friendship friendships gender relationships self

Where Have All My Guy Friends Gone?

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Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Everett Collection

I have always thought of myself as a “guy’s girl.” I have two brothers whom I text with almost daily; I still see the gaggle of dudes I hung out with in high school whenever I visit my hometown; and once, in college, a guy friend asked me if I peed standing up. So it’s not shocking that, when my husband, Jon, and I moved cities 15 years ago, our first new friend was Brent.

Brent was the rare friend we shared equally. We often spent time together as a threesome, going out to bars or cooking the Momofuku pork shoulder recipe in one of our apartments. But we each hung out separately, too. I would meet up with Brent for a drink when Jon was too busy with work, he and Jon would catch a show when I was busy with grad school or other friends. Once, when Jon was out of town and I was in a rough place, Brent took me out dancing, and everything seemed better after a night awash in the particular and satisfying attention of a man who thinks the world of you but isn’t trying to fuck you.

We remained close friends, the three of us, for years. And then, Brent found someone. I liked her right away — adored her, really. We double dated, I got her number, and the two of us bonded over our love of Rachel Cusk and, later, over motherhood. She and I formed an artists’ group, meeting weekly all through the pandemic and going on retreats with the other women in the group. Meanwhile, I drifted away from Brent. We stopped texting and hanging out, just the two of us. Everything I knew about Brent now came secondhand from his wife or from my husband who occasionally still joined him for a round of golf.

I had never stopped to consider this loss until, on a recent transatlantic flight, I rewatched My Best Friend’s Wedding. I was surprised at how well the 30-year-old classic Julia Roberts rom-com held up — and also how I’d misremembered the plot. It’s not a movie about a woman who is in love with her best friend; it’s a movie about a woman who knows that, once her best friend is married, their friendship will never be the same. As my second Ativan kicked in, I wept for Julia but also for myself and for Brent.

It’s not a movie about a woman who is in love with her best friend; it’s a movie about a woman who knows that, once her best friend is married, their friendship will never be the same.

Then I thought about Dustin, my bestie from my college semester in Prague, who had saved me from an intolerable Slavic winter, and also from myself. Chris (whose name I’ve changed here for privacy reasons), my daughter’s godfather, who made me feel like the funniest woman alive. Leo, with whom I’d founded an ill-fated education start-up in grad school and shared hotel rooms at conferences. Though I spend endless hours cultivating my female friendships, I realized it had been months, in some cases years, since I’d truly connected with any of these men. They’d all found long-term romantic partnerships with other women and, like my friendship with Brent, our own long-term non-romantic partnerships had faded into our respective backgrounds. What is it about men and women pairing off, ostensibly for a lifetime, that cleaves them from the non-romantic pairings that had once been so easy, so vital?

Much of what is written about friendships between men and women follows the plot of When Harry Met Sally: Straight men and women can’t be friends because there will always be the threat of sexual attraction. Reductionistic and old-fashioned, that theory doesn’t accurately capture my experience. I could only remember one friendship with a guy that I had cooled off because it felt inappropriate, and I’ve never picked up on any of my friends’ partners feeling threatened by me. When I turned to my female friends for solidarity and, hopefully, a more nuanced take, I was shocked by the immediate identification with my predicament.

One friend wrote, “I’ve known and loved this dude for years, why do I get stuck with his mate, who I don’t know as well, just because we’re the same gender?” Another saw this pattern as an example of women doing emotional labor for their partners, describing how her husband tended to take over her longer-standing relationships with male friends, and “through no effort of his own gets the benefits of my relationships without having done any work to maintain them, so I resent him, too.” Some noted that this shift is due to women’s tendency to be better communicators, which puts them in the position of becoming the point-person for their husband’s female friends as well.

There were other women I spoke with who didn’t think of the deterioration of their male friendships as a loss, whether because their friends’ new female partners tended to be more interesting or because the men in their lives didn’t evolve in the ways that kept their connections with women and gender-nonconforming folks so rich. I’ve experienced these kinds of male friends, too — the ones who can’t keep up, usually the ones who never make it into therapy. But I’ve also found something unique in my relationships with men, something that talking to other women who also loved their male friends helped me articulate.

In his 2001 book, Women and Men as Friends: Relationships Across the Life Span in the 21st Century, psychologist Michael Monsour argues that cross-sex friendships enrich our social networks, something one of the women who love guy friends I spoke to referred to as “inter-gendered stretching.” I could see proof of this even in my young children. Though they tended toward same-gendered playmates, the cross-gendered friendships they did have – the neighbor girl who dove into elaborate art projects with my war-obsessed son, the boys who built pillow forts with my ethereal daughter — helped nurture important, sometimes neglected aspects of their personalities.

Allison, 38, describes her guy friends as more playful; she could do “bits” with them that her female friends would never think of. Like me, 46-year-old Priti revealed that she’d always been more comfortable with men than with women. “With women, I always wonder what they’re really thinking,” she told me, “and worry about offending them just by being frank.” She’s had female friends stew on some issue for years, something she can’t imagine with her guy friends, who she feels she more naturally hashes things out with on the spot. A few of her guy friends have even asked for her honest opinion about whether they should marry their partner and moved past it when her response was negative. She finds it difficult to imagine a world where this kind of conversation wouldn’t be a landmine with a female friend.

In his book, Monsour points out how social and structural barriers interfere with the formation of cross-sex friendships at every stage of life. I had endured the boys-versus-girls schoolyard segregation, gathered male friends in high school and college when there seemed to be more opportunity for co-mingling, only to find them slip away in my era of early marriage and child-rearing. If there were structures working against me, I thought, they were likely to be invisible ones, all the more difficult to sniff out.

Many, many women I talked to repeated the implicit rule that they were allowed to stay connected to the guy friends they made before partnering but not to make new ones. This was rarely about, as the old tropes say, jealousy on the part of spouses or a clear suspicion that these relationships were destined to be sexual. Rather, it just felt not okay to build connections with men beyond acquaintance once everyone was partnered. Men also experienced this taboo in their efforts to make new female friends, something my brother Ben referred to as “not kosher.”

Julia, who is a 42-year-old American expat living in France, described a friendship with a dad in her kids’ international-school community, whom she quickly identified as her “favorite person” in town. She’d recently lost her only brother and was excited to make a new guy friend. Since she became a mother, Julia had found that, while she and other moms were consumed with the daily tasks of child-rearing, her male friends often had more time to read or dive deep into criticism and theory, and she loved siphoning off their ideas. She found this new dad friend similarly interesting but realized that, in their highly gendered community, there was no way she could ask him out for a drink — it wouldn’t be kosher. So they ended up jogging together, an activity they both liked that seemed productive enough not to be viewed as purely for pleasure, which would have, in Julia’s view, been mildly threatening. In their social circle, hangouts were heavily gendered, and even though her husband approved of the relationship — she’d explicitly asked him for his consent to pursue the friendship — he and others often teased Julia for having a “boyfriend.” She was frustrated by the assumptions from others, even facetious ones, that their friendship must involve romance or infidelity but felt trapped by these assumptions anyway.

So they kept running, often in the rain, and to the point where, she joked, her body was getting “gristly.” I was inspired by Julia’s dedication to whatever form of this friendship she could manage and also deeply depressed about its limitations. When her runner moved to Stockholm, she found herself grieving and bored. But who would have understood her seriously mourning the loss of what seemed like just an exercise buddy?

I would almost rather give up my sexual liberty than my friendship liberty.

In her book, The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life With Friendship at the Center, journalist Rhaina Cohen details our historically recent obsession with marriage as the be-all, end-all, noting how many modern wedding ceremonies include spouses proclaiming that they are each other’s “best friends.” Indeed, many women told me that they felt their male friendships dropped off because, after the guy was married, he assumed all of his emotional needs would be met by his spouse. When I spoke to Cohen, she pointed to this upholding of romantic relationships above all else as one factor that limits cross-gender friendships but also cited our lack of imaginations around the idea that people can be compelled toward one another in non-sexual ways. “It does feel absurd to me,” she added, “that this is a conversation we’re having in the year of our Lord 2024.”

“I would almost rather give up my sexual liberty than my friendship liberty,” Julia told me. She sees the social barriers that keep partnered men and women from becoming friends as akin to fear of sexual non-monogamy in that they project a desperate need to uphold the nuclear family at all costs, an aspect of married life she feels she “didn’t sign up for.” Once people have monogamously partnered up and had children, she believes, many people “become arch-conservatives who are terrified about the sanctity of family life.” Sexual monogamy is apparently not enough to protect couples — social monogamy is also demanded.

At the end of our conversations, many of the women I spoke with told me that just having the time and space to think about this topic gave them a renewed drive to pursue male friendships, despite convention. Priti, for example, found a way to protect her friendship with an old guy friend from her husband’s well-meaning encroachment, by asking him to “back off” a bit when they all spent time together, remembering to schedule one-on-one time outside of their couple hangs. “We are not living in a world of infinite friend resources,” Julia admitted. She felt she’d learned something from settling for an unsatisfying version of friendship with her runner, then losing what she had. “I’m gonna keep fighting for it,” she told me. “If I find someone who I think is funny or cool, maybe I’ll say, ‘I know we live in a crazy world where this isn’t done, but I really would like to be friends with you.’”

With this encouragement, I texted Dustin, my college friend from our semester abroad, to see how he was faring. I reminded him that it was the 20th anniversary of our storied five months in Prague, and we joked about what a reunion pilgrimage would look like with a bit more perspective and a bit less pivo in our bloodstreams. When I flew to visit a girlfriend who happened to live in the same city as Leo, my grad-school bestie, I told him I wanted to see him and, when he asked if I wanted to come over and hang with his family, admitted that I was greedy for solo time. We sat across from each other at a Korean diner, and I let the inter-gendered stretching fill me with joy and possibility. I am still crafting and re-crafting a message to Brent, though I am trying to approach it with the tenderness I would any relationship that had been neglected and needed care, rather than censoring myself with imaginary guidelines.

The rewards feel palpable, I need men who are more than just love interests — or, in My Best Friend’s Wedding parlance, I need Jell-O as much as I need crème brûlée. When I begin to feel awkward or beholden to convention, I try to conjure the special joy that spending time with Brent will bring me. To repurpose another familiar line — there won’t be marriage, there won’t be sex … but, by God, there’ll be dancing.

Related

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Sarah Wheeler , 2024-05-22 13:00:03

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