What does it take to be a great leader in an era when the winds of global and local change are blowing in gale force, where the world is so interconnected that when you make a decision someone on the other side of the world is affected? Leadership has never been easy. There have always been challenges. But these days, the difficulties seem to be uniquely immense. Which means leadership isn't for the faint of heart. It's not just about competence and intelligence.
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.
"Remember Greg, other people's reactions to you say more about their story than about yours."
I've never forgotten that advice. I've certainly seen it to be true over and over again. And it's helped me stay focused and centered and grounded on my truth ... most of the time.
You need to remember this, too, whenever people choose to respond to you in judgmental or critical ways because you've done something or said something they disagree with or oppose. One of the lessons we learn in life is that people tend to see us through the lens of their own self concept. They actually are judging themselves vicariously through us.
We are often loved and admired for who people choose to think we are or need us to be rather than who we really are. And conversely, we are often rejected or snubbed not for who we really are but for who they see us to be and whether we've lived up or not to their projected image of us.
Either way, we are being responded to from their own personal needs not our own. It's a false self and image. They're not holding up an undistorted mirror for us to see ourselves as we really are. They're holding up a picture they've painted of us. And it's destructive to us if we base our self worth on an illusion.
I love the way Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it:
"Beauty or ugliness really is first of all in the eye of the beholder. Good people will mirror goodness in us, which is why we love them so much. Not-so-mature people will mirror their own unlived and confused life onto us, which is why they confuse and confound us so much, and why they are so hard to love." (p. 153)
For this reason, as Rohr emphasizes, it is a necessity for us to find at least one undistorted mirror that reveals our inner, deepest, and yes, divine image: a loving, honest friend to help ground us by how they see us in our truth and accept us for our truth.
A Spiritual Dimension of Friendship
This is truly one of the deep spiritual dimensions of friendship and human relationship. Healthy friendship holds a mirror in front of us so we can see ourselves undistorted, the way we truly are, who we really are. And that friend who holds the mirror for us says to us, "Whatever you see in this mirror, I love. I accept you the way you truly are---the real you, not some false image of you that either I or others might project, or even you might project on yourself. I love and accept You."
I have a friend just like that. He and I have been on our friendship journey for 15 years or so. We have talked on the phone or in person whenever we can be together almost every week of those 15 years. He has held the mirror in front of me through the highs and lows of my life, reminding me of who I really am, no matter how others have responded to me. That mirror has revealed some ugly things that I tend to shrink away from, as well as some beautiful things I'm drawn to. But through it all, he has loved, accepted, and affirmed me for who I really am beyond all the externals I and others tend to fixate on. And that has helped empower my own growth into the person I truly am and want to be.
Rohr makes the observation that
"it is only whose who respond to the real you, good or bad, that help you in the long run" (p. 153). This is the only kind of love that ever redeems.
That's why my friend Paul has been so empowering and transforming to me through all these years. Together, we have learned and practiced how to see each other through the lens of our deepest core truth. And this authentic sight has been instrumental in growing us both spiritually, relationally, and individually.
This is the way God has modeled friendship with us.
"Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us. Being totally received as we truly are is what we wait and long for all our lives. All we can do is receive and return the loving gaze of God every day, and afterwards we will be internally free and deeply happy at the same time. The One who knows all has no trouble including, accepting, and forgiving all. Soon we who are gazed upon so perfectly can pass on the same accepting gaze to all others who need it. There is no longer any question 'Does he or she deserve it?'" (Ibid., pp. 159-60)
My friend Paul continues to give God's gift of perfect receiving to me time and again. I hope I can do the same for him. After all, it's our deepest human longing and desire---to be loved, accepted, and perfectly received no matter what. Isn't it?
Are you that kind of friend to someone else? Do you have this kind of undistorted mirror in your own life? Is your view of God/the Universe one of perfect receiving of you, who you really are, with no judgment, only acceptance---that you belong here in this world in all of your authentic being---that you truly matter?
[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested! Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] Toni Morrison, writer and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote these words: "Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all."
"Thin" love. Interesting choice of word. What does the word "thin" imply about love? A kind of superficiality, shallow, no real depth - which could refer to insincere or incongruous or even forced.
Consider some of the ways we might manifest a thin love: saying we love but not really backing it up with appropriate action; giving conditionally (a quid pro quo approach - if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours); being manipulative rather than honest and straightforward (sort of a passive-aggressive strategy); refusing to ever take off the self-protective mask, to not risk being vulnerable and truly present; and the list goes on. Thin love.
But the context of Morrison's quotation adds another powerful dimension to the meaning. This statement comes from her tragic novel Beloved, the epic story of a fiercely defiant runaway slave woman named Sethe. The story is based on the true case of Margaret Garner, a renegade slave who tried to kill her children with abortions rather than allow them to be born and returned to the plantation from which she had escaped.
One of the run-aways Sethe meets, Paul D, considers Sethe's unconditional love "risky": "For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love." The far safer way was "to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one."
And it is this "weak love" that Paul D tells Sethe she must accept. When Paul D tells her love is "too thick," however, Sethe insists: "Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't no love at all."
Thin love plays it safe. Thick love takes a risk. Thin love worries about and protects itself. Thick love sacrifices everything for the other. Thin love is conservative. Thick love is freedom. Thin love controls. Thick love gives away. Thin love is afraid. Thick love is courageous.
I think of the phrase people often say, "Love is thicker than blood." What does that mean? It's often used in reference to being loved by someone who isn't necessarily your biological family but who loves with you a faithfulness and loyalty that you might not experience from blood family. Thick love. Someone who shows up for you no matter what, no strings attached. Someone who stands beside you through thick and thin. Someone who refuses to let you go, who has your back in every situation. Thick love. Feels good when you experience it, doesn't it?
This last weekend I had the privilege of flying to Portland and celebrating my prayer partner and best friend's 50th birthday. He invited 7 of his guy friends to spend two days together, sharing stories of our journey with him, giving advice for his next 50 years, celebrating the milestone of his life and how we each have enjoyed friendship with him. One of the things that struck me as I listened to all the guys share the meaningful parts of our experience with him and how his friendship had impacted each of us was the quality of "thick love" that manifested itself through the years. He had chosen to stand by each of us in meaningful and supportive ways, especially during the difficult and ominous times we each had gone through. Though others had forsaken us in our failures, he had stood by us and loved us and believed in us unconditionally. That "thick love" was one of the huge gifts we ended up sharing and expressing our gratitude to him for. I was reminded how important thick love is in building great friendships and relationships and how much we all hunger for this kind of love. It's one of the greatest gifts we can give to others!
I love the way this proverb puts it: "Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken." (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) Now that's thick love - the transforming effects of great friendship and relationships. You help the other when they fall (loving support), you keep the other "warm" (pay attention to physical and emotional needs in ways that mean something to that person), and you defend the other (have each other's backs in every way). Thick love so thick (like a triple-braided rope) that it can't be broken (solid, long term, committed).
Love is or it ain't. Being "thick" certainly isn't the easy way (you might get attacked in your personal support of the other, you might not get all your needs met, you put your own heart on the line at times, your caring might not always be appreciated or recognized, you risk loss, you make yourself vulnerable). But in the end, maybe it's the most fulfilling because it's the most congruent with the very nature of love (which of course is at the core of spirituality). The way we were meant to really love and be loved. It's the heart of divine love that is given to us unconditionally and extravagantly. Thick love. Toni Morrison is right: love is either thick or not love at all. So I'm voting for thick love. It's changed my life. And I want the love I give to others to be thick, too.