Last year sometime, I had a meeting at an organization for which I used to sit on the Board.
While I was in the building, I stopped by the office of someone who I had been quite friendly with over the years. We had gotten together for lunch a couple of times, in addition to the work we did on the Board together.
I always felt like we “got” each other. We were on the same wavelength. I was always happy to see him.
I stuck my head in his office. He smiled when he saw me. I sat down.
First of all, I miss you.
I responded reflexively:
I miss you too.
I mean, how else do you respond when someone says they miss you?
But afterwards, when I had time to reflect, I decided that this (1) was a really odd thing for a grown man to say to another grown man, and (2) it made me feel really good.
Being missed is fundamentally fulfilling. Everyone wants to think that when they’re not around, there exists some social or emotional void that isn’t filled. And it’s lovely when another person points this out.
But, still, “I miss you” is just not something you expect one man to say to another, outside of a blood relationship. It’s oddly intimate, and it projects vulnerability, which is just not something men do.
Additionally, I think movies have created this aura of romance around the phrase. Whenever someone says, “I miss you,” it’s always in the context of romantic yearning, usually followed by some pregnant pause, where the air becomes electric and anything is possible.
There are much larger points here, I’m sure, about toxic masculinity and the inability of men to show affection for one another. It’s likely something which is mixed up in hetero identity, because I have a gay friend who lives across the country, and I have no problem telling him that I miss him. But it’s not something you expect in a straight male relationship.
There’s quite a bit of writing around this which tilts heavily towards the lack of physical affection between men. This isn’t quite what I’m talking about, but if you read some of the articles below, you’ll see that physical affection is really just an analogue for emotional intimacy, and you can’t talk about one without talking about the other.
You don’t have to consume all the articles below, but the quotes are worth reading.
How Encouraging Intimacy Between Men May Save Lives
The problem that straight white men like [mass shooter Elliot] Rodger face is one of their own creation. By perpetuating straight male homophobia, straight men starve themselves of a much-needed source of intimacy and affection: each other.
When Did Touch Between Male Friends Become Taboo?
When I think of all the embraces that are not happening because of shame, and all the tender letters that aren’t being written just because a man thinks it’s not “manly” to express his feelings to a male friend, I get sad.
Why Can’t Men Say “I Love You” to Each Other?
The codes men follow in love are tricky. For example, while saying a straight “I love you” is frowned upon, sometimes saying to another man “Much love” or “I got love for you” is O.K. “I love you” might even be passable if it is quickly followed by “bro” or “man.”
Honestly, I read that essay a couple times, assuming the author was gay, given the subject matter and the...tenderness (?) with which he writes about it. But then I caught a reference to “girlfriend problems,” so I now I assume he’s straight. The fact that I initially assumed he was gay speaks volumes.
The Men Who Have Mostly Female Friends
Particularly in college and beyond, Jake says, he found that he preferred the way women connect—all the friends he’s made since he was 12 are women. “I could just be genuine,” he says, “and not be judged for wanting to talk about how I feel.” It’s a cliché that women get together and “talk about our feelings,” but in my experience with my female and male friends, women often go right for the emotional throat of a conversation, where it may take most men several beers to commence venting.
That article references another recent piece in Harper’s which has an interesting angle on how this problem is damaging women: Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden
Unlike women, who are encouraged to foster deep platonic intimacy from a young age, American men – with their puffed up chests, fist bumps, and awkward side hugs – grow up believing that they should not only behave like stoic robots in front of other men, but that women are the only people they are allowed to turn to for emotional support – if anyone at all.
And this is true. When I get depressed about something, it becomes Annie’s problem. To some extent, this is how marriage is supposed to work, but when one side of a couple has no other outlet except for their spouse, I’m sure it can get exhausting. It’s clearly healthy for both sides to have some other place to turn, but in this day and age, men have fewer and fewer options.
I’ve told my wife that I don’t really have “friends.” I have lots of “acquaintances” and “colleagues” and, of course, “bros,” which is slang for “I like seeing you, but let’s not get weird, okay?”
The Case for Hugging Your Bros
But male touch isn’t just essential for childhood development, it contributes to our overall emotional well-being as modern men. So despite the social anxiety around homosexuality that’s still prevalent, we’ve adapted to preserve this essential homosocial bonding.
I saw that word – “homosocial” – more than once. Clearly, that produces generally the same sound as “homosexual,” but it’s completely different. It means, “social intimacy between members of the same gender.”
And that reminds me of a joke I told my pastor once:
What’s the most unrealistic thing in the Bible?
A 30-year-old man with 12 close friends.
Clearly, I’m off on the tangent of physical affection now, which wasn’t the original point, but it speaks to how dysfunctional our thinking is here and how bound together the general concept of intimacy is. We just can’t seem to wrap our heads around male-male intimacy without it becoming sexual. Like, even talking about it is a slippery slope that ends up in a weird place.
I’m not a psychologist or a counselor, so I won’t presume to dig deeper. But I will never forget my friend sitting across a desk from me and saying “I miss you,” and how much better that made my day.