When discussing issues relating to men’s mental health, one area that isn’t touched on a great deal is male friendships. If you suffer from a mental health issue, having a support network can be key to your recovery. Your support network is made up of people who you can trust and rely on for help. Friendships are often key people in your support network. The problem with many modern male friendships, however, is that they are not so commonly characterized by the kind of openness exhibited in female friendships. We have forgotten the importance of the bromance.
As a man, you can have friends who you’ve known all your life, who you’ve shared your best life experiences with; yet when it comes down to hardship and personal issues, there isn’t so much sharing going on. It will be helpful to first examine the nature of male friendships in more detail and why they may not provide a man with what he desperately needs during a difficult time. This article will also look back at how male friendships used to be, as they weren’t always about men hiding their vulnerability and tender emotions.
The relationship between male friendships and men’s mental health should make us pause for thought. After all, one of the reasons that men face unique challenges with their mental health is that they often struggle to open up. If we can recognize that there is nothing inherently ‘male’ about this lack of openness (since male friendships have changed over time), then we can start to see what a more healthy friendship might look like. There is nothing lame about a bromance. In fact, a close, emotionally intimate relationship with a male friend is invaluable.
How Men Relate to Each Other
Men nowadays have a hard time forming deep, meaningful bonds with each other. Men tend to resist telling male friends about their emotional struggles, which can create a less intimate friendship. Furthermore, if a man does feel a deep connection to a male friend, he may hide these feelings of intimacy, for fear of how it may be perceived. Many men feel that open conversations and emotional intimacy are awkward, embarrassing, and inappropriate. Dr. Roger Gould, a psychiatrist based in New York, highlights:
“It is true that men do not easily show intimacies and revelations of strong emotional responses. It does not mean the relationships are not filled with trust, deep regard and respect, fun, and sometimes crisis support. Men relate to other men quite well, just not the same as women relate to other women.”
The psychiatrist Dr. John Jacobs points out how male friendships like this develop. He says:
“I think the template for male bonding is set by late adolescence. And the template is probably based on their relationship with their father, and how they viewed their fathers’ friendships.”
A man may have something to get off his chest and may intuitively think about how he should tell one of his male friends about it. But there are many thoughts that get in the way of this desire to be open and connected with another man. And these unproductive thoughts are borne out of notions of modern masculinity.
Modern Masculinity and Male Friendships
A lot of men feel they have to live up to certain standards of masculinity. Machismo, the sense of being ‘manly’, self-reliant, and tough, may contribute to a man’s level of confidence and self-esteem. So any behavior that is thought of running counter to his macho identity is stigmatized and repressed.
Men may view their mental health struggles as a sign of weakness. And for fear of appearing weak in front of their male friends, they will keep their pain bottled up. Male friends will often try to prove their bravado to each other and have fun with each other based on competitive feelings, dominance, and success. This may involve putting your friends down or mocking them in a light-hearted way.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with bonding in this way. It’s not necessarily mean-spirited. But if this way of interacting with male friends is the norm, it may prevent men from expressing themselves. As a man, you don’t want to be seen as struggling, as you may fear judgment from your friends that you’re unmanly, a failure, and unable to cope.
However, despite the fact that male friends may act macho around each other, this doesn’t mean that genuine pain will be used against you. It may feel incredibly difficult to open up to a close male friend about your personal issues, but once you do, bravado goes out the window and a real, heartfelt conversation can take place. It would be very unlikely for a male friend to not show any care about your struggles. And if a ‘friend’ did actually judge you for your vulnerability, this could throw into question how genuine the friendship really is – or perhaps indicate how uncomfortable he is about emotional expression.
Men also want to be seen as completely self-reliant, able to sort out all of their problems on their own by just ‘pushing through’, ‘dealing with it’, and ‘manning up’. Strongly identifying with self-reliance is another reason that men will feel cagey and hesitant about opening up. They believe it would be emasculating to be supported by another man, as this dynamic would prove who the real man is, the one who isn’t struggling and isn’t calling out for help or advice.
Male friends may also fail to form bromances with each other because this kind of friendship is often based on the expression of tender emotions. In order to create a deep, close bond with another man, you need to be honest about your feelings, talk to him in times of need, as well as be receptive to your friend’s emotional life. This requires compassion. However, the problem is that many men do not perceive the expression of compassion, kindness, care, and warmth as very macho. In fact, it is seen as effeminate.
The counselor Zach Rawlings emphasizes that the only two acceptable emotions a man can express are anger and apathy. So when male friends are talking to each other about personal issues, the true nature or extent of the problem can be masked by the limited emotional scope in which it is expressed. Being irritable, aggressive, angry, or apathetic may not communicate to a male friend how deeply hurt and sad you actually are. These restrictions in emotional expression can make it difficult to form a genuine bromance.
In addition, men can be put off forming bromances due to worries about being labeled ‘gay’. The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI) is a measure used by psychologists to figure out how closely men identify with masculine values, roles, and behaviors. And one of the 11 norms it outlines is disdain for homosexuals, which means that a sign of masculinity is the shaming or stigmatization of homosexuality. This is why boys and men will often use ‘gay’ as a slur, equating homosexuality with weakness, effeminacy, and unmanliness. So even though men may want to bond deeply with other men, masculine culture may unwittingly convince them that this is wrong or too embarrassing.
The Evolution of Male Friendships
Male friendships weren’t always so closed off and emotionally distant. Indeed, the history of traditional masculinity provides some useful insight into this discussion. For example, ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle spoke highly of platonic friendships, those loving relationships that involve an emotional connection without sexual intimacy. Ancient stories of ‘heroic friendships’ (e.g. David and Jonathan in the Bible, Achilles and Patroclus in the Illiad) idealized a relationship between men that is also based on intense emotions.
Emotionally deep friendships between men were the norm in the Western world for a long time. As a case in point, photos from the 19th century show American male friends being comfortable in their intimacy with each other. Affection and care between male friends were totally normal. Men could be physically intimate in a non-sexual way, holding hands, hugging, putting them arms around each other, and this was seen as a natural way of showing affection. It wasn’t a sign of any homosexual desires. Intense male friendships also existed in the 19th century because there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the sexes, not until marriage, at least. Men, therefore, sought out their need for physical affection and emotional bonding in other men.
So how did the nature of male relationships change so dramatically over time? Well, author E. Anthony Rotundo sheds some light on this shift in his fascinating book American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. He points out that in the 20th century, many politicians and religious leaders were arguing that homosexuality was incompatible with manhood. Then in the 50s, homosexuality became associated with communism, which was perceived as the greatest evil.
Over time, homophobia increased in the US. Men’s fear, prejudice, and hatred towards gay people made homophobia a masculine trait, with men constantly feeling pressured to prove their straightness and denounce any behavior that could be remotely perceived as homosexual in nature. Men in America started to lose their closeness. They were afraid that having intimate relationships with other men would lead people to judge or label them as being ‘gay’ or ‘queer’.
Rotund claims that the Industrial Revolution encouraged men to view each other as competitors, rather than potential friends. He also underlines that male friendships in the 20th century changed because men became increasingly mobile in the pursuit of work, which made it hard to settle down and form strong friendships with other men. Moreover, industrialization was accompanied by increased leisure time. And with their free time, men began playing more sports and engaging in more outdoor activities. Men’s relationships with each other then became centered on work and these leisurely pursuits, rather than based on emotional companionship.
The Tide is Turning
Men today who can bond well with other men, or who are trying to do so, can still find it challenging to form a bromance. With the pressures of work and family, you might expect men to seek advice from their male friends. But it’s hard to break old habits. Men have grown up avoiding talking about personal issues, so it takes a lot of effort and discomfort to get used to doing so. Modern men have learned to keep emotions hidden and can’t shake off the belief that sensitivity is a sign of weakness. Also, if a man is busy with his career and family life, it may seem like too much of a time commitment to work on emotional intelligence and find some bromance in his life.
However, we are seeing a change in the cultural narrative around male friendships. Interests in bromances have been reignited and they are starting to lose their negative connotations. The film I Love You, Man (2009), starring Paul Rudd (as Peter) and Jason Segal (as Sydney), tells the story of a fiancé trying to find a best man for his wedding. It’s a brilliant tale of bromance and it communicates the important value of close, male friendships. The psychologist Jeremy Clyman, notes:
“…on another level, this bromantic comedy astutely examines the nature of meaningful friendships, which, as it turns out, is a critical component of mental health. In our culture, the value of friendship is not appraised. It is either overlooked as a thing that falls by the wayside as one ages or dismissed as a hobby that one either does or does not enjoy. But we know from research that friendship is a significant buffer to mental illness. In fact, the presence of a single friend can make a world of difference.”
“In the end, we see that friendship has transformed Peter into a healthier version of himself. The friendship instills many facets of mental health: self-exploration (Sydney questions Peter’s motives for marriage), overcoming fears (Sydney increases Peter’s professional exposure as a real estate agent), finding balance (Peter’s sense of masculinity increases) and gaining self-efficacy (Peter learns that he can make friends).”
Indeed, men are increasingly appreciating the benefits of a bromance. And the changes in attitudes towards masculinity are helping to make it easier to form bromances. For example, a study published by University College London (UCL) show that a majority of men value loyalty and honesty more than being macho or having a stiff upper lip. Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done. There are many men who crave emotional bonding with their friends, yet feel held back in being able to achieve that.
It may be difficult for men to overcome the pressures of masculinity. But the tide does seem to be turning on this issue. Bromances are on the rise. And in terms of men’s mental health, this is a sign of progress. After all, openness and close friendships play a crucial role in protecting our well-being.