The thing that makes male-male friendships succeed and male-female friendships so often fizzle is that at the end of the night there’s no underlying subtext to navigate, no latent sexual desire that might have been driving the whole evening. When you get down to it there’s really no such thing as a totally platonic male-female friendship. You may say you’re just friends and she may say the same, but romance or at least a desire to hop into bed together for the night lurks around every corner. Now, I’m not entirely convinced of this. I have close female friends who I have no intention of wooing, and I’m one thousand percent certain that they have zero sexual interest in me. Yet recent research seems to say the opposite: that heterosexual male-female relationships are always teetering on the edge of romance, and therefore motivations for spending time together in one-on-one situations are inherently muddled.
Now the male bond has its fair share of flirtatiousness too, but it’s the kind of flirtatiousness that doesn’t presage to sex. It’s more of a competitive spirit that would seem to divide, but with close male friends, instead binds together. One night in New York, as I debated a former roommate and close friend late into the evening over a string of banalities I no longer remember, I grew increasingly adamant, loud, angered; yet the more I wanted to tell him he was an absolute idiot the closer we became, moving from a desire to punch each other in the mouth to a desire to simply shake hands and hug it out, which we eventually did, somewhat feebly, over a box of pizza and a few tumblers of whiskey.
The institution of whiskey is also a unique facet of the male-male friendship, and while I know it’s just a cultural construct, sold to us by the advertising gurus at Johnnie Walker and Pendleton, it’s really about something more than demonstrating a sort of appropriated masculinity. It’s an excuse, like going out to coffee or having a walk in the park, to sit across the table from a close male friend and feel free to talk about whatever might be on your mind. Maybe it’s something trivial like a one-night stand gone wrong, but often, as the night progresses, it morphs into deeper conversations about family and philosophy, subjects that require total trust and confidence to share. This sort of freedom to speak your mind is rare, and while I definitely have it with some female friends and certainly with former girlfriends, there’s a mutual understanding between men that’s achieved not through action but, rather, only by way of personal experience — by the very nature of having lived in this world as a man.
Even with this mutual understanding, one of the toughest parts about maintaining male-male friendships is when disparities in achievement begin to creep in. It’s easy to kick it with your group of guy friends in high school because everyone is essentially on the same playing field. It’s when that first round of college acceptance and rejection letters comes in that lines start getting drawn and differences in success only widen from there once jobs and salaries are introduced into the equation. This competition is peculiar too, as it seems to be exclusively between men. There are loads of women who are and will be infinitely smarter, wiser, and more successful than me, but when I look at an über-successful woman like Marissa Mayer, for example, I don’t compare myself to her; it’s only with the Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world that I feel a sense of envious competition.
Chalk it up to whatever you like – maybe it’s evolution maybe it’s pure ego – but being better at something than another man is a smile-inducing phenomenon. Being inferior to a woman, however, always comes with the built-in excuse that a biological difference can explain it, so competition can’t really be perceived in opposite-gender terms. That being said, seeing a male friend find success in his niche can be buoying too, especially when you’ve gone through ups and downs together. His success acts as a mutual catharsis, as an achievement that can be shared. I’ve long been inspired by great men, and I like to surround myself with them even if it means my ego takes an occasional beating.
As boys grow into men, especially as the teens turn to the twenties and the twenties to the thirties, a sort of stigma still lingers about men who surround themselves with other men, especially when it’s just two men choosing to spend a good portion of their time together. To some, this means they must be gay; that some sort of homoeroticism must exist. Otherwise, they think, Why would two men spend so much time together? I say, let them think what they want. The homophobes too frightened to create a lasting bond with another human that pees the same way they do are missing out on far more than they’re gaining.
If you shy away from meaningful relationships with your fellow man, you miss out on an intellectual spark, a partner in crime, a friend who can empathize with everything you go through. Of course, for heterosexual men, a serious relationship with a woman will be the basis for lifelong happiness and the cornerstone to a future family. But let’s not forget that while romance is important, so is a lasting bromance. A woman may be a man’s better half, but without quality male relationships, a man will never be complete.