I reconnected a while ago with an old friend. We had drifted apart over the years, and have been on a path toward meeting again for several months. My schedule is so unpredictable that it can make meeting, or even returning a phone call at a convenient time, difficult. Especially during the warmer months my weekends are often taken up with weddings, rehearsals, and Baptisms. It’s more than that, though. The truth is that I have never been very good at maintaining friendships with men over time. I used to think that was based primarily in my unsatisfactory relationship with my father and secondarily in the fact that when I was struggling with my abuse history my straight male friends abandoned me because my circumstance made them uncomfortable. While those truths certainly are a factor in my friendship struggles I no longer believe they are the only factors – nor do I believe that there is something unique about my struggles with male friendships.
Men have a unique relationship with each other than changes and hopefully evolves over time. Prior to our entry into primary romantic relationships we are many things to each other – confidants, team mates, bar hoppers, women chasers, and partners in the frivolity that is adolescence and young adulthood. Then we fall headlong into the morass that is a romantic relationship in contemporary culture, begin trying to sort out what it means to be a friend and also have a partner, get embroiled in the competition that is a career – where it can be difficult to tell which of our male co-workers are our friends and which are waiting to for a chance to advance their careers at our expense, add children to the mix, and sweet Jesus we start to wonder how to grab five minutes to take a breath. Our primary relationships fall apart and as males we usually “lose custody” of the friends we had as a couple. We become a dangerous person in the minds of some of our partnered friends and relatives. In my own case a major rupture in my relationship with my brother occurred when I was dating my wife Erin and he asked me to leave her at home for a holiday gathering at his home because they hadn’t told their children about divorce yet. When we find another relationship the roller coaster starts over, now with the added complication of baggage from previous relationships.
Somehow, women manage all of this much better than men do. The usual explanation is that women are more nurturing and so better able to sustain relationship. I suspect that’s an over simplification that ignores the cultural influences on gender roles and relationships. Women tend to be more cooperative than competitive and our society not only encourages but also shapes boys to become competitive men – and then the work place exploits our competitive training. Men can change, often with the help of therapy, and there are exceptions to the norms for both men and women. As I got more in touch with my own feelings through therapy I became less and less willing to play the competition game and that was reflected in my evolving career path. In our culture that isn’t a quality that is particularly rewarded in males, either.
We need to educate our male children that, while there is a time and a place for competition, there are actually more times when cooperation is a far better choice. Consumer capitalism has all but convinced us that we cannot trust one another, that we are all threats to the other, and it often takes us a couple of decades to see though the lie – if we manage to do so at all. It shouldn’t have to take a life crisis, a health scare, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job to force us into realizing we need one another for support throughout life. It’s something I am going to teach my grandson, though I’ll probably wait until he’s out of diapers to start…