Every summer for 25 years, Mark Vasu has gotten together for a weekend getaway with old friends from Duke University. The 15 men, who graduated in 1984, gather in the same cabin in Highlands, N.C.
“It’s a judgment-free, action-packed, adventure-based weekend,” says Mr. Vasu. “We go hiking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, fly-fishing.”
What they don’t do is sit around as a group, the way women do, sharing their deepest feelings.
[MOVEON] Dan Miller
Mark Leonard, second row center, with his friends in East Northport, N.Y., in 1980.
Male friendships like these are absolutely typical, but don’t assume they’re inferior to female friendships. “If we use a women’s paradigm for friendship, we’re making a mistake,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, who has studied how 386 men made, kept and nurtured friendships. Men might not be physically or emotionally expressive, he says, but we derive great support from our friendships.
Researchers say women’s friendships are face to face: They talk, cry together, share secrets. Men’s friendships are side by side: We play golf. We go to football games.
For several years, I’ve reported on the friendships women share, first for this column and then for “The Girls From Ames,” a book about the 40-year friendship of 11 women from Ames, Iowa. And though I envy women’s easy intimacy, I also know it wouldn’t work for me and my friends.
I’ve played poker with the same guys every Thursday night for 18 years. We rarely talk about our lives. We talk about cards, betting, bluffing.
I used to say that my poker buddies don’t even know my kids’ names. But then I wondered if I was exaggerating. So one night I turned to my left at the poker table and casually asked my friend Lance: “Hey Lance, could you name my children?”
He shrugged, paused to think, then smiled sheepishly. “I could rename them,” he said.
Dr. Greif isn’t surprised by my story. In his poker game, he says, if a man were to reveal that he lost his job or that his wife left him, the other guys would say, “Gee, dude, that’s too bad. Want us to deal you out this hand?”
Since 1978, Mark Leonard has played on a softball team with eight pals he grew up with in East Northport, N.Y. When they get together, they reminisce about shared experiences, like the time they were asked to leave an all-you-can-eat dinner at Beefsteak Charlie’s because they had consumed every piece of meat in the restaurant.
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Mark Leonard, center in vest, with his friends at his wedding in 2000. Dan Miller, with beard, is at his side.
“Our conversations deal with the doing of things rather than the feeling of things,” says Mr. Leonard.
In his research, Dr. Greif found that men generally resist high-maintenance relationships, whether with spouses, girlfriends or male pals. When picking friends, “men don’t want someone who is too needy,” he says. A third of the men in his study said they learned positive things from female friendships, but 25% had a negative impression of women as friends, citing issues such as “cattiness” and “too much drama.” And women are more likely than men to hold grudges toward friends, according to Dr. Greif’s 2009 book, “Buddy System.”
Studies show that in their late 20s and 30s, women have a harder time staying in touch with old friends. Those are the years when they’re busy starting careers and raising children, so they don’t have time to gather for reunions. Money is tighter, too. But around age 40, women start reconnecting. Before the 1990s, researchers assumed this was because they had more time for friendship in their 40s, as their children became self-sufficient. But now researchers consider this middle-aged focus on friendship to be a life stage; as women plan the next chapter of their lives, they turn to friends for guidance and empathy.
Men, meanwhile, tend to build friendships until about age 30, but there’s often a falloff after that. Among the reasons: Their friendships are more apt to be hurt by geographical moves and differences in career trajectories. Recent studies, however, are now finding that men in their late 40s are turning to what Dr. Grief calls “rusted” friends—longtime pals they knew when they were younger. The Internet is making it easier for them to make contact with one another.
A woman from Wisconsin wrote to me recently to say that she effortlessly shares intimate feelings with her friends. That’s in great contrast to her husband. He recently went on a fishing trip to Canada with four longtime friends. And so she wondered: What did they talk about for a whole week? She knew one of the men had problems at work. Another’s daughter was getting married. The third man has health problems. Her husband said none of those issues came up. She couldn’t believe it.
She told him: “Two female strangers in a public restroom would share more personal information in five minutes than you guys talked about in a week!”
I Love You, Man
[moveonJ] New Line/Everett Collection
Five classic buddy movies.
* ‘The Hangover’ (2009)
* ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969)
* ‘Wayne’s World’ (1992)
* ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959)
* ‘Wedding Crashers’ (2005; pictured above).
But again, it’s a mistake to judge men’s interactions by assuming we need to be like women. Research shows that men often open up about emotional issues to wives, mothers, sisters and platonic female friends. That’s partly because they assume male friends will be of little help. It may also be due to fears of seeming effeminate or gay. But it’s also an indication that men compartmentalize their needs; they’d rather turn to male friends to momentarily escape from their problems. The new buzzword is “bromance.”
Frank Alessandra, 44 years old, remains close with five guys he grew up with in Denville, N.J. “As men, we feel the need to camouflage our sensitivity,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not sensitive.”
Timothy Smith, 55, of St. Charles, Ill., has been gathering with seven male friends each summer for 18 years. They bring their children, but their wives stay home. Without mothers around, the kids live a pirate adventure; they get to eat junk food, bathe irregularly, and jump off a cliff into a lake. They also get to see how their jocular dads treasure old friendships.
Larry Schulsinger, 51, remains close with his six childhood friends from North Miami Beach, Fla. Though they have since moved elsewhere, they made a pledge long ago to meet up each fall at Miami Dolphins away games. Now, when they’re together, the conversations feel to him like scenes from the movie “Diner.” They razz each other about their teen years as bellhops at Miami Beach hotels. They rarely discuss serious issues.
“I wouldn’t talk about my insecurities with the guys,” says Mr. Schulsinger, a consultant. “All my real insecurities—about work, finances, the kids—those I share with my wife.”
A lot is left unspoken among Mr. Schulsinger’s friends, but the love is there. One of his friends recently lost both parents, and without telling anyone, he started writing down his childhood memories of the group. He filled 150 pages and found it therapeutic to reminisce about those days when his parents were alive, and his friends were just a bike ride away.
More Moving On
* Doing Bad by Doing Good
* Love, Honor, Cherish and Scatter
* Get Back to Where You Once Belonged
Men often have their own quieter ways to show their feelings. Dan Miller, a member of Mr. Leonard’s longstanding softball team, had bone cancer as a boy and walked with a crutch. He served as the team manager, Mr. Leonard says, “but we made sure he got at least one official at-bat each season, so he’d be in the scorebook.”
The guys have fond memories of Dan getting a hit and using his bat as a crutch to make his way to first base. They’d kid him about that—with great affection—even after Dan had to have his leg amputated.
Dan died from cancer in 2001 at age 40, and in his final months, his teammates went to Atlanta, where he lived, to reminisce with him about softball and a thousand other memories.
Mr. Leonard says he and his friends all have issues in their lives, and they sometimes acknowledge when they’re going through tough times. “We’ll say, ‘Yes. We understand. It’s really hard. Now let’s go play some baseball.'”
Write to Jeffrey Zaslow at email@example.com