Why Men Struggle With Friendship

In 2019, Art Pereira ran the numbers on his windfall of credit card points, which he’d earned after opening a new card, and realized he had enough to cover two round-trip flights to Hawaii. Pereira couldn’t wait to share his good fortune with his best friend Nick Galluccio, and after the two of them caught up at Galluccio’s apartment, Pereira told him the news. Whatever excitement Galluccio might have felt about a subsidized vacation was trounced by concern. He worried that other people would think he and Pereira were going on a romantic getaway.

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They had a type of friendship that was ripe for misinterpretation. The two 20-something youth pastors were close enough that they considered each other brothers and planned to move in together. Galluccio was the person Pereira felt safe telling about an argument he had with his dad before his dad died. Pereira helped Galluccio recover from romantic heartache. They devoted time together through their ritual of Friday morning coffee and board games, which they considered nearly sacred. They were life partners, just without the romance. Scrambling people’s expectations of male friendship further, Galluccio is straight, and, in 2017, Pereira came out as gay.

Few Americans are used to seeing male friends as close as they are. Often, the first question Pereira gets after he’s come out to someone as gay is, “Is Galluccio gay, too?” It’s as if people have a rule in their head: any man who spends a lot of time with a gay guy must himself be gay. Pereira might not have read so much into this moment if several similar situations hadn’t just happened in close succession—incidents where Galluccio openly worried that other people would think he was gay.

The sociologist Eric Anderson calls the fear of being perceived as gay “homohysteria.” The inclusion of hysteria makes the term sound provocative, maybe uncomfortably so, but the concept is valuable. It helps explain why men like Galluccio constrain their behavior—avoiding activities, people, or organizations that could mark them as gay. A society can have high levels of homophobia—defined as the hatred or prejudice against gay, lesbian, or bisexual people—without men feeling like they must shore up their straightness. It only makes sense for men to adjust their behavior if homosexuality is not only stigmatized but also believed to be prevalent; then, there’s grounds to worry that other people might think they’re gay and that such a label could carry consequences. A turning point in homohysteria in the United States, according to Anderson, was the sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s blockbuster study on men’s sexual practices. The study, released in 1948, claimed that 10% of the population was homosexual—far more common than most people assumed. Around this time, men began to keep emotional and physical distance from one another.

Though homophobia has waned in the last few decades, American men still, by and large, aren’t supposed to get too cozy with other men if they want to fit in. By adolescence, boys learn that their repertoire for physical affection with each other is limited to back slaps and side hugs. They’re trained to act competitively within their male friendships, and they’re expected to bond over activities, not shared intimacies.

Read More: How to Make Friends as a Middle-Aged Man, Even If the Idea Makes You Feel Weird

While reporting on committed platonic relationships like Pereira and Galluccio’s, I saw how men’s friendships get scrutinized differently from women’s. When I’d tell people about a pair of straight male friends, I’d get questions about whether they’re really straight. People didn’t react that way when I’d tell the stories of straight female friends. The subtext was: if a man is too close to other men, his straightness is suspect.

Pereira was freed from these worries over what people might assume about his sexuality because, he says, “as a gay man, I’m not really trying to fit stereotypical views of masculinity anyway. If someone looks at me and thinks I’m gay, they’re just accurate. But for Nick, he wants to be perceived as who he is, which I think he deserves to be.”

Pereira encouraged Galluccio to care less about other people’s potential judgments. When Galluccio would pull back from Pereira because he found some form of physical affection weird, Pereira would point out that Galluccio’s perception of what’s normal between friends is culturally specific. Pereira is Brazilian American, and it’s normal for Brazilian men to kiss each other on the cheek or put their arms around each other. There, these actions aren’t coded as gay.

American ideas of what’s normal between male friends isn’t based on something universal about men. Male friends in Korea engage in “skinship,” a term that refers to nonsexual physical affection—music videos for K-pop bands offer plenty of examples. After George W. Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia held hands while taking a stroll together in 2005, American news outlets informed their domestic audiences that it’s common in Arab cultures for men to hold hands. The same is true in India and various countries across Africa. High levels of gender segregation in these societies mean that people often form their most intimate relationships with people of the same gender. Some of these same societies condemn homosexuality, but because it’s treated as an aberration, sometimes even associated with the West, men don’t need to constantly prove that they’re straight. In countries such as Uganda, where physical affection between men is disappearing, scholars and writers link the change to the incursion of Western values.

Up until the early 20th century in the United States and Europe, you’d have no trouble spotting physical affection between men. In 1851, a young engineer named James Blake described staying up late the night before parting from his friend because “our hearts were full of that true friendship which could not find utterance by words, we laid our heads upon each other’s bosom and wept, it may be unmanly to weep, but I care not, the spirit was touched.” What crossed the line of manliness for Blake wasn’t laying his head on another man’s bosom but weeping. In Picturing Men, a study of thousands of ordinary photographs of men taken between the 1850s and 1950s, California State University, Fullerton professor John Ibson shows how men of all races, classes, and regions openly engaged in physical intimacy with other men. Common poses included sitting on each other’s laps, holding hands, or resting their head on the other man’s shoulder. Physical closeness was once a prime feature of male friendship.

As Galluccio began to examine his intuitions, he started to believe that his discomfort wasn’t always an accurate signal that something was wrong. But this new idea was disorienting. How could Galluccio know what he wanted if he’d been raised in a culture that denied him experiences such as emotional connection with other men? It’s a culture in which it’s common enough for men to be emotionally shut off that there’s a clinical term for what they’re experiencing: normative male alexithymia. Psychologists think some men have such trouble putting their feelings into words because of the way they are socialized to be tough and stoic.

About a year after Pereira accepted that he was gay, Galluccio began to wonder if he was also attracted to men. He was becoming more comfortable in close friendships—“But am I supposed to?” he asked himself. On a hike in a state park in Kentucky, Galluccio told Pereira that he thought he might be gay. Pereira ran through questions to detect desire for men, such as: Did Galluccio ever want to kiss a man? Was he attracted to Pereira? No and no. As far as Pereira could tell, nothing pointed in the direction of same-sex attraction, so he asked Galluccio what made him think he could be gay. Galluccio said he liked it when Pereira hugged him, and he missed Pereira when he was gone for a week. “Oh, that’s just intimacy,” Pereira said. “That’s just loving someone, being close to someone.” Galluccio had equated emotional intimacy with sexual attraction; he hadn’t known that it was possible to experience emotional intimacy in a platonic context—he’d only ever done so with a girlfriend.

Even though American men in the past openly expressed love for their same-sex friends, today, straight men look elsewhere for intimacy. Researchers found that while many heterosexual women felt more emotional intimacy with their female best friend than with a male romantic partner, that was generally not the case for heterosexual men. Their romantic partner was more likely to be their chief source of emotional intimacy. In a survey from 2021, men were about half as likely as women to report having recently received emotional support from a friend, and married men were significantly more likely than married women to say their spouse is the first person they talk to when they have a problem.

Men shy away from verbally affirming their friendships; about half of women said they told a friend they loved them within the past week, compared to one-quarter of men. Andrew Reiner, the author of a book about masculinity, concluded that the nearly 200 boys and men he interviewed tended to rely on male friends to solve specific problems that were unlikely to inspire judgment—what he called “targeted transparency.” These men and boys worried that their friends wouldn’t want to discuss their emotionally laden issues, or they didn’t want to “burden” others with their problems. If they sought emotional support, they generally turned to their romantic partners or female friends—forcing women to provide care for men that men aren’t giving to one another. One writer called the tendency for straight men to hoist all their emotional needs on their female romantic partners “emotional gold digging.”

On a webinar in which Galluccio and Pereira discussed their friendship, Galluccio described a dynamic he used to have with Art: “For me as a straight person, it’s been so easy . . . for me to go, ‘Well, I’m uncomfortable, so you need to change because I’m in the majority.’ ” Galluccio said he now knows there are multiple reasons that could explain his discomfort. Maybe “it’s a good and healthy boundary, but maybe there’s homophobia or perception issues or intimacy issues that I’ve just grown up with,” he said. Turning to Pereira, Galluccio said, “Just because I’m uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re wrong.”

Excerpted from The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center by Rhaina Cohen. 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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