Friday, February 6, 2009

Male Relationships

Women are often puzzled by the relationships that men form with other men. In their eyes men’s relationships seem so superficial because they don’t say much to each other. When male friends do talk it never seems to be about anything important; "How can men get to know each other if they don’t talk about personally deep issues?" When it comes to communication and relationships, men have been confined to the back seat.

Social Psychologist Carol Tavris says this view was not the predominant one until recently. From the time writing began, the great stories and epics have glorified male relationships — Hamlet and Horatio, Laurel and Hardy — while women were seen as solitarily engaged in solo activities like "rummaging around in the garden to gather the odd yam or kumquat." Furthermore, everyone knew that "Women prattle on about their feelings, went the stereotype, but men act."

Dr. Tavris suggests this all began to turn around in the 1970s when society began to "feminize" its definitions of intimacy and friendship. I remember that time because I was in graduate school and was told that relationships were about communication and sharing feelings. We male students scratched our heads and had to be taught about something called the therapeutic triad while the women students just nodded like they had learned this in grade school.

Almost all marriage therapists today work with their clients to help the men (usually) learn how to talk female talk by focusing on feelings, using language like "connection" and "life’s journey." Wives and lovers now insist they want a male who is sensitive, a good listener, funny, and "someone who will be there for them."

When women say they want intimacy from their partners they mean they want men to relate to them like their women friends do. This means talking about their feelings and sharing their problems — called "trouble talk" by Deborah Tannen in her book, You Just Don’t Understand.

During the time of the female revolution it was popular to downplay the differences between men and women. Unfortunately, this just made the old stereotypes into new stereotypes. In older times, the underlying belief was, "if only women could act like men," while the newer belief became, "if only men could talk like women."

In the 1980s the so-called "men’s movement" initiated by Robert Bly and others, urged men to express their feelings by doing male things like drumming. That’s exactly what some of them did. You can be reminded of this on a daily basis by watching TV: vitriolic news shows; Jim Cramer’s screaming comments on the stock market and other common male rants.

In a Time magazine essay (December 7, 1998) by Roger Rosenblatt entitled, The Silent Friendships of Men, Rosenblatt reminds people that men, in fact, have feelings but they are different. Their reality is different from women’s feelings. "They remain submerged, and the airing of them often violates their authenticity," he says. This doesn’t mean men can’t talk about their feelings but he believes that men’s brains have become programmed for silence. He tells the story of two famous men spending an evening together.

Wordsworth goes to visit Coleridge at his cottage, walks in, sits down and does not utter a word for three hours. Neither does Coleridge. Wordsworth then rises and, as he leaves, thanks his friend for a perfect evening.
Many men don’t need to keep in touch with their male friends on a daily basis like my sister and my wife often do. We can not have contact for weeks or months with our male friends and when we do there is no sense of regaining a loss nor a sigh of relief that our friend still wants us in his life.

Perhaps, Rosenblatt suggests, being alone might be something about who we are. Maybe we have been hardwired so that silence is our natural state. To most men we don’t have to continually renew our appreciation for each other. Once said, the affection we feel for each other is obvious, so why talk about it?

I saw a cartoon once that compared how men working together is different from the way women work together. A mother and her daughter were painting the inside of the house. The daughter was telling her mom about what her girl friends talked about in school, who was going with whom, how she felt when someone embarrassed her, etc. Her mom talked about when she and her husband met, what she wore on the first date, where they went, what they ate, funny stories about the date, etc. The next panel showed the father and son working on a car, The dad says, "In?" and the son replies, "Yep" That was it. What is difficult for women to understand is that the Dad and son were enjoying their time together just as much as the mother and daughter were.

Rosenblatt ends his article by telling about the death of his long time best friend. "I must have spoken," he says, "with my friend Campbell a total of a hundred times, yet I cannot recollect a single idea exchanged or the substance of a subject addressed."

This is not to say that all men are emotionally unavailable nor that some women don’t like solitude and action more than talking about feelings. But, there certainly seems to be a pattern here. If this were not so, why would so many people laugh at comedians who talk about the differences between men and women? For an example of this, check out A Tale of Two Brains.

Humor columnist, Joyce Maynard, thinks men’s emotional unavailability is a good thing. As much as she dislikes it, she is thankful that her husband’s emotions are protected and kept from her. Her self description is:

"I'm a walking set of nerve endings. I cannot read my sons a book called Love You Forever without crying. I take my emotional temperature (and that of those around me) hourly. Give me passion and even heartache any day over simple contentment. My husband would rather model his life on the "Cosby" show — no problem so large it can't be solved between 8 and 8:30."
As much as men and women need each other — possibly for different reasons, "if you know what I mean, and I think you do" — it is important that each gender has friends of the same gender so that we can deal with matching expectations. The research is beginning to show that females are communal from birth. Men’s brains are different. We enjoy our friends, though we may have fewer. We also enjoy our solitude to spend time with our thoughts.

Nevertheless, we know that we need to learn the new language of female talk. Rosenblatt is a bit cynical about men doing this. "One can make us talk counter to our genetic makeup, but it is like training kangaroos to box. It's mildly entertaining but pointless." This would be correct if there were no women on the planet. However, there are lots of them. If we men are to spend the rest of our lives with the woman we love, this may be the only reason we need to learn this skill.

It is also possible that this is only half of the equation. As Dr. Tavris say, "Maybe men could learn a thing or two about friendship from women. But who is to say, that women couldn't learn a thing or two from them in exchange?"

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