I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately, and I have a few questions. What does it mean “to be friends with” another person? And why is it that men and women seem to have vastly different concepts of friendship?
I ask these questions because the whole friendship thing remains a mystery to me. I’ve always been more of a loner type, like my father. The idea of willingly spending large amounts of time in the company of someone of the same gender has never really rubbed off on me.
In my Jewish elementary school, I had a few friends, but my mother urged me not to call them that. “They’re not your friends, they’re playmates,” she’d insist. In third and fourth grade, my favorite playmate was Chaim, but the next year we had a fight over some trivial thing, started pulling each other’s hair, and that was pretty much the end of it. It would never have worked out anyway. I hear he became super Orthodox, while I defected to the secular world.
Back then, it seemed that friendship was a kind of bargaining chip, coin of the realm that could be spent to purchase favors. “I’ll be your best friend” was often the whining refrain when one kid was trying to coax another to do his bidding.
I had what I thought was a good friend in sixth grade, but then came the macrocosm of junior high and we drifted off in separate directions. Even in high school, a year seemed to be the statute of limitations on anything approaching friendship.
I guess I’ve always done my own thing. I never wanted the kind of commitment that friendship implied. It was just too much work. Why would you want to waste hours of precious time allowing another to cry on your shoulder? Get a life, I would think. If you need to unburden yourself of your problems, find a good therapist. At least they get paid to listen to your insipid whining about your evil boss and your even more evil mother-in-law.
I do realize how fortunate I am. I have a wonderful boss and a delightful mother-in-law. I’m sorry that you don’t. Sucks to be you, but I really don’t want to hear it, certainly not when it’s the same dumb thing over and over again. I don’t mean to sound cruel and heartless, it’s just that I have problems of my own and I lack the emotional energy to deal with yours also.
I must say that, despite how cliché this has become, my wife really is my best friend. She understands me on a level that no one else does. She knows what I’m thinking almost before I think it. I don’t feel comfortable making any decision without consulting her — not because I feel the need to ask for permission (although it doesn’t hurt!), but because she consistently has insights that never would have occurred to me.
The funny thing about my wife, though, is that, unlike me, she has many friends. Some of her friendships stretch back to childhood days while others are of more recent vintage. Either way, she has the knack for the proper care and feeding of a friendship so that it stays healthy and matures over the years. I am envious.
The gender stereotypes surrounding friendship are many. Men friends watch sports together; women friends go shopping together. Men friends pump fists, arm wrestle, borrow each other’s tools and go out drinking together. Women friends gossip about mutual acquaintances, swap kid stories and meet at Starbucks to get away from the house and console each other regarding their mean ol’ husbands.
Aha! It’s obvious now. Male friendships are largely physical, while female friendships are largely emotional. No wonder women’s friendships are more sustainable. The physical can only last so long. The emotional, on the other hand, is much deeper and has the potential to continue indefinitely.
The problem with stereotypes, however, is that they are usually false, even when accepted to the point of becoming conventional wisdom. Lately, I seem to keep running across guys who serve as emotional support for one another. You see this on TV all the time, from the 1980s show thirtysomething to the current Mad Men.
Perhaps I am just a sexist old fart, but despite the feel-good man buddy stuff on TV, I believe that women tend to have longer, stronger friendships because they are often better communicators. Even in this modern age, there are still plenty of men out there who don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings. In my experience, it is more common for women to be willing to share openly with others and to have the kind of empathy that is the stuff of which good friendships are made. A lot of men could take a lesson from this.
As for myself, I am forced to conclude that my lack of long-term friendships is a product of self-centeredness. Any type of relationship is an equation in which the two sides must balance. In terms of quantity, you only get out of it as much as you put into it. Or in terms of quality, the GIGO rule applies (garbage in, garbage out).
On the other hand, I don’t feel as if my life is in any way diminished by a lack of close friendships. Between our extended family and my many acquaintances at work, there are more than enough significant people in my life already.
But I still admire those who cultivate friendships early and then nurture them for decades. Somehow, that seems like something special.