In honor of Father’s Day and Men’s Health Month, I am delighted to share a snippet from a book I co-authored 26 years ago, Men in Therapy: The Challenge of Change (Guilford, 1990). Here is the introduction from a chapter on ‘Men and Friendship”. As you read this, remember the book was written in 1990. I am interested in your opinion about how much have things changed about men in friendship in the past 26 years.
In 1984 a colleague from Connecticut called me to collaborate on a presentation on men at an annual psychology meeting. He asked me to talk about “men and friendship” What follows is my account of what I learned while preparing for the workshop.
As an only child, friendship has always been particularly important to me. In fact, when I am frustrated or disappointed with friends, I feel that perhaps I place too much emphasis on friendship. So when I received a call three years ago from a friend, asking me to give a talk on men and friendship at a professional conference, I accepted with a familiar blend of excitement and trepidation. As a clinical psychologist with a strong interest in gender issues, I knew immediately it was a good topic for me professionally; as someone with a high need for companionship, however, it would also be an emotionally charged subject.
I began my research on the topic at a large, familiar bookstore in town. I quickly found the women’s studies section, which consisted of six long rows of books. I was unable to find the men’s section nearby, but it was apparent that women had written extensively on gender. I finally asked an employee where I could find the men’s section. He pointed to the stairs, until I explained I was not looking for the men’s room. He laughed and gestured to the middle of the store.
All I could find was a section on sexuality. Again I asked for help, and was politely told to look lower. Sure enough, there was one shelf devoted to men, beneath shelves labeled “Homosexuality” and Sexuality.” As I started to peruse the handful of titles, I felt uncomfortable because I was standing in front of a rather prominent sign with “Homosexuality” written on it. I realized the trip had already provided two discoveries about men and friendship. First, women have devoted more energy than men to the study of gender relationships (at least they have written more books on the topic). Second, a major obstacle in friendships between men is men’s discomfort with the topic of homosexuality.
I then decided merely reading more on the subject would be insufficient. My long dormant research voice told me it was time to do some serious inquiry into the topic. Oral research seemed most appropriate in the embryonic stage. It made sense to talk with male friends about friendship to give direction to a young project. I immediately thought of Rick, a good buddy from high school. But as I reached for the phone, it concerned me that Jeff had not called me in a long time, and I had called him last. This surfaced a third point about friendship between men: most men keep score in their relationships, including contacts made and received. Like a structured game, if you made too many advances without reciprocation, the other person would be perceived as winning – which, of course, must be avoided at all costs.
For the sake of research, I swallowed my pride and picked up the phone. As it rang, it occurred to me that, despite being friends for 25 years, we had never actually talked about our friendship. Would he feel comfortable discussing it? I explained that I was preparing a presentation for work – which allowed us to talk freely about our friendship – and exposed a fourth truth: men can discuss virtually any topic if it can be connected to their jobs. Still, I was buoyed by the pleasant and productive conversation with my old friend.
My enthusiasm for learning more about men was understandably dampened the next morning, when I read an article in the newspaper which suggested that males may not serve any genetic purpose to the species. It seems that the conventional view that males are necessary for genetic variation is being challenged. Even more disheartening, Canadian scientists discovered that males appear to have no evolutionary function whatsoever. However, they did admit that males may be an effective mechanism for the contagious spread of parasitic DNA. I confess that I was reluctant to include this information in my list of male truths.
To further my research (or perhaps reaffirm my unscientific belief that males do count for something), I decided to expand my interviews with men about their friendships with men. However, because I was too awkward to call friends up for this express purpose, I arranged a game of poker at my house. I figured that I could accomplish two missions at once: I could observe men at play, like an anthropologist; and over pizza I could facilitate an informal talk about friendship, like a true psychologist (or maybe a TV talk show host).
It was clear after the first hand, however, that the game was not going to be as congenial as I had hoped. When the first dealer dealt a card out of turn, one player threw his cards down, upset that the hand was misdealt. The competitive, serious tone never abated the entire night, despite the fact that it was only penny ante and a case of beer was consumed. We teased and drank, but were a long way from a discussion of friendship. This event revealed a few more truths about friendships between men: when men get together to socialize over an activity, the activity itself often eclipses the original intent of socializing; when men play a game, the rules are taken very seriously.
A couple days after the poker game, the National Collegiate basketball championship game aired, which provided another source of material for my presentation. I planned to videotape the commercials to examine how male friendships were portrayed on TV. A personal favorite features three men fishing and drinking beer, and closes with them around the campfire frying their catch, saying “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Unfortunately, that commercial was not aired that night, nor were any that showed men relating to other men. Without exception, the ads presented men who could only relate to objects, including watches, sports cars, golf clubs, and financial portfolios. Another truth emerged: we are told that if a man owns the desired object, he also gets the desired woman. It is somewhat disappointing – even alarming – that friendship between men on TV is limited to grown men leaping on each other after a touchdown.
With my homework done, I headed off to the workshop in Chicago. The day went splendidly well, and the audience seemed to genuinely enjoy my presentation. When I climbed back on the shuttle bus to the airport, I felt tired but excited and satisfied. As I tend to do, I found myself listening to the conversation of two men sitting behind me. I was surprised to hear them talking about building forts for their children, placing their families ahead of their jobs, and even planning to spend more time together as friends. My curiosity had to be slaked, so I turned around, introduced myself and told them how wonderful it was to hear men talking about families and friendship instead of work. They responded warmly, and explained that they were ministers who had been in town for a conference on the urban poor. Another truth stood up to greet me: all men cannot be stamped as competitive, uncaring, and friendless. This feeling was reinforced when my wife met me at the door, congratulated me, and told me that another good male friend had called to see how the talk had gone.
So what is your opinion about how things have changed with men over the past 26 years? Please share your thoughts.