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Third Places and the Horizons of Male Friendships

March 12th, 2021 | 7 min read

By Ryan McCormick

“I want you to read this article and tell me what you think,” my wife texted me. She had sent me an article published in Harper’s Bazaar entitled, “Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden.” The article details how girlfriends and wives have become the sole emotional support person for a generation of friendless men. I have a feeling my wife sent me the article for one line in particular: “Men don’t usually put the effort into maintaining friendships once they’re married,” the article quotes one wife as saying. “The guys at work are the only people other than me that my husband even talks to.” It was a harsh indictment of the state of my own post-marriage friendships.

Since meeting my wife and moving to Philadelphia in spring of 2017, my ability to forge close male friendships has deteriorated. Often working over sixty hours a week, what spare energy I had I invested solely in my marriage. Even during my first few months in Philadelphia, I realized that this meant that my wife ended up bearing most of my emotional needs. Four years later, not much has changed. My wife has a circle of close friends in the city and I have only one.

So, why exactly do men struggle to build friendships? The article in Harper’s places the blame on “toxic masculinity,” a phenomenon that includes the inability of men to share their feelings with other men. It is hardly alone in its judgment. Condemning toxic masculinity has become a staple of books on Christian male friendship as well. But is toxic masculinity really to blame? While I certainly don’t mean to deny that toxic machismo is a real problem, I doubt that it’s as widespread as often assumed or that it alone is to be blamed for the scarcity of male friendships.

I would suggest that male friendship has declined for a different reason. The answer lies in another well-noted decline: the collapse of social institutions and “third” spaces more generally. Older generations of men were united by their participation in local trade union halls, bowling leagues, men’s clubs, and fraternal organizations like the Freemasons. They gathered at neighborhood bars, bowling alleys, and barbershops. These “thick” community bonds have largely collapsed since the 1970s and been replaced by “thin” and ephemeral virtual communities like Facebook groups and Reddit threads. The scarcity of such third places where male social bonding occurs means men lack the proper context for friendship formation.

C. S. Lewis, drawing on the classical tradition, argues in The Four Loves that “clubbableness” is the matrix of friendship between men. Out of shared work, hobbies, and fraternities springs its catalyst: a common horizon. “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share,” Lewis writes. A pair of university students realize their common love of American literature or two buddies in a local softball league discover that American baseball is not just fun but sublime. “It is when two such persons discover one another, when, with immense difficulties or semi-articular fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that friendship is born,” Lewis concludes.

Generally speaking, typical male friendship is different from typical, contemporary female friendship. A failure to recognize the different ways that men and women form intimate bonds in friendship is what breeds so much confusion and leads to the misdiagnosis of “toxic masculinity.” For instance, the Harper’s article promotes counseling groups for friendless guys, where they can freely share their emotions and struggles with other men.

However, this assumes a version of friendship – one that centers on debriefing about life – that is typical of contemporary female friendships but is foreign to the ways that men have traditionally bonded. For example, during my wife’s calls with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation inevitably started by discussing how everyone was holding up emotionally. By contrast, when I called one of my closest friends, we began by talking about politics and theology.

I don’t mean to suggest that one way of practicing friendship is superior to the other. Rather, it’s that for millennia, male friendship has begun by sharing a common horizon, not common emotions. Identifying this phenomenon as toxic masculinity is a misunderstanding. It’s not that such male relationships lack emotional vulnerability. The idea that traditional male friendships are fundamentally stoic is a myth. Rather, I feel uniquely able to open up emotionally only to those men who are my kindred spirits, with whom I share a common horizon.

And lacking the social institutions where the matrix of “clubbableness” can produce such kindred spirits, men naturally fail to form emotionally deep friendships. Christian men are fortunate enough to have at least one third place in their lives by default: the church. Yet the church is not the matrix for male friendship that you would expect it to be.

It is widely noted in my own congregation that the women have their own small groups and yearly retreats; the men have practically nothing. As Anthony Bradley noted in a recent essay on this site, the American church (even when it is pastored or governed by men) functions mainly due to the involvement of women. Consequently, the social programs that churches typically offer adhere to the norms of contemporary female friendship, e.g., small groups, where church members share life updates and prayer requests. These groups are certainly immensely valuable to men. Yet while I’ve loved each small group I’ve belonged to, they have never produced durable male friendships. What is lacking in the church are groups where a common horizon can be forged between guys.

Men, of course, are hardly hapless victims in all this. If the church fails to generate male bonding, it’s only because we have over-invested in our work or retreated into the simulacrums of social media and video games. If men are to have more and better friendships, then men need to be intentional about creating third spaces where friendship can flourish. For example, I met one of the few guys I befriended at church over the years at a beer brewing party hosted by one of our pastors. Spiritual friendship does involve room for vulnerable conversations, but it also involves room for conversations about theology, politics, movies, Major League Baseball, and the brewing of beer.

Thus, it’s important for Christian to make the most of the social resources for male friendship that we naturally possess. To begin capitalizing on this, we need to be cognizant of the gender-specific way that men bond and avoid using the tired cliche of “toxic masculinity” as a panacea for all male friendlessness. Instead, we need to recover the rich heritage of male friendship and begin intentionally to construct third spaces where a horizon of common interests and emotionally deep friendship can be born.

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