Keeping a Man on Third Base and Other Lessons From Male Friendship

Hilary and I used to break up every few months. Our relationship was as explosive as that of any drama-prone couple, except we were just friends.

Anything could set us off -- a late arrival, a sarcastic remark. Once we stopped speaking for a year after a fight escalated when I called out Hilary for hanging her wet towel over mine at our Hamptons summer share. Finally, we stopped speaking altogether.

As far as I can tell, my boyfriend David and his friends never argue. Case in point: David and Al had made plans to go to a Yankee game, but on the day of the game, David was miles from the Bronx and didn't feel like going. Al quickly offered him an out: "No problem -- I can get my brother to go." When David thanked him, Al replied, "Anytime, a--hole."

"There's no rudeness among men," David said. "We never get tired of busting each other's balls."

I no longer agonize over high-maintenance friendships, but I still find that my female friends and I are much quicker to take offense than my male friends and that we overcompensate by trying to out-validate each other: "You look so great today!" "No way -- look at you! Where'd you get that gorgeous dress?"

So, why do men and women relate so differently to their same-sex friends? Experts who have studied this area have a few theories.

Hormones, for one. Both sexes produce oxytocin, sometimes called the "cuddle chemical," but a study published in 2012 showed that while this hormone promotes emotional bonding in women, it enhances competitiveness in men. Add testosterone to the mix, and it's no wonder men can get a little unruly -- even in their own estimation.

"While I admit I usually enjoy the ball-busting thing, there are times when it is used as a cover for real and unacceptable hostility, coming from God knows where," my friend Elliot said.

The culprit could be homophobia. "For some men, the open expression of friendship may be a little frightening as it raises the specter of their appearing either gay or too emotionally needed," said Dr. Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships (Oxford University Press). "Teasing is one way men get around this. By teasing, they can express something personal about an-other person. This is a form of closeness and distancing at the same time."

For instance, Al's pet name for David is sfachime -- loosely translated from the Italian as "schmuck."

Meanwhile, Ron makes a habit of pointing out what he perceives as his male friends' shortcomings. "You don't know what good beer is," he'll tell David. "Have another cannoli!" he'll urge Al, a diabetic, in a dig at Al's poor self-control.

And God forbid male friends should get together for any reason that doesn't involve a sports event, a rock concert or a game of golf. Psychologists call this side-by-side bonding, as opposed to the face-to-face variety -- say, over a cup of coffee -- that women prefer. Male friends do participate in a select few face-to-face rituals, but only those they deem sufficiently manly, like going to eat at a steakhouse.

Men may be aware of this distancing dynamic, yet see it as ingrained and feel powerless to change it, according to Dr. Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, N.Y., who has studied same-sex friendships. "I asked what people really disliked about their friendships, and the one thing that really stood out for men was competitiveness and one-upmanship, which became a barrier to expressing feelings."

On the plus side, Sapadin said, men find it easier to overlook their friends' shortcomings than women, a dynamic that carries over from childhood. "If someone does something wrong, they'll say, 'Okay, maybe he's an ass, but we need him for third base.' But with girls and women, if you do something wrong, you don't measure up, that's the end of you. Women are quicker to be hurt and to end the relationship."

Yes, women are more sensitive, but we also reveal more of ourselves to our friends, and therefore, we expect more. Uninhibited by fears of being perceived as gay or needy, we throw ourselves into our friendships with the same abandon and passion as our romantic relationships -- and experience similar emotional highs and lows. Expressing feelings is just as important to us in friendships, but there are times when that can spiral out of control (Hilary's towel comes to mind).

The most rewarding and enduring friendships might combine dynamics from men's and women's friendship styles -- and that seems to be happening as society places more emphasis on interpersonal freedom. As homosexuality has gained wider acceptance, both socially and legally, many young men feel comfortable expressing feelings to their male friends and are less concerned about others' perceptions. With women's advancement in the workplace -- they now hold a slight majority of professional jobs -- the communication styles of their male colleagues are rubbing off on them.

"Men and women are becoming much more similar in their intimate relationships than was true in the past," Sapadin said.

Hopefully, this will add up to a lot more bodies for third base -- and some meaningful conversation after the game.

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