Ed note: This story was originally published in the May 2007 issue of Best Life.
Something feels awry.
You work 50 to 60-hour weeks. On weekends, you shuttle the kids to their sports practices and playdates. On Saturday nights, if you’re lucky, you get a sitter so that you and your significant other can engage in that ritual meant to keep things zesty—”date night”—but at times you long for another type of date. Perhaps, during those rare moments you have for reflection, when your fingers are not working your iPhone as you sit in commuter traffic, you think about how your social life has changed (or evaporated) since you were a swinging post-collegiate, sharing a loft, say, with three close friends.
If so, you’re like millions of other men with enough mileage behind them to look with nostalgia upon The Life, the single life in which you were surrounded by men and dedicated, it seemed, almost entirely to a sworn allegiance to the pursuit of adventure and debauchery. Perhaps you’re like Rich Price, a reader from Chicago, who wrote Best Life about the phenomenon of men and their vanishing friendships. He mentioned bygone days when a group of his male friends seemed to have a “consistent investment in one another’s lives,” and about the numerous times he has wanted to reach for the phone to call one of his old roommates to say hi or “Hey, want to get tickets to the game next month?” But friends seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. “Guys have moved, married—one of us is going through a messy divorce,” wrote Price. “It seems like we are all engrossed in our own individual futures.”
Like many guys soldiering through their lives, fulfilling the obligations of adulthood, Rich has awakened to the loneliness of the American male in his mid-thirties to early fifties.
Us? Lonely? With the wife and the kids and the parents and the jokesters at the office and the never having a moment to think? Well, yes. That’s what experts who study these matters say. In June 2006, sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona, for instance, provided the most recent statistical analysis of the problem. Their report, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades,” announced, among other things, that the number of friends with whom Americans discuss important matters has shrunk as much as 33 percent over a span of nearly 20 years. This problem is particularly acute for young, educated men, who have lost an above-average number of “discussion partners”—down from 3.5 in 1985 to 2.0 in 2004—according to the study. Friendship, the report suggests, has taken a serious dive across the culture, and guys like us in particular are shedding companionship faster than anyone else.
Men who have been managing their careers for years but who find themselves, midstream, feeling bereft of the kind of friendships they once had seem to have made four critical life mistakes, according to experts. The first and biggest problem involves time constraints, according to sociologist Theodore F. Cohen, professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, who has studied men’s friendship networks. “Friendship ties,” Cohen writes in the discussion of one study, “seemed always to rank behind both marriage and parenthood in terms of the salience and legitimacy of their claims on one’s time.” Add to the mix the time pressures of one’s career and you can see how male friendships can slowly start to vanish. One study, “The Overworked American Family,” conducted by Michael Hout, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Caroline Hanley, Ph.D., a visiting professor of sociology at the College of William and Mary, looked at data from 1968 to 2001. They estimated that “families have added 10 to 29 hours a week to their hours working outside the home.”
This increase, writes Miller McPherson, a University of Arizona sociologist and coauthor of the study “Social Isolation in America,” has been “the most dramatic among middle-aged, better-educated, higher-income families.” Time constraints loom large, according to University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry A. Jacobs, author of The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality. “Professional and managerial men very likely put in longer hours than their fathers did,” says Jacobs. “If you take the proportion of men working more than 50 to 60 hours a week, and add commuting time to that, those numbers are substantially higher for this generation than for the previous generation.” As a result, successful men with families have less time to spend on themselves or their friends—a minuscule 1.3 hours a day, according to the Families and Work Institute’s latest “National Study of the Changing Workforce.”
The second problem is a little more insidious and involves the way men tend to forsake their male friends and elect their wives or girlfriends as their new and primary best friends in their social worlds. Call it the Yoko Ono effect. You’ve heard it before, say, during a bridegroom’s toast to his new wife. “And most important [emotive pause], she’s my best friend.” [Applause.] One of the strongest findings in the “Social Isolation in America” study was about friendship networks: “Core confidants surrounding the typical American,” say the authors, “have become smaller and more centered on the close ties of the spouse/partner.” In a different poll that asked men to answer the question “Who is a man’s best friend?” 90 percent of American male respondents replied “Wives.” But the Yoko Ono effect “places tremendous pressure upon women,” according to John Guarnaschelli, a New York City therapist specializing in men’s issues. “It’s not something that women alone should be called upon to fulfill.” And, as sociologist Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, explains, the wife-as-best-friend model is a cultural anomaly, a foreign and even nonsensical idea to a great many cultures around the world, and one that places a tremendous burden upon the marriage relationship. “In modern America, a person’s significant other has now become practically the sole person with whom he or she can be intimate,” writes Williams.
“For many couples, this is too much to ask of the relationship, as the significant other is expected simultaneously to be sexual playmate, economic partner, kinship system, best friend, and everything else.”
Following hard upon this is problem number three: the tendency for men to entrust their social lives to their girlfriends or wives. “Women have historically been the ‘kinskeepers’ of Western society,” writes sociologist Barry Wellman, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. (For a quick litmus test, ask yourself: Who does the holiday cards each year—you or your wife?) With the growth of the suburbs, explains Wellman, and the gradual evaporation of urban meetinghouses, where men used to gather and form friendships, the planning of a man’s social calendar gradually began to take place in the home, the wife’s domain. Gatherings of friends, moreover, began to occur more frequently in the home with cocktails and dinner—again territory staked out by the wife. (Suburban Man moved outside, to be alone with the barbecue.) On some level, we have never gotten over the regime. In his study of married couples in Toronto, Wellman found that the wives were “taking on the burden of maintaining friendships for their husbands as well as themselves,” a finding that extends, it almost goes without saying, well beyond Toronto. The result? At dinner parties and other gatherings, one spends a lot of time with guys chosen not by you, but, indirectly, by your wife or girlfriend. Sure, these men smile and laugh like other guys do, but are their hearts in it, or are they more like replacement players, stand-ins for your true bros, who have been left stranded somewhere in the past?
The fourth mistake takes us to the problem of male friendship at its widest circumference. It has to do with the sense of manhood we inherit from our fathers and from the movies, a sense of manhood that is standard issue, handed out, as it were, when we were boys, and it is symbolized by the lone rider, brave, independent, and self-sufficient—the Clint Eastwood effect. This guy has so much shit to do that he doesn’t need friends. But dozens of studies in psychology, epidemiology, and the relatively new field of (brace yourself) psychoneuroimmunology—or PNI, which investigates the links between the mind and the immune system—have made it abundantly clear that there are certain measurable risks involved in isolating yourself like the High Plains Drifter or reducing your life to the same dreary combination of work, home, Starbucks (repeat until the grave). “People who have poor social ties are at greater risk of sickness and premature death than those who have good social ties,” one such study begins. Indeed, friendship can, among other things, reduce coronary-related morbidity and mortality; it can protect against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease; it can help you bounce back from illness quickly; it can decrease employee absenteeism; it can extend your life.
Wordsworth and Coleridge teamed up to produce Lyrical Ballads; Lewis and Clark opened up the West; Crazy Horse and He Dog nearly closed it back down. The friendship between Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant (Twain delighted in making the hard general crack a smile) led to the publication of Grant’s memoirs, a best seller. Eisenhower and Patton helped win World War II. Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were best friends and teammates on the Chicago Bears, and Piccolo’s death from cancer became a book, then a ’70s-era TV movie, Brian’s Song, which gave an entire generation of young men its first brush with a level of emotion that dared not speak its name. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, recorded in tablets from the first half of the second millennium B.C., speaks of this selfsame desire of men to seek in each other a uniquely male form of deep emotional connection that seems as old as the species.
Old, and yet, as some would say, stifled. And for this you can blame Freud. After Freud—who argued that all friendships are underpinned by a sublimated sexual urge—expressions of love and admiration between men, so common in the 18th and 19th centuries, all but vanished. Men still wanted to get tight with their boon companions, but, post-Freud, the language and the vocabulary they had used in previous centuries to express it had been driven out of them. It’s a problem that’s with us to this day. “As a guy, you get about a three-note emotional range,” says author Norah Vincent, who, after a complete makeover and wardrobe change, spent 18 months posing as a man, in bowling leagues and other men-only hangouts, in an attempt to plumb the hearts of men. The result, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, is a sympathetic portrait of men and friendship that suggests what we’ve known all along: Men’s interior lives are loaded with emotional content and their desire to connect with one another remains strong, but they are blocked on all fronts. “That’s probably the part I hated most,” Vincent recalls of her adventure in guydom. In terms of what’s allowed expressively, “Women get octaves, chromatic scales, but guys get little more than bravado and rage.”
But increasingly today, men seem to be reaching out for something more. Call it bromance, the meaning of which, as several Internet slang dictionaries attest, is entirely chaste, referring almost exclusively to the powerful emotional bond that can sometimes occur between straight men. It’s a phenomenon that has recently emerged from the fringes of society, from anarchistic urban bicycle gangs scattered across the country, where I first heard the term used. But it can now also be viewed in each weekly episode of Boston Legal.
I’m speaking, of course, of the relationship between Alan Shore, the neurotic, self-destructive lawyer played by James Spader, and Denny Crane, the archconservative loose cannon and founding partner of CP&S [Crane Poole & Schmidt] played by William Shatner. Though the show has yet to use the term, it is suffused with bromantic excess—especially in the now much-anticipated balcony scenes, where, at the end of every show, Shore and Crane tote up the day’s mishaps and engage in what one observer has called “male-bonding porn,” an extended, intimate conversation about life, politics, love, and their own tender emotions for each other.
“Basically, they have sex with women, but they’re married to each other,” says Boston Legal head writer Janet Leahy of the Shore-Crane relationship. Over two seasons, Leahy has taken the characters of Shore and Crane, originally created by David E. Kelley, and made their relationship dance on the edge ofand laugh atan implied, inescapable, post-Freud, post-Brokeback homoeroticism with which the writers of Boston Legal have been having a field day. In one episode-closing balcony scene, after Shore and Crane renew their friendship vows, the credits roll as Tammy Wynette sings “Stand By Your Man.” What’s so appealing about their relationship, says Leahy, “is that they’re men actually just being men, without having to come up with any excuses for it.”
Men being men? I asked Joseph Epstein, a bespectacled, 70-year-old former editor of The American Scholar, if he were ready for bromance. “The answer is no,” says Epstein, with a laugh. Epstein’s approach—”to take a little of the pressure off the ideal of friendship as a seamless, selfless regard of two souls, each for the other”—is cheerfully and amusingly old school. “The first rule of the art of friendship,” he writes, “is that not all friendships need to be deepened.” In fact, what men may want and miss—more than anything else, Epstein argues—is not depth but a kind of release from depth into the wonderful, witty surfaces of masculine talk. It’s a kind of grandstanding in which everyone aims for the largest laugh, a “giving way to the beast,” the phrase Epstein uses to describe the riotous friendship between the novelist Sir Kingsley Amis, the poet Philip Larkin, and Soviet scholar Robert Conquest. “Only with men can one display one’s full-frontal vulgarity,” says Epstein, quoting British novelist Frederic Raphael.
However you may feel about it, one thing seems clear: Friendship—whether bromantic or old school—has so often built trust and paved the way for relationships of the more career-enhancing, business-boosting, and otherwise deal-consummating variety, that it seems almost foolish to relegate friendship to some forever-distant Brigadoon in the mist, something to be done in one’s dotage. “The friendship between Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates,” for instance, as The New York Times reported, which resulted in the single-largest transfer of wealth, at $31 billion, to a charitable foundation in history, was “forged over a shared passion for such homespun American treats as cherry cola, burgers, and college football.” The deal that startled the business world was not the mercenary end and aim of their friendship, of course, but it emerged naturally out of that prior ongoing wealth in friendship.
Friendship as wealth? “I think that’s a good point,” says Roger Horchow, who built a mail-order empire, the Horchow Collection, and is profiled as the prototypical “connector” in Malcom Gladwell’s best-selling The Tipping Point. Horchow recognizes the sorry state of male friendship as a widespread phenomenon (he calls it—in the soft Texas drawl with which he addressed me over the phone—”the loneliness of men”) and yet at 78, he has spent a lifetime as a male-friendship contrarian, making and nurturing friendships. He has distilled the lessons from these friendships in a book, The Art of Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connections, coauthored by his daughter, Sally.
Why do men seem to have problems maintaining friendships? “Because we’re lazy,” jokes Horchow. “But think about how you accumulate wealth,” he adds. “We’d all like to be rich, but you have to work at it.” Epstein underscores an important implication in all this: “To know oneself is the first and best step in the training for friendship,” he says. If you know you don’t need a lot of friends—like Napoleon or Churchill or Picasso, for instance—then there’s little point in troubling yourself any further. If, however, you decide you’re in the market, then most of what Epstein, the Horchows, and others have to say about improving your situation won’t come as news. But the art of friendship isn’t so much about what you know as it is about what you do. Here, then, are a few practical tips to countermand the trend toward isolation, to build a wealth of friendships, and to enjoy the benefits of wider connections.
Focus on friends you already have. With so little time, the basic idea, especially for guys, is to lower the ante and pick low-hanging fruit. E-mail people you already know but haven’t seen in a while. What to say? “It’s better to make it easy on yourself–and on the other guys around you–rather than to be overly ambitious,” says Sally Horchow. “Organize a lunch,” says Roger Horchow, lunch being a connection-making tool to which he heavily subscribes. Use Internet search engines to reconnect with long-lost friends. Be guided by your impulse to reunite, says Roger, but, above all, let action be your guiding principle.
Change the background of an existing relationship. You always see a work acquaintance in the hall, and you stop and chat with him for a few moments because you tend to like the conversation. He’s funny. He likes hockey. Whatever. That relationship, which Sally calls a “passive contact,” will tend to remain on the same level if you always leave it in the hall. So try changing the background. Suggest lunch, a drink after work, or some other activity arising out of your casual conversation, like a hockey game. “By creating a reason to do something,” says Sally, “you can take your friendship into a different realm.”
Follow up, follow up, follow up. The follow-up card or note isn’t just for well-groomed, socially adroit wusses anymore. You can use it too. Some sort of follow-up, whether by e-mail, telephone, or a note, is standard operating procedure anyway for most business meetings. Just so, the follow-up message, according to the Horchows, is “the single most important thing you can do to build friendships.” It can be as simple as an e-mail or a phone call or a text message, and it should suggest a future plan of action.
Get out of your own head. Friendship involves repeated acts of selflessness—the decision that someone else is, for the moment, more important than whatever it is you think you need to do or say. Listening is a way of practicing this precept. To illustrate, Roger offers a wonderful counterexample, an anecdote told by his friend Dick Bass, who spent an entire plane ride sitting next to a stranger and regaling the man with stories about mountain climbing, one of Bass’s abiding passions. “Just before the plane landed, Bass turned to the man sitting next to him and said, ‘After all this, I don’t think I’ve introduced myself. My name is Dick Bass.’ The man shook his hand and responded, ‘Hi, I’m Neil Armstrong. Nice to meet you.'” Spectacular missed opportunities of this sort are rare, of course. But the day-to-day lesson is clear. “People are like living, breathing books,” say the Horchows, “and at every turn, they can offer gifts of their own knowledge.”
Hit the road. John Partilla, president of Time Warner Global Media Group, goes skiing every year with his old high school buddies. Each year, a different person shoulders the responsibility of choosing the ski resort and booking the lodging. “It’s one of the highlights of the year,” says Partilla. “When we go up the chairlift, each of us has a different partner to talk to. Our conversation lasts for a while. We catch up, tentatively at first, and then we’re off skiing again.” For this close-knit group of old friends, skiing seems to combine one thing that men are really good at (parallel activity) with one thing men aren’t very good at (talking in depth). The former reinforces the latter. “Soon,” says Partilla, “we’re having these really deep discussions while going up the lift. Then the deep discussion is over, and it’s back to skiing.”
The men with whom I’ve spoken, who have maintained strong and deepening friendships, also seem to manage those same friendships actively and with deliberation. The sorry state of male friendship doesn’t have to seem like a kind of accepted, disquieting fact about the world, like, say, the fact of declining petroleum reserves. It takes work, but the rewards, say the Horchows, will continually surprise you.
“All the good things that have happened to me,” Roger Horchow, the great connector, reminds us, “have really just been through friendships.”
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