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Daniel E.
Dude, time for a hug: The value of male friendships
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

Sept. 27, 2007

Ask any 17-year-old guy for his take on "Superbad," the recent sex and booze romp film, and you're likely to get hysterical laughter.

Chances are, the last thing he'd say is that the film is the story of two childhood friends at a painful crossroads that has nothing to do with getting laid or drunk. (Actually, it is.)

"High School Musical 2" gave basketball star Troy (Zac Efron) and math whiz Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) another opportunity to heat up cable TV. But it was Troy's longtime pal Chad (Corbin Bleu) who confronts Zac about his priorities and gets him back on track. Dude, time for a hug.

And the bittersweet French comedy "My Best Friend" features a clueless middle-aged loner forced to ask himself not "Can this friendship be saved?" but rather, "Can I be saved by a friendship?"

The past few months have featured a different kind of love on screens large and small: guy-friend love. This, predicts Dan Johnson, senior pastor of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Edina, Minn., is where a lot of men will stop reading, although "the women in their life might clip this article out and hand it to them later," he says with a laugh.

The subject of male friendships, though, is serious business to Johnson. For years in his work as a pastor, he's noticed how difficult it is for many men to establish friendships in the seemingly effortless way women do. He wonders if it's simple socialization, a lack of "building and affirming the vulnerable side of men."

Maybe it's priorities. Men, he said, "fill their lives with tangibles and materials maybe more than relationships," he said.

Young men seem to have the least problem coming up with the name of a best friend. Chris Mommsen and John Erickson, both 22, have been best friends since elementary school. Last month, the two men joined two other longtime friends for a 220-mile hiking trip on California's John Muir Trail.

Common interests, including junior-high cross-country and ski team, have been key to the tight bond between Mommsen and Erickson.

"John is probably the smartest person I know," said Mommsen, who is about to begin Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. "If I'm looking for insights into girls, I usually talk to girls. But if I'm looking for insights into other things, I look to John."

Jason Shannon and Keenan Sue, both 28, developed an enduring bond as roommates at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Maybe it was their "similar creative minds," or shared interests, Shannon said. Sue has since moved to Hawaii, but the two remain close.

"It's mysterious why there is that spark," Shannon said. "But it's easier when you're younger and you have vulnerabilities that haven't even been acknowledged."

As men move into their 30s, though, even the closest friendships often fall off the map. Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, may know why.

He studied 45 pairs of friends, including guy friends, from 1983 to 2002. On average, the participants moved six times during those 19 years; friendships were also challenged by romantic relationships, careers and children.

Dan Trockman, 37, and T. Perry Bowers, 36, both of Minneapolis, understand that challenge. They met half their lives ago. Today they're both married, with two kids each. It's tough to find time to get together, but they make it happen.

"We pick up a few times a year," said Trockman, an environmental-science teacher. "We never miss a beat."

He and Bowers, he said, "share a lot of commonality about the way the world should work. Plus, he's actually willing to laugh at my jokes."

For Bowers, who owns a recording studio, the friendship is based on trust. "I know he's not going to laugh at me. He and I don't always see eye to eye on everything, but that doesn't keep us from having a mutual respect and curiosity about each other's beliefs."

Later in life is when male friendships become truly rare. Many married men, Johnson said, have relied on their wives for emotional support forever, and aren't about to change course now.

But Johnson said relying "solely on a single person to be your co-parent, lover and best friend" might not be a healthy strategy.

Craig Hess, 57, learned just how true that was when his wife died three years ago. Hess, of Golden Valley, Minn., relied heavily on a couple of women he met in a support group, but found the courage to reach out to longtime friend John Oehlke, 62, of Minneapolis, a fellow architect with whom he had kept in touch only through annual holiday letters.

"When my wife died, he dropped his plans and came to the funeral in St. Cloud," Hess said. Today, they're making an effort to get together more often, for lunch or just to talk.

The relationship works for Oehlke, too.

"There's a certain thing about guy (friendships)," he said. "The way things are seen from the male viewpoint is different from the female viewpoint. That makes it easier, in some cases, to talk to a guy. It's the common bond of the struggle of life itself."

Related article:
Women are best at being buddies
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