“My wife is my best friend”/”My wife is my only friend”: the Guy Code, and the inability to get naked without getting naked

I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.

We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.

A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.

One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.)

The problem with connecting sexual intimacy with emotional vulnerability is that it breeds a particular kind of dependency. Once married or in a long-term monogamous relationship, the man becomes increasingly dependent upon his partner for emotional release. While she may also feel connected to him (one hopes that she does), women in our culture are generally given permission to separate emotional and sexual availability. Women are more likely to have friends of either sex with whom they can “get naked without getting naked”; women are also more likely to have strong family support systems. And because both partners figure out that there is some sort of connection between sexual and emotional intimacy for the guy, it becomes all the more difficult for him to find others besides his wife or girlfriend with whom he can be vulnerable. One of the factors that works to prevent married men and women from having close opposite-sex platonic friendships is this suspicion that at least for men, sexual and emotional closeness are easy to confuse.

Many men, particularly in long-term heterosexual relationships, end up with very few close friends other than their wives. They have their colleagues, buddies, and rivals — men and women with whom pleasantries are regularly exchanged and business is done, but with whom really close conversations rarely happen. When they break down at all, when they open up, it’s with their wives. And when the divorce or separation happens, these guys often go into tailspins of rage and depression as their emotional source of support is withdrawn. And while divorce or separation is of course devastating for women as well, most women (by no means all) are more likely to have stronger support systems in place. They are more likely to have friends and family to whom they can talk and with whom they can process through their feelings. And as a consequence, their emotional recovery will often be far more rapid. (It doesn’t seem that way, of course. Men are much more likely to remarry, or at least start dating, very soon after a divorce. But don’t confuse the seach for a new anesthetic with signs of genuine growth.)

We all pay the price for the Guy Code. Wives and girlfriends pay the price by being the sole source of emotional support for husbands and boyfriends. It’s often thankless work, mind you — many men, recognizing how dependent they become on their wives, become resentful of that dependence. The toxic mother-son dynamic, so common in heterosexual marriages, often grows up as a result of this dependence; that dynamic stunts the growth and warps the soul of each person trapped within it. Husbands and boyfriends pay the price, particularly when the relationship ends or is in trouble. Of course, this aspect of the Code is one classic contributing factor to infidelity (though not, surely, the only one). We all know the tired old line about the cheating husband looking for the “other woman”, the “one who understands him”; his search for extramarital intimacy may be as much about “rebelling” against his wife (whom he has turned into his mother, and whom he resents for his own dependency) as it is about seeking out new skin.

The solution, of course, is as simple as it is challenging: teach relationship skills to both sexes, from childhood on. And bring male mentors into the lives of boys, not to teach them how to be men but to teach them how not to be. Male role models who display emotional fluency and depth as well as responsibility and the capacity to self-regulate — these men are out there, and their numbers are growing. But the insidious Guy Code is by no means gone, and if we tolerate it, our sons and daughters will invariably be the next to suffer from it.

23 thoughts on ““My wife is my best friend”/”My wife is my only friend”: the Guy Code, and the inability to get naked without getting naked

  1. What do you think about sisters? I know not all men have sisters, but I have seen some of this type of emotional support between brothers and sisters. It doesn’t have the same “running to mommy” type vibe as relying on parents (though I’m sure that happens too in some situations), but it is a familial source of emotional support that is not sanctioned in the same way as male-male emotional support.

  2. Good description of my first husband…I asked him once, about halfway through our marriage, why he sometimes treated me so much worse than he treated everyone else in his life even though I treated him better than most everyone else did (judging by what he said about how others treated him, of course)–he said, frankly, it was because he knew I loved him so I wouldn’t leave him when he let it all hang out with me, negative included–he didn’t feel like there was anybody else who really cared about him enough for him to be safe with that level of emotional exposure.

    After we split up, he spiralled down into suicidal depression–which in an awful way turned out to be a good thing, because he finally got the help he needed–he was finally forced to share his feelings with someone else, acknowledge their destructive and repressed nature, and come to grips with them (with the help of a short course of anti-anxiety meds).

  3. I saw the movie “I Love You, Man” recently — it deals with these issues, although in a much cruder manner. The main character is a man who is engaged. His wife has tons of friends to be her bridesmaids, but he has no male friends that could be his groomsmen. Before he goes out to search for guy friends, his wife’s circle of girlfriends tell her that “guys without friends are so needy.” She denies that her boyfriend will ever become needy, but that prompts him to go out and find friends. He finds that he can’t speak “guy talk,” and, consequently, the movie is funny because he is so awkward. Ironically, I saw this movie with one of my guy friends who I have known since fourth grade. He told me, “The protagonist is a lot like me in the sense that all of his best friends are girls.” Many of my guy friends don’t like other guys. I have always wondered why…

    Good post. It makes me extra that my boyfriend has guy mentors and friends who he hangs out with on a regular basis.

  4. I hate the premise of that movie, because why can’t he just ask one of his girlfriends to be his best man? My “maid of honor” was a guy. Big deal?

    I think intimacy is too easily confused for many people. And that’s just sad; because you’re cutting yourself off from all the people who could be your friends.

  5. Bitten Apple: I haven’t been able to tell from the previews for that movie, but is the premise that he has no friends besides his fiancee, or no *male* friends?

  6. I dunno, Hugo; “bros before hos” mean that a lot of Guys have a strong support network, and if they’re regarded their wife as the old ball and chain all along, it’s not hard for them to drop back into their social group to grouse about what a bitch the ex was.

  7. I haven’t seen the movie.

    “Bros before hos” isn’t a strong support network — it’s a social network, which isn’t the same thing. Grousing is cathartic, but it’s not the same thing as vulnerable conversation. The anger that many of these men hold on to, year after year, is proof of the ineffectiveness of their friendship networks — anger is a secondary response to hurt, after all. Real friendships don’t just create a safe space for anger, they help process through the pain.

  8. My lovely feminist partner and I both believe that no one person can be “everything” for someone else, and continue cultivating the close relationships we had before we knew each other and looking for new ones.

    The problem is that I have other close friends, both men and women, while he… doesn’t. At least, he doesn’t have relationships that *I* would classify as “close.” And for a long time, his most emotionally-supportive relationships were with women he had previously dated.

    We both believe, as Hugo does, that we need to model healthy relationships and healthy, flexible masculinity and femininity – it’s just a heck of a lot harder for him to model it.

  9. I agree with this. I hardly knew any guys who weren’t like this growing up. A lot of people in my family and that I knew took the mother/son dynamic in romantic relationships as a given. It’s all so creepy and incestuous.

    Though, what made me sad is that I know I’m like this, too. Since I was 16 and in my first adult-like recovery, I’ve been aware that I don’t connect with people outside sexual relationships. I didn’t even have any platonic friends until almost two years ago. Mom always said I didn’t date; I had relationships. Put all my focus on a partner. I tried hard during my previous year single to make friends I could have emotional intimacy with. However, all I did was create a social network. They know things about me and I share, but they cannot comfort me. Is that what true intimate friendship is, someone being able to comfort you and vice versa?

    I concluded that for someone to be able to comfort you they must also be able to hurt you, and I don’t seem to be able to allow that unless I am having sex with someone. It’s like an impenetrable mental wall. I say 16, but I was always like this, and only the intrusion of adult sexuality made me vulnerable to others. As soon as someone hurt me, I turned off to them so completely it scared me. Later in toxic adult relationships, I wondered where that resolve went.

    It’s also probably why it takes me a lot of time and energy getting over sexual paranoia when trying to make new friends. I start to connect and either I get a crush or become frightened that they are going to try and sleep with me. Intimacy is sexual to me and it’s not a barrier I’ve been able to cross yet. I want to someday, but it’s not where I am yet.

    My reasons are very different than guy code reasons, though I see comparisons. It just struck an unexpected cord.

  10. There is no reason to believe that teaching men “not to be men” will work. We need roles and traditions because most people are not capable of creating a persona for themselves from a blank template. Improving those roles and making them more humane and workable in a modern society is what will make life better for men and women alike.

    Traditional masculinity – which I would agree does need revision and adaptation to a changing world – gets us Mike Tyson. The “let’s not be men anymore” approach gets us Kyle Payne – a male who in his rejection of standard masculinity finds himself unable to deal with the underlying biology and psychology of manhood, because he has no guideposts to steer by, no wisdom hard-earned by previous generations of men that he can trust. The human psyche has built-in pathologies (monkey, meet the big city) which our culture must try to deal with.

    Should we work to equip all our children with emotional skills? Of course. But we should not fool ourselves that teaching boys to “be like the girls” is going to do either sex any good. The emotional skills of masculinity overlap but are not identical with the emotional skills of femininity – both are built over a core of HUMAN skills, but we are different.

  11. Mythago is my all time favourite poster on this blog, bar none, and this one time I’m going to add my thoughts, to wit, it isn’t until men grow out of “bros before hos” (usually as they’re entering their first serious relationship with a woman) that the social and emotional alienation from a support network of other men Hugo is writing about begins to take place. If he’s lucky, his partner will not have begun this process of alienation herself by limiting his “guy time” with his male friends (often out of jealousy, or suspicion of what they’re up to.)

  12. (I second Michael Rowe’s praise of Mythago.)

    At the very beginning of our relationship, one thing I found deeply attractive about my current partner was that he had about 5 people (men and women) with whom he was very close, who he reported having conversations on very important emotional issues. If I had any relationship advice to offer any one, men or women, I would tell them to look for that in a partner.

  13. Oh — and to continue to encourage your partner to keep those relationships alive and thriving. That would be the second part of my advice.

  14. That movie and Hugo’s blog touches on a subject matter that is more significant than people realize. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately and it’s sort of weird and coincidental sometimes to be going through the same thing Hugo just blogged about. But it happens all the time, and i love it! How did you know Hugo? =)

  15. Rereading my previous comment, I wasn’t entirely clear. I don’t mean that Mike Tyson is the product of normal masculinity or that Kyle Payne is the product of normal male-raising under the Schwyzer Plan. I mean that both approaches, like all human efforts, have failures. Hugo’s approach doesn’t eliminate sexual criminals (as one example of a category of pathological behavior), it just means we get a different kind of disgusting creep. So “if we could just stop trying to be MEN” doesn’t work; we still get many bad outcomes there.

  16. I concluded that for someone to be able to comfort you they must also be able to hurt you

    Jennyfields, I very much identify with this. I don’t have any close friends outside of my sisters and my husband, precisely because I find it really, really difficult to trust anyone to that degree. And even then, I have to force myself to bring up emotionally fraught subjects with any of them, because I’m just not comfortable letting other people in.

    I have lots of ‘friends’ and I get along really well with most people, but I’m close to very, very few.

  17. I agree with Andrew… I’m keeping this post and rereading it periodically, because it explains:

    1. Why I find most male friendships uninteresting, and all of my best friends are women. (Mississippi is Guy Code-ville. And a certain local lesbian already has dibs on the best man spot… :P)

    2. Why I find the idea of casual sex not only undesirable, but kinda scary.

    3. Why men (myself included) who don’t cry around anybody else find their eyes water easily and unpredictably when they’re around people they’re falling in love with.

    It really does read like it was written for me. You should maybe consider doing a book on this topic…

  18. Great post, Hugo. One part of the vicious circle is that single men like myself have less access to male friends as we get older, and they marry off…

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