A recent post by Ann Friedman at The Atlantic argues that there is a dearth of social connections and supports available to men:

Anecdotally, this rings true. The women I know maintain much closer friendships with each other (more regular contact, more likely to share intimate details and ask for each other’s help, more physical affection) than heterosexual men I know. There’s research that says men and women even define friendship differently. According to the Encyclopedia of Women and Gender (there’s a reference book for everything!), “one of the most consistent findings in gender research is that men invest most heavily in their wives as support providers whereas women most often turn to women friends and family for support.”

She talks about how men are conditioned to see close platonic friendships with both men and woman as “gay.” Can a guy and girl be best friends? Can two guys actually refer to one another as best friends? Technically, I would say that we have culturally come to a place where we can, but even when we do, it seems there is an extra step in our mental process where we have to remind ourselves this is okay, they don’t have to be gay. As Friedman muses, “If all of these relationships are socially off-limits, who’s a man to befriend?”

Further, Friedman asks if this lack of connection between males might not be a primary reason that it seems that most every major national act of violence (such as the Tuscon shootings) is perpetrated by young, single, men with little or no friends or close relationships with other men:

I thought about this gender gap in support networks when I read the Times article about Jared Loughner. For all of the explanations that have been offered for his actions — a culture that glorifies violence, easy access to guns, poor access to mental health care — Loughner’s lack of a strong emotional and social support network has not been a prominent part of the post-tragedy narrative. It’s been taken as a given that this young man was a loner. We’ve come to expect that perpetrators of headline-dominating acts of violence will be young, single, heterosexual men like Loughner.

And yet, things are changing, albeit slowly. And the interesting thing is this: it is changing through the social vehicle of humor. When we do talk about men and their bromosexuality, it is nearly always tongue in cheek, and hoping to get a few laughs (hence the use of terms like “man date“, “bromance” and “bromosexual” in the first place). At first, when thinking about this, I had the same reaction as Friedman does in her conclusion:

There are consequences to the fact that many men don’t have the social support they need and deserve. I think this is changing as our societal understanding of gender evolves. But it’s changing slowly. I, for one, can’t wait until bromance is not just a punchline but a part of every dude’s life.

But then I remembered a piece of wisdom an old pastor of mine gave me concerning preaching sermons. It is, he said, like surgery: it is taking the scalpel of the Word of God and using it to rightly divide and excise the unhealthy parts of the human heart from the healthy. But in that endeavor, just as in surgery, anesthesia can be used to make the surgery move along a little less painfully and a little more successfully. Humor, he said, when employed winsomely and graciously, can be an effective sermon “anesthetic”.

Could this not work on a societal level? Part of me wonders if this issue particularly—this “bromophobia”—could only really change through the vehicle of humor in our world.  Could it be that the fundamental change that needed to be made to get this ball rolling is that male relationships and social connections would be made out to be “not that big of a deal”; to (literally) be “made light of.”

And, in conclusion, this issue needs to be addressed. First, for ourselves and our happiness. David Brooks, in an article from the New Yorker that’s been getting a lot of play in the media recently, writes:

There’s a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book “On the Road” and, on the other, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. The latter celebrates roots and connections. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends.

And secondly for our world. As Friedman pointed out, when men have real connections—deep, abiding, friendships that call them to account to become better men—society just might see less violence and ill within in ranks, as well as see more productivity and justice.

And likewise, for those of us that call ourselves Christians. These relationships influence both our individual experience with life and our corporate interaction with the world. We ourselves and the world around us will not change but for the formation of a people of God living as a people of God are intended and called to live. And this is no less true for men as it is for women.

So men, engage in your man-dates, find your “besties”, and ponder not the health, normalcy, or “straightness” of your actions. Have fun and humor along with it. Make your female friends uncomfortable, laugh a lot, engage in physical contact, talk about those things that make you feel insecure and the fears you have that you’ll die single, and over-use the word “bro.” Because in these endeavors, you are indeed striving to create a better you and a better world.

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Paul Burkhart

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