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What about ‘The Lads’: Emotional poverty and male friend groups

By April 26, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

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In lockdown life, staying connected to our friends is harder than ever. In the new normal, guest contributor Darach Ó Séaghdha has become more conscious than ever of how male friendships change – and in some ways deteriorate – as the years pass…

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The earlier days of the pandemic delivered me a moment of unwelcome clarity. I had put the smallies to bed, poured wine for my wife and for myself, and headed into the living room. She was on a Zoom call with four of her friends from Antrim, where she is originally from. And they were all laughing their heads off as she took the glass from me, and continued to howl laughing as I quietly scrolled through my various timelines. It occurred to me that they had stayed friends as a group for over 20 years and had even successfully integrated new pals into this core group in that time. Neither changing towns for work or college, nor choosing different relationship and career paths had broken the gang up.

I’d seen different guises of this phenomenon – this difference in the quality and quantity of our friendships – before. When sending invitations to our wedding, it was comically obvious that she had far more friends than I did. Even with that giving me a statistical advantage, the small number of invitees who didn’t bother to RSVP were all on my side. The following year I saw sad echoes of this at my father’s funeral; although he was the most charming and witty man to spend time with, he had few friends to call his own and socialised entirely within a degree of separation from Mam. The large turnout at the funeral was on account of her friendships, not his. Maybe there really is something different in how men and women gather, retain and nourish friendships over a lifetime. It’s something I’d like to figure out in time to be able to talk to my son about.

STAYING FRIENDS

Some lads (not me, now) go to the same primary and secondary schools as the lads in their road and all play football together, go on J1s and gap years to Australia together and marry women who all get along. Other lads take up a line of work (chefs, guards and doctors especially) with antisocial hours where their new colleagues are the only ones available to hang out with them after hours. For these men, the abstract space known as ‘the lads’ is a kind of temple, and lost members cannot easily be replaced. Can you be close without being closed?

While I have stayed in touch with a scattering of school, college and neighbourhood lads, these friendships have always been double acts, with third or fourth parties included only as guest stars. Similarly, my inclusion in other groups of guys always seemed to be under the custody of one existing member who I got on with. This leads to the first problem with staying friends.

There was a streak of months recently where Erin and one of her sisters were not speaking after a blazing row. Eventually there was a tearful reconciliation followed by almost daily chats. During the entire period of this stand-off I had not spoken to either of my brothers, even though we hadn’t fallen out. We just didn’t have any news to report, and had no history of making contact without such a catalyst. So although we don’t fight, we don’t talk much either.

When you’re only included in a close group by the grace of a single friend, the significance of starting an argument or even just standing up for yourself when one kicks off is amplified – whatever the disagreement is about, it quickly becomes about territory and who gets to stay in. Meanwhile, unresolved grievances turn into simmering grudges. And if the stability of the group is based on argument avoidance over argument resolution at the expense of open communication, how likely is it that a man will stay part of the group if he is not physically present when they meet? It’s a situation I call emotional poverty: open, unguarded communication costs less in the long run than the waste of friendships fizzling out, but it requires a bit of risk and emotional investment up front.

LOSING FRIENDS

When I tweeted about this, I got a very warm response, but also more piqued hostility and mockery than I can remember in a long time (I mostly tweet about Irish words and stay in a very cosy corner of the internet). “Speak for yourself”, “typical he/him account”, “get better friends” and the like, mostly from guys who appeared to be in their early twenties. And I wish them well. But I think that something happens in our late twenties and early thirties when the rate of friendship loss starts to exceed the rate new friendships are formed. People move to other countries or get sucked into jobs with long hours. They start having less in common, earning different amounts, having different victories and disappointments and forming divergent ideas of what a fun time is.

As friends drift apart, the reality that making new friends is a skill becomes more apparent to those who’ve had the privilege of not having to get good at it.

Main image by Stephen Arnold on Unsplash

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