Why every man needs a bromance in his life
We still go to the pub and watch sport together, writes John Brennan, but male friendships are evolving into giving hugs, talking through problems and not always having to act tough
Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30
It's a Saturday night in mid December and me and my mate Declan are enjoying a night in. Conor McGregor is due to fight at 5am and we've lit the fire for a long night ahead.
I'm cooking a steak dinner for the pair of us - with garlic and chilli fried king prawns, boiled potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, onions and, of course, plentiful pepper sauce. Declan has supplied the beer for the evening and we've gone halves on some whiskey. The actual event doesn't start until about 2am, and it'll be another three hours before McGregor takes to the octagon. So, we pass the time talking about football, about college, about women, about life and about our jobs - everything and anything.
We manage to stave off sleep and, when McGregor drops Aldo in the first round, we look set for a row. Declan has been staunchly against the Irish fighter, while I'm a fan. I celebrate and he sulks. The next day we go for pints. This is male bonding at its best - in fact, this is bromance.
The quintessential man's man Muhammad Ali once said that: "Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It's not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything." But have men learned to value their friendships in the way that women do?
In recent years - mirroring the rise of the metrosexual man - the idea of men having a BFF, or bromance, in their life has become more socially acceptable. Gone are the days when storming the beaches of Normandy or venturing into Vietnamese jungles was the only sure-fire path to male friendship. Just look at how Hollywood has tapped into the trend, with 'bromantic' movies such as The Hangover, I Love You, Man and Superbad all giving quirky adaptations of the modern friendship.
The changing representation of male friendships and masculinity on TV and in films is to be welcomed, says Allison Keating, a psychologist at the BWell Clinic in Dublin's Malahide.
"I've been impressed by how in popular culture even the term 'bromance' is making it more acceptable for men to be more physically affectionate, in terms of giving each other hugs," she says. "I actually think that physical act is very important because you do get a lot of support from something as simple as a hug.
"What I worry about is at the other end of the spectrum - when men don't open up and don't show normal vulnerabilities with anxieties or feelings of depression. If they are not sharing that with friends, they begin to feel isolated and get caught in a spiral of hopelessness and helplessness. Friends are such a natural antidote to these two vicious feelings."
At age 27, I hug my friends, I high five them, we do the whole 'shaking-hands-in-a-manly-way-whilst-kind-of-chest-bumping-and-back-slapping-each-other' thing - essentially acknowledging that we're close while still looking tough.
Would this have been acceptable behaviour in my dad's generation? I don't know. I genuinely can't ever remember seeing my dad hug one of his friends. He did have several lifelong pals, ones he always met either in the pub or out golfing. I remember being brought down to the pub the odd Sunday to watch Manchester United on the big TV and being shushed a lot. I remember thinking that they didn't talk all that much.
"The old stereotypical masculine persona was that you didn't show your weakness - by opening up you were giving yourself a perceived weakness," says Allison Keating. "But allowing people to see into your inner world and to your vulnerabilities is the only way to create friendship intimacy.
"Now, the role of masculinity in male friendship seems to be opening up more. It might be becoming somewhat easier for young men to form more open friendships, I think the culture of masculinity is changing and they are allowing that vulnerability to a degree."
This doesn't necessarily signify that I am closer to my friends than my dad was to his, but it's easier now for guys to express and convey friendship - something that every person, male or female, needs in their life, according to Galway-based clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne.
"Humans are a deeply social species whose most joyful and sad moments arise from the fulfilling or lack of 'belonging' with close others," she says. "Our sense of joy, self-worth and belonging develops in our early relationships with our parents and family, which over time progresses to the close bonds we form with everyone else, be they in female or male relationships.
"Time spent with emotionally warm adults in whose company you feel safe and at ease can give you a wonderful feeling of well-being. A meeting of the minds or a good laugh with the right person can activate optimal levels of your 'feel-good' brain chemicals and drastically lower your stress levels. These endorphins can act as a natural pain reliever, whilst the serotonin release can serve as an antidepressant or mood lifter without the side effects."
However, it's not just as simple as men taking the lead from women. Clinical psychologist and mental health advocate Dr Eddie Murphy says that men and women communicate differently at a basic level: "Women talk face to face, men talk shoulder to shoulder."
Does this "shoulder to shoulder" explain why men tend to bond through sport, be it on a GAA team, the golf course or just a five-a-side kickabout? It's not quite that clear-cut, Dr Murphy explains. "Proximity is a big factor in friendships, it's not because of the competitiveness per se of the sporting arena that you've made friends - it's because of the proximity. If you're playing football and you train twice a week and play once - it's not because of the competitiveness that you're friends, it's because you're there three times a week."
But away from sporting environments, is it difficult for men to strike up new friendships? After all, not all of us are still in contact with our school friends.
"It is harder to form new bonds as you get older - the older you get, the more fully developed you are as a person," says Paul (25) who lives in Kimmage, Dublin. "If you grow up with somebody, you grow up with their interests as well as your own. You develop together. With my generation, so many people are emigrating and it's harder to maintain friendships - life gets in the way."
He adds that as he gets older, he finds it "harder as a man to make new friends. If you meet someone new, it's hard to say 'do you want to go for a pint?' You'll feel silly - it's an inherently male thing that you're afraid to expose yourself."
Social enterprise worker Chris (32) agrees that factors like emigration are undoubtedly affecting friendships nowadays. "I think you start losing friends [as you get older], partly due to things like emigration. People are moving all the time now." However, he points to social media as a mechanism which guys increasingly use to keep in touch. "People are on Facebook now - I am far more in touch with what's going on in people's lives now than I would have been in the past."
There can be a gulf between keeping in touch online and real-life interaction, however, according to Dublin-based photographer and film-maker Doug (45). "As a single, middle-aged guy, if most of the people you meet are guys with children, it's very hard to arrange something. So in that way I'm lucky a lot of my friends are creative types - actors or artists - and we have unusual schedules and unusual lives, and we don't necessarily have children or relationships so it's very varied," he says.
It's an important point - it seems that one of the most common reasons that men let friendships lapse is because they've settled into romantic relationships. But does putting all your eggs in the one friendship basket, so to speak, have an effect on the relationship too?
"Sometimes in sessions, female partners would complain that the man doesn't have any friends," says Tony Moore, a psychotherapist and relationship counsellor with Relationships Ireland. "Women tend to have a lot of friends and can chat about everything under the sun. Of course, you might have a situation where the woman may complain that the man is always out with his friends - drinking, going to sports events - so we have a complete divergence.
"It is important to recognise that we need friendships outside of our marriage or intimate relationships, we need a break from them sometimes. Men and women both need the same things from friendships - support and validation but the way men do that and women do that is very different, men use fewer words."
David C Bentall author of The Company You Keep: The Transforming Power of Male Friendship says it was the words of a college professor that informed his view of friendship. "Dr James Houston said: 'I believe that friendship is built on the mutual sharing of weakness.' I think he was right.
"If you and I are to become friends in a deep way, it involves candour, openness and honesty and sometimes we are reluctant to do that. We want to tell one another about the things we have achieved, what we have accomplished and about our victories - so getting together to talk about our challenges is not our got-to, natural reaction. Related to that is our pride, we don't want to say that we are struggling."
Admitting to struggles and showing vulnerability is something men have traditionally found difficult to do. However, it's a culture that is slowly changing, thanks, in part, to the rise and acceptance of the bromance.
"From an evolutionary perspective, where the caveman had to provide, and historically, where men were expected to defend during war times, boys and men were taught to be strong rather than be emotionally open or vulnerable," says Dr Malie Coyne. "When boys are told not to cry and to 'stay strong', they can lose touch with their feelings.
"Thankfully things are changing in Ireland, where there seems to be more of an acceptance of men expressing emotion. In the context of the alarming increase in mental ill health in Ireland and the staggeringly high rates of suicide, particularly among males, as a society we need to focus on men's well-being and building their emotional resilience."
I am lucky to have a number of close male friends and, while sometimes our conversations may have all the depth of a puddle, ultimately I know we can bring our problems to each other.
For example, I recently went for some drinks with a friend who had just gone through a fairly rough break-up. There was an implied understanding that we wouldn't directly address the elephant in the room. Eventually, I broached the subject and I was immediately glad that I had. Once I asked how he was, the conversation became a lot more frank and honest.
The late American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said that "the language of friendship is not words but meanings". When it comes to bromance, often us guys use just a single word layered with countless meanings - "Pints?"