Men don’t bond.
Women bond, without breaking a sweat, actually.
Stick 15 women who don’t know each other in a room together; within a half hour each one will know something intimate and personal about no less than two others. That’s what women do: they reach out, they connect, they communicate, they share their stories: In short, they create relationship.
Men take a slightly different approach. Fill that same room with 15 men who are strangers. The first thing they’ll do is decide who’s the odd man out; then the rest will split up into two equal teams, invent a game and make number 15 the referee. This entire process will take roughly five minutes. For the rest of the afternoon they’ll have a grand old time, and aside from last names they’ll know virtually nothing personal about each other. And they’re fine with that.
If you give the women this same assignment (which you would have to do, since it would never occur to them on their own), they’ll collapse in frustration after a couple hours, hopelessly stuck on all the conflicting issues raised by separating number 15 from the pack (It seems so exclusionary), dividing into teams (Can’t we all just get along?), and competing (Oh heck… let’s let everybody win).
As a well-intentioned soft man emerging from the confusion of the 70s, this distinction was, if not totally lost on me, poorly appreciated. Like so many men at the time, I’d come of age in the golden years of the PLAYBOY renaissance, only to stumble headlong into the maw of emergent feminism as it boisterously went mainstream. Expectations of rollicking good times on campus were smothered with an uncompromising “Hold it right there, Buster.”
And from then on, confusion reigned.
For a decade, we took our cues from women, adopting their priorities, accepting their assumptions, keeping ourselves in a perpetual apologetic state in the face of their judgments, and voicing their terminology. Words like relationship and sensitive and, of course, male bonding, that twinkie of a concept coined by women who want to show off how much they understand men.
They don’t, of course, and the reason is simple: They just think we’re less polished versions of themselves. This, with football, farts and breast fixations thrown in as a side line. Unfortunately, my sensitive brothers and myself tended to feel the same way and so aspired to polish ourselves as best we could. In short, I was a classic candidate for the seminar intensive Sterling Men’s Weekend, although back then it went by the ballsier name of Men, Sex and Power. But whatever the name, 1984 was the year I crossed my Rubicon into the light and began engaging in the process of men teaching men to be men.
I’m still learning.
The most immediate shift was the awareness that I needed to change my thinking, grow new nerve endings, discard the filters through which I had viewed the world and replace them with something new. That meant discarding the language so favored by women and their feminized men, and begin paying attention to terms like aggression, competition, territory and pecking order. Men will naturally teach the relevance of such terms by example; it’s our default state.
I learned the relevance of a “team,” something I’d studiously avoided since my days in the Cub Scouts. One man in isolation can easily deceive himself. Two can reinforce a mutual deception. A third can make for a conspiracy of lies. But add a fourth, and the equation shifts. In that mix, someone will succumb to nagging doubt and be compelled to finally speak up: “You know, this sounds like bullshit to me. It just don’t pass the smell test.” Add a fifth and a sixth man, and out of the combined focus, truth inevitably comes to the fore. “Trust the men” went the new mantra in my life. It was, and remains, a difficult lesson to learn, and the most valuable.
In my old way of thinking, if I heard a woman say something along the lines of, “He’s my very best friend,” speaking of a husband or boyfriend, I’d have thought, “Isn’t that sweet.” Now I know he’s not.
Men don’t do well with friends, at least not as women think of them. They don’t fit into our binary matrix. Friends are there to make you feel good, to reaffirm your self-image, to soothe you when you’re down, to add comfort to your life. For a man, who truly believes in his heart of hearts that real men play hurt, the contours defined by friendship are a little too fuzzy and soft. That’s why we do better with teammates. “But men have friends! I’ve seen them,” protest the women. It’s not the same.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the process two men go through as they become close friends and develop a deep bond of trust between them.
When a man encounters another man about whom he knows nothing, two separate questions fire in his brain, more or less simultaneously. They are related, but deal with the opposite poles of a man’s fundamental nature.
The first thing he’ll wonder is, Am I going to have to kill this guy?
Running parallel to this is the equally crucial question, Will I have to stop this guy from trying to kill me?
And there you have men in all their elegant, binary simplicity: offense and defense.
At this point our two strangers are each roughly at DEF-CON 4. Shots have yet to be fired, but all planes are in the air, all weapons locked and loaded and the target is in the crosshairs. Many variables are in play, but we’ll assume that after a good bit of suspicious circling, posturing and scratching of lines in the dirt, they’ll reach the determination that hostilities are not imminent, and they’ll pull the threat level back to what I call Watchful Caution.
Much that is useful can take place in this state: poker parties, bachelor parties, gatherings at local bars, hunting/fishing/camping trips, weekend barbecues with the families and virtually all business deals. And, of course, team sports. This state defines the vast majority of interactions between men and it works just fine. Do they trust each other? Probably not. One thing men understand is other men. Aggression, competition, territory and pecking order never cease to be the defining factors in our interactions with each other.
Occasionally, rarely, a man can find himself in a foxhole for one reason or other, either for real or metaphorically. When such situations are regarded in hindsight, it is then that he recognizes who showed up for him, whom he could count on, who kept their word, who had his back. This realization, and its implications, takes place on a level beneath language; the words friendship, bond, close, deep or trust are never to be uttered or even thought about. They actually sound awkward and clumsy when spoken aloud.
What I’ve learned from men is the need to define myself in terms of my own unique priorities.
As a man I am under constant assault from a culture that not only does not value my masculinity, it seeks to negate and eliminate it. Gathering other men in my life who can be trusted is a rare gift; we tend not to be particularly trustworthy in our default state, given our aforementioned defining priorities and our fundamental need to win.
But together, we can raise each other up to a place that is both noble and good.