Last week, a listener of Dan Savage’s hit advice podcast Savage Love called in with a dilemma that will sound all-too-familiar for any post-collegiate American male: A guy makes a dude friend in college, and their relationships revolves primarily around partying, trying to meet women and making dick jokes together. (Note: The last bit is speculative.) But once they graduate and leave the carefree confines of a college campus, their lives diverge markedly.
In this scenario, the caller got a job, an apartment and a serious girlfriend. In other words, he transitioned into life as an upstanding adult citizen. His friend, however, remained in a state of stunted development, working a series of dead-end jobs and spending his nights drinking and crashing with an evolving rotation of women.
The caller sought out Savage for permission to break up with this friend, much as one would a romantic partner.
Having to grapple with whether to break up with a friend is an endemic part of the male experience, as male-male friendships tend to be based less on emotional bonds, and more on cultural touchstones — e.g., a shared love for a football team, darts, movies and/or getting extremely ripped and playing hours of video games. So when a man’s interest in one of those areas wanes, the bond inevitably fizzles.
But what makes male-male friendship breakups distinct is that, no matter how thin the bond, men tend to never actually break up with each other at all — at least not in the confrontational way we tend to associate with romantic breakups.
“In my years of research, I find that women are much more likely to have dramatic breakups with feelings shared and hurts explained,” says Jan Yager, professor of sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the book When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon or Wound You. “With men, it’s more of a pulling back and just being busy rather than confronting someone.”
It’s one of the strange ways men’s lack of friendship maintenance actually works in their favor. Because men are already so bad at maintaining friendships — and doing all of the calling, texting, emailing, planning and hanging out that a quality friendship entails — it’s impossible for dudes to distinguish their real friends from their former ones. Instead, all of their friendships exist in a weird uncommunicative limbo.
That said, a friend breakup by ghosting is still a breakup all the same, and the most common reasons for guy friends to split up are as follows, according to Yager:
- Money or opportunism. A man feels his friend isn’t a friend at all, but a social climber trying to use him for his money, and his social and professional contacts.
- One guy makes a pass at his friend’s partner. Classic.
- A man’s partner hates his guy friends, and asks him to stop hanging out with them. This seems like a premise for a hacky comedy bit, but Yager says this is what she’s gleaned from years of research and interviews about men’s friendships.
There is one major way men’s and women’s friend breakups are similar, and that’s that they typically entail a general parting of interests. “Sometimes people feel a strong connection at first, and as they grow up, they notice a difference in values or priorities, or one person changes and they have to reckon with that,” says Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth with a focus on friendship dynamics. “Their friendships were friendships of convenience.”
McCabe recently conducted a five-year study of college students’ friendships, and found that one of the most common reasons friends (male or female) drift apart is an abrupt life-change and corresponding difference in interest — someone moves to a new city, stops partying as much, gets married, has kids or realizes they have diametrically opposed political views, and the friendship gradually dissolves due to lack of maintenance.
Savage’s advice to the caller was to effectively ghost his friend and stop contacting him.
It’s sound guidance, as it solves the caller’s predicament without the harrowing process of an in-person friend breakup. An added bonus: It leaves open the possibility that the men can reconnect in the future, once the guy finally gets his life together.
“I’ve always been amazed that many men are able to reconnect with an old friend, especially those who have moved far away, and it’s as if no time has passed,” Yager says. “There’s no resentment that they didn’t keep up the communication, even in these days of social media.”
So maybe it’s best to look at the parting of male friends as less of a breakup, and as more of a break.