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When Guys Are Good Friends, It’s Complicated

A few months ago, my husband, Jake, and his best friend were walking along the river in Philadelphia, deep in conversation. The friend had his hand on Jake’s shoulder. A car suddenly stopped. A group of teenagers yelled out, “FAGGOTS!” and screeched away.

That’s one problem men confront when trying to be close friends.

When straight men are asked who’s their best friend, most will answer, “My wife.” When women are asked the same question, most will say it’s another woman, says Hank Mandel, producer of a new indie documentary in which he also appears. Released in April, “Five Friends” opens with the words of early American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard, who said: “When you die, if you’ve got five real friends, you’ve had a great life.”

The film’s overall message is positive, as it describes the difficulties men experience when having non-sexual, intimate friendships with other men. Mandel, a 65-year-old retired Connecticut banker, serves as the film’s guide and is seen conversing with his five best friends, interspersed with commentary by SUNY Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel and Alan Frow, a Southern California pastor and expert in cross-cultural male relationships.

The film has been shown to men’s groups across the country. Mandel and the film’s director, Erik Santiago, have also created a discussion workbook that encourages men to expand their ideas of how close male friendships develop. Church groups have been particularly receptive to the film, and it has even been shown at Catholic seminaries, Mandel says. He would like for the film to screen at synagogue men’s clubs, as well.

The opening of “Five Friends” describes the societal strictures men adhere to when they are with their friends: It’s okay, for example, for a man to say, “Love you,” or even better, “Love you, bro,” as in the movie “I Love You, Man,” which is excerpted in the documentary. To look at your friend and say “I love you” is not okay. Then the movie shows a clip from “Sex and the City” to demonstrate an intimate, no-holds-barred conversation among the show’s women friends.

Why the difference?

According to the film, men often feel competitive, which restricts how much they will share with another man. To discuss what’s really going on requires men to be vulnerable, honest, transparent and humble — behaviors most men worry think would brand them as weak or — heaven forbid — feminine.

Sociologist Kimmel says it’s insulting to men that their ability to have intimate friendships is seen as being in touch with their “feminine” side. Men have the same capacity as women for intimacy, he says, it’s just lying dormant because of societal pressures.

When a church men’s group in Kansas asked to see the film, Santiago quipped to Mandel, “If it plays there, it can play anywhere.” At the screening, the local men were decked out in Western duds — “you know, the 10-gallon hats, the cowboy boots, the plaid shirts,” Mandel said. In other words, these men were macho.

Surprisingly, for Mandel and Santiago, the men loved the film, and discussed it until the church building had to close.

One part of the film, in particular, has caused some controversy in after-film discussions: At camp, for two summers, Mandel was sexually molested by the head counselor. Mandel says one of the cowboys came up to him after the screening and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Me, too.” He had never spoken of it before.

I thought the segment on Mandel’s childhood abuse was powerful. Despite his having every reason to close up, Mandel consciously decided to be open and loving toward other men. “I was not going to let the abuse at 10 years old define me,” he said.

Here are some of the guidelines I took from the film for establishing close friendships:

Maintain long-term friendships. Kimmel says that many people have serial friends. Elementary school friends are left behind in high school, high-school friends are discarded in college, and on and on, into one’s life and jobs. Especially as one grows older, friends who “knew you when” are increasingly valuable as a mirror of your life’s journey and vice versa.

Invest the time. Instead of numbing out in front of the TV or computer after work, pick up the phone and connect with your friends. Arrange for face-to-face time together.

Take risks. Talk about your marriage or relationship as it really is. Talk about your fears and hopes at work. It may sound corny, but most women will tell you that honesty is what forms the bonds that endure. Hank admits to one of his friends that he gets jealous when his friend goes off with other friends. Who hasn’t thought that, but been afraid to say it?

Don’t worry about age, racial or religious differences. Mandel’s friends are young, old, white, black, from suburbs and inner cities. In each of the five situations, shared experiences and talking tachlis — Yiddish for “substance” — is what makes these friendships stay alive.

Give the women a break. Because it is normal and socially acceptable for women to act as the guardians of emotion, men turn to the women in their lives when they’re upset. When men take their emotional life to their friends, their wives and girlfriends are usually delighted, Mandel says. No longer do women have to act as the sole repository for their partner’s complaints, introspection or hurts.

My husband, Jake, and his financial adviser have been friends since they were 14. Jake was best man at five weddings.

These friendships saved his life. As a child, he’d go to his friends’ houses to escape family chaos. As a young adult, in the days before therapy, Jake and his friends would discuss their relationships with young women. “When a girlfriend would break up with one of us, we could share the pain of being rejected and we valued the empathy from a male friend,” Jake says. “We couldn’t get the same thing from a female friend.”

He has carried that experience into adulthood, always having several male friends with whom to share confidences. As I sit in front of the TV at night (despite my best advice), Jake is usually on the phone talking to a friend. He meets his best friend twice a week to work out and have lunch. He calls their time together “sacred.” It’s a good way to live.

Linda Kriger is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.

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