The Secrets of Male Friendships

The nuts and bolts of male friendship.

By William Speed Weed from Reader's Digest | October 2005

“Man Date”
For much of the 20th century, most people believed that men were too out of touch with their feelings to make friends. True intimacy was for women and sissies. “There was a wholesale feminization of friendship,” explains Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at State University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of The Gendered Society.

For decades, sociologists used a female gauge to measure friendships: If two men didn’t talk on the phone every day and pour out their hearts, well, their friendship wasn’t as legitimate as that of two women who did. But now researchers are realizing that two laconic men may understand each other as well as two prolix women.

Still, men are sharing more. Clinton and Gore hugged each other when they heard their election results. Bush’s eyes welled up when he was sworn in. Tom Cruise gushed about love on national television. In April 2005, The New York Times used the phrase “man date” to describe the growing phenomenon of straight men having dinner, going to museums and doing other non-sports-related activities together.

“Men are emotional,” says Kimmel. “They disclose weakness and build trust.” They just don’t always do it the way women would. Male friends do more together but talk less than female friends. Yet that doesn’t make male friendship any less remarkable or important. Here’s an inside look.

Common Bonds
Male friendships can take root in “those transitional periods in our lives — becoming a father or a husband, getting a divorce, dealing with a parent dying,” says Robert Heasley, a sociologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who is doing a long-term study of male friendships. When two men meet while going through the same thing at the same time, there’s often an instant connection.

That happened with Larry Hirschberger and Gary Fine, both fathers from the Ithaca, New York, area. They had met once, because their wives had worked together, and they got separated within a year of each other, both keeping partial custody of their kids. Hirschberger sold his house, while Fine kept his. In what should be a Hollywood sitcom premise (“The Odd Couple” meets “The Brady Bunch”?), Hirschberger and his kids lived with Fine and his daughter — for nearly five years. “There was a lot of mutuality in what we were going through, and that formed our friendship,” Fine says. “We both wanted to be good fathers in a difficult time, so I’d be doing the dishes and he’d be in the other room reading to the kids. We supported each other that way really well.” Both men have since gotten remarried and moved into separate homes, but they’re still close friends, having bonded over a common emotional event in their lives.

Kimmel maintains it goes deeper than that: “Friendship is one of the major avenues of self-exploration” in life. We are wired to use our friends as mirrors for our own growth, so it’s no surprise that we reserve the special category of friendship for people who are like us, usually in age, temperament and curiosity.

Work would seem an obvious locale of common interest for men to form bonds, but “friendship requires exposing vulnerability, and that’s dangerous in a competitive environment like work,” notes Peter Nardi, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and editor of the book Men’s Friendships. While most guys are amiable at work, very few find their closest pals there, because they don’t develop the trust that friendship demands.

Trust has an age-old recipe, says Nardi: one part disclosure, one part reciprocity, one part intention.

Disclosure: In short, you have to open up, lay aside the public face you use for the toll taker and the grocery clerk, and let someone in. It can happen while doing things together that expose weakness, such as playing golf and hitting it into the rough. And it can happen when men assist each other, say, by letting a new acquaintance help fix the car or build a deck.

“Men are still taught not to expose their anxieties and that opening up emotionally is unmanly,” says Nardi, “so men find other ways to fill the same requirement of establishing trust.” Once the relationship is forged, many men will communicate their emotions to close friends. Like the four Yankees in the article “A Winning Friendship,” men often know one another’s deepest feelings through the efficient expression of a look or a nod — not by talking.

Reciprocity: If a friendship is to prosper, any vulnerability shown by one man has to be matched by the other in some fashion. I tell you about my father, and you share something about yours. I play racquetball with you, and you include me in your poker night. You do the dishes, and I’ll read to the kids. “Reciprocity is key at the beginning of a friendship,” notes Nardi. “You keep tabs on each other. But once trust is established, this becomes less important.”

Intention: Most people have had the experience of seeing promising friendships evaporate into thin air because no one bothered to commit to spending time together. It takes the dedication of scheduling that bike ride, that time at the diner, that afternoon tuning up the cars in somebody’s driveway. If new friends can schedule a standing commitment — to lunch, to tennis, to a monthly kayak trip — all the better. When all three ingredients are in place, a friendship is born.

Band of Brothers
It makes sense, then, that the military has long been the quintessential cradle of men’s friendships. War comes with built-in common interests (staying alive, being homesick). A soldier’s vulnerabilities are naturally exposed, whether he talks about his fears aloud or trusts that the guy next to him shares his trepidation, and his courage. Intentionality is taken care of, because, as every soldier knows, you sure see a lot of each other.

Take Drew McCreary and Tom Rice, both former Army reservists from Pensacola, Florida, who were called up in 1990 to fight the first Gulf War. They were both older soldiers assigned to a South Carolina unit, so they bonded over being outsiders in the group. When they were sent to Saudi Arabia, Rice says, “We were in a totally new world, dealing with officers we didn’t know, and we were going to war. We had to look after each other.”

They met in the mess after dinner, pretty much every night. “We’d have a cup of coffee or fill a sandbag together,” Rice remembers. “We had no idea how long we were going to be deployed. My daughter was a preteen, and Drew’s wife was raising their adopted children without his daily support and presence. Those conversations with Drew helped me, because I spent time worrying about him and his family, which meant that I had less time to worry about myself.”

The intense trust forged in the military has kept their friendship alive 15 years later. When they got back to the States, they made a point of meeting regularly. McCreary finally persuaded Rice to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant, and he became a partner in Rice’s Magnolia Grill, which still serves up good food in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.