- Society expects more from men as husbands, fathers, but men expect too little from each other. Tweet This
- It’s not difficult to see how friendships built almost entirely on shared activities and interests do not prepare men for dating. Tweet This
- Compared to women, men often have far less experience communicating openly about their feelings, expectations, and needs. Tweet This
In a video posted on social media, a distraught young woman recounts receiving this message moments before her date arrived to pick her up.
“Alright you shallow b****, don’t judge my car.”
Confused and alarmed, the young woman expressed her discomfort at which point her would-be date grew defensive. He eventually texted an apology. But it was too little, too late.
You could chalk it up to another example of men behaving badly. Except, I don’t think that’s quite it. There are so many of these stories. As I’ve noted previously, these “dating disasters” seem to disproportionately involve men making cringey, inappropriate, or offensive comments.
I don’t think most men are purposefully trying to sabotage their romantic opportunities. Rather, compared to women, men often have far less experience communicating openly about their feelings, expectations, and needs. Many women develop these skills through their friends. Men don’t, and that’s a critical deficit.
The late author Jeffrey Zaslow, writing in the Wall Street Journal about his own friendship experience, argued that male friendships are just different. Men spend their time doing things, not discussing them. Personal sharing and messy feelings are mostly absent. He writes:
I've played poker with the same guys every Thursday night for 18 years. We rarely talk about our lives. We talk about cards, betting, bluffing. I used to say that my poker buddies don't even know my kids' names. But then I wondered if I was exaggerating. So one night I turned to my left at the poker table and casually asked my friend Lance: "Hey Lance, could you name my children?"
He couldn’t. I think a lot of men can relate. I certainly could. I had dinner recently with a friend in his thirties who spent several hours the previous weekend playing video games with a few childhood friends. His parents later asked how everyone was doing—what was happening in their lives? My friend had no idea. “It didn’t come up,” he said.
Friendships are the first relationships we develop outside of our family. They are incredibly important developmentally and offer early lessons in empathy, compassion, and reciprocity. Friendships can teach us healthy ways to manage disagreements, resolve conflict, show affection, and practice intimacy. But men and women approach friendship quite differently. Ignoring problems, minimizing feelings, taunting, and teasing are not effective ways to communicate with your partner or spouse, but it’s how a lot of men learn to communicate with each other.
It is oft noted that female friendships are more fraught than male friendships. But the friction in female friendship is more likely a reflection of the greater emotional investment women make in them. A 2021 survey we conducted found that women talk with their friends more often than men. They express their feelings more openly and often with their friends, share personal challenges and troubles, and seek out support and validation.
We should recognize the real value that male friendships offer while acknowledging their limitations as well. Activity-based friendships endure only so long as the activity does. As priorities change, and people move away, it becomes more difficult to sustain these relationships. In an interview with Quartz, New York Times columnist Ezra Klein explains:
There’s a lot more discomfort, particularly among young men, with friendships that are [rooted in] talking about what’s going on in your life, and talking about how you’re feeling. But if your friendship is based on activities—on hanging out, playing video games, doing sports, or whatever manly things we’re supposed to be doing—then as your life changes, as you move away, have children, or you get married, and you have a job, then how do you keep those friendships up? Because the material that they were based on is no longer there. And so the friendships fall away.
The solution is not to find new pastimes, but to base friendships on something more than golf, Marvel, or a shared enjoyment of IPAs. Creating more male-oriented spaces, such as a “man park,” is not the answer either. Men need new ways of relating to each other. After all, intimacy is not a feminine quality, and emotional support is a fundamental human need.
It’s not difficult to see how friendships built almost entirely on shared activities and interests—doing things—do not prepare men for dating. When you’re getting to know someone for the first time, being curious, asking questions, listening, and being empathetic become especially important. So many of the dating disasters you read about feature some deficiency in these critical skills.
It’s not that men do not need or want to talk about their personal triumphs, commiserate about their disappointments, or share their insecurities. Rather, men more often feel they cannot rely on their male friends for it. Zaslow writes:
Research shows that men often open up about emotional issues to wives, mothers, sisters, and platonic female friends. That's partly because they assume male friends will be of little help. It may also be due to fears of seeming effeminate or gay. But it's also an indication that men compartmentalize their needs; they'd rather turn to male friends to momentarily escape from their problems.
And so, it falls to women. Many heterosexual men seek out these experiences exclusively from the women in their life, whether it’s a partner or platonic friend. Thus, men’s emotional development becomes an unwelcome burden that women are increasingly refusing to take on.
Societal expectations for men are changing rapidly. We expect more from men as husbands, partners, and fathers than we once did. Men are meant to be attentive fathers and emotionally engaged spouses. Maybe it’s time for men to expect more from their friendships as well.
Daniel A. Cox is the director and founder of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
Editor's Note: This essay was first published in the author's newsletter, American Storylines. It has been republished here with permission.
*Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash