Figuring out the cultural parameters starts at an early age. Little girls and boys establish close same-sex friendships and hug each other and hold hands. But that changes pretty quickly for the boys. My own experience teaching third graders in the 1990’s showed me that. These eight year old boys didn’t really know what being a homosexual meant, but they knew to call a boy ‘a girl’ or call him ‘gay’ was a clever jab. They wouldn’t have been caught dead holding hands, and a lack of interest in playing roughhouse sports was somewhat suspect. Interestingly, they didn’t tease when a classmate cried if the cause seemed reasonable. But it was clear they were refining…and narrowing… their ideas of what manly behavior was. They were determining what feelings they would allow themselves to acknowledge and how they could express them without begin ridiculed by the other boys.
Is it any wonder that women often complain men don’t have the relationship skills needed for true intimacy? Men squelch the opportunities to develop the skills even before the onset of puberty! Ultimately, we all pay a price for our culture’s homophobia, gay men, straight men and the women in their lives, when males of any age fear being perceived as homosexual and restrict themselves from truly connecting with other males.
But I think change is in the air, evident in the increasing popular use of the term bromance, which refers to a close, non-sexual relationship between two or more men. It’s the male version of what the four women characters in TV’s Sex and the City portrayed—very close, clearly heterosexual friendships. They were unashamedly as important to one another as their dating/marriage partners. For male examples, think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Ben Affleck and Matt Damon; Ross, Joey and Chandler of Friends, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine of The Voice. The term bromance is mainstream now, increasingly the topic of TV series, movies and magazine speculations. It seems it’s becoming acceptable for men to describe their relationships as being more than between friends who hang out and ‘do stuff’ together. It’s not that these relationships haven’t always existed for some men; it’s that they’re being labeled, celebrated and, thus, encouraged.
It’s an interesting term, bromance, with deliberate manly connotations. Coined by editor Dave Carnie in the 1990s to describe the relationships between skateboarders who bonded over their boards, the term’s prefix bro- conjures images of the uber-male, the last one might suspect of being gay. Among friends, the term bromance is used teasingly; it’s not meant to be demeaning or offensive. And hidden beneath the laughter is the acknowledgment that these men are best friends who truly love each other.
As homosexuality becomes increasingly accepted and there is less fear of being perceived as gay, men are more open to deepening their friendships with other men and publically acknowledging their feelings. As men are getting married later and the strained economy encourages sharing living quarters, men are nurturing these relationships later into their adults lives.
We all can benefit from bromances. The world is a better place when more of the people in it have all kinds of love in their lives and build the skills to nurture caring relationships. And the day may come again when we don’t have to describe such feelings using a slightly joking term, just in case someone mistakes our meaning.