The Real Reason Men Struggle With Friendship
Making friends is something we learn how to do when we’re still in diapers. So why are grown men so bad at it?
Men befriending men — it sounds like a simple endeavor, but after 200,000 years on the planet, it is still often a cold war, wherein neither side will extend themselves for fear of appearing emotionally needy. This is an obvious problem for anyone who wants more friends. But it ends up being a problem for all of us.
“People with friendships live longer, happier, and healthier lives,” says Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and one of the foremost experts on friendship or, more precisely, horizontal relationships (relationships where both sides have roughly equal status). Greif has written about every conceivable relationship pairing — couple friends, siblings, in-laws, and, in his 2008 book Buddy System, male friends.
So what advice does he have for men in America in the 21st century? Go out and make more friends, right?
In speaking with Greif, you come to learn that quantity of friendship matters to a point, but so does the way men think about friendships, what they do with their friends, and how they grow their sense of masculinity to square love and camaraderie, risk and empathy. Friendship is fun, sure. But it can also make life worth living for you and yours and everyone you know.
It’s a profound idea, one that makes Greif’s words and sentiments worth lingering on. Here, he helps walk us through how men can make friends, how men can get beyond the limitations set by masculine “norms” in those friendships, and why a little shared salt goes a long long way.
What makes male friendships different from other types of friendships?
Men tend to construct friendships in shoulder-to-shoulder ways, and women tend to construct them in face-to-face ways. You and I, if we’re typical men, we’ll get together and do something: We’ll meet to watch sports; we’ll play sports; we’ll have some activity. Women might get together and talk face to face and are not as much in need as having the third part of a triangle. It’s important for men who wish to establish friendships to get an idea of what the topography of these friendships is and how to make friends.
We need to believe we can make good friends now. Maybe they didn’t know me when I was 15, but they’ll know me when I’m 80.
For example, if you try and make a friend too quickly face to face, and the other guy feels more comfortable getting together with you and doing something ... it’s more likely to be successful if you both have the same expectations.
So what factors predispose some men to have many friends, and why is it harder for some guys to develop deep friendships?
It’s a combination of factors; some of it is the luck of your upbringing. If you’re raised in a home where your parents are actively engaged, always have people coming in and out of the house, and they tell you about the value of friends, you’re going to have a very different experience than if you’re growing up being raised by parents who tend to be isolated, untrusting of others, and socially awkward. Whether or not that accounts for 5% or 95% of what happens to you as an adult is up for grabs. You know about the nature/nurture piece of life, and there’s also luck.
You might go to a college or high school where you can’t find people in your orb to connect with, but there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re looking for friends, but it just doesn’t happen. Or you get a job, and now you’re working at home, hoping to get a job where you could meet people. Or traveling along the lifespan, you partner with somebody, and they tend to be more or less social. Or you want to have children, and you don’t meet people through kids, or you meet certain people after you have kids. There are various developmental milestones or opportunities to meet people that maybe grow out somewhat, to some extent, out of your own nature. Maybe you’re socially awkward or outgoing, which matches how you were raised.
Men don’t want to appear emotionally needy. A certain amount of machismo goes into some of these friendships. You tend to be friends with people at your same level of “masculinity.”
There are a lot of large factors to think about in how people make friends. We bought a house 30 years ago on a cul-de-sac, hoping that there would be a lot of families with young children around. There weren’t, so that was sort of one opportunity that we could not use for our kids and us, and that was why? We were the first ones into the cul-de-sac, and the other three families didn’t happen to have children that matched up with ours, so we didn’t spend as much time running in and out of each other’s homes. That’s just luck.
If people fall into isolation for those reasons, it seems harder to dive back into a healthy social life. How can one start to make friends again?
It might be harder, but hopefully, one will think about what to do in order to try and grow new friendships. In my research, I found that a number of men believed you could only be friends with people you’ve known for a very long time, from childhood. Aristotle says you must be friends with somebody for a long time. A lot of people think if they had happy childhoods, and they made great friends, that those are their friends for life.
I’m trying to peel that onion and say no. If my friends have died or moved to Florida and I’m in upstate New York, I need to believe I can make good friends now. Maybe they didn’t know me when I was 15, but they’ll know me when I’m 80, and I need to be present for them and not close off the possibility of making meaningful friends right now.
Your last response reminds me of my own friendships. I’m still friends with a group of guys I met when I was 15, even though we don’t have much in common anymore. We’re almost like extended family. I think it’s because we have been in so many risky situations together and have helped each other through those.
Well, it’s interesting. Aristotle says that one of the components of making a friend is to have shared salt, and he doesn’t mean by that to have eaten a meal; he means that you went through a tough time together. If you and I had served in Vietnam or Afghanistan together, and we were hunkered down together, we would’ve shared salt, and you and I would be locked into each other for life. Twenty years later, I call you up at four in the morning, and I say, “Mike, I need you here,” you’d hop in your car and come.
Likewise, let’s say you have a child, and I have a child, and they both are experiencing extreme problems. We meet in the rehab center, in the hospital, on the playing field for kids with X; you and I might then be sharing salt around the difficulties of our kids. There are various ways that people get close, and sometimes it’s having shared hardship.
Speaking of saltiness, I’m curious about the role of teasing. Some of the closest male relationships seem to be the most brutal, in terms of the teasing. What role does ball-busting and sh*t-talking between friends play?
Some of it has to do with what underpins some men, more so 10 years ago than today. Today there’s greater acceptance, according to the Pew Research Center and other studies, of being gay. The fear of a straight man with a gay friend is nowhere near as much as it was. People are not as afraid of people that are gay as they once were, according to research. I’ve written about this a whole bunch.
Another part of what happens with friendships is that men don’t want to appear emotionally needy. A certain amount of machismo goes into some of these friendships. You tend to be friends with people at your same level of “masculinity.” There are men I interviewed who talked about not wanting to pursue a man for a friendship too much, so they will sort of approach a guy and then back off.
Now, to get from there to teasing, how do men show affection for each other? How do men show that they’re wired into each other, but they don’t want to express it in an affront way? They sometimes can relate to each other through teasing. Teasing is often personal. Rather than make a positive statement, which might come across as too emotionally expressive, I’ll channel it into teasing. It’s a way of connecting with you in more of a macho way, even though some teasing is cruel. You never hit below the belt with your partner or your friends, but it’s a way of staying related but not coming on too strong or too emotionally connected. That’s my view of it.
So teasing is more palatable than earnest affection. The danger is that by coming on too strong or emotionally connected, people will think you're emotionally needy or gay; you’re saying that people used to be more afraid of that than they are now.
Right. Or they don’t want to hang out with somebody who’s also too emotionally needy; they’ve got their wife or partner for that. Say my female partner is asking for a lot of emotional stuff, and I may want to escape that and hang out with you and just watch the game and not have to deal with you. A lot of men, you start to talk about feelings, and they’ll make a joke about it, or they’ll back away from it, or they’ll change the subject at some point. If you’re feeling like your wife is always emotionally pulling on you and asking you, “Come on, share your feelings, open up more,” and then you get with a guy, you’ll think, “Why do I have to deal with this guy? I have to deal with it at home.”
Do you have an example from your own personal experience of a close friend you’ve made in middle age or later?
I met somebody through work who was my age, and we were sort of in the same spot at the university. He came back to work there, and we weren’t especially close when he was first there and I was there because our lives were at different points, but now we are back at similar points and are good friends, I’d say. More about opportunity and where we are at work in relation to others.
Friendships can also help you stay physically, intellectually, and emotionally engaged more than living an isolated life.
That’s another interesting factor: What role does status play?
Now you’re back to Aristotle. Another point that Aristotle makes is that you can only be friends with a peer. I’m at the University of Maryland. I’m not close friends with the president of the university, and I’m not friends with the guy who is outside now cutting my lawn. There’s too much of a power differential. According to Aristotle, you tend to be friends with people at the same level.
Can you take a step back and remind us why friendships are so important?
Large panel studies showed that people with friendships live longer, happier, and healthier lives because they have a greater social network. Whether that applies to any one particular man is hard to say, but in general, the larger your social network, the more engaged you are, and the more chances you have to have people observe you and say, “Hey, did you know you’ve got a mole on your back?” Or “Gee, I went for a colonoscopy, which isn’t so bad. Every 10 years, if you’re under 60, you should go ahead and do that.”
Friendships can also help you stay physically, intellectually, and emotionally engaged more than living an isolated life. Again, this does not apply to everybody, I did interview one man who said all he needed was one friend. I’m saying, “OK, if that’s what you believe you need.” In general, people do better, according to all the major research, when they have large social networks. That’s the benefit of having friends.
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