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Of Male Bondage

This essay first appeared in the "My Turn" column of Newsweek magazine on June 21, 1982. The editors wanted it to appear in mid-June because they felt it had an oblique connection to Father's Day. I had sent this same essay to Newsweek the year before, and it was rejected immediately. 


When I came upon it a year later when cleaning out a desk drawer, I thought about revising it but, being rushed for time, I simply sent it in again with no changes. Amazingly, it was accepted. The editor explained that she had just been promoted to the position and had therefore not seen the essay last year. So I think that the famous cliché on determination should be revised to: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again next year when, with a little luck, the tasteless editor who rejected you has been replaced."


First came Lucy and Ethel; later there were Mary and Rhoda. Whether in television series or in the modern America they portray, females seem to have a monopoly on meaningful, intimate friendships that flourish through sun and storm alike. The typical male friendship, unfortunately, comes in one climate only: fair weather.


I've always been amazed at the nurturing emotional support that my wife can seek and return with her close female friends. Often the most intimate and intense problems are shared and therefore diminished through empathy. Her three-hour talks with friends refresh and renew her far more than my 3-mile jogs restore me. In our society it seems as if you've got to have a bosom to be a buddy.


Six years ago, on the evening before we moved across country, my wife's best friend came over for the final goodbye. Their last hugs were so painful to witness that I finally had to turn away and leave the room. It was then I began wondering why men so rarely share such poignant relationships, and I came to a number of troubling conclusions regarding the problems inherent in close male friendships.


Such friendships must ignore the dictates of American culture. We've been raised with positive male images that only sanction either standing alone or standing together as a team. If we need more companionship than that offered by the role model of the solitary hero (John Wayne), then we must seek it in a pack on baseball teams, in bars, or at Rotary meetings. The male twosome is rare and seems designed more for combat than comfort. Whether the setting is the tennis or the law court, men are expected to compete to win sets or suits against The Opponent.


So even when two males build a lasting friendship, its foundation is usually a shared interest in some type of competition, be it occupational or recreational. And that almost ensures that the relationship will never deepen into intimacy but rather stay at a superficial and guarded level. The very stuff that intensifies an acquaintanceship into a devoted friendship seems reserved in our society for women only. Although feelings of need, warmth, insecurity, and deep emotion know no gender, it is only women who express them outwardly and use their feelings as seeds for sowing loving relationships. Men nurture their feelings only inwardly and later harvest heart attacks.


The problem is that vulnerability is not accepted as a healthy component of male friendship. Granted, the women's movement has made great strides in convincing men that vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of but is instead a badge of humanity. Suddenly, to be male and vulnerable is to be utterly acceptable -- but only to women. The same wolves who used to prowl singles bars in the macho trappings of unbuttoned shirts and gold chains are now disguised in the sheep's clothing of sensitivity, suffering and miserable childhoods. The smart wolves know that Little Red Riding Hood wants to get into bed only with men who appear as understanding and soft as Granny.


But no men's movement has attempted to make men brothers by emphasizing that they can forge emotional bonds like those that make women consider themselves sisters. Let one male approach another with talk of needing a kindred spirit, and the listener will start looking for the closet from which the speaker must have emerged.


The lack of intimacy between men seems especially sad because such friendships could fulfill some of the emotional needs that used to be satisfied by nearby families, children and more secure marriages.


I'm not suggesting that all male friendships can be as rewarding as the best familial bonds between brothers. But we should not forget that there is a little boy within all men, that same little boy who most women claim makes men especially attractive to them. And that enduring child never completely stops looking for a buddy, a surrogate brother upon whom he can lavish some of those feelings of respect, pride and protectiveness that both sexes have always reserved for siblings. 


I'm sure that my wife's friends are in some sense surrogates for her cherished sister, who, for the past ten years, has been living far away. With many young marrieds moving from place to place, men might profit, as women have, from seeking closer friendships to combat the depression and loneliness that often accompany geographical roulette.


The days of the mythic male friendship, such as that enjoyed by Damon and Pythias, went out with the ancient Greeks and can hardly be expected to flourish again in modern America. But if men would begin to personalize the concept of brotherhood by seeking more fraternal bonds with other men, they would find their freedom of expression and indeed their happiness greatly enhanced. In America's own national mythology, Philadelphia stands as the symbol for two ideas that are more interconnected than many imagine: the birthplace of freedom is also the City of Brotherly Love.




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