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Men Need Friends

Male friendships often center on groups and activities. But without strong one-on-one ties, men are more likely to feel isolated when romantic partnerships fail or don't happen at all.
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Without this wolf, this man would be so lonely. (Photo: tigertom/Flickr)

Without this wolf, this man would be so lonely. (Photo: tigertom/Flickr)

Though I am loath to admit boys beating girls at just about anything, when the topic is coming-of-age films, the seminal Stand By Me clearly stands above its more upbeat female counterpart Now & Then. Stand By Me is darker in its themes of mortality and class and negotiating masculinity than Now & Then’s treatments of death, romantic awakening, and adolescent drifting. That I watched Stand By Me after River Phoenix was long dead and Corey Feldman was troubled only exacerbated the particularly melancholy tone of the film. But of all the striking elements of Stand By Me that beat Now & Then, the most heartbreaking is that the whole plot of Now & Then centers on the fact that the girls come together for each other as grown women while the boys from Stand By Me are left estranged as adults.

In this case, fiction mirrors reality: Adult men have the fewest friends of any demographic. And as more and more people delay marriage or forgo it entirely, men are often left without strong social networks to rely on for support.

A study published in PLoS One in March revealed that, while women prefer intimate one-to-one friendships, men are more likely to experience friendship in larger groups. The study was based on how men and women appeared in social media profile photos and, overwhelmingly, men appeared in large groups while women preferred to appear with another female friend. (The researchers acknowledged that these photos might not represent real-life social relationships but noted: “[N]o existing research suggests that profile pictures would include imagined or random social relations to any significant extent [not least because the other person is likely to object].”) Though they ruled out the prospect that men do not appear with one another for fear of homophobic suggestions, the language we use around male friendship suggests that it is abnormal. No one would automatically assume that there was a romantic interaction if a woman said she was going out with a “girlfriend,” but a man spending time with a “boyfriend” is unheard of outside romantic contexts. When men do have especially close relationships, we teasingly call them “bromances,” as if there must be something amorous between two men who choose to spend time together one-on-one.

When men do have especially close relationships, we teasingly call them “bromances,” as if there must be something amorous between two men who choose to spend time together one-on-one.

Studies have consistently found that male friendships often center around activities rather than conversations, meaning self-disclosure and intimacy are not prioritized. While some might dismiss self-disclosure as a matter of taste, there is evidence to suggest that it helps people become better at resolving conflicts and at feeling empathetic. And while we dismiss gossip as a nasty and mostly female habit, a meta-analysis of gossip studies showed that it can have positive effects on group dynamics and team building. When men have less meaningful friendships with other men, they are less likely to be developing critical skills and the intimate connections that can sustain them outside of romantic partnerships. And with romantic partnerships changing dramatically, men are at even greater risk of isolation.

While the media likes to drag out the tired trope of the husband-hunting, baby-hungry woman, men are consistently found to be more desirous of finding a partner than women are. A survey of British men and women by advertising firm J. Walter Thompson found that 85 percent of men wanted to be married or in a committed relationship, compared to 79 percent of women. A 2013 survey by Citibank and LinkedIn found that 79 percent of men would need “a strong, loving marriage” to feel they were “having it all” as compared to 66 percent of women. A 2011 survey by dating site found that women want more independence in their partnerships, including more time with their friends. As our culture shifts away from early marriage, and often from marriage in general, it leaves potential for a lot of lonely men. We need to encourage boys and men to foster friendships that will alleviate the feeling of isolation that is part of being single and part of being alone.

As a 10-year-old girl watching Stand By Me and lusting dutifully after River Phoenix, I found myself frustrated by his lack of romantic conquests in the film. Phoenix and Will Wheaton’s character talked about their frustrations with their fathers and brothers, nervousness about advanced placement classes, and not being trusted by authority figures. It was all terrifically tedious as I awaited a smooch with a local girl that never came. But the substance of their conversation was tender and vulnerable in a way that we don’t often witness between two male characters on screen—without being interrupted by a sudden homophobic punchline. There was care there, even love. The last lines of Stand By Me are uttered by the grown narrator, who has lost touch with all of the friends from his youth. He concludes, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” And the bittersweet but hopeful answer from countless girls and women is: “Yes. Absolutely. And you can too.”

The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.