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Bromance and Tribe Identity

Young men know more about friendship and connection than many realize.

I have been observing the friendship behaviors of two young men, now both in their 20s, for as long as they’ve been alive—they are my sons. As a researcher of friendships, traditionally women’s, I must admit that the complexity of friendship that women experience is often nonexistent for their male peers. For most men, friendship is not verbalized or lived at the focused intensity that women tend to enjoy, but male friendship reflects an odd conundrum in its seeming simplicity, but obvious depth.

Tribal Identity

When David, my younger son, now 22, was in his senior year of high school, he described his friendship circle as his tribe. He might also have used the term “the guys,” and I may have been the one who threw out the term “band of brothers.” Regardless of the terminology, it was clear that my 17-year-old knew exactly what this group of high school friends, who'd been together since middle school, meant to one another and the depth of their relationships.

It’s funny, but many guys would deny that they are “joiners,” although membership in fraternities or sports teams might contradict that claim. However, there are many young Millennial men who are vehemently opposed to conformity and organized institutions of forced camaraderie but deeply cherish the time they spend goofing around with their close friends. There can be a very deep running bond that keeps them close, regardless of the geographical distance between them.

Bromance reflects the need to be emotionally close to another person, but without the need to be commited to a romantic relationship. Erikson described the psychosocial developmental stage faced in young adulthood as Intimacy vs. Isolation. He focused more on the role that romantic relationships played in life during this period, but as this new Milennial Gen playbook has illustrated, a wife and kids can wait -- close male friends are able to provide the intimate connections and emotional support that are needed.

For young men, affection for a friend is often exhibited in direct proportion to the amount of teasing and poking fun at the friend that they do. Put-downs beween men are just another way to say, “I care.” But the depth of that caring can run deeper and more true than the sometimes tension-tinged, competition-wrought friendships between young females. Men don’t like to get caught up in the emotional layers of a situation or a relationship; they tend to prefer social connections that are much more low-maintenance than women can tolerate.

Even in early childhood, boys are more likely to have more fluid friendship groups than female peers. Women tend to want to communicate more frequently and more intensely with their friends, while guys are happy to just “hang with the guys,” whether they’re watching a game on television, playing computer games, or drinking beer and shooting the breeze.

Women need to talk about relationships, while men would rather just live them.

Getting back to the concept of the tribe, David’s close friends from high school have pretty much geographically dispersed as their career or educational paths have led them to the next steps in their journeys. However, the connection and loyalty among these half dozen men has not waned. Snapchatting goofy photos of themselves keeps them connected. A private Facebook group lets them keep tabs on when they are going to be coming into town or a mutually interesting event is on the horizon. Texting keeps them close, as well, as they break the stress of unfamiliar situations with reminders of shared jokes, questionable escapades, and off-the-wall humor.

Perhaps the need for companionship between men is now honored through the “bromance” saga as we’ve begun to acknowledge the softer side of the male emotional side. And no longer do guys have to hang onto a phone for hours at a time, obsessing about the new crush, as girls might do; they can now text a punchy one-liner or snapchat a ridiculous pic of themselves just for effect.

Back when girls and guys were expected to look for a long-term relationship when barely into their twenties, men were expected to take on the role of primary support and head-of-household for the couple. Today, as marriage is less eagerly jumped into, and even monogamous dating has lost a good deal of its appeal for young adults, guys needing social connection are looking to find it in their bromance buddy, and it’s okay for the long-term bromance of male roommates to last awhile. Bert and Ernie, from Sesame Street, are perhaps the forerunners of today’s much heralded bromancers.

The other week, my son drove four hours to surprise Ryan, a member of his self-described tribe, for Ryan's 23rd birthday. Midway through the drive, David stopped by the home of his friend's parents to visit for a few minutes before driving the final two hours to Ryan’s apartment. The next day I received a text from Ryan’s mom. She wanted to let me know how much David’s friendship with her son meant to her, and she noted how inspiring it was to see how these young middle school pals have blossomed into such deeply compassionate and connected adult friends. A young man’s tribal identity is clearly important, and the bonds that form with his band of brothers can be strong.

Here’s to bromance and all of the joy it can bring throughout a man’s lifetime!


Some of us learn about friendships through our early relationships with siblings. If you are still working through sibling drama or enjoying sibling harmony, please share your stories:

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