I tell my best friend that I love her at the end of each phone conversation. And sometimes I’m hit with a profound feeling of gratitude that inspires a sappy text or email: I don’t know what I’d do without you. And that’s genuinely true — because we share our history, our secrets, our deepest fears and biggest mortifications. We have an intimate relationship, my bestie and I, and my life is so much better for it.
But my husband’s friendships aren’t the same. He has his buddies, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say on the phone, “Yeah, I’ll be over in a little bit with a six-pack of Founder’s IPA. Love you!” The relationships he has with his friends are unlike the ones I share with mine. Less intense. Less warm. Less expressive. If he mentions his problems to them, it’s in passing; there are no in-depth discussions about how they’re feeling, no crying on shoulders, and emotional support in a crisis is pretty much limited to, “Man, that’s fucked up,” and an uncomfortable scuffing of feet and the offer of another beer.
I know that men and women are fundamentally different in a lot of ways. But I also have four sons, ages 12 and under, whose friendships with their closest pals look a lot more like the ones I have with my friends than the ones their dad has with his. They’ll walk with their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, watch YouTube videos with their heads pressed together, cheer vigorously for one another during games, and spend hours making the perfect drawing of Pokémon because they know it’s their friend’s favorite. I know that the capacity for a meaningful, expressive relationship is there because I see it all the time.
But I’m afraid that as they get older, the closeness they have with their best friends will fizzle out, as most male relationships tend to do. Because as boys grow into men, society tells them that same-sex intimacy equals homosexuality (not true, of course) and that homosexuality is wrong (ugh, don’t even get me started).
After a certain age, boys feel — maybe not even consciously, but still keenly — that it’s no longer normal or acceptable to openly show their love to their friends or even love them in the first place. If an older boy appears to be too close to a male friend, people automatically turn a suspicious eye. Society tells boys they should be emotionally independent and less vulnerable. And their friendships suffer as a result. The tightly knit bonds of these wonderful friendships begin to fray, and boys are left to stuff their feelings and navigate the world without the support that only an intense, intimately familiar friendship can provide.
Even if we don’t mean to, it’s not fair that we cheat our sons out of maintaining the deep connections that they’re clearly and wholeheartedly forming. These are friendships that could enrich their lives, keep them from feeling lonely and isolated, provide the critical connection and support system that every human needs. We hope they someday find these things in a romantic partner, but if they don’t — what then? And even if they do, there’s a profound difference between a romantic relationship and a close friendship, spaces that a spouse can’t possibly fill.
Our boys are just as eager to form attachments to their friends as our girls are. The problem is, it’s a trait that’s valued in women — we’re encouraged to show love, appreciation, and affection to our girlfriends, and to be vulnerable with them — but those same behaviors are frowned upon in men.
And it’s time to change it.
I don’t want my sons to grow up with a lonesome void where their most meaningful social relationships should be, just because our society clings to a misguided idea of what heterosexual male friendships “should” look like. I don’t want them to try to salve that corrosive loneliness with alcohol, or drugs, or an endless string of emotionally unsatisfying sexual conquests. They deserve to be able to vent their sadness and frustration openly to a close confidante, and if that comes with tears or hugs or outbursts, nobody should bat an eye.
The permission for, and normalization of, deep bonds between boys and their friends starts with me. With you. With everybody who loves a boy. We can stop perpetuating macho stereotypes like “boys don’t cry.” We can stop telling our sons to “man up.” We can start allowing them to feel their emotions, encouraging them to talk it through.
We can talk about our closest friends, and how important they are, and let our boys see by example that deep friendship — for both sexes — is crucial and healthy and normal. And we can be openly affectionate with them, so that they in turn can be openly affectionate with everyone that they value.
Because true, intimate friendships are a gift. And we’ve been withholding that gift from our boys for far too long.