Can Men Really Be Friends?



Competition, socialization against expressing emotion, fear of intimacy, not to mention busy social and professional lives—there seem to be a great many forces ranged against male friendship.

Looking through the racks of cards at Hallmark the other day, I came across the section labeled “Friendship.” Opening card after card I noticed an interesting but ultimately not very surprising thing—all the cards had women on them. Apparently no male, according to Hallmark, would consider sending a friendship card to a male friend.

This reminded me of my conversation with a neighbor and “friend” years ago, a psychologist. He was moving away and I mentioned that I would be in touch.

“No you won’t,” he said bluntly. “Haven’t you realized yet that men can’t be friends?”

This comment shocked me at the time and has lingered in my mind for years. I don’t want to accept its validity. Yet my own experience, and the frustration other men have shared with me concerning their search for friendship, compel me to take it seriously.

I’ve taught a “men and masculinity” freshman tutorial at Wabash for the past 10 years. Of course, we look at friendship. Some students say they have had one or two close male friends in their lives; others say they have not met that “best” friend yet.
Some say their best friends have been females because they feel more comfortable talking to girls.

The essays in our textbook reflect the difficulties men have sustaining intimate relationships of any kind. Explanations for this range from our being socialized to repress and question emotions to a deep-seated homophobia. That is, we are afraid to get too close to another man for fear that we may be labeled “feminine,” or worse, “gay.” Internally, some analysts believe, we may be avoiding friendship with men because such closeness might arouse disturbing feelings.

There seem to be a great many forces ranged against male friendship. Yet if we believe the messages of the mass media, there does not appear to be a problem. Buddy movies and television shows abound. Two of my favorites, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, teamed Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The Lethal Weapon series offered the cross-racial friendship of Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. On Seinfeld no doors, even in Manhattan, are locked against the sudden entrance of Kramer or George, who seem to have little else to do other than hang out with Jerry. Last year’s “Wazz up?” beer commercials even show a wide range of men calling buddies to ask their now famous question.

More realistically, this is apparently all they are able to say to each other. I know that in my half-century of life as an American male, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times I have called a male friend just to ask that simple question. Yet this media flurry of buddy messages may not bode so well for the state of male friendship. Many critics argue that popular culture is the embodiment of repressed societal desires—these TV shows, movies, and commercials reflect what men yearn for, but do not find, in their relationships with other men.

This raises the question of how I am defining male friendship. One of the essays we read in the freshman tutorial focuses on what the author believes is uniquely African American male friendship, a bond of brotherhood forged from shared experiences of oppression. The writer’s “brother” is always there to “cover his back.” They share a mutual understanding that need not be expressed in words. Since men in general are supposedly socialized to speak less and act more, this seems an appropriate kind of male friendship. I know instinctively that in an emergency my friends will be there for me, and I will be there for them.

While this knowledge feels good, emergencies, fortunately, do not occur every day, and it is more frequent contact with friends for which I feel the need. I want a friend I can talk to openly and comfortably; I want a friend that I can laugh but also cry with, someone with whom I can share the excitement I feel about an experience or accomplishment and believe they care.

Such descriptions sound like the friendship I have with my wife. But the one thing I learned from Robert Bly’s teachings in the late 80’s was that men tend to bring too much to their wives. We expect them to be lovers, co-parents, co-workers, economic partners, gym buddies—in short, more than is humanly possible for one person to be for another. This can put great stress on a marriage.

Perhaps because of this, in the mid-1980s, Kathy Frederick, wife of Wabash history professor Peter Frederick, urged him to find more male friends, and Peter, English professor Bert Stern, theater professor Jim Fisher, art professor Doug Calisch, and librarian John Swan formed a men’s group. I heard about the group and immediately wanted in.

Fifteen years have passed since we met, but I still believe that being a part of that group was one of the most important things I’ve done in my adult life. We met almost every Sunday morning of the school year, starting out at 7 a.m. with breakfast. Breakfast talk was always fun—college stuff, sports, our kids, our accomplishments. But then we moved to another, less public space, where the agenda was honest, revealing talk. For almost two hours we opened up and said what we felt. There was no therapist or leader present. We were all teachers who knew how to run group discussions, and part of what we explored was who was trying too hard to lead, and who was being passive. The male desire to assert power and remain in control became a conscious focus, something we realized we had to fight against so that we could get through to the important things contained beneath.

Our age differences turned out to play an important role. Bert and Peter, in their late 40s and early 50s, worked out brother/friend/father issues while the “younger” ones in our 30s dealt with brother conflicts amongst ourselves, as well as father/son issues with Bert and Peter. There were many very powerful emotional moments when we confronted each other more directly than we had ever confronted any other men. Several times I opened up on Bert for not being supportive of me to the extent I thought he should. At times Bert fought back; sometimes he just took it. Yet it felt incredibly liberating to actually express feelings to him that before I could not name.

Ultimately, I realized that most of what I was demanding of Bert I needed to demand of my own father. In fact, what I learned over the years was that these previously bottled-up feelings had kept me from dealing with my father much at all. We had been very close when I was a teenager, but we had grown apart. In 1986, the third year of the group, I felt clear enough to write a long letter to my father telling him how I felt about him. My mother later told me that it brought him to the rare point of tears.

One week after he received the letter, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I am convinced that because of the group and that letter, our last months together were much richer. We shared an intimacy at the end that we might never have experienced, and I was able to grieve for him, not haunted by words unspoken.

I’ve come to believe that, much the same way that our relationships with our mothers shape our later relationships with women, our relationships with our fathers determine how we feel about other men. My friendships had always been conflicted and confusing, replete with power struggles, competition in sports and over women, and fear of expressing honest feelings. Yet as we confronted each other every week in the group, I felt more and more comfortable being open and vulnerable in front of men—without having to be drunk or playing on the same side in basketball. Almost every session resulted in strong feelings being expressed by all of us with, amazing for a bunch of academics, a refreshing lack of intellectualizing. There were silences, shouts, tears, one or two angry wrestling matches and, yes, hugs. I strongly believe—and I think the work I’ve done over the past decade on violence supports this—that if men allow themselves to be verbally and physically open to each other more frequently the incidents of violence would be dramatically reduced and the quality of our friendships improved.

Since we stopped meeting as a group in the early 1990’s, I have not had any parallel experiences. I still have very strong feelings for everyone in the group, and we now connect in ways that at least recall our earlier time together, but things are certainly not the same. Bert has retired and moved east, and John, after being the first to leave the group because he changed jobs, contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease and died in 1994. We had a few meetings to deal with our feelings of loss, but I know each of us is still grieving for John.

Without the ritual of meeting and the rules of honest communication, my friendships have taken a back seat to my busy professional and family life.

One recent experience revealed to me that even the residual effects of the group have waned. I had become friendly with a neighbor because we were both into bicycling. For almost two years we would take longer and longer rides, often talking for hours on a range of topics, including personal ones. Then suddenly we stopped, for no reason I could decipher. Without the biking we rarely saw each other.

Last spring I found out from my neighbor’s wife that he had been fired from his job and had been at home for months. I imagined him sitting a few houses away with not much to do and no doubt feeling depressed while I went about my business in blissful ignorance. Had we remained in touch I could perhaps have comforted him to some extent and, at least, diminished some of his isolation. He clearly did not feel comfortable telling me about his situation. In the fall, he and his wife moved away.

This event made me fear that perhaps my psychologist acquaintance was right after all—men just can’t be friends. But his conclusion overstates the case. Men clearly can be friends, but in ways that frequently do not approach the ideal of friendship we carry around in our heads. The question is how to deal with the resulting sense of isolation and dissatisfaction, a sense on which the film Fight Club, incredibly popular among my students, clearly feeds. The solution that film cynically (and I hope satirically) suggests is a camaraderie of violence. Men can only get close by beating each other bloody.

I realize that the group my friends and I formed over 15 years ago may seem somewhat dated and artificial now. But left to our “natural,” or, I should say, socialized devices, most men will not connect to each other in any meaningful way. We are trained against it and require the help of our spouses, fraternities, wars, or sports to force us to acknowledge this very human need. Perhaps a version of our men’s group could be revived for the 21st century. For all I know, some may be operating “underground” at Wabash right now.

I’ve thought about writing this essay for a long time, but I actually didn’t begin writing it until after September 11, 2001. After the attack on the World Trade Center, I forced myself to read the stories about those killed that were printed each day on the last page of section two in The New York Times. Each story tried to catch something essential about the lost person, and I was struck by how often grief over a lost friend was the dominant theme. Rick Pitino, the basketball coach, had been a rather distant figure to me until I read that his brother-in-law and best friend had died in one of the towers. They had known each other since college, spoke almost daily, and the death of his friend devastated Pitino.

Story after story revealed the intensity of feeling that friendship evokes, feelings finally exposed, like the skeleton of the seemingly invincible towers. Apocalyptic events, illnesses, literature, and death can remind us that we all have these powerful needs that we ignore at great cost. What we do with this insight, despite the powerful social forces I’ve described above, is, in the end, up to each of us.

Rosenberg is professor of English at Wabash and the author of Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture.

Professor Rosenberg was honored as the 23rd LaFollette Lecturer last fall. Read “Something Prompted Me to Touch Him”: The Heart as the Matter in Literary Studies at WM Online: www.wabash.edu/magazine