People have a tendency to think about straight men’s same-sex friendships as being superficial and having little emotional depth, centering instead on shared activities, which gives them a fleeting nature. It’s a stereotype, to be sure, but it’s alive and well on the internet, where it frequently prompts articles (like this one) about why men suck at maintaining their friendships.
For decades, social scientists have published papers supporting this idea, even giving it a scary-sounding name: the male deficit model. Those who subscribe to this view consider straight men’s romantic relationships to be their sole emotional outlet. Their wives or girlfriends are the only ones with whom they can be vulnerable and show affection—they can’t do the same with other dudes because, well, “no homo.”
While popular, there’s a major problem with this characterization of men’s approach to relationships: research suggests that, at least among Millennials, it’s just not true. In fact, a new study published in the journal Men and Masculinities finds that young heterosexual men’s same-sex friendships—or “bromances”—are actually more emotionally intimate and satisfying on almost every measure than their romantic relationships.
Researchers at the University of Winchester interviewed 30 heterosexually identified male students through their university sports department. Participants were asked to describe their “bromantic” experiences and how they compared to the experiences they’ve had with their girlfriends. After the interviews were completed, the narratives were coded for common themes.
All of the men said they’d had at least one bromance and romance apiece. When asked to describe the difference between these two types of relationships, most struggled with the answer. Ultimately, however, they zeroed in on sexual desire as the missing link. In the words of one participant, “when you have a bromance with a friend, it’s motivated by your interest in that person, love and friendship, and not because you want sex.”
Most participants (28 out of 30) said that they preferred to share personal matters and secrets with their friend rather than their lover. Why is that? It’s because these guys felt they were less likely to be judged or ridiculed in the context of a bromance. Several men said they feel more pressure to act “manly” around their girlfriends compared to their male friends, and that this leads them to hide their vulnerabilities. This is really interesting because most people probably would have expected guys to feel the opposite way.
Bromances weren’t just characterized by high levels of emotional intimacy—there was a surprising amount of physical intimacy, too.
More generally, there was a sense among these men that you can’t quite be yourself with a romantic partner in the same way that you can with a friend. For example, a lot of guys were worried about saying or doing the “wrong thing” with their girlfriends—something that could potentially start a fight. Most participants said that fights with a girlfriend tended to be more intense and longer lasting than fights with a bromance. The desire to avoid major conflict is why many of these men said they tend to hold things back from their lovers.
Interestingly, bromances weren’t just characterized by high levels of emotional intimacy—there was a surprising amount of physical intimacy, too. In fact, 29 out of the 30 guys said they had cuddled with a same-sex friend. Some also talked about hugging and kissing their bromance. However, all of this physicality was described in a non-sexual way—it wasn’t about a desire to get off, but rather a desire for intimacy.
You may be surprised to learn that these guys didn’t hide the physical aspect of their bromances. For example, one talked about a photo he posted on Facebook in which he was cuddling with his bromance. Likewise, several guys said that their girlfriends knew about and weren’t bothered by their same-sex cuddling.
Another interesting finding from the interviews was that many participants described a complicated relationship between sex and emotion in their romantic lives. For example, some guys talked about how their desire for sex sometimes led to an artificial type of emotional intimacy with their girlfriends. As one participant said, “with women, the sexual stuff is great, but the romantic stuff might not be as honest because you will say whatever for sex.” Another participant went further, referring to this as “sexual pollution,” saying that “bromances are stronger because there is no sexual pollution.”
All in all, what these findings tell us is that bromances seem to have far more emotional depth than most people give them credit for. In fact, if anything, they have the potential to be even more emotionally intimate than romantic relationships.
These results are particularly noteworthy due to the fact that all of the participants were college men involved in sports. As a result, these are the kind of guys you’d probably expect to confirm the superficial friendship stereotype—but that clearly wasn’t the case here.
Of course, we should be mindful of the limitations of this study, including the fact that only 30 men were interviewed. Also, keep in mind that all participants came from one university and they were mostly white, middle-class and young. As a result, we don’t know how generalizable the findings are, which means that more research is definitely needed. In particular, we need to look at whether things are similar or different across men of varying ages. There may be major generational differences in the value that guys place on their bromances and/or the amount of physical and emotional intimacy present in them.
With all of that said, what these findings suggest is that we need to revisit some of our outdated assumptions about the way men approach their friendships and romantic relationships. At least among Millennials, the old stereotypes and the so-called “male deficit model” just don’t seem to hold up.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.