It has been a while since people took a positive thing for men and turned it into a problem for women, so I suppose we were due for one.
According to a recent study, men’s friendship with other men — commonly called a “bromance” — could ruin women’s romantic relationships.
The researchers interviewed 30 straight college men, all of them part of the college’s sports department. The researchers found that the men valued their platonic relationships with their male friends over their romantic relationships with their girlfriends.
None of this is new. Men have had intense platonic relationships with each other since humans existed. We have plenty examples of this throughout history and mythology. Many of these real and fantasy relationships were closer than any relationship the men had with women in their lives.
The researchers drew the rather bizarre conclusion that changing attitudes in homosexuality have led to a rise in the so-called “bromance.” However, this is inaccurate. Talk to men in the military, police officers, and athletes, and one will find that these intense male relationships are quite common. The reality is that our culture’s focus on homosexuality, specifically in treating any male intimacy as sex-driven or romantic — like calling such platonic relationships “bromances” — led men to keep their close relationships with other men secret.
Another factor is women’s reaction to men’s platonic relationships. It is not uncommon to hear of girlfriends and wives driving away their men’s friends, particularly their closest male friends. The unspoken element is that the platonic relationship poses a risk to the romantic one. Most specifically, the emotional intimacy provided in the platonic relationship would subvert men’s need to depend on women for it, thereby stripping away one element women could use to control, for lack of a better word, the relationship.
What seems to have surprised the researchers is the nature of the platonic relationships. According to Psychology Today:
The men’s bromances usually included:
- Disclosure of personal matters
- Sharing secrets with the bromantic partner and no one else
- Overt expressions of emotions
- Feelings of trust and love
- Willingness to be vulnerable
- Hugging, kissing, and cuddling—all regarded as non-sexual. (All but one of the men said that they had cuddled with a bromantic partner. All 30 said that their physical interactions were not about sexual desire.)
The physical intimacy is perhaps the most surprising component of the bromances, especially considering that not so long ago, the stigma against intimacy between men was quite intense.
Here are some examples of the ways the men talked about their physical intimacy with their bromantic partners:
- “We hug when we meet, and we sleep in the same bed when we have sleepovers.”
- “There’s a great photo of me and Tom on Facebook cuddling.”
- “I think most guys in bromances cuddle…It’s not a sexual thing, either. It shows you care.”
Again, this stigma is more of a public stigma than one found in private. In many situations, particularly in all-male situations, one will find men and boys hugging, cuddling, and otherwise touching each other in ways that we would generally perceive as “intimate.” None of this is surprising if one knows anything about male relationships.
Also unsurprising is that all of the 30 men interviewed found their platonic male relationships more fulfilling and desirable than their romantic relationships with women:
All but two of the 30 men said they would prefer to discuss personal matters with their bromantic partner than their girlfriend. Six specifically mentioned matters of health—they said they would tell their bromantic partners about those concerns before they would tell their girlfriends.
One participant said, “A girlfriend will judge you and a bromance will never judge you.” With their girlfriends, the men worried more about saying the wrong thing. They felt that they were more often performing rather than just behaving naturally.
The men felt particularly constrained in what they could say about other women. As one participant noted, “The first rule is you don’t speak about other girls.” Interestingly, though, the men claimed that their girlfriends knew about their cuddling with their bromantic partners, and did not mind that. Still, the women wanted their boyfriends to prioritize their romantic relationship over their bromance.
Therein lies one of the key points about the male platonic relationships: women often find them a danger to their relationships with men. The reason is that with the exception of sex, male platonic relationships provide the same benefits as romantic relationships with women without all the baggage that some women bring.
Logically, if men could have the emotional bonds and support they desire without the backbiting, nagging, and emotional sabotage, they would clearly prefer that relationship. The only means of undermining that choice is by making it social undesirable.
That clearly does not work as men naturally seem to gravitate toward close relationships with other males. The only option remaining is to sexualize the relationship to some degree. By playing on cultural stigmas against homosexuality, one need only imply that any intimacy between men is sexual and men will avoid any public display of such relationships.
That will not stop them from forming altogether. Obviously, some men will simply not care what anyone thinks and openly display their bond (my godson and his best friend are like this). Others may keep it secret. Others may form the bond to an extent, but fear that the other man may perceive them as gay and stop short of fully connecting.
None of the articles mentioned whether the researchers considered this.
Of course, men’s preference for “bromances” must be bad in some way because it does not benefit women:
[The researchers] also express concern about traditional male-female relationships, writing that “the rise of the bromances may not altogether be liberating and socially positive for women.” Men in the study sometimes referred to their girlfriends using sexist or disdainful language, they wrote, and demonstrated an “us and them” mentality that suggested allegiance to their “bros” over their romantic partners.
Who did not see the “sexism” claim coming? None of the articles I found about the research listed any of this “sexist of disdainful language.” The study itself is behind a paywall, so I cannot read it. It would be interesting to see what this language actually entailed. Were the men actually sexist or did they simply criticize women’s behavior?
The researchers biggest concern for women is the potential affect male platonic relationships could have on marriage:
With sex so freely available without emotional attachments, through social media for example, and because bromances occupy such a privileged spot in young men’s lives, “the bromance could increasingly become recognized as a genuine lifestyle relationship; whereby two heterosexual men can live together and experience all the benefits of a traditional heterosexual relationship,” according to co-authors White, Stefan Robinson and Eric Anderson, of the universities of Winchester and Bedfordshire in the U.K.
“What happens in 50 years, say, if these bromantic relationships really take off and men decide, ‘Hang on, we really enjoy these. These are much better. We can gain more emotionality from it. We’re less regulated, we’re less policed,’” White said. “And therefore women actually just become the sexual fulfillers of men and nothing else. That’s the worrying aspect.”
That is a rather strange combination of concepts. If the researchers find that men consider their relationships with women so emotionally charged, would not the more worrisome aspect be that women appear to regulate and police men’s behavior and feelings? After all, the results of this study suggest that if women stopped doing those things, or more specifically started behaving as men would in these relationships, men would be more inclined to form these intimate relationships with women.
It is curious that the researchers, at least based on the information in the articles, do not consider this.
Yes, there is the potential that men will turn to other men for their emotional relationships in some instances. However, this need not reduce women to “sexual fulfillers.” It would simply mean that men would reserve their most intimate connections for their closest male friend. The otherwise typical emotional bonds that one would form with an intimate partner would still be there.
The researchers’ own study demonstrate this with its repeated references to some of the men having girlfriends. None of the articles suggested that the men viewed their girlfriends as merely sexual fulfillment. One could conclude then that men would still desire and form relationships with women because they want to have said bonds with women.
Interestingly, this study’s findings are similar in tone to many feminist commentaries on men’s relationships with other men, male homosexuality, and male bonding. The most common feature in all of them is the underlying fear that if men turn to other men for support that they will find no use for women outside of sex.
One would think this is an admission that the only unique thing women provide straight men is sexual intimacy and reproduction. Otherwise, all the other benefits of a relationship with the opposite can be found with members of the same sex.
One should also note that not only was the study small, but limited itself to white (only one man was non-white) heterosexual men from one college’s sports department. It would be interesting to see how this plays out in other communities, particularly the gay male community.
Would we see the same acceptance of platonic male relationships? Would we see the same desire for one? How differently would these relationships manifest themselves publicly reverses privately? Hopefully the researchers will expand their study at a later date.