The Epidemic of Male Loneliness
Our culture subliminally tells men that they need family and a job ... but friends? Why do close male friends seem so weird to us today?
I recently began reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s monumental biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, and within the first couple chapters, noticed a theme which kept popping up.
Goodwin begins by giving a thorough background to each of Lincoln’s rivals for the presidential seat, and nearly every description at some point mentioned a close male friend of theirs. Writes Goodwin:
Such intimate male attachments, as Seward’s with Berdan, or, as we shall see, Lincoln’s with Joshua Speed and Chase’s with Edwin Stanton, were a common feature of the social landscape in nineteenth-century America. … In the absence of parents and siblings, they turned to one another for support, sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that their intimate friendships developed the qualities of passionate romances.
To highlight the extremity of these relationships, Goodwin recounts the story of William Henry Seward, who met a young man named David Berdan while they were both in school together. They shared everything together, including theater, books, songs, and vocational aspirations. Tragically, Berdan contracted tuberculosis while traveling overseas and died on the ship back to America. “Seward was devastated,” writes Goodwin, “later telling his wife that he had loved Berdan as ‘never again’ could he ‘love in this world.’”
Let’s just take in one obvious fact: that’s not something you say to your wife.
That aside, I’ve been wondering why these deep male-to-male friendships seem so odd to me as a 21st-century reader. I think the idea is related to a previous post of mine regarding men and their lack of physical touch, but it’s also a different issue. Guys don’t necessarily have to touch in order to be close and brotherly.
Aren’t Close Male Friendships … Weird?
I have been blessed to have known (and continue to know) a slew of really, really great men. The first is my father. The older I get, the more rare I realize this is. Growing up, my best friend for as long as I can remember was Dave, and he is still my best friend to this day. In college, my travels abroad and my intermittent seasons of homelessness and vagabonding, I have always come across men with whom I can share everything.
I can’t help but wonder if many heterosexual men veer away from such relationships. If they think such relationships may be perceived as homosexual or weird in some way. What this leads to is an abundance of loneliness. Men then satiate their loneliness with more insidious salves.
How many fathers have been caught in a pornography or alcohol addiction, despite having a relatively enviable, stable life? This is conjecture, though I can’t help but wonder if addictions like these arise because men think that their wives and kids should be enough human connection to satisfy them. Perhaps they never think their souls may be craving more male friend connections. How many men feel this loneliness but feel weird about seeking out male friends? So they settle for the false intimacy of porn or the artificial ecstasy of substances?
David and Jonathan
I know men who — like Paul Rudd’s character in I Love You, Man — prefer the company of female friends, because they may be intimidated by other men. Others find themselves a girlfriend and cut off communication with all other friends indefinitely. I also know those who simply opt for very few or no friends at all. They believe any sort of vulnerability or emotional nearness to other men to be un-masculine.
I would argue that the opposite is true.
Take a look at King David from the Bible. This is a dude who killed lions and bears with his bare hands while growing up as a shepherd. He lusted after and married several women (not a GOOD thing, but it proves that he was very straight). This is a masculine dude that any man would be wise to look up to.
And this is also a dude who had a close friend named Jonathan. And we get this verse after Jonathan’s death where David says, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”
Our Culture Misunderstands Love
As a very heterosexual man, this makes me feel a little weird. I mean, here is this emotion toward another man which seems like it has no place in the Bible! Aren’t men only supposed to love women or else things get weird?
Our perverted culture has twisted the word “love” to a very base and carnal definition which can only be interpreted sexually. In other words, we cannot hear that “David loved Jonathan” without immediately thinking, “David was gay??”
I do not think that’s what this passage is saying at all. There is so much more to love than mere sex. I think he was deeply grieving for a very close friend of his. I would certainly express a similar sentiment if Dave or any of my other close friends were to pass away, because I really love my guys a lot.
And I tell them that often.
And I am very straight.
A False Perception of Masculinity
I think this problem has arisen out of fear and a misled perception of masculinity. Our culture subliminally preaches the idea that real men are lone wolves who do not need help or close friends. They need a wife and they need to be a good father and good worker … but friends? There’s not really a category for it anymore.
In my experience, the breakdown of close male relationships has led not only to a breakdown of male friendships, but of other man-to-man relationships. Ones that lead to mentoring and accountability. I can count on one hand the number of guys I know who have intentionally sought older men for the sake of growth and wisdom. For millennia, there was a system in place for younger men to be raised up and encouraged by older men. But that seems to have disintegrated with a culture telling us that we can do it all on our own.
So what do we do about this? How do we begin to address a culture which informs us that male friends are weak or weird? I think the first step is to name it. Identify that our culture (especially Christian culture in America) gets weird about men being too close.
Seek Out Friends
If you’re a man and you’re thinking to yourself, Gee, I don’t have that many close dude friends! it may be time to change that! It is not healthy to have a life devoid of testosterone. If your only friend is your girlfriend/fiancée/wife, or you have a host of female friends without any guys, you are missing out on brotherly fellowship. I would argue this is necessary for a healthy and holistic life.
If you’re a woman reading this and a particular guy keeps popping into your mind, perhaps it’s worth gently bringing up the topic. Encourage him to find men to do life with. I do think it’s toxic when a man only has female friends and confides in them things which should be reserved for other men or a spouse.
Obviously I’m not pushing for an extreme here, where we should only have male friends and no female friends. What I’m pushing for is balance. We (men) are averse to intimacy with other guys, and I would love to see that change. We do not need to continue living under the stigma that men don’t need male friends. Let’s strive to repair this.
Let’s reignite the bromance.
Reprinted with permission from the blog of Ethan Renoe.