a group of three male friends posing for a picture in front of a cliffy landscape
CommentaryMental Health

The fragile beauty of male friendship

Apr 1, 2023
Richard Reeves

I just got back from a trip to the UK. I was able to squeeze in some time with nearest and dearest, and for me that includes friends as well as family. I’m lucky to have male friends who I love deeply, and delight in spending time with. Most years, four or five of us manage a weekend walking trip.

One of my friends admonished me for not having a chapter about friendship in Of Boys and Men. One reason I did not is because I was aiming at problems for which I thought there were likely policy solutions. And friendship didn’t fit in that category.

But the importance of male friendship has become increasingly apparent in recent years, and it is certainly something that I pay attention to, not only in my personal life but as an observer of social trends. So I was pleased to be able to produce a video on the subject with the folks over at Big Think:

I talk a bit about the idea of friendship as in some ways the ideal relationship:

The very definition of a friendship is a relationship where there is nothing in it for you, other than the relationship itself.

Throughout the video, I draw on the work and data of Daniel Cox, director and founder of the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute. And with perfect timing, he just put out a piece on the subject over on his excellent American Storylines. The post is titled, Male Friendships Are Not Doing the Job.

His work shows that male friendship is corroding faster than female ones, leading many men without emotional support:

Chart of how women receive more emotional support from their friends

Daniel concludes:

Societal expectations for men are changing rapidly. We expect more from men as husbands, partners, and fathers than we once did. Men are meant to be attentive fathers and emotionally engaged spouses. Maybe it’s time for men to expect more from their friendships as well.

That’s fair enough. But I don’t think invocations to individual men are enough. And I also think it’s important not to dismiss the ways in which men tend to be better at communicating “shoulder to shoulder”, rather than “face to face”. One reason, perhaps, my friends and I go for a hike. But it may also be why my sons often opened up on car drive, or sitting playing a video game.

I think that as a general rule, male friendship likely requires more institutional support than female friendship. Male friendships might well be formed and sustained through school, or work, or sport or church. It’s not that women’s friendships aren’t as well, of course. But my sense—I won’t say it more strongly—is that male friendship needs more social scaffolding than female friendship.

And if that’s even slightly true, the decline in the share of men in college, in the labor force, and in churches augurs ill for the future of male friendships. It represents a deinstitutionalization of male friendship.

So sure, many of us guys could likely to a better job on the friendship front. But we should also pay attention to the conditions under which those friendships are most likely to form and to flourish.

A headshot of Richard Reeves
Richard Reeves
President of the American Institute for Boys and Men