I love to play games – basketball, pickleball, golf, you name it. But when it comes to friendship with men, games become more challenging to play. Typically, games have rules to follow that make the game fun, but with male friendship, the rules are often unclear. Instead, they are created over time, sometimes without being spoken. I might even call them “understandings” or “expectations” of how I choose to be in relationship with another. Below I have outlined some games I have played with friends. No game is inherently good or bad if both guys are on the same page. Challenges only present themselves when rules and expectations differ or are unclear.
The “Shallow” Game– I also like to call this the “How are the kids/job/partner game?” This is the shallow end of the pool. No vulnerability, just safe and the game played most often among men.
The “Let’s Talk About Sports” Game– This one is fun – I love sports… always have and always will. It has been the bridge between men for generations, peer to peer, fathers to sons, etc. I always recall the line from the movie City Slickers when the group is talking about baseball and Bonnie (the only female in the group) doesn’t understand why men talk about baseball so much. Phil responds, “When I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball.”
The “Only When I’m Drunk” Game– This game tends towards more vulnerable discourse. Deep things are shared, but only when inhibitions are down because of alcohol. I’m embarrassed to admit the first time I told my wife that I loved her was under the influence. I’m not proud of that fact, but it speaks to the “manbox” conditioning of seeing vulnerability as a weakness.
The “Deep, But Only If It’s Positive” Game– I have a great friend whom I have known for many years, and we have had many authentic and deep conversations. Recently I was disappointed in the way he had been showing up in my life and I told him so. Instead of owning my part, I dropped into blame and expressed anger towards him. It didn’t land well for him, and he became defensive. Since then, there has been a rupture in the relationship. If I was truly being honest and taking responsibility, I would have told him I was scared that he didn’t prioritize the relationship and I was afraid of being rejected by him. He was unwilling to create the space for me to share the” messier” side of myself.
At this moment, this friendship has been raptured and I judge this happened because we never made an agreement to be truly honest with our authentic emotions with one another. I was playing by one set of rules, and he was playing by another set. I don’t believe either one of us was wrong, we were simply playing different games.
The “Let’s Be Real” Game– These are ideal relationships when it comes to close male friendships. There is space for loving support, but there is also space to challenge one another. There is space for raw honesty. I don’t want to play this with everybody, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a handful of men who have done enough work on themselves to play this game by these rules. It has depth; I talk about real things that are weighing me down. There is space for all emotions about the world, but especially about each other- not only the comfortable ones like joy, but also fear, anger and sadness.
Example- “Dude – we were scheduled to meet for a walk at 9 AM and you are consistently showing up 10-15 minutes late and it pisses me off.” Or: “You continue to complain about your boss and yet you choose not to do anything about it. I judge you see yourself as a victim and instead of making changes, you’d rather complain about it and not take any responsibility for your role in this situation.” Most friendship are ill equipped to handle this type of candor. This is a high stakes game that can lend to deeper intimacy, trust and aliveness. But if both people don’t know they are playing, it can frustrate & fracture the relationship – so do not play this game unless both parties agree to the expectations.
At MenLiving there is space and respect for all of the games, but I set an intention to lean toward the “let’s be real” game. I think in normal male friendships this game is rarely played, but through the spaces created in MenLiving I have been blessed enough to play this game with more and more men. I invite you to join us to play this game as it challenges me, helps me grow, and makes me feel connected and valued in my male friendships like no other.