Are Male Friendships Different From Female Friendships? My wife Shasta Nelson is one of the leading friendship experts these days, especially in the realm of female friendships. Her book Friendships Don't Just Happen: The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends is one of the most complete and profound explanations and prescriptions of the multifaceted dimensions of healthy friendships - why it's important and how it can be developed and sustained in deep and meaningful ways.
As I've read her book and listened to her speak to multiple audiences, I've thought how much men need and crave this kind of friendship intimacy, too.
It's been a fascinating experience bringing this view up in conversations with men and women. Invariably, some people respond by saying that male friendship looks different and men approach relationships from a completely different standpoint, their needs simply are different - as one male expert puts it, men's friendships are more "shoulder to shoulder" compared to women's which are "face to face". Men bond over activities as compared to women who bond in conversation and self-disclosure.
For some reason, most likely a lot from my own personal experience as well as all my work as a coach and pastor with both genders, I've had a difficult time with that stereotypical and simplified depiction of male friendship. I reject the notion that men don't crave intimacy (which includes the need for honest and authentic self-disclosure and empathy) as much as women in our friendships.
When I have coaching conversations with men and create a safe space in which they can share their lives deeply and authentically, I'm finding that men are as fully capable, and in fact as sincerely interested, in full disclosure and admittance of the need for intimacy and honest sharing. They are craving the same kind of depth and closeness in their friendships as women do, but for the most part they're simply not getting it.
Latest Research on Men's Friendships: How the Shift Happens
Turns out, research is now showing this craving for depth and intimacy is absolutely true about men and their friendships. Men are in fact wired with not only this same desire but also the capability for the same kind of intimate, deep friendships.
According to a recent article in Salon ("American Men’s Hidden Crisis: They Need More Friends!") New York University psychologist Dr. Niobe Way studied and interviewed boys in each year of high school. What she found was fascinating.
Until the age of 15-16, all the boys she interviewed described their friendships with other boys using the same vocabulary as the girls used about their friendships:
"Younger boys spoke eloquently about their love for and dependence on their male friends. In fact, research shows that boys are just as likely as girls to disclose personal feelings to their same-sex friends and they are just as talented at being able to sense their friends’ emotional states."
Then something happened. From the age of 15-16 on (right at the same age that the suicide rate of boys increases to four times the rate of girls), the same boys talked about their guy friends far differently.
One of the boys described this shift the way almost all of those boys who were interviewed did:
When he was 15: "[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other."
But when the same boy was a senior in high school, notice the shift: "[My friend and I] we mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do."
Why the Shift Happens
So what is happening? As researchers are noting, as boys get older they are becoming conditioned to disassociate from what are often seen as more feminine qualities in order to be manly, macho, accepted in the male places of our world.
For example, why is it that sports coaches or military sergeants, in trying to motivate guys, call them "girls" -- as if somehow that demeaning use of a perfectly neutral term is suppose to inspire guys to be stronger, try harder, be more of a man?
So men learn early on to disassociate themselves from anything feminine--which unfortunately leads to a distancing from the experiences and expressions of need for intimacy, closeness, self disclosure, empathy, and other feelings. Which in turn serves to isolate them from developing meaningful and close friendships with other men.
But as research continually reveals, this disassociation is actually distancing us as men from our complete selves by cutting vital parts of ourselves out.
Tragic Consequences of This Shift
Here's the way Lisa Wade, in her Salon article, reflecting Dr. Niobe Way's significant research, describes the tragic outcome:
"So men are pressed — from the time they’re very young — to disassociate from everything feminine.This imperative is incredibly limiting for them. Paradoxically, it makes men feel good because of a social agreement that masculine things are better than feminine things, but it’s not the same thing as freedom. It’s restrictive and dehumanizing. It’s oppression all dressed up as awesomeness. And it is part of why men have a hard time being friends."
Two Things Men Need to ReShift and ReFocus On Who They Really Are
First, Men need positive male role models to show the power and transformational experience of intimate friendships with other men - friendships built around mutual self-disclosure, honesty, authenticity, empathy, caring for each other, and yes, sharing good times with each other, too. Male friendships are not an either/or proposition. It's both/and.
And Second, Men need to be given permission that it's not caving to a stereotypical feminine way of being by wanting and engaging in deeper, caring male friendships. Men need this permission from the women in their lives and from other men. The media isn't helping at all! So others need to step up and openly talk about what it means to be a male with all the multifaceted qualities men have inside them that need to be expressed and that contribute to building deep and lasting and meaningful friendships with other men.
Because the truth is, men are hardwired with a yin and yang of qualities: we are both "soft" and "hard" -- we crave strength and power, and we also long for warmth, intimacy, caring, and empathetic nurturing and sharing. Men have been cultured to neglect one for the sake of the other. But it's both/and.
And the sooner we men embrace this truth, the healthier we will be emotionally, mentally, physically, and relationally. We will be living in alignment with who we truly are. And that's always the place of greatest authentic power and well being.
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.