Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. Moreover, the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships. When men get together, they’re more likely to do stuff than have a conversation. Friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif calls these “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships, contrasting them to the “face-to-face” friendships that many women enjoy. If a man does have a confidant, three-quarters of the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife or girlfriend.
When I first began researching this topic I thought, surely this is too stereotypical to be true. Or, if it is true, I wondered, perhaps the research is biased in favor of female-type friendships. In other words, maybe we’re measuring male friendships with a female yardstick. It’s possible that men don’t want as many or the same kinds of friendships as women.
But they do. When asked about what they desire from their friendships, men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy. And, just like women, their satisfaction with their friendships is strongly correlated with the level of self-disclosure. Moreover, when asked to describe what they mean by intimacy, men say the same thing as women: emotional support, disclosure and having someone to take care of them.
Men desire the same level and type of intimacy in their friendships as women, but they aren’t getting it.
This seems to line up with research from sociologist Michael Kimmel in Guyland where he found that young adult, college-age, and teenage males generally wanted deeper friendships but the expectations about what it means to be a man, particularly in group settings, makes this quite difficult. Also, Grief’s description of “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships sounds similar to C.S. Lewis’ description of friends walking side-by-side in life as opposed to romantic partners continually looking at each other.
A note: I do wish Wade had more broad data to back up her argument. She cites the McPherson et al. 2006 ASR piece on friends but I remember seeing that one of the co-authors, Matthew Brashears, suggested the study may not have been conclusive.