Why do so many men back away from developing genuine friendship?

Robert and I had been friends for a dozen years, so it was natural for me to visit him. With the recession, my business problems were bigger than my ingenuity. I needed someone to listen as I sorted out my thinking.

He listened patiently for a couple of hours, then said something that floored me: “I don’t have any answers, but if the worst comes, I’ve got enough money for the both of us to live on. Whatever I have is yours.”

From the way he said it, I knew he wasn’t joking. Of course, I could never accept his offer, but his act of friendship reminded me that God would provide. Suddenly my problems seemed minuscule. I knew I would be all right.

Why do so few men have a close friend? Not just someone to call for lunch, but someone to talk with about anything, someone who will just laugh when you say something dumb, someone who will be there when you are hurting.

During the building stage of life – while we are establishing a career, starting a family, and accumulating possessions – we don’t have much time for friends. A wife and children meet many of our relationship needs.

But with time, needs emerge that only other men can meet – men who have similar problems and experiences. At that point we realize we need genuine friends. Unfortunately, adult friendships are difficult to start and harder to keep.

The closest relationships that most men have center on their careers. All day long we work on common tasks with other men. Those shared goals create a level of fellowship, but work associations rarely develop into deep relationships.

Most men have a friendship deficit. Their balance sheets are empty when it comes to true friends. Even if they are surrounded by acquaintances, most men don’t know how to go about developing a true friend, or how to be one.

Once I boasted to an acquaintance that I had hundreds of friends. “No you don’t,” he said without pause. “You may have met hundreds of people, but there’s no way you can really know more than a handful of people. You’d be fortunate if you had three real friends.”

As I reflected on that, I realized I had less than three genuine friends. Since then, I’ve worked on this area of life. Today I believe I have five real friends, including my wife.

We all have a “circle of friends” with whom we attend church, go to dinner, or share a common interest like – golf or softball. Often, however, these are “well-patient” friends – there for the good times. What we need are friends who will hang in there with us when we’ve lost our job, messed up our marriage, found out our daughter is on drugs, or are just frustrated with life.

I think most men could recruit six pall-bearers for their funeral, but hardly anyone has a friend he can call at 2 A.M.

John knew that he was leading a secret thought life, a life far different from the image he projected. At lunch when his friend Bill would ask how things were going, he felt Bill somehow peered into his mind. The longer they were friends, the more “naked” his thoughts seemed. John started to cancel lunches at the last minute. Finally, he cut off all contact. Bill was getting too close for comfort.

Men live with a paradox. We sincerely want to have close friends, yet we fear letting someone get too close. We worry that if someone really got to know us, he wouldn’t like us. As someone starts to get too close, we find ourselves withdrawing – we change the subject or figure out how to say goodbye.

We crave approval – to be accepted by another person. But we fear rejection, so we keep our distance. We stay
on the surface, discussing only news, sports, and weather. That way we don’t feel the pressure of dealing with our weaknesses.

Another fear that keeps us from trusting a friend with our inner thoughts is that of betrayal.

King David was often maligned by enemies, but what really got to him was his friend’s betrayal. “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it,” he said. “If a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God” (Psalm 55:12-14). Few types of emotional pain sear as deeply as betrayal by a friend.

Fred always greets me like an agitated porcupine – I come away pulling spikes out of my hide. In confidence, I told my friend Jim how I struggled to like Fred. I just needed to talk it through with someone.

Two weeks later a mutual friend said, “I know what you mean about Fred; I have the same struggle.”

Betrayed! The consequences may not be catastrophic, but the trust is difficult to repair.

Because everyone has at least one other confidant – one other person he feels comfortable telling secrets – soon the whole world knows. Nowhere is this problem more prevalent than in Christian circles. Gossip disguises itself as prayerful concern.

The only way to avoid betrayal by a friend is to state some ground rules. And if you learn that a friend has betrayed a confidence, you should try to save the friendship by a loving confrontation. If your friend is sorry (and he surely will be), then you have saved a friend. If not, it’s no big loss.

Eleven years ago, I attended a men’s retreat. One of the primary speakers, Tom Skinner, talked about relationships and the importance of getting close to someone to help each other develop into full spiritual maturity.

I realized I had no one helping me become the spiritual man I wanted to be, or thinking with me about how to help change our city for Christ.

The next Sunday I asked a man 30 years my senior if he would like to meet weekly for fellowship, prayer, and accountability. Without reservation, he responded with an enthusiastic yes. We’re still meeting.

Many men may desire a one-on-one friendship, but few take the initiative. If you want a real friend, you will probably have to take the first step.

For many years I have taken the initiative in friendships, but many of these didn’t reach their full potential. The personal veneer couldn’t be pierced, or if it was, the relationship became too close for comfort.

The price of friendship is vulnerability. If we stiff-arm our friend when he starts to get too close, he will get our message and withdraw, unless he is particularly secure and committed to making the friendship work.

If our friend is committed, he will press us to be transparent. Then it’s our move – we can peel back the mask or continue the stiff-arm. If someone gets too close for comfort, we have two choices: Get real or get too busy to meet.

Not many men are willing to take these risks. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s complicated. The fragile male ego and the complicated dynamics of a relationship make for hard work and limited results. Many wonder if it’s worth the effort.

What are the rewards of friendship? Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up” (Eccles. 4:9-10)!

Moral failures, spiritual wilderness experiences, troubled marriages, blows to our ego, career setbacks, sins: everyone falls! A friend will help us up – if we have one.

A friend can help us chisel the truth into our thinking. The battle for our minds never stops. A friend helps us defend ourselves against the enemy we cannot see. “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (Eccles. 4:12). No one can sneak up behind two men fighting back-to-back.

The bank turned down my loan – the first loan I had ever applied for. Three years I had banked there – was I ever hot! I told everyone who would listen about my banker’s terrible deed.

A friend pulled me up short. “Pat, in life, if you like what you see, tell your friends. If you don’t like what you see, tell the one who caused the problem.” I realized what a fool I had been.

The executive vice-president of the bank agreed to see me. I repeated what my friend had said and explained that I
had come to set things right. He made the loan.

Because we tend to rationalize and convince ourselves that we’re right, we all need someone occasionally to perform a reality check on us. A friend keeps us on track. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted … and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel” (Prov. 27:6, 9).

“I just need someone to talk to,” he said.

“Come on by,” I replied.

For an hour and a half, he went on and on. Then he said, “Thank you. You have no idea how much this has meant to me,” and abruptly left. All I did was say hello and goodbye.

A friend can also help by acting as a sounding board. When we talk over an issue with a friend, we are forced to organize our thoughts into coherent sentences. That helps crystallize our thinking in a way no other method of reasoning can do. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). Usually the right answer will make itself known when we “talk it out.”

Other times we don’t need a solution, just someone to feel our pain. When Sid’s voice came on the other end of the line, my hands began to tremble. I knew just by his tone that the deal was off.

He continued to drone on, but my thoughts raced ahead: cash flow, layoffs, all that wasted time, the shock of it, survival. I wonder if Patsy has left the house yet?

The phone rang four times – my palms started to sweat. She always ate lunch with her sister on Mondays, and I guessed she had already left. Anguish swept over me at the thought of not being able to talk to my best-friend, my wife, right away. Then she answered – relief.

As only a friend will do, Patsy canceled her plans to be with me. We met at a restaurant, and she listened. That’s all she needed to do.

Often what we need is not wise counsel, but wise empathy. Not words, just compassion.

Who do you call when you get bad or sad news? Is there anyone who will care? “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17). “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

I know now how wonderful friendship can be. But it’s costly. It requires a big investment – an investment of time, trust, and vulnerability. I’m grateful for the ones who have made that investment in me.

Patrick Morley

Moody, November, 1990, pp. 64, 65.


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