Do men fight each other just so they can feel less guilty about hugging it out after? It’s a question that came up recently when I was watching the episode of Sex and the City where Big and Aiden quickly go from wrestling in the mud to sitting across from each other at the dinner table, acting like they’re on the world’s best first date. Weirdly enough, the strangeness of their relationship arc hadn’t even struck me until my girlfriend pointed out that if Aiden and Big were women, the post-fight love fest would never, ever have happened.
It’s not exactly an uncommon trope, either: “Two very macho men going from enemies to intimate bro-y embrace” is basically the plot of the first three Rocky movies. After two movies of beating each other to a bloody pulp, Rocky and Apollo Creed enter a bromance so inseparable that only death can end it.
So what’s going on here? Is male-on-male fighting just one way for men to cope with the deprivation of male touch that’s quite literally killing them? Or are men just better at reconciling their differences than women?
According to a 2016 BBC report, studies have shown that male and female chimps acted differently in the aftermath of fights, with males much more inclined to engage in reconciliation behaviors. Based on one specific study carried out by professor Joyce Benenson from Emmanuel College and Harvard University, while data indicates that physical contact between women is equal to or more frequent than it is among males, in sports, men spent significantly more time touching than females, in what the authors term “post-conflict affiliation,” per the same BBC report.
Benenson tells me via email that, from her perspective, men are more likely than women to make up with same-sex peers after a fight because men cooperate more than women do with same-sex peers. “From government to business to the military, hunting to trading to agriculture, men are more likely than women to engage in cooperative activities together,” she says. “In contrast, women spend more time with family members, particularly children and those who are vulnerable. Women will make up more than men with kin.”
Additionally, Benenson says that boys and men fight openly with each other much more than girls and women. “Part of masculinity involves fighting, reconciling and cooperating in activities with similarly aged, heterosexual boys and men,” she says. Which is important to note because, per Benenson, historically speaking, humans are one of the only species that indulges in lethal intergroup aggression. Since it’s primarily younger men who engage in raids and warfare, if boys and men didn’t make up much more often, then when another community attacked, the whole community would die.
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from Benenson’s study is that boys’ and men’s uncanny ability to reconcile their frequent fights allows them to cooperate rapidly in support of each other. “In modern times, this means cooperation across a whole range of fields,” she says. “This makes it difficult for women to gain a foothold in these fields, as men are more tightly bonded.”
So there you have it: Bros are great at cooperating with other bros, fight or no fight. How else did you think we managed to maintain that chokehold on society?