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Sunday, March 07, 2004

Adult men rarely talk about friendships. If we do the topic would often revolve around the things we accomplished together rather than what our friendships mean to our personal growth as an individual. Well there is nothing wrong with it per se because we're wired that way. The bad thing about it is the denial and constant avoidance of discussing dashed expectations and those things that come with it. In doing so we decide that it's easier to swallow one's pride and allow these things to eat us up inside until it destroys us. Is it any surprise that the few books about the ins-and-outs of friendships are too wishy-washy and general at the most? What if there's a science to our friendships? Would it help a great deal if there were some way to recognize the signs of building a lasting bond with our peers?

That's why it came to me as a surprise when I saw the book Bonds of Iron: Forging Lasting Male Relationships sitting on the shelf. Gathering dust. Alone. With no one to talk to. No one was interested. Christian men talk about brotherhood and accountability but no one really bothers to learn about it, that's why this book was really a great deal for me. Here are some excerpts from one chapter explaining the "science" behind male bonding (this also goes to the fair lassies who want to understand how friendships evolve on our side):
Friendship Starts with a Promise. What is a promise? A promise is a declaration that you will or won't do something; you declare your intentions. Professor Lewis Smedes states that when we promise, we obligate ourselves; we bind ourselves to the promises and to those with whom we promise. If I make a promise with you I've obligated myself and you at the same time with certain conditions. Smedes says that the promise is future oriented. With the promise we reach into the future and bring certainty into an uncertain and chaotic world.

It's obvious that the tricky part of informal, unspoken promises is that most expectations remain unsaid. But these promises are no less binding upon us, obligating us to fulfill certain expectations. It's just that you and I, as friends, may have different definitions and expectations of friendship. For instance, you may view it as casual, get-together-every-now-and-then relationship. Meanwhile, I see it as a profound obligation to be there with you through thick and thin.

Unfortunately, most friendships are of this informal, unspoken promise variety. We make friends with each other never spelling out our expectations and obligations. Our differing expectations lead us down different paths, and we end up disappointing each other when our hopes are not met.

Our society reflects the deteriorating respect for promises. People constantly complain that obligations are not met in business, in church service, in marriage. In friendship, we must remember that we are bound to one another, that at the base of our relationship to one another is a promise.

Friendship Requires Faithfulness. Faithfulness goes hand-in-hand with promises. For the degree to which you keep your promises determines how faithful you are. You make a promise to me, and you keep that promise. If you keep all your promises, you show yourself to be a faithful person. When we're faithful to our promises, we can be trusted because we are dependable.

Friendship Involves Loyalty. Some would say that loyalty is a primitive artifact, a dangerous encumberance. Certainly loyalty to the wrong person or cause can be harmful. But in a genuine friendship to someone you trust, loyalty stands alongside of promising and faithfulness. The promise holds the relationship together. The faithful person keeps his promises, and as a result is loyal to the person with whom he has promised. Loyalty is critical to friendship, because as I draw closer to you I am able to more open and vulnerable with you. I feel safe because I know that your are loyal and trustworthy. However, the more open I am with you, the more I risk being hurt by you; thus I need to know even more that you will be loyal to our friendship.

But as I get closer to you, as I am able to be open and vulnerable with you, the fear of ridicule and rejection begins to rise within me. Then there's the tense of deficiency: "Am I enough?" At this point, many of us want to withdraw from the other person, to run and hide, to reestablish distance and feeling of safety. How do we overcome this fear? By having a friend who continues, in an increasing fashion, to show himself loyal and trustworthy. This allows us to draw closer to our friend and to increase our vulnerability.

Friendship Is Reciprocal. To be reciprocal means the relationship has give and take to it, each person from time to time being in a position to give, and at other times being in a position to receive. Yet many relationships I see aren't true friendships, for the relationships are unbalanced, with all the giving coming from one person.

Reciprocity not only involves the give and take around each other's needs, it also involves initiating the action. Have you ever had a "friend" who never called, never invited you to do anything, never initiated your involvement in his life? If you wanted to do something with that friend, you had to initiate the action. I sincerely question this to be a friendship, for friends find that on occasion one initiates doing things, then at other times the other friend is the initiator. There will be balance.

Friendship Means Becoming Vulnerable. A key element to friendships is being vulnerable. Most men however, are afraid to draw near to others and be vulnerable. Ironically, we don't realize our fears nor our distance. Our communication is shallow; all the while we believe that it is deep and meaningful. We go through the motions with other people. We repeat our stock answers:
"How are you?"
"Not bad. How 'bout yourself?"
"OK."
"That's great. Anything new?"
"Nope."
Psychologist Joel Block questioned hundreds of men about friendships and discovered that men are frightened of one another. We fear most the harsh judgments of our brothers. Being competent has been drilled into us. As a result, it is extremely difficult for us to reach out to one another, to be vulnerable, to ask for help. And yet, the true friend is one with whom you can be vulnerable.

We are vulnerable to the degree that we feel safe. And we feel safe to the degree to which people through the years have kept their promises with us. Those who have been severely abused as children or who have had trusts betrayed in the past will find it very difficult to be vulnerable. Yet all men have some fear of being vulnerable. Finding safety in a relationship is essential for friendship.

Friendship Encourages the Other's Growth. As you may have surmised, each element of friendship builds on the other. Each point is important to be in place so that the next one will follow. I must begin in friendship with a promise (and I and my friend must be promise-keepers). When I have a promise in place, I can begin to trust. I make a promise, and I am faithful and loyal to the promises that I have made. Our friendship is a reciprocal relationship where we can give and take with each other, and find ourselves on an equal footing. Because of all these things I can be vulnerable with you and open myself up to you more and more. And as a result of this, I can grow as a person.

I'm not sure if the exact same process occurs with women or if they have a version all their own. I've learned a lot from that book, it has this table detailing the cycles of friendship between guys from childhood till old age, funny how we start from it, ignore it and then return to it in our twilight years. I just wish I had the time to finish it.

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