Or how to make friends with your average man
Men and friendships are quite strange. I’ve been through periods in my life where I’ve struggled to maintain meaningful friendships. Part of this is because many male friendships are based on belonging or taking part in themed activities where the theme is the point, not the friendship.
Consider supporting a football club or golf or Rotary. Think about more rarified clubs like those who do ultramarathons or martial arts or belong to a reading group. Much of the time the nature of the people in the club doesn’t matter – they can be ‘a character’ or stand-offish or aloof or awkward but it doesn’t matter (thankfully) because we’re all here to do the same activity.
This is good because these clubs and social activities give us a route to making social connections we would otherwise not have. And loneliness among men is a chronic problem – and only grows worse as we get older sadly.
For me though, belonging to a club has never quite delivered the kind of relationships I want. The reason? I want to talk deep stuff, want to talk about how I’m feeling. I want to share where I’m scared and where I’m nervous and I want to hear about that for others. I don’t really, always, want to fix stuff even if that’s my go to mechanism in the way society has taught me to feel useful.
This is a problem because society, the way we teach men to be in relationships, strongly suggests that men need to not talk about their feelings and to try to conform to what the majority want. (I’m not saying this is unique to men, just that it’s a design feature of our cultural conditioning here in the UK).
Becoming a father has taught me as much about my relationships as it has about what I want from them. I have thought long and hard about what kind of relationships I wanted with my children and how to foster those and, largely, that’s what I’ve been fortunate enough to develop. I wanted relationships where I could be honest, where I would explicitly trust them and where they could, in return, risk trusting me. I’ve also thought about how I rolemodel other ways of being a man to both of them. For them both I’ve wanted them to understand men can be affectionate, prepared to admit they’re wrong, open about failure and success and capable of being openly excited. This has required me to change how I am as a person and, honestly, it’s been a strange but completely satisfying experience.
I’ve also explicitly set out not to fix every problem. I’ve set out to be someone who they can talk to, can ask for help from but also who will be there as they experiment with the clear message that failure is a normal part of life and, when it happens, we should talk about it, how we feel about it and how we respond both to the failure but also those feelings.
If this sounds sappy…well I don’t think it is. It’s been a hard process to choose that and then live it.
It’s also informed my other friendships. As one of my best friends commented a while back ‘you’re one of the most buttoned up people I know’. They meant, I think, that I keep my feelings to myself.
They are right. I do it because i fear people don’t want to know how I feel, that they see worth in me being capable not in being vulnerable. I fear that I am less likeable if I am expressive of my feelings. All these things are lies I believe in my soul. They are lies I’ve been taught throughout my life and that I see men being taught every day by each other, by women and by society through the stories we consume and the narratives we see across work, politics and daily life.
Of course I want to be indispensable. Of course I want to be a hero to others, to be respected and loved and seen as a pillar. But I’ve also got to reject these things because the way they’re defined is too alone, to much focused on what I do, not who I am in my community.
I’ve talked a lot about community recently as anyone who heard me speak at EasterCon could probably testify. The more I think about what I want from life the more I know it’s community where together we make great things, where together we live a good life and where together we understand our human frailties and accept one another completely.
I’m not losing my individuality but I think that I’m really only me when I’m also part of a community and that is why loneliness is so damaging. Sure, people come in flavours and many love alone time but none of us are uplifted by loneliness.
The cure to loneliness is belonging to a club in the same way that the the solution to being hungry isn’t going shopping. It’s part of it but it isn’t the whole thing. In philosophical terms it’s necessary but it isn’t sufficient.
Belonging is crucial. But belonging is so much more than doing something with someone else.
What I have found is that, largely, when I’ve taken the risk of talking about my feelings and my desires and my hopes and failures with others they talk about those things too. There’s some permission here that we’re all looking for but we too rarely offer one another.
If you have the chance today…try it with someone and see what comes back. It is the first step to building proper friendships.