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. After all, “belongingness” is dead-center in Maslow’s pyramid.
But, still, “I miss you” is just not something you expect one man to say to another, outside of a blood relationship (and even then – I don’t think I’ve ever said this to my only brother). It’s oddly intimate, and it projects vulnerability, which is just not something men do. We don’t need anyone, dammit!
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. So we don’t say “I miss you.” We neuter any feelings we might have and we say things like, “Hey man, how are you? It’s been too long.”
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.
Since my experience with my friend, I’ve done some reading around this. There’s quite a bit of writing 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 very much worth reading. They tell a pretty consistent story.
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.
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.
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.
I read a book of essays by Brian Doyle in which he writes about all the things his brother and him used to talk about that substituted for “I love you.”
In my experience, brothers don’t often talk bluntly about love, even if you do love each other inarticulately and thoroughly and confusedly, because it’s awkward to talk about love that’s not romantic. Everyone chatters and sings and gibbers about romantic love and how it starts and ends and waxes and wanes, but we hardly ever talk about all the other kinds of love, which include affection and respect and reverence, and also brothering, which is rough and complicated.
I have an older brother. We have never articulated that we love each other. Not one time.
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.
Guys just don’t spend to together. At best we’re just in the same place.
My Annual Road Trips Show Me How Men Can Build Intimacy
[…] men are more accustomed to what is called “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships: They gather around an activity.
There’s value in being proactive about it.
The road trip has remained through the shines of new relationships and the weight of heavy breakups; through the frustrations of old jobs and the excitement of finding new work; through denials and reckonings; and through dark periods and sunny skies.
This article has an interesting angle/claim – this problem is actually 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.
Who other than your wife would you have pick you up from a colonoscopy?
The Post-Colonoscopy Male Friendship Test
My wife, a therapist, tells me that having lots of male friends in your 40s is unusual. The other day, one of her patients – he gave her permission for me to mention this – told her that he needed a colonoscopy and couldn’t think of a single male friend close enough to ask to pick him up from the procedure, which typically involves sedation. So I used that as my yardstick. I asked each of the male friends I mentioned above whether he would drive me home after a colonoscopy. Reader, each said yes.
Here’s a Washington Post article about friendships during COVID:
No game days. No bars. The pandemic is forcing some men to realize they need deeper friendships
[…] some surveys show men are less likely than women to admit they are lonely, while other research suggests men derive more of their emotional intimacy from the women in their lives. In one study, married men were more likely than married women to list their spouse as their best friend.
(Here’s that study: How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness (PDF). Be forewarned that it’s a lot of tables of numbers…)
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.”
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 something more than platonic. Like, even talking about it is a slippery slope that ends up in what some people consider to be a weird place.
Niobe Way wrote a book called “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.” In the WP article link above, she says that young boys will tell each other everything, but this changes as they get older.
[…] as boys begin to enter adolescence at age 15 or 16, “you start to hear them shut down and not care anymore,” Way said. They start to act defensive about their friendships, saying they’re “not gay” and that they’re not as close anymore. “You hear those expectations of manhood get imposed on them.”
Way argues the lack of vulnerability in male friendships is rooted in a misogynistic, homophobic culture that discourages emotional intimacy between men.
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.
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.