Buddy System

Understanding men and their friendships.

Obama Is Typical of Men His Age When It Comes to Friendships

Obama and his Hawaii friends

Much has been made about what a loner President Obama is. But then we read that he has played multiple rounds of golf with his childhood friends (the Choom Gang) on his recent vacation in Oahu. We also learn that the old high school gang has been getting together almost every year in Hawaii for the past decade. At the same time, recent reports describe the President as having more time on his hands now that his daughters are growing up and spreading their adolescent wings. He may need those childhood friends even more now. If so, he would be typical of many men his age.

Interviews I directed with close to 400 adult American men of all races revealed friendship behaviors (see Buddy Sisten: Understanding male friendships) into which Mr. Obama neatly fits.

First, men often have categories of friendship. They have: must friends, people they call within 24 hours if something cataclysmic occurs, such as a significant loss or winning the lottery; trust friends, people they enjoy being with and with whom they can have an honest conversation but who do not sit within the inner circle; just friends, people who are acquaintances; and rust friends, guys from high school or the neighborhood who knew and accepted everyone in the group before adulthood intervened. For many men, being with rust friends is a chance to revert back to being 16 again. If one’s childhood was happy and uncomplicated, it means finding an oasis from the present.  Some rust friends are also must friends while other rust friends are only seen at reunions.  After all, the kid who was a boor at 16 may still be avoided 35 years later. For those men who have achieved great success in adulthood, returning to the friends who liked them in the old days, their rust friends, can be a refuge from those who only want to be with them for their trappings.

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Second, friends vary in importance for men across the lifespan. In high school, they are paramount. But with marriage, family, and career, men have less time for friendships. They are balancing too many relationships, including having time for their partner and time to be alone. It is often in middle adulthood, when careers are established, children are seeking autonomy and pushing parents away, and a marriage has stabilized, that men have more time on their hands and seek out friends again.

Third, not all men need a lot of friends. One man who was interviewed said he was content having his one high school friend as his only friend. He told me that when he was 60. Mr. Obama was victorious in 2012, his daughters are the right age, he has a strong marriage, and a handful of friends. He is right where he should be developmentally with his rust friendships.

Is Mr. Obama an introvert by nature? If so, that makes establishing new friendships a little more difficult for him especially when so few peers exist. Should he (or Mrs. Obama) decide he needs more friends, he should note two things: men feel more comfortable in shoulder-to shoulder relationships – men like to do things with other guys (women feel more comfortable in face-to-face relationships) – so find an activity that both can enjoy (outside of visiting the Situation Room); and men do not like high maintenance friendships. Men tend to make friends with guys who are similar in their level of self-revelation. Spilling top secrets would not be a good way to begin; lamenting about children growing up is safer.

Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

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