Marvel comics series or “Saving Private Ryan” pull men in because of the friendship, sacrifice, and respect the heroes have for one another. We need to get that in real life, not just through Captain America. God made us that way.





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About admin

I am a Catholic clinical psychologist with a solo practice in Omaha, NE. In the Franciscan seminary, I completed about 2/3rd of an M.Div./MA in Scripture. In my 3rd year of temporary vows, I discerned a call to the married life. My lovely wife Mary and I have a son, Michael, as well as a number of children preceding us to Heaven through miscarriages. We are delighted to be in the Omaha archdiocese and love the Heartland.
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