Men and Friendship: Letting the Guard Down First

Friday, September 26, 2014 - 5:35am

Men and Friendship: Letting the Guard Down First

Last weekend, I had the honor of moderating a panel at the Omega Institute’s annual conference exploring women, men, and power. When I’m moderating, I have that rare sense that I am doing one of the things I am built for — listening to the conversation on the stage, but also listening underneath the conversation and to the conversation that is begging to be had.

Sometimes, listening underneath and beyond leads me to some surprising places. As we were exploring work-family balance and pay parity — standard fare — two other words suddenly flashed in my head, bright as neon: men and friendship. So I asked the men on the panel to speak to it.

Thirty-three-year-old poet, actor, and memoirist Carlos Andrés Gómez described how a mentor of his told him that people will only be vulnerable with you if you model it first, and that men so often get stuck in shallow relationship because they are perpetually waiting for the other guy to let his guard down. “So I created an ‘I love you because list,’ with 25 reasons that I loved my best friend and gave it to him,” Carlos revealed to the crowd of 400 people, who suddenly seemed to be breathing as one.

True to form, in that moment when this young poet, this exquisitely genuine and tender and tough man, lay his guard down — so did other men in the audience. The rest of the day, in the dining room and on the paths between cabins, in the sanctuary and down by the lake, I heard men being unapologetically relational with one another. They weren’t just talking about what they did for a living or their favorite teams; they were talking about their fears. They were talking about their confusion. They were talking about their regrets. Later that night, even the former prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, admitted to feeling jealous of the intimacy and authenticity that he’s witnessed within women’s friendships with one another.

As I began digging into the research on men and friendship, I found convincing evidence on why Kevin is right to be jealous. In fact, strong friendships make us significantly healthier and happier (much more effectively, duh, than money), and men have far fewer of them — especially as they age — than women do. There is even a name for it: “the male deficit model” — essentially the sociological theory that men aren’t great at creating lasting, genuine bonds. Men’s friendship tend to be more episodic and short-term — forged over beers after work and then abandoned when someone gets transferred to another department, or born on bikes side by side, climbing up hills with rich conversation, but lost to injury.

Men’s friendships may tend to be fleeting, but the effects are anything but. Many men rely exclusively on women —their partners, first and foremost, but also female friends — to be emotional surrogates of a sort. Without us, men sometimes struggle to consciously experience and name their emotions; women, though I think we rarely admit it, sometimes feel weighed down with the burden of braving our own internal world and mentoring our favorite men to do so, too. It’s a different kind of “second shift” than the one Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote about; it’s the endless labor of emotional midwifery.

Of course there are men who are genius at friendship, just as there are women who are positively dumb at it. But, writ large, we still live in a time and a place where men’s muscles for deep and real connection atrophy as they make their way through and beyond adolescence.

In Niobe Way’s beautiful book, Deep Secrets, she challenges the idea that men are naturally “emotionally illiterate.” Instead, she finds that teenage boys describe their love for one another with a depth of feeling worthy of romance novels. But as they age, they learn that “real men” don’t speak this way, except, at rare moments, within the safe confines of sports. And so many abandon their native tongue. They adopt the limiting language of safe relationships with other men so as to prove that they’re not soft or gay or needy. In so doing, they lose one of the things that makes their lives most livable, most rich.

I would even go so far as to wonder if the impossibly high suicide rate among young men doesn’t have something to do with their paucity of friendships, where they can show up as themselves, messy and needy. Or the enigmatic trends in violence perpetrated by men — could some of it be the external expression of an internal longing to be seen, heard, and celebrated by other men?

There is good news here. Niobe Way finds that boys thrive when they resist becoming stoic and self-contained “real men” and instead choose to honor their emotional needs by forging lasting and genuine friendships with other brave souls. When my husband went through a divorce in his late 20s, it was one of the first moments when he chose vulnerability — in part because he didn’t feel like it really was a choice — and his friendships with other guys blossomed in the brokenness.

When Carlos painstakingly and bravely penned that “I love you because” list, he not only honored his friend, he honored himself. Men, like women, deserve the gift of genuine, passionate friendship. They are capable of mining their own depths without women’s assistance. But it requires rejecting the roles society steers you into if you’re on autopilot. It requires being awake, being brave. Sometimes, it requires being the first to let your guard down.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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Men have their best conversations when women aren't around... go figure. Women can't bare this.

This woman can not only bare it, but think it's amazing!

Trent Gilliss's picture

Oh, Thomas. I have had my best conversations with my wife in the room... and with only my male friends too. Non?

Thomas - I hope you'll have the chance to meet some different women in your life.

The problem isn't the women in his life, the problem is his attitude towards them. Thomas, why don't you think women have anything to contribute to conversations?

He's not attacking women, he's just saying there is a different flavor to conversations between men, one that can be intimate, raunchy, offensive and really fun. There is room for for a little broism in this world as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, you don't have to be on super sensitive feminist tippy-toe patrol at all times because thats not honoring all of you. Its fun to exercise the feminine and the masculine that exists in us all.

Thank you so much for developing this thought. As a woman in a relationship with a man who I think suffers more than his fair share of "emotional containment", I´d love to know how to be a better partner so he can begin to let his guard down more.

Elizabeth - I'm sorry for the bad news, but for most men, there is first the problem of becoming more connected to himself, to understand the nuances of emotion and know how to name them and how they feel. Like any other growth, real first steps can be made easily - perhaps by re-framing or learning something.

But, real, life changing progress is deep work, which requires commitment and sustained effort.The trick will be to help your "man" understand how his life can be better with the hope that he will be motivated. He must want to develop a rich connection to his emotions and the ability to relate emotionally to others in a nuanced way. It's not always an easy idea to "get," perhaps because it's not valued in our society. But some of us who don't naturally have a high emotional IQ do, eventually get it.

Elizabeth. In my experience, women (it seems) often try to get men to share their feelings by first "drowning" him with her own.
If she can't pause for long enough for me to even start to reflect about my own emotions, and even less to start expressing them in a coherent way, I don't know what or how I am supposed to be "vulnerable", when she has already told me not only all about her own opinion, but also what she expects me to believe?

What a stunningly beautiful essay honoring men, and their capacity to reach beyond our culture's limited view of their emotional competence. I have had the privilege of coaching five men this year, and their emotional depth and range awes me every time we talk. Maybe we need to ask the kinds of questions that allow them to go there, like the one you put to the panel. Bravo!

I've had lots of close male friends throughout high school and college, but it's much more difficult as an adult and as a parent. Sometimes I think it has more to do with the logistics of scheduling than emotional openness.

Thank you, Courtney, for listening in the way you do and for asking the question that lead to your developing this writing. My best friend of 25 years is visiting me presently and I've reflected often in the last couple days how lucky we are to know each other in the way we do, free to share our feelings openly with one another. And yet, he is the only man in my life with whom I let my guard down to this extent. Your essay inspires me to take the risk with other men in my life.

"Positively dumb" ? Perhaps an insensitive and simplistic way of labeling people who lack friendships?

It is rare, but the most frequent letting the guard down happens between two men. When a third arrives they come back to the virility model. Is not a rule, just a reflection of what happens to me.

I think you're right. Usually, In most informal situations intimacy tends to decline when more people come into play. That's been my experience with men for sure. Some of the most fulfilling times have been between myself and two or three of my guy friends. It's always felt very liberating when I can be without my guard up in the company of a group of men.

As a man I learned not to have close friends. I realized that was not working for me... and other men. I decided to change that pattern. For the last 15 years the men's groups we start create deep friendships and true brotherhood.

I help other men we created a nonprotit:

Men are encouraged as children, youth, and young adults to have friends, but when they enter the professional world, politics and competition ensues. The time-honored tradition of being a leader of men and bread winner, provider, and protector means the many men have no choice but to forego friendship for other priorities. Often this is not the "choice" of a man, but the pre-determined role ordained by law, family or society, with roots in history and tradition for thousands of years. Women, on the other hand, are child-bearers and as such naturally more nurturing. To raise a child requires a entire village -- think of this as a metaphor to why why women, perhaps from a evolutionary point of view, need to be more sociable. In more extreme cases perhaps the sociability and strength of relationships between women who mutually support each other will determine her personal and her child's fitness in a competitive world of limited resources and attention. Here the social is connected to the political.

I would say the same can be said for men, except that there is a greater emphasis on the contractual and hierarchical elements of relationships and less on what Aristotle conceived as friendship in the Nicomachean ethics. It wouldn't be bad to return and study the classics again though...

Thanks Courtney for this truly insightful and deeply thoughtful look at men and their relationships. As a man "of color," I am re-learning my natural emotional intellect that I had as a boy. I believe it's always been with me, but I've had to defend it in a hyper-masculine culture and society-at-large. Being with my beautiful female partner for the last two and a half years has allowed me to open up more and more, be vulnerable and find peace and strength in that emotional state. She, my sister and many of my female friends have dealt with and are still dealing with the uber sexual behavior of men (i.e. "cat-calling") as they walk down the street. I do agree it is a projection of a lack of emotional depth in both male and female relationships, a distorted performance of machismo.

I'd love to hear thoughts on how to address this sociocultural epidemic in a positive way. Peace and Love.

Well thank you. I don't really think I realized, until now, how much I longed for an article that discussed the willingness and ability for men to express themselves emotionally, in friendship or otherwise, that wasn't dismissive, demonizing, or blaming. These societally/socially imposed confines might be caused by the pure cultural inertia of an old-fashioned patriarchal outlook on what it means to be a man, but it's certainly not individual men's fault that they were indoctrinated into those confines, any more than it is a woman's fault for being indoctrinated into the body-obsession of that same culture.

I have a few man friends with whom I don't talk regularly. But when we do it is as though no time has passed. The reconnect is almost immediate. Not so with women since there is always the sexual tension to overcome before you can really talk

Courtney, thank you for your thought provoking essay. As someone who has conducted research on gay men's friendships, I have found that gay men, like many straight men, have difficulty forming true emotional connections with each other. Very few men, I have found, can say that they have 2 or 3 intimately close male friendships, a form of brother bonding.

My apologies to the women in my life that I've thoughtlessly burdened with my emotional needs. I pledge to purge this behavior from my relationships immediately.

What a great topic! I have been sitting in men's support circles for more than 6 years now. We run processes specifically geared towards 'letting the guard down', which I call being vulnerable. It takes courage to expose secrets about oneself that are in shadow. The payoff of having every man in the circle accept me for who I am even after I share the shame I feel around certain aspects of my self is amazing. Thanks for putting it out there.

This is quite an eye opener and very very interesting.

Great post Courtney. You're an awesome addition to the On Being team.

For most of my over 50 years I thought I was gay. I had never experienced close friendships or connection with other men and when I did it was wildly passionate and would blow up with all the heat that it started with six months before. Then in 2009 I began to do some work with the help of a few men I had met and discovered that for most of my life I had not felt my own true emotions. I had grown up in a home were feeling those emotions much less expressing them wasn't safe. Once I began to get in touch with the true me inside I experienced deep grief, anger and sadness over much that I had lost out on in my life. What emerged from this was a different man. I began for the first time in my life to make friends, real intimate, friendships where it was safe to feel my feelings, make my needs known, and see the other man as a separate person with his own needs and his own emotions. And the craziest thing happened. I stopped wanting to have sex with these men even though I loved them more than I had ever loved anybody. I stopped being sexually attracted to men at all. What I had lacked all those years wasn't sex with a man, it was intimacy and when I found it I no longer needed or wanted sex. I wanted to love him and let him love me. I don't know what all this means and I don't understand it at all. I am finding myself curious about women as if suddenly the world is populated by another species and somehow I never noticed before. They are mystical creatures that I thought I understood but I don't. Men on the other hand I thought I was so different from most of them but I'm not. Deep down we are so much alike, all of us. But to find that out I had to finally get to know myself.

Thank you, Don, for sharing. I'm deeply touched.

wow. that was profound. thanks

As a gay man, I have many close friendships with other men. I don't use women in my life to serve my emotional needs. This essay doesn't make much sense unless you consider that it's assuming all men are straight. Gay men have not only the desire, but the practice of making loving connections with other men, of all kinds. In fact, it's a cliche in gay circles that friends matter more than lovers, are more long-lasting, and have in many ways more intimacies. So much so that a new lover often knows that if he doesn't blend well with his new partner's friends, the relationship may be doomed. The opposite seems to hold true when heterosexuals get together; they seem to value the coupling so highly that they will easily and repeatedly leave behind friends and think it normal. This has a long tradition, going back hundreds of years, where a man will leave his close friendships upon getting married. I have had a number of close friendships with straight men, and in a number of cases have lost those friendships when a woman comes into their lives. That hasn't happened nearly so often with gay or bi men with whom I'm friends. It's made me wary of friendship with straight guys. Interestingly, is was back in early adolescence, when my straight friends started becoming interested in girls, that I lost many of the close friendships I had had all through childhood. I've recreated many such friendships as an adult, but I suspect my straight friends have not. I've several times as an adult started a friendship with a straight guy who is amazed at how rich and wonderful it is. They may be in the thirties or forties and having an intimate friendship for the first time since childhood. This is in itself a bit of a problem; they can sometimes be less emotionally mature having lost a decade or two at forming intimate friendships with other guys. So I suspect much of the lack of friendship skills this essay lists as being a problem with men is really a problem with heterosexual men. In this matter, I think it's important for all heterosexuals to question their belief that a lover, spouse or primary partner relationship should take precedence over friendships. It's far healthier to have a standard that all relationships matter and we must do the difficult work of balancing their several needs. The importance of friendship is socially determined; it is not the failing so much of individuals. We men are certainly not incapable of friendships. I just wonder if straight men are being taught through experience way too often that in order to have women in their lives, they need to be willing always to elevate those women above any male friendships they may have or want. I also wonder what cultural biases may color this essay. I'm Anglo-American and feel these dynamics in British and American and Canadian cultures, but far less so in Latin and Mediterranean and other cultures.

Yep. I agree. It's a scary, lonely world out there sometimes for us all but especially us guys. And sex and/or substances seem the only answer. But after awhile, it's unrealistic to be 'macho' and a "army of one". The armor we used for protection becomes suffocating and destructive. We all cry for love but we must become vulnerable to give and receive it. And that can be fucking scary!

I see a hunger for male friendship in myself and my male friends. It seems an impossible load to place on a spouse alone... you are my default friend. It seems to take conscious cultivation of this for men, so Carlos' list is a profound act of intention and willingness to be a friend. An example I would like to emulate.

My son recently had a 15th birthday party at a local bowling alley.He invited 7 other 15 y/o friends and 2 16y/o's. I was sitting in the back watching them and it was very interesting. They were hugging eachother, playing pattie cake, swing their arms around each others shoulders, picking each other up and play fighting in a way that looks like they were dog paddling at each other. They were behaving like I thought a bunch of girls would act. I was delighted to see it. They were all smiling and having fun! Also, when my son was 9-13, he and his friends used to play 'the game of life'and I was delightfully surprised to see them focused mainly on how many kids they were going to have and what kind of house they were going to live in. They did everything they could to have the most kids possible! Boys and girls are really more alike than we think especially if we let them be themselves. These boys are also very interested in dating girls and playing football etc.

I felt some anger reading this. In my experience women do respond positively towards men who can be vulnerable---and then go home to the money/security first, closed-off men who take care of the women's financial fears. Men can and have changed overnight if that's the message they get from their women. But behind the rhetoric, guys get the real message: be vulnerable, but not about things that threaten our food pantry, our mortgage, our plans for next month.

I belong to a men's group that is open with each other. We talk about fear of losing a job, feeling inadequate in the bedroom, the pressure of always having "to know." Things the guys swear they could never tell their "others." Yes it creates bonds between the men. Yet I call it a "hamstrung vulnerability." Is it really "baring the soul" if you can't even share it with the person most important in your daily life?


Thank you Courtney, thank you for listening so well and for sharing so clearly what you've heard. What a beautiful gift.

From a guys perspective, yes, we are taught not to be vulnerable at a young age as it's a sign of weakness. I'm not sure why it takes guys getting gutted to find brutal honesty and bring themselves to their knees to find vulnerability. Often times we just stand still and bury the pain and anger. I challenge all men of humanity to take a chill and feel ok about being vulnerable, once you do your friendships will improve on a deeper level that feels great.

It is a major challenge to bring more emotional connection into male relationships. It can be very useful to speak what we might call "man-talk" (or maybe more appropriately, "straight man-talk") in order to establish bonds with other men to begin with. This language creates a sense of commonality and identity as "men" while simultaneously limiting the ranges of expected possibilities within male friendship. Such language also negatively impacts women and gay men, as it reinforces male dominance and the assumption that the most real man is the straightest one. I have a lot of great male friends, and most of these relationships have real depth, expressed in various ways and in various degrees. I'm concerned, though, that man-talk can tend to overshadow deeper forms of connection, especially in groups of men. And yet, intentionally departing from man-talk and trying to direct conversations in different directions can be challenging. My concern is that doing so can take my friends out of their safe space, and shut them down rather than open them up. It's like forcing a friend who only fluent in English to speak in a foreign language. I want to challenge myself, my male friends, and my groups of male friends... and yet I don't want to alienate to the point of disinterest. Thoughts?

So true :/

I believe we are here for our "human experience" as good or bad as we choose to make it. Today I can look back and recognize that my age 4-5 decision that I had been born into a dangerous world.. I could not trust my caretakers to have my best interests at heart and was on my own to provide for all of my emotional needs. The key word "Trust". If I am vulnerable someone might use..gossip that against me