Our recent musings on men and friendship, prompted by a guy-trip to watch baseball in Arizona, sparked some provocative responses to our Public Insight Network query. Why, we wondered, does it seem hard for men to make new friends after they enter adulthood? Is that universal to the male experience, or is it changing with the times?
The range of viewpoints varied, but most agreed that men don’t seem to be as wired, encouraged or motivated as women to make intimate male friendships. We’re also talking with some experts on relationships and gender, and will get back to you with what we’ve learned. There’s growing evidence that friendship and health are linked. And of course there’s the reality the recent recession took its biggest told on men, leaving many of them unemployed and likely more stressed and isolated. For now, here’s some of what we’re hearing:
Professor Harry Mersmann, 51, a sociology professor who teaches gender and masculinity at Delta College in Stockton, CA, is adamant that sexual roles are behind much of the lack of intimacy in later life:
"Feelings (except anger) have been feminized in our culture and to be a ‘real man’ one is not supposed to feel. It’s hard to have friends without sharing, vulnerability, and openness, and these are all prohibited by hegemonic masculinity."
Work, the variable by which so many men define themselves, was one area where men respondents felt they could slowly build bonds over time. This from Don Moore, 60, a self-employed customer service representative in Portland:
"I have become very good friends with a couple of men I met through business, but the friendship[s] developed over an extended period of encounters. Spending some time in a working environment and over a series of casual interactions, we were able to gradually see that were some common traits of how we looked at the world."
Ronald Goetz, 57,a full-time blogger about the Bible from San Diego, said flat-out he’s given up on trying to make new men friends.
”I’ve only had three significant friendships with men [in my lifetime.] Interaction with women is more important to me than with men. It’s more emotionally rewarding, and that is at all ages.”
Some of what we heard echoed the old saw: men share activities, women share secrets. So male friendships seem to more often depend on shared mutual experiences that let men build trust over time. ”Trust is an issue, always,” wrote Michael Frank, a 65-year-old retired military veteran who now lives in Mebane, N.C.
"I have made and maintain several good male friends [I met] since age 25 because I spent my life in the military. … About 14 years ago I met a man who had also been in the military and we struck up a friendship almost immediately. Even though he is now living in England we are still friends, close to each other, and so are our families."
We heard from women, too. Here’s Susanne Twight-Alexander, retired in Eugene, Ore.:
"My first husband was very busy with his job and had little time or interest in building a social life that might arise in connection with projects he had out outside of his job. I think it’s harder for a man to make close friends. Women often start sharing quite personal things when they first meet. I know a man who thought that moving to a new neighborhood would mean instant [male] friendships in our cul-de-sac. It hasn’t happened. People are friendly but everyone pretty much already has their circle of friends.
"The older men I know who do care about the inner lives of other men generally care about the lives of men they have known for many years. Often this involves couples who have shared problems with their children, problems with illness, [and] financial problems, It’s hard to be concerned about the inner life of another [male] if you don’t have that history together."
Elizabeth Wright, 52, of Faribault, Minn., a graphic designer turned massage therapist, offered the thought that real life can intrude on friendships:
”Relationship building takes time, and by age 25 most men are deep into career-building. There is not much time left over to cultivate [male] friendships outside the family, unless they are with people/families on a similar career or family track. Family-centric activities took priority over male bonding with the exception of hunting season.”
And many we heard from posited that it leaves women to take responsibility for the social lives of “their” men. Here’s what Nancy Haffner, 42, a social worker from Minneapolis, told us:
"In my social circles, which consist of both men and women, it seems that only women make plans to do things together. If it were not for women the men wouldn’t do anything socially. My husband was raised with only women… and would like a strong network of male friends. But he is the only one who initiates contact. He says women talk about more meaningful things compared to men [and] that men are too competitive with each other – which divides rather than unites. My husband initiates offers to meet males for coffee but often they don’t respond. Men do not put socializing as a priority."
Do these stories reflect your experience with men and friendship? And what consequences does it have for individuals and the greater society? We’ll send along the thoughts of academic gender studies intellectuals and family therapists to hear their views of whether men, even in times of mid-to-late life loneliness or economic or emotional crisis, tend to keep their own counsel or rely on women to build support communities.
F. Scott Fitzgerald had his own take on the mid-life quandaries of men in “The Crack Up.” He described it as “the real dark night of the soul [where] it is always three o’ clock in the morning, day after day.”
(Neal Karlen. 3.30.2012)