When I was growing up, my mother sometimes went to dinner or social events with her female friends. And my parents frequently had other couples over for an evening of homemade pizza and pinochle. But try as I might, I cannot remember my dad having a really close guy friend with whom he’d hang out or in whom he'd confide.
I have lots of female friends, though I’m not as sociable as I probably should be. At the end of a workday, I’m apt to prefer home to outings and, if I go out, most of the time it is with my spouse or my kids or my siblings.
My husband has male friends at work, but they seldom socialize outside of work.
I’ve been thinking about friendships a lot recently — and in a kind of “what’s in it for me” vein that’s not as selfish as it sounds. I just finished a writing project on how to age well that looked at old people and community. One of the most striking — and sobering — facts that emerged repeatedly is the need for friends and social activities. It’s particularly important when you’re old, but it matters throughout life. It’s not something that starts happening in your old age. It’s a behavior that must be developed and nurtured earlier so that it’s just part of who you are as you grow old, if you hope to thrive as the years add up.
Males of all ages may be at a disadvantage when it comes to the benefits of friendships. While young boys pal around and play on sports teams and confide in each other, by the time they are adults they tend to hang out with a male friend much less often and, for some, hardly at all.
Experts suggest a lot of reasons for that. Wives and girlfriends may be demanding or jealous or simply fill the companionship niche that “the guys” used to occupy. Life becomes much busier as teenage boys turn into men who enter the workforce over time and try to balance other demands like romance and family obligations.
What's lost, for males, can be profound. Niobe Way, who teaches applied psychology at New York University and is author of the book “Deep Secrets — Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” just wrote on the Child and Family Blog about the loss of male friendships: “Yet something happened as the boys reached middle to late adolescence. When asked how his friendships had changed since he was younger, Justin, who spoke so eloquently about the love he had for his best friend when he was 15, said at 18: ‘It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends and then general friends become acquaintances.’”
The blog is a partnership between University of Cambridge, the Jacobs Foundation (which researches what makes kids thrive) and Princeton University. It offers an international look at childhood done well and the consequences when it’s done poorly.
Way's research found that a large part of that pulling back from male friendships is probably related to cultural messages about sexuality and gender and expectations. Our culture seems to demand males be a certain way and pass judgments on male friendships. The result is bad, she says, boys growing into “autonomous, emotionally stoic and isolated men.”
My dad wasn’t stoic or emotionally unavailable. But I’ve watched the joy that male friendships bring. It’s a joy that spills past the men into all their relationships, so their wives and kids and others benefit. Guys with buddies are happier, and that impacts everyone who cares about them.
I wish my dad had had more close male friendships. I wish that, in fact, for all the guys. It matters.