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Source: nikolaborovic/Shutterstock

Bromances can be important to heterosexual men, and can in fact be even more valued than romances. Professors Stefan Robinson, Adam White, and Eric Anderson of the University of Winchester in the U.K. interviewed 30 second-year university students, all of whom had experience (either currently or in the past) with a bromance and a romantic relationship with a woman. Their findings were just reported online in the journal Men and Masculinities.

A bromance, to the men in the study, was similar to a romance with a woman, except for the lack of any desire for sex. The participants said things like, “We are basically like a couple,” and “They are like a guy girlfriend.”

These bromances usually included:

  • Disclosure of personal matters.
  • Sharing secrets with the bromantic partner and no one else.
  • Overt expressions of emotions.
  • Feelings of trust and love.
  • Willingness to be vulnerable.
  • Hugging, kissing, and cuddling — all regarded as non-sexual. (All but one of the men said that they had cuddled with a bromantic partner. All 30 said that their physical interactions were not about sexual desire.)

The physical intimacy is perhaps the most surprising component of the bromances, especially considering that not so long ago, the stigma against intimacy between men was quite intense. Here are some examples of the ways the men talked about physical intimacy with their bromantic partners:

  • “We hug when we meet, and we sleep in the same bed when we have sleepovers.”
  • “There’s a great photo of me and Tom on Facebook cuddling.”
  • “I think most guys in bromances cuddle ... It’s not a sexual thing, either. It shows you care.”

The men valued their bromances over their romances in every way but one.

There was just one way in which the men valued their romantic relationships over their bromances: Sex was included only in their romantic relationships. In every other way, the men valued their bromances more:

Self-disclosure. All but two of the 30 men said they would prefer to discuss personal matters with their bromantic partner than their girlfriend. Six specifically mentioned matters of health — they said they would tell their bromantic partners about those concerns before they would tell their girlfriends.

Nonjudgmental. One participant said, “A girlfriend will judge you, and a bromance will never judge you.” With their girlfriends, the men worried more about saying the wrong thing. They felt that they were more often performing, rather than just behaving naturally.

The men felt particularly constrained in what they could say about other women. As one participant noted, “The first rule is you don’t speak about other girls.” Interestingly, though, the men claimed that their girlfriends knew about their cuddling with their bromantic partners and did not mind it. Still, the women wanted their boyfriends to prioritize their romantic relationship over their bromance.

Emotional stability. The men described their bromances as calmer and more emotionally stable than their romances. (As the authors noted, the men sometimes described their girlfriends in sexist ways.) According to Robinson and his colleagues, “the participants overwhelmingly stated that arguments with girlfriends were more intense, trivial, and long-lasting in comparison to their bromances.” One of the men, referring to his girlfriend, said, “She will store up something you did wrong two years ago and recall it, with the exact date and time.”

Honesty. The men felt that they needed to monitor their own words and behaviors more often with their girlfriends than with their bromantic partners. In their romances, the men worried that they might say something that would start an argument. They thought their bromantic partners were more forgiving and felt they could be more honest with them.

Some of the men acknowledged that the dishonesty in their relationships with their girlfriends was on them — for example, when they said what they needed to say in order to get sex. One of the men coined the term “sexual pollution”: “Sex is expected, and it interferes with the emotional stuff ... bromances are stronger because there is no sexual pollution.”

Limitations and implications

The limitations of the study are apparent. Only a small number of men were interviewed, they were all from the same university and from sports departments, most were middle-class, and all but one was white. Also, they were all interviewed by a man, the same person each time.

The study, by itself, cannot tell us anything about how many men have bromances, or how widespread the greater valuing of bromances over romances might be. Nonetheless, it is striking that 30 men in sports departments at a single university would describe intense, emotional, and loving (but nonsexual) relationships with other men. It is remarkable, in contrast to the more homophobic decades at the end of the 20th century, that 29 of the men said that they cuddled with a bromantic partner, and at least one posted a photo of the cuddling on Facebook.

Robinson and his colleagues speculate that for some of the men, their bonding with their bromantic partners could continue beyond their college years. Of the men in the study who did not currently have a girlfriend, some “did not seem altogether longing for one.” One participant said, “Lovers are temporary; a bromance can last a lifetime.” The authors point to other research showing that “men in their thirties have regrets about not maintaining their bromances into later life, with marriage being a key barrier.”

Maybe, the authors suggest, some men will continue to live with their close male friends well into their adult years. An example of four heterosexual single men living together into their 40s was reported by the New York Times, and many other examples of non-traditional living arrangements are described in my book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.

The bromance study is just one indication of the sweeping changes in relationships, values, and norms that mark 21st-century life. What’s coming next is anyone’s guess.

References

Robinson, S., White, A., & Anderson, E. (2017, in press). Privileging the bromance: A critical appraisal of romantic and bromantic relationships. Men and Masculinities.

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