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Enduring Friendships: Why Are They So Hard for Males?

Creating five conditions will make it easier.

Key points

  • Over the last 100 years, there has been a dramatic decline in truly meaningful friendships between males.
  • Lack of supportive friendships can lead to increases in felt alienation, depression, substance misuse, violence, and even suicide.
  • A friendship fueled by the mutual desire to have “goodness” (success, happiness) bestowed upon the other is the most enduring and can be created.
besnopile/ Pixabay
besnopile/ Pixabay

Written by George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D. and Douglas A. Strouse, Ph.D.

“With the exception of wisdom, I’m inclined to believe that the immortal gods have given nothing better to humanity than friendship.”—Cicero

Did you ever wonder how many of your interpersonal relationships were destined to be enduring supportive friendships? Or if you have them, did you ever wonder why they endured? While we tout the number of “friendships” we have, especially on social media, we too often confuse contacts with acquaintances and acquaintances with friends. In reality, most "friendships" are superficial.

This is especially true for males in today’s Western society. Over the last 100 years, there has been a dramatic decline in truly meaningful friendships between males—that which we call enduring supportive friendships. The consequences of their decline may include increases in felt alienation, depression, substance misuse, violence, and even suicide. Let’s re-examine the nature of what Aristotle called the "perfect" and enduring friendships and the secrets to sustaining them.

Types of Friendship

Simply said, the study of enduring friendship is the study of understanding and mutual support. But not all friendships reach such a level. In Book VIII of “The Nichomachean Ethics,” Aristotle describes three types of friendships.

More than just types of friendship, the Nichomachean typology is a hierarchy. The most basic is the friendship of utility. This is a relationship created for the purpose of functional utility, usually the attainment of some extrinsic goal or profit. It is the most fragile. Aristotle asserts, “[Friendship] whose motive is utility have no Friendship for one another really…” (Book VIII, Chapter IV).

The second form of friendship is the friendship of pleasure. This form of friendship is based upon a form of interpersonal attraction that transcends utility, but it too can be shallow as the basis for the interpersonal attraction (physical appearance, peer group status, athletic ability) can easily change. Both friendships of utility and pleasure exist only as long as they are extrinsically reinforced (rewarded on the basis of external factors). Sadly, these are the friendships most likely to be engaged in by males.

The third and final type of friendship is the only “true” friendship, called by Aristotle the friendship of goodness or virtue. This form of friendship is the only friendship that is intrinsically reinforced, and internally rewarding by the action itself. This form of friendship is more about supporting others than it is about being supported. It is fueled by the mutual desire to have “goodness” (success, happiness) bestowed upon the other. Aristotle called this friendship “perfect.” It is the most rare, but also the most enduring as it does not depend upon external rewards.

Why Is Friendship Important?

The importance of friendship has been known for millennia. In the first century A.D., Roman statesman Cicero wrote that friends multiply happiness and divide sadness. In the late 19th century, Charles Darwin observed healthy, reciprocal relationships to be essential in successful communities and may well be the core fabric of human society itself. Research in the 20th century revealed supportive relationships to be the single best predictor of human resilience and with a reliable link to improving mental and physical health, combatting loneliness, and fueling self-esteem.

A Decline in Enduring Friendships Between Males

It is generally accepted that current generations are more connected as a result of social media platforms, but are more interpersonally estranged than any generation in history. Sociologists and psychologists alike appear to agree this estrangement is affecting males disproportionately. But this wasn’t always the case.

Dating from the time of the ancient Greeks until the 20th century, platonic male friendship was characterized in the historical record as a highly rewarding relationship. Male friendships were characterized by an intense interpersonal connection filled with candid self-disclosure and sentimentality. But all of that started to change in the late 19th century and changed dramatically in the 20th century. A tectonic shift occurred from intrinsic reinforcing friendships to extrinsically reinforcing friendships.

While the preoccupation with social media is a likely contributing factor, it is not the primary culprit. The change appears to be largely a result of the emergence of “traditional masculinity.” Ironically, the emergence of modern “traditional masculinity,” while likely intended to reinforce the historical social dominance of the male actually served to interfere with the development of enduring male friendships and likely eroded their social role.

The characteristics of the traditional male as it has emerged in the 20th century are those of emotional aloofness, denial of distress, independence, competitiveness, and even an asociality that is often embodied in the “lone wolf” persona. The traditional male role has even been construed as being potentially toxic in that it breeds emotional constriction and shuns interdependence. Jett Stone writing in Psychology Today (March/April 2023) has gone so far as to refer to such processes as “malienation.” The historic role of the male in the social order has been launched into crises spanning the practical to the existential.

Building Enduring Friendships

We believe encouraging a return to intrinsically rewarding friendships of virtue is desirable and can be achieved by working to create the following five conditions:

  1. Understanding. Understanding is based upon shared interests, shared lived experiences throughout the developmental spectrum, and the conquest of shared challenges.
  2. Self-disclosure. Candid self-disclosure is based upon the assumption of understanding and presumption of trustworthiness. Self-disclosure is fueled by frequent communication.
  3. Trustworthiness. Trustworthiness refers to loyalty and dependability. It is usually earned, not merely granted upon assumption.
  4. Support. Mutual support is based upon the sincere desire to promote the success, happiness, and well-being of the other with no expectation of reciprocity.
  5. Reliability. Reliability in all aspects of the relationship refers to consistent understanding, self-disclosure, trustworthiness, and support.

Did you ever wonder if the relationships in your life were truly enduring friendships of virtue? Use these five criteria to determine if they are. And if they are not, work to create these five conditions and so they are likely to become.

© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2023

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