Jared has had primarily female friends ever since he was a teenager, when his family moved to the edge of a rural East Texas town, far away from school, and he spent most of his time hanging out with his cousins, who were all girls. When he finally moved out and worked his way through college as a correctional officer, he still struggled to connect with his male peers at work and in class. “I’m not traditionally macho. I don’t really watch sports. I don’t fish or hunt. I feel very uncomfortable when men objectify women in conversation,” Jared, a 36-year-old copywriter, tells me.
Interestingly, Jared didn’t immediately seek out female friends as an alternative. Instead, he sought out the help of a therapist, who advised him to watch more sports so he’d have things to talk about with other men. But that sounded like a ridiculous chore, and he eventually just went back to being friends with only women. “There’s not as much posturing involved with being friends with women,” he says. “I feel like I can be myself.”
Many men gravitate toward friendships with women for the same reasons people crave human connection in general. Close interpersonal relationships improve health, boost well-being and help everyone lead longer, happier lives. And yet, understanding the psychological underpinnings of men who are almost entirely friends with women requires an understanding of why they avoid male ones.
“A lot of men would really like to be friends with other men, but there are barriers because of toxic masculinity,” psychotherapist John Moore explains, noting an anecdotal increase in heterosexual male clients who are mostly friends with women. Although the American Psychological Association (APA) has pivoted away from describing masculinity as “toxic” — in its 36-page Guidelines for Psychological Practices with Boys and Men masculinity is mentioned 153 times, yet the word toxic isn’t used once — it does characterize masculinity as very lonely, and friendship with women may represent one way out of that.
The APA cites a number of traditionally masculine traits that alienate men from one another — e.g., self-reliance, which primes them to avoid friendships because they’re not supposed to need them. By the time they realize this is a flawed premise, making friends with other men is awkward and inconvenient at best. And if men aren’t too busy pursuing money and power and fulfilling their breadwinning responsibilities, then internalized homophobia makes approaching other guys for friendship uncomfortable. After all, they don’t want to be mistaken for flirting.
“When men do form close friendships with others, there are still those who tag these guys as having a bromance,” Moore notes. “The term helps to create negative stereotypes around emotionally supportive male friendships.”
Boys learn to assert their masculinity early on through their friendships, roughhousing and playing sports when they’re young, and trash-talking, drinking and throwing money around as they get older. Generally speaking, male friendships are hierarchical, and bonding can be more competitive and status-driven as a result. But for many boys, this doesn’t align with their personality or interests. “There’s a lot of pressure to posture as a boy, and it always seemed silly,” says Patrick, a 36-year-old political activist who has maintained mostly female friendships since he was in elementary school when his parents split.
Growing up between two households in upstate New York, he was surrounded by aunts, grandmas and girl cousins for most of his formative years. When he was around other boys, he didn’t fit in: “They were always angrier and more aggressive than I was.” As an angsty teen, Patrick preferred listening to The Cure and having long phone conversations with his female friends instead. His lack of male friends never struck him as unusual. His father, like most Boomer dads, had no friends and relied solely on women in his family for social interaction and emotional support. Having any friends at all was a step-up, generationally speaking. (Bonding with women can be comparatively easier for men because women are socialized to do more of the heavy lifting; so while the relationship may be partially rooted in dysfunction, this can make for a strangely compatible friendship.)
Still, it’s not as though these male-female friendships aren’t without their issues — especially when they don’t involve family. In particular, some men bring ulterior motives and blurred boundaries into the relationship. When Erin, 37, met Jeff nine years ago, they had reasons to keep it from getting romantic — they were coworkers and both in relationships. Then, about six years into their friendship, when they were both single at the same time, Jeff made a move. She told him to back off, and they kept their distance for a few months — until she needed help moving.
“He drove the truck and helped me move. We went out to dinner and started hanging out more, just the two of us. It was a very brief courtship,” Erin recalls, admitting they eventually slept together. Soon after, they attended a friend’s wedding and even shared a hotel room. She assumed they were headed toward a relationship. But after the wedding, he left town for 10 days and stopped responding to her texts. When he finally returned, they were still colleagues, but no longer friends, and definitely not lovers.
“He was literally ghosting me in real life, like he barely spoke to me,” she says. Around the same time, a new girl started working at the office, who he soon started dating. They kept it professional at work, but otherwise stopped talking, and never spoke of what happened. “To be clear, I’ve fucked my friends before, and it’s not weird,” she says. “But in this case, I wasn’t treated like a friend at all.”
It can actually get even weirder, too. Michelle, 37, became friends with Sean in college. He was older and in a serious relationship so she assumed he was a safe platonic choice — until they went out with a group of friends for her 21st birthday. “He drove me home safely, but then said I could never call him sketchy because he didn’t rape me when I was super drunk and he was a good dude,” she says. She got out of the car and slowly started tapering off communication because she was scared.
For his part, Jared claims he’s never crossed any such lines. “I make it very clear that I have no ulterior motives and don’t put myself in situations where that can be blurred,” he says. “I see how it can be challenging, though. When I was married, it was easier to establish that I wasn’t trying to hook up.”
As for Patrick, he has tried to make the jump from friendship to romance without sticking the landing, but he doesn’t regret it or think it hurt his friendships in the long-term. “You can always tell someone that you think they’re attractive, hear them say they’re not interested and still build a sincere friendship,” he says. “If they still want to be around you after that, it’s a nice reminder that maybe you have a good personality.”
Not that it’s ever that easy. From protecting egos to listening to problems to just making plans, there’s a lot of emotional labor in these friendships, which Jared and Patrick admit, women shoulder a disproportionate amount of. Best-case scenario, then, being friends with men feels like having a collection of robots who are all learning to cry. “Guys don’t plan. They don’t make plans to do things. If they make plans, the follow-through is rare,” Jared says. He compares recently reconnecting with an old grad school buddy, who he’s been trying to hang out with for months, with a female friend who simply suggested they go to coffee, which happened almost instantaneously.
The risk is that most meaningful relationships cannot survive if one person is doing all the work. That’s where some men who are only friends with women run into problems. “When some guys find a safe place he can share — something that isn’t the easiest to find — they often do a lot of emotional dumping. It can end up being a one-way street,” Moore warns.
This is particularly exacerbated by men who refuse to go to therapy, only to treat their female friends like unpaid therapists. Understandably, when men demand too much from these friends, the women pull back, or in extreme cases, end the friendship. Patrick is doing his best to make sure this doesn’t happen. “There are times when I catch myself relying on women in my life for that, and I have to think about how long it’s been since I’ve seen a therapist,” he jokes.
Along those lines, it’s entirely possible for men to become better friends to each other, too. Jared has a few male buddies and is open to more, but he’s found that he’s had to put in work — not by studying sports — but by putting in the same effort that his female friends do. This has been challenging as a single father of two because he doesn’t have a lot of energy or excess time, but perhaps that’s how his female friends felt when they first gave him a chance.
“It took getting divorced for me to reevaluate my friendships — with both men and women,” he explains. “Even though I’m at an age where a lot of men apparently don’t make a lot of new friends, I’ve been working on changing that for myself.”