Are male and female friendships really that different?

Remember that book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus"? It felt like it was everywhere. And it kind of was.

The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. And while it's viewed with a sceptical eye by many experts who say the book reinforces gender stereotypes, the whole idea that men and women are inherently can resonate with many of us.

All too often, we might magnify the importance of sex differences.  For example, research on men and women leaders reveal more similarities than differences.  The same thing goes for male and female friendships. We’re all humans and we all have a need for friendship.

Having said that though, there are some overall gender differences that seem to influence the way we form and sustain our friendships.

Firstly, male friendships are more “instrumental” and less “emotional.”  Men are less likely than women to share their emotions and feelings (no surprise, huh?).  But men’s friendships are more “transactional”—involving shared activities (e.g., golf or playing poker), or working together on projects.  One UK study found that working class men tend to focus on material goods and services (such as fixing each other’s cars, or exchanging tools), while upper and middle-class men tend to share leisure activities, such as attending sporting events, travel, or entertainment.

The stereotype of men bonding by watching the State of Origin on the couch drinking a beer is rooted in some truth. When comparing friendship intimacy levels in men and women, a UCLA study found "men were more likely to prefer doing some activity with friends, were more likely to engage in activities with their best friend and were more likely to talk to their best friend about activities. Women's friendships appeared oriented toward personal sharing of information; men's friendships showed an emphasis on joint activities."

Female friendships, by contrast are more emotionally intimate, and bonding time is more face-to-face. In one study, researchers found that women prefer to foster friendships one-on-one through conversation, which creates a lot of opportunity to get close. All that talking about thoughts, feelings, and other mushy stuff really builds up intimacy.

Secondly, men don’t appear to do as much relationship ‘maintenance.’  While women tend to meet, call, or text their friends regularly, men don’t feel as much need to stay in touch with their male friends. I used to be somewhat gobsmacked when a male partner would hear from a ‘close’ friend only to find out that they had lost their job, split with their partner, had a child or some other major life event had happened to which my partner was oblivious too. But it wasn’t that he wasn’t a caring and committed friend, it was more the way these friendships worked.

Thirdly, male friendships tend to be less intimate and less supportive.  This is certainly no surprise.  Although men can have close friends, the level of social support among male friend besties is nowhere near the same level as among women.  There is some evidence, however, that women’s friendships can be more fragile than those of men. Whilst both men and women friendships can erupt into anger, with emotional outbursts, women can hold a grudge for some time, whereas men are more likely to get over strained friendships more quickly.

The similarities between male and female friendships far outweigh the differences listed here, and, of course there is huge individual variation, as always. But is there anything about these differences to be concerned with?

Perhaps that the kind of bonding and connection that happens while watching a flat screen doesn't establish the same kind of intimacy as a one-on-one gab session over a bottle of wine.

The result? Men tend to rely heavily on romantic relationships for that super-close feeling of connection.

There's nothing wrong with having expectations that your romantic partner would fulfil your real, human need for intimacy. The problem might occur if men receive the message from society that they can only have a close emotional relationship with their romantic partners. This could cause men to prioritise romance in a way that many don't. For example, one survey found that 79% of men would need "a strong, loving marriage" to feel they were "having it all" while 66% of women felt the same.

That ends up putting a whole lot of pressure on romantic relationships to fulfil their need for emotional intimacy. That means that when a breakup happens, men without these strong, intimate friendships tend to feel more alone and isolated.

Since the way women often form their platonic friendships places less pressure on getting their connection needs met from one romantic relationship, the feelings of isolation from a breakup are usually less extreme.

Maybe it's time we change how we view male friendships. That means no more "bromance" jokes.

I mean, when you think about it, it's a little weird that we have a different label for close male one-on-one friendships. And notice that the word choice likens their close bond to a romantic one. We don't have a comparable term for female friendships, so why should we for men?

Let's normalise close, one-on-one friendship for men and boys. Because it’s really just a need for friendship and connection. And we all have that need. Whoever we are.



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