Three men, close friends, camping and hanging out

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‘He is always there to listen’: Friendships between young men are more than just beers and banter

Male friendships are often presented in the media and popular culture as relatively superficial, competitive and lacking in emotional depth. With this in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that some people seem to think men have a problem with friendships. While women may be especially quick to draw this conclusion, the idea exists in society as a whole.

Men, we are led to believe, either have low quality friendships, or not enough of them. They lean on women for intimacy, shying away from deep and real connections elsewhere. All of this supposedly increases their chances of loneliness, dysfunction and even suicide. But is this the whole story?

Although we know some men do struggle with friendships – indeed, some men have discussed having no male friends at all – such representations tell a selective, and, we would argue, ultimately inaccurate story of the relationships men build and sustain.

It’s true that men often relate to others differently than women. For example, they might talk less about their emotions. But if we look closely at the way men express themselves and connect to other people, we can begin to see the beating heart of male friendships that’s rarely acknowledged, and often dismissed.

While women may be more skilled at emotional expressions, not all of their conversations are helpful. Some female-to-female friendships can lack empathy and understanding, or the support expected of friends during life’s trials and tribulations.

By focusing on the relative lack of verbal expression to suggest that male friendships are not close, we risk limiting our understanding of what intimacy is. We then do not see how men demonstrate closeness less obviously, in coded ways, or even silently.

Humor is one example

Contrary to the notion that it’s used to “put up walls,” humor, such as the use of provocative nicknames, can promote a sense of closeness. Humor in the military, for instance, is used to express the hardships of the work and channel aggression, all the while creating a sense of togetherness.

Older, senior men getting together
The bromance is healthy for men of all ages. (© LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS – stock.adobe.com)

There’s an irony in the fact that talk between men which might be construed as offensive to an outside observer, instead can signify an emotional closeness that could only be established between good friends. As one participant in an Australian study of male insults said: “Maybe down the track you might become close enough and then you might start ripping into each other […] I think if people hear you talking like that to other blokes, then they definitely know you’re good mates.”

Resisting masculinity

Amid unspoken rules that men should be “macho” and not express weakness, it’s no wonder they sometimes struggle to open up emotionally.

But readings of male friendships as shallow assume that men are unable to negotiate the rules of masculinity. The truth is that regimes of masculinity are largely imposed on men, and they do their best to play the game, or subvert masculinity if they can.

Many men resist competitive masculinity enough to express vulnerabilities and create deep connections. Still, some men (especially “traditional” men) bury emotions so deeply that it can be hard for them to know what they feel, or even how to name their emotions. Feelings can become foreign, frightening territory, with the temptation to use alcohol and drugs to deal with them.

For some men, opening up and expressing vulnerability is not an option, or perhaps only becomes possible in certain contexts. Drinking is one such context. “Lads will only talk when there’s beer on board, you know, when the guard is down”, as one participant noted in a different study of communication in male friendship.

The risks of opening up include rejection and shaming. But emotional intimacy is possible even in the most unlikely situations, such as stag parties, where emotional expressions of male-to-male love are common (for example, during speeches), and are not scorned.

Why bromances are healthy

Despite simplistic depictions of men, male friendships are diverse and evolving. Hysteria around homosexuality has undergone a long decline over the decades, and the threat of the gay label no longer instils such panic in young men who dare to express sensitivity and seek intimacy with other men, sexual or non-sexual.

No phenomenon illustrates this better than the rise of the “bromance.” The term may have emerged from skateboarding in the 1990s, when heterosexual men commonly shared hotel rooms while on tour. The idea of this strong male-to-male bond has even been given a nod in popular culture, with films like I Love You, Man.

neighbors friends black white men
(Credit: William Fortunato from Pexels)

Bromances can offer a high level of intimacy and support. Young men talk about how their bromances are on another level to friendships in terms of trust, expression of vulnerability and physical affection.

One participant in a study of bromances noted: “I hug him and kiss him and tell him I love him.” Another said a bromance involves “someone you can share secrets and pain with, and love, but there is no sort of sexual attraction”. A third stated: “It doesn’t matter what you tell him, he is always there to listen.”

‘Leveling up’ male friendships

Research shows younger men are engaging in close male friendships and expressing their feelings like never before. They are adept at negotiating the rules of masculinity. They will open up to others in safe contexts – although not all men have these safe spaces.

We believe creating more of these safe zones for young men is key. For example, it seems that by encouraging men to do activities side by side, or that have a “purpose” (such as volunteering or attending men’s sheds to create things), male bonding and important conversations naturally emerge.

Although there are concerns that some online activities and forums can be dangerous (for example, potentially increasing the risk of recruitment into online misogyny groups), anonymous online discussion forums can help men connect and express themselves about the things that matter without fear of judgement.

And with the caveat that alcohol has obvious problems, if men are going to drink then doing so with friends may not be the worst way of encouraging emotional connections.The Conversation

Article written by Damien Ridge, Professor of Health Studies, University of Westminster and Alex Broom, Professor of Sociology & Director, Sydney Centre for Healthy Societies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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8 Comments

  1. Steven M Wright says:

    I think my testosterone level dropped just from having read that.

  2. David Smalley says:

    Close relationships between men have been around for all of history. This is not a new finding. Though most of the bonding was through combat and strife. Lincoln had a very close friend to confide in when he was very depressed. You can find many examples throughout history. And they mostly were platonic.

  3. William says:

    It’s interesting that men and women are different and yet the same metrics are used.
    I’m male, I’m not going to whinge and complain to my friends. Women do that. On other hand if I ask my friends for help moving they will show up and work hard to help me. Most women wont, in my experience.
    Women talk and men do. Different metric.

  4. Rowdy says:

    The rise of bromances seems to be correlated with the well-documented decline in testosterone levels since the 1970s. Maybe males are evolving into females.

  5. Robert Steinbock says:

    Interesting article. I am 61 and have had lots of good male friends in my life. More exploration of male relationships with men would be a good thing. Just a couple of observances from my life:
    1. The Christian church I was involved with did encourage men to be strong leaders in their communities, their marriages, at work, or wherever they were. We worshipped together and played sports together, had our families involved. Most had a fewer amount of very close friends and we could openly share about our struggles and successes, obviously we didn’t feel we were perfect and could correct each other. Again, more could be said, but I am doing this off the cuff.
    2. As heterosexual, I think other men like me can be honest about things with each other we don’t want to tell woman. Even though I have had a long term, 39 year, marriage with my best friend, there are things she doesn’t understand, that I can convey to my male trusted friends.
    3. Since we are not interested in sex with each other, we don’t have to protect feeling or issues which would interfere with our female partners. Sounds shallow, but I am just being honest.
    4. Some men lean more on women, that is fine. I confess things to my wife, that I don’t want to share with men either. I think it’s good to have good relationships with both men and women. I also have many female friends, but they are more surfaced to protect my primary marriage relationship.
    5. I am writing as a heterosexual, as I am sure other may have different perspectives.

  6. Howard Wilder says:

    Wow. Who would’ve known? I mean I’m 67 and still have a couple of childhood friends that I’ve been BSing with for close to sixty years… Guess I’d better call them up and break the news… “Dudes, I’m really sorry, but we’ve been ‘bromancing’ all these decades.” Why chick-ify everything? So, basically, any close friendship between guys is a ‘Bromance’? You just know a White Liberal College-Educated woman (you know the type) is behind the word and it’s concept. I’ve never heard any working class ladies use it. My wife thought it was hysterically funny…. “Bromance? Seriously? Geez, who comes up with this stuff?” Another passive-aggressive shot across the bow in the Culture War… I’m calling BS.

  7. Marty says:

    The title of the article(‘Young men engaging in close friendships, expressing feelings like never before’) would leave one to believe that a “Study” on the subject was accomplished, yet no where in the article does it reference such a study. This is simply the writers perception that “Bromances” are proliferating without proof. So I will say “‘Young men are not engaging in close friendships, and not expressing feelings like never before” ……fake news and disturbing fake news at that.

  8. Robert says:

    Im a 70 year old heterosexual male who does not look his age with who met a 56 year old heterosexual man and found out through our evenings together that he had been in a 27 year old marriage and his wife had never given him oral. I have a nice body and dont look my age at all and I train 3 days/ week. My friend is a good looking man with a great body. As we became closer , nights by the fire, red wine and beautiful Chris Botti jazz music I thougth this man and I have so much in common it felt like no male friendship I had ever had. I have been married twice, i have 5 children and 9 grandchildren. He has 2 sons and two grandchildren. Then one evening when he came over i could tell he was distraught over an arguement he had had with his wife. After a few hours of wine and music he decided to return home and as he left he looked at me and said ,”I Love You”. He caught me off guard and I said I Love you to. It really turned my world up side down. I knew I Loved my beautiful wife of 28 years and it scared the hell out of me i could have this feeling for a man. I had never touched a man before and still haven’t but we do love each other
    and its awesome to have such a close friend you can tell anything to , listen to romantic music with and share life with. Its like no other relationship I’ve ever had . Then I was listening to the news about a new survey done on bromances and realized thats what we have. There is a lot more to tell but no sex will ever happen.
    He is now trying to rekindle his marriage
    and i hope they reconcile because i want him to be happy. He is committed and is one of the finest men i have ever know, he makes me want to be a better person.