BREAKING THE MALE CODE: Unlocking the Power of Friendship, Overcoming Male Isolation for a Longer, Happier Life
By Robert Garfield
Gotham Books. 308 pp. $26.95.
My friendships are segregated. I have work friends, neighborhood friends, college friends, kids’ school friends and gym friends. I have “Did you see?” friends who talk sports, and “Did you read?” friends who discuss books. And, of course, I have that peculiarly Washington variety, transactional friends, hanging on to each other in the hope of some eventual mutual payoff. (These are the friends who would disappear from my life if I ceased to work at The Washington Post.)
It is rare that any of these groups overlap, and when they suddenly do, it can feel more disruptive than pleasurable. The result, I realized after reading Robert Garfield’s “Breaking the Male Code,” is that I have few friends who truly understand everything, or even most things, that I’m going through, whether concerning job, family or health. I’ve always felt blessed with these friends, but then I tend to keep them at arm’s length, masking any needs with a veneer of confidence, competence and humor.
Garfield, a psychotherapist and member of the clinical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, has a diagnosis and a proposed treatment for guys like me, and apparently there are lots of us. This may sound like the beginning of an ED commercial, but Garfield says it’s actually all about EI. “Emotional intimacy is the experience of being deeply connected to another person who knows and understands your most important feelings and who shares his or her own with you,” he writes. And most men experience difficulties forging those connections with other guys, Garfield argues. “Even those who are in desperate pain and who need help often lack the skills to talk about their feelings in a constructive way. . . . they’ve never been taught how to do it.”
Essentially, many men have “Top Gun” friendships: competing at work, bonding on the court or the bar, but waiting until it’s too late to ask the other guy to really “talk to me.”
Even for those who enjoy close relationships with a spouse, partner, relatives, or their children, Garfield argues that establishing strong male friendships can boost mental and physical well-being — making men more likely to get that check-up, to trade advice on shared problems, to blow off steam when no other valve is available. But we don’t because of the “male code,” which requires us to be emotionally restrained, independent and competitive, as well as to take control, defend our positions and withhold information about ourselves. Garfield writes that too many men feel they must uphold this code, starting at a very young age, out of some mix of insecurity and naivete. “Many guys, under the spell of the Male Code, often feel too ashamed to expose their vulnerabilities to their buddies, even when their problems are spiraling out of control and they could really use the support.”
If this all sounds a little retro — a vision of manhood that smacks more of 1950s stoicism than 2010s oversharing — that’s because it is, and Garfield, who began his career in the 1970s, fully acknowledges that changes are underway. “Male friendships, I believe, are smack in the middle of an identity crisis,” he writes. “Our society no longer exists on an old-school model of masculinity that requires men to be perpetually cool, emotionally restrained, and in control. Men are now allowed to have some connection to their emotions, but nobody seems sure about how much, when, and with whom. We are a society that is no longer sure who men are or should be.”
Garfield touches on evolving cultural portrayals of male relationships — from Robert Bly’s “Iron John” to the 2009 bromance “I Love You, Man” — but also makes his points with data. In a 2012 national survey, Garfield and a research team explored the friendships of 381 men, spanning all generational groups, income brackets, sexual orientations, ethnicities and relationship statuses. They found that more than 60 percent of men would like to have closer same-sex friendships. Roughly a quarter of men had little experience of emotional intimacy in their friendships. And precisely when careers and families start getting most hectic and trying, men tend to pull back from these friendships.
Since the mid-1990s, Garfield has been conducting “Friendship Labs,” therapeutic men’s groups aimed at helping participants learn to establish connections, communicate, trust one another and manage conflict. Much of the book centers on the discussions in these groups and with the author’s clients — whether it’s a young law student reluctant to get help for his obsessive-compulsive disorder, a top executive going through a divorce and unconsciously taking it out on his work colleagues, or a stay-at-home dad suddenly struggling with the move of the only other adult male who took his kids to the same playground. “Over the years, we’ve helped hundreds of men in our groups develop closer relationships with each other and, as a result, with their families and others who are important to them.” The idea is to help men move beyond “shoulder-to-shoulder friendships” — in which you look outward toward the game or the job rather than exploring or communicating deeper feelings.
Garfield runs through a series of checklists and tips for men to develop or strengthen male friendships. Some of it sounds like it’s pulled from a dating how-to book (“Think about men whose company you enjoy, who show an interest in you, and who are available for fun as well as help”), and he relies on stereotypically guy-ish metaphors (you have to build your “intimacy skills playbook,” expand your “emotional toolbox”and start a “friendship posse”) in a hammy effort to make us feel comfortable in the exercise.
But that doesn’t render his advice unhelpful. Garfield counsels readers on how to communicate warmth and respect, how to disclose feelings but also establish limits, how to make time for these friendships precisely when you’re feeling most overwhelmed, and how to make sure these friendships enhance, rather than interfere with, your other relationships. He also dwells on how to control the competitive impulses that often get in the way of deeper male friendships, whether gay or straight. “We perceive that the other guy has something we want but don’t have — a particular personality trait, set of skills, relationship, or resources,” Garfield explains. “We suggest to guys that they can convert those feelings of jealousy and shame to expressions of admiration and appreciation.”
The author also leads by example: He describes his own friendships in great detail — where they succeed and where they fail — and he makes himself vulnerable to readers, touching on his marital and professional shortcomings and describing his troubled relationship with his father, including an emotional scene of a physical confrontation between them. The parental example is key: Garfield’s survey found strong links between men having close male friendships and their fathers having enjoyed the same.
Unsurprisingly, the author thinks he has stumbled onto something enormously important with his practice and research. “The changes in men’s attitudes about masculinity and emotional intimacy that I’m describing here,” Garfield writes early on, “are of no less consequence for men today than those Betty Friedan described for women fifty years ago in The Feminine Mystique.”
This is not a “Masculine Mystique.” The book is not a gripping read, and at times it comes off intensely old-fashioned, with some awkward, implausible dialogue. Its broad conclusions and linkages often seem impressionistic. But I suspect that many will see themselves reflected in these pages. Garfield has written a book I didn’t realize I needed. It’s hard to ask for more than that.
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