Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship

Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship

by Robert Garfield


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Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship by Robert Garfield

Calling for a new men’s movement, a noted psychotherapist examines the critical role close male friendships play in helping men lead happy, healthy lives.
For much of the past century, men have operated under the rules of Male Code, a rigid set of guidelines that equate masculinity with stoicism, silence, and strength. But as men’s roles have changed, this lingering pressure to hide their emotions has wreaked havoc on men’s lives and relationships, making them more likely to suffer from depression, anger, and isolation. Robert Garfield has worked with men struggling with emotional issues for more than forty years. Through his Friendship Labs—clinical settings in which men engage in group therapy—he teaches men how to identify inner conflicts, express emotions, and communicate openly.

In Breaking the Male Code, Garfield examines the unique challenges men face and urges them to abandon Male Code in favor of a masculinity that integrates traditional male traits with emotional intimacy skills. Drawing on real-life stories, original research, and his firsthand clinical experience, he shows how close friendships can serve as the foundation on which men can build and sustain deep relationships with all of their loved ones and in turn lead happier, healthier lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592409624
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/26/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 636,031
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rob Garfield M.D., a psychotherapist and clinical faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, has been recognized by Philadelphia Magazine as both one of the city's "Top Docs" and "Best Therapists." An engaging speaker, he has presented his work on men's friendships to both lay and professional audiences and published numerous articles on the subject of male emotional intimacy.

Read an Excerpt




A quiet settled over the room as the seven men present realized that the pleasantries, initial joking, and munching on veggies and pretzels had come to a close. We were going to talk about why they were here, why they’d come to our men’s group.

There was a sense of awkwardness, as there usually is when men recognize they’re about to speak openly with one another. The silence deepened.

“Who wants to start us off?” Jake Kriger, my co-therapist, looked around the room. “Briefly. Let us know why you’re here.”

I expelled a deep breath. The saying “And so it begins again” ran through my mind. I was fastening my emotional seat belt, readying myself for the takeoff of this new group.

Randy, a fifty-two-year-old high school teacher, cleared his throat. “I’m here because I got laid off from my job. I’m a teacher, and I’ve worked at my school for twenty-five years. They just canned me,” he said, the hurt clearly visible in his face. “I’ve been out of work for eight months. I guess I’m depressed, and I haven’t been able to shake it.” He flicked his head back, as though trying to toss off this mood.

Heads bobbed in sympathy. Randy fell quiet, signaling that was all he had to say.

Jake and I looked around the circle. “Who wants to go next?” he asked.

Mark, a fifty-five-year-old hand surgeon, leaned forward. “I’m not really sure why I’m here,” he said, with a small shrug. He looked tired, as though he hadn’t slept well for several nights. “My wife and my couples therapist thought it would do me good. Our therapist told me that coming here might help my relationship with Sally.”

He hesitated. “She’s talking about leaving.”

The mood in the room plummeted. Mark tried to barrel on in a descriptive mode, but his voice began to quaver, and he slowed down. “Obviously, I’m shook up,” he said. “I don’t want to lose her. I didn’t know things were this bad. She says if I think that, I haven’t been paying attention.”

He paused and looked around the room. “I don’t have anyone to talk with about this. I mean I have friends, but I don’t talk with them. Not about this.”

The head-bobbing from the other guys had slowed, morphing into looks of sadness and concern for Mark. He’d just delivered a heavy emotional package, and I wondered how the men would handle it.

Allen, a forty-eight-year-old contractor, jumped in. “Well, things with Shelly, my wife, aren’t so bad. My problem’s more about my son. He won’t listen to me, and I get, well, pissed off. Lately, I walk out of situations so I won’t explode.”

Hastily, he added, “Not that I hit people or break things, nothing like that.” He smiled uncomfortably. Allen was a large, imposing guy with a soft, controlled voice. You could imagine him knocking things over if he stood up suddenly.

The TV character Tony Soprano flashed through my mind. I wondered if Allen had a more volatile side that he wasn’t copping to.

When things start to get uncomfortable or feel out of control in our groups, members typically try to rescue the mood, divert attention from issues that they can’t readily explain or fix.

As though he’d read my mind, Allen swiveled his head toward Mark. “And what can you do about these things? Sometimes I think it’s better to just shut up. You just don’t know how people are going to take things, you know?” He looked around, inviting a response from the other guys.

Allen was raising an important question. How safe is it to share vulnerable feelings with others, both inside and outside the group? Men often decide not to open up because they expect their feelings to be dismissed or that the other person will feel burdened listening to them. The group members seemed interested in his remark.

Sensing an opportunity to establish some direction with the group, I leaned in.

“The things you’re all talking about here are hard for anyone to bring up,” I said. “It takes a lot of courage, and skills as well, to share this kind of stuff, especially for guys. We really struggle to talk about these kinds of feelings.” I looked around the room at everyone. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re going to help each other figure out and say what we’re feeling, and support each other. So you can better deal with the problems that are going on outside in your lives as well.”

I hesitated, and raised my hands out to them. “Look. You guys have already started.”

Everyone had perked up, listening attentively.

“How does that sound to you?” I asked.

Many heads jiggled affirmatively. Some men looked hopeful. Others seemed thoughtful, as though they were reflecting on how this venture of getting real with other guys might actually happen.

Jake and I looked at each other across the circle, as we often do, communicating with our eyes and barely perceptible nods. The look said, “Good! Some connection is happening here.”

I breathed out. The train was starting to move.

The men I describe above share common problems, goals, and desires: They want to feel more open and emotionally connected with others. They want more authentic and satisfying relationships. And they want support to help them better connect with their partners, their children, and their colleagues. As a psychotherapist and a teacher for the past forty years, now in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve helped thousands of men with similar struggles—men who are in pain, who want to open up and connect with others but for a variety of reasons feel they can’t.


A lot has changed since I started my career in the mid-1970s. Over the past several decades, we’ve experienced an ongoing sexual revolution, an explosion in dual-career families, changes in family structure due to divorce and remarriage, and an increasingly uncertain economic environment.

In the 1980s, psychologist Harriet Lerner wrote, “Men seldom become scholars on the subject of changing their intimate relationships, because they do not yet need to.” The challenges that face men today, however, suggest that we now need to look harder at how we struggle with intimacy if we want to feel fulfilled and have satisfying relationships.

Among other things, we’ve been called upon to share our emotions more openly, respond to women differently in the workplace, revamp our roles as husbands and breadwinners in our families, and involve ourselves more in parenting and day-to-day housework. We’ve been called upon, in short, to revise our conception of what it means to be men.

The women in our lives play an important role in this equation as well. While they’ve gained more opportunities for education, better-paid positions, and increased power in the workforce, they’re encountering their own new challenges. Women are now called upon to negotiate more responsibilities and make more life-altering decisions than ever before. Having been responsible for carrying the lion’s share of domestic work and child care as well as handling everyone’s feelings, women are now asking the men in their lives to participate more fully in both the practical and emotional aspects of family life.

Men seem to be adapting well to some of these challenges. A Pew Research report from 2012 showed that with dual-career married or cohabiting partners, fathers are spending three times as many hours with their children (7.3 hours per week) and twice as many hours doing housework (9.0 hours per week) as they did in 1965. Dads’ and moms’ traditional roles are converging regarding time spent on paid work versus housework and child care, though neither has overtaken the other. In 1965, the ratio of time spent on paid work versus housework and child care was 85–15 percent for men, and the inverse, 15–85 percent, for women. Today this ratio is about 70–30 percent for men and 40–60 percent for women.


Guys still struggle in the feelings department, however. This is not new news. Men have long demonstrated difficulty in dealing with their emotions in close relationships with both women and men in the practice of what we call emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is the experience of being deeply connected to another person who knows and understands your most important feelings and who shares his or her own with you. It is primarily a connection of the heart.

If there were a label for this problem in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it might read something like “Emotional Intimacy Deficiency—a problem characterized by a sense of shallowness in one’s relationships with others, associated with a failure to recognize or express feelings, to reveal personal details about oneself, to be vulnerable or let anyone help you, to comfortably share attention or let go of control, and to listen without having to solve a problem.” Guys who struggle with emotional intimacy are more likely to withdraw and isolate themselves during times of stress, when they most need help.

There is no such diagnosis, of course, but the problem is nonetheless real and its consequences are sobering. Men who have trouble communicating feelings or having close relationships with others are at risk for a number of problems. They take longer to recover from minor illnesses, have lower resistance levels, and have reduced survival times when diagnosed with terminal illness. They are 50 percent more likely to have a first-time heart attack, and twice as likely to die from it, than men with strong social ties. When depressed, these men have significantly lower rates of recovery than those who have close relationships.

Psychologist Niobe Way tells us that when adolescent boys stop sharing their intimate feelings with their peers, we see an alarming increase in their rates of depression and suicide. Wives who cite their husband’s “emotional unavailability” as the primary cause of divorce initiate two out of every three divorces today. At the far end of the life cycle, older men without close relationships have 20 percent lower ten-year survival rates compared with those who do. You get the idea.

The struggle with expressing feelings and forming intimate connections afflicts guys from all socioeconomic strata, ethnicities, races, and sexual orientations. A gay friend of mine who knew I was writing this book said to me, “Charles [his partner] is so impossibly uptight when he’s feeling upset. He just won’t talk to me. Does this count as an example of how guys struggle with feelings?”

“Oh, yes,” I told him.

While there is diversity in the way men both within and between different cultural groups express their emotions, our society’s dominant rules regarding how men should behave—otherwise known as Male Code—affect men from all backgrounds. For men to lead emotionally open and, as a result, healthier lives, we must first acknowledge the impact Male Code has on all of us. I will describe this more fully in the next chapter.

For men to succeed in today’s world, we need to expand our definition of healthy masculinity to include emotional intimacy (EI) skills along with traditional male behaviors. The important words here are expand and include. This book’s purpose is not to denigrate traditional masculine behaviors or insist that one model or set of behaviors supplants another. My purpose is to help men learn about and embrace their own rich and complex emotional natures, and honor the enormous range of ways we express ourselves as men.


The changes in men’s attitudes about masculinity and emotional intimacy that I’m describing here are of no less consequence for men today than those Betty Friedan described for women fifty years ago in The Feminine Mystique. They have the potential to transform men’s lives and the world around us in equally momentous ways.

When people have asked me about the “men’s movement” today, I’ve joked that “it’s a very quiet revolution” because of the social stigma associated with men expressing their feelings openly, and their resultant aversion to admitting that they want more emotional connection in their lives. For many men, however, I believe that this desire for closer, more authentic relationships resonates with core values that they hold regarding equality, compassion, and respectful engagement with all individuals.

The men’s movement (originally called the men’s liberation movement) in this country started in the 1960s. I think of it as having evolved, roughly, in three stages: corrective, reflective, and now, connective.

Initially, in the 1960s and 1970s, some men aligned themselves with the egalitarian goals of feminism, attempting to redress gender-based inequalities, as well as those of other marginalized groups, including Blacks, gays and lesbians, and Native Americans. Other men chose to address laws and social policies that discriminated against men, particularly concerning fathers’ rights. Still others, many of whom were involved in religious and community-based groups, provided mentoring and counseling to men about issues of violence, abuse, and addiction.

A second, reflective phase emerged in the early 1990s, introduced by the poet Robert Bly (Iron John) and psychologists Michael Meade and Robert Moore, who formed the “mythopoetic men’s movement.” Here, men were encouraged to connect with their “deeper masculine natures,” to find renewed emotional energy in their relationships with other men, as well as to overcome what was seen as a passive response to feminism. This approach was based on archetypal elements drawn from Jungian psychology and Native American rituals.

Today, the key focus of the men’s movement is exploring and changing the ways men connect with each other and with important others in their lives. Over the past two decades, authors and researchers including Terrence Real (I Don’t Want to Talk About It), Samuel Osherson (Finding Our Fathers), and Michael Kimmel (Guyland) have powerfully shown that society’s expectations about how “real men” should act seriously constrict men from relating in openhearted and humane ways. The recurring themes in their writings underscore the importance of men forming healthy relational bonds with others, the pain of loss when these are broken, and pathways for repair and healing.


When I arrived in Philadelphia in 1974 to begin my career in psychiatry, my life was in turmoil. My marriage was falling apart, I was in a new city, and I didn’t know anyone with whom I felt comfortable talking. I remember walking around in my clinic on Green Street in a daze as the new medical director. I was depressed, not sleeping well. I couldn’t remember having felt this bad—or disconnected—before. And I wasn’t talking with anyone about any of this.

I was, in effect, a poster child for the kind of problem I’ve been describing—the guy who was suffering and couldn’t admit it because he was ashamed and embarrassed to feel so vulnerable. Over time, I did manage to overcome these challenges, to heal and come out feeling better and stronger.

During these early years, however, I gained a strong understanding of how my male patients might be experiencing their own travails. I was struck by how allergic many guys seemed walking into my office, alone or with their wives, looking as if they’d rather be anywhere else, say, chained in a stockade rather than have to talk with me about their problems. I got it.

Over time, I came to realize that our traditional system of psychotherapy, based on focusing on emotionally sensitive material, underestimated how difficult this was for most men. Even those who are in desperate pain and who need help often lack the skills to talk about their feelings in a constructive way. It’s not perceived as a manly thing to do, and so they’ve never been taught how to do it.

I remember speaking with Tom, an engineer in his mid-forties, who was recovering from a heart attack. He had become depressed and withdrawn to the point that his wife, Marge, threatened to separate unless he would get help with her. “I told her that I don’t believe in psychotherapy,” he said, his eyes downcast, looking resigned.

We normally don’t think of psychotherapy as a religion, something that we “believe in” or not, but hearing these kinds of comments routinely from men caused me to wonder whether we were providing men with the right kind of help, with therapy that could feel more accessible to them.


Over the next two decades, I worked with men in mental health clinics, as a teacher and training director of a family therapy program, as well as in private practice. During this time, I discovered some key principles, often ignored in traditional therapy approaches, that were vital in helping men to open up, better express their emotions, and connect with others, and to form a strong alliance in therapy.

1   Acknowledging the Goodness of Men and of Traditional Masculine Values

When men struggle in their lives, they feel down on themselves. They present to their loved ones in a variety of ways, by becoming depressed and withdrawn or, conversely, defensive, controlling, arrogant, and sometimes even threatening. Underneath, however, feelings of shame and humiliation usually predominate.

In the therapist’s office, men often feel at a disadvantage, deficient in what Priscilla Blanton and Maria Vandergriff-Avery called relational power. Even in situations where they emotionally flounder, however, they need to be reminded, to remind themselves, that they bring something positive to the table, that they’re worthwhile, even if not at their best.

I saw this in a touching exchange between a Hispanic couple with whom I worked at my mental health clinic during my early days in Philadelphia. Angel, a forty-eight-year-old elementary school teacher’s aide, and his wife, Maria, saw me because Angel had become depressed and withdrawn after his mother had died four months before in Puerto Rico.

“He’s a macho guy. Not much of a talker. But he’s a good dad, and he works hard. I know he’s going to be OK,” said Maria, sitting close to Angel. She turned to him, lovingly, and punched him in the arm. He looked up and smiled. We spent the rest of the hour talking about the impressive sacrifices Angel had made over the past year, traveling to San Juan, sending money for his mother’s care, while scraping to support Maria and their three kids. He agreed to talk a little more about how sad he was about his mom’s death, and to take some medication. True to Maria’s prediction, as Angel began to talk about his sadness, his mood began to lift over the next couple of months.

2   Presenting EI Skills as Behaviors That Men Can Learn

Cultural messages about how men are supposed to act, the rules of Male Code that I mentioned before, are so strong, and often invisible, that men frequently assume they can’t or shouldn’t be-have in any other way. They think being a man necessarily means operating under a prescribed set of “masculine” behaviors, those that include solitude, strength, and independence and shun intimacy, asking for help, or expressing emotion. These rules often interfere with men addressing their emotional problems in therapy.

Throughout my career, I’ve taken an interest in how individual psychological, familial, and cultural forces, as well as biological factors, collectively influence our gender behaviors. I’ve studied the research and the arguments about what accounts for “masculine and feminine traits.” My analysis to date: There’s no real evidence that EI skills are “hardwired” into the brain, or that if we dig down far enough we’ll discover an “essential” maleness or femaleness deep in our cores.

Men and women do not strictly conform to any one particular model, any one specific set of traits or behaviors that define their gender. Thus, as author Harry Brod suggests, we live in a culture of “masculinities” (or “femininities”) in which each person expresses their gender in a unique way, as a blend of mainstream traits along with alternative features or behaviors that give their maleness or femaleness its own unique character. Moreover, expectations about masculine (and feminine) behavior vary across cultures, over an individual’s life cycle, and, as mentioned earlier, over history as well. I elaborate on these issues in chapters 2 and 3. In short, we revise our gender behaviors as we go along and as we need to.

When men hear this, they usually feel hopeful and relieved. It’s comforting for them to know that they can learn EI skills, albeit with some work, and that these can become valuable additions to their emotional repertoires—new “tools in their emotional backpacks,” as I’m fond of describing them.

Tom, the engineer I mentioned above, routinely fought with his wife, Marge, about grocery shopping. He’d check the fridge to see what was needed, then go out to buy food, and later, she’d end up criticizing him for forgetting important items or not checking in with her beforehand. He was stuck on how unappreciative of his efforts she was and how she “emasculated” him. I asked him if he thought it was “unmanly” for him to check in with her, to ask for help on the grocery list. He hadn’t thought about this. I continued, suggesting that possibly being manly isn’t always about knowing everything in advance and being right all the time. I told him that maybe not knowing and checking as needed was OK, that it might even make him a better man. Tom agreed to try this out (to Marge’s delight) and upon being thanked by her, reported back to me, “It seems that there’s more than one way to be a man, correct?”

3   Appreciating the Power Men Have to Support Each Other

Toward the mid-1990s, my best friend and colleague, Jake Kriger, and I recognized in our discussions that there was a hole, a missing piece in the existing approaches to psychotherapy with men. Many “gender aware” therapists—Richard Meth and Robert Pasick (Men in Therapy) and others—were beginning to describe individual approaches for working with men in therapy that addressed the resistances about which I spoke earlier. This was progress.

Jake and I sensed that there was an untapped potential in the group experience for men, however. Author Samuel Osherson (Finding Our Fathers) alludes to this when he describes the deep desire in men for intimate contact with each other and for creating more openhearted emotional bonds. We also recognized the unique feelings of identification that could arise and empower men to open up and support each other in their important relationships outside of the group.

Jake and I had participated in men’s consciousness-raising and support groups in the 1970s and 1980s. These were groups to help men become aware of how social stereotypes affected their behaviors and attitudes toward women. We’d found these models to be initially promising, but ultimately disappointing in their failure to create deeper bonds of intimacy among the men in the groups. Some of their limitations were structural—lack of focus on EI skills, lack of clearly defined goals or of firm leadership. There were often undercurrents of competition (e.g., Who’s the most gender-sensitive man in the group?) or negative feelings between members that weren’t addressed and ultimately interfered with the men forming a solid nucleus of a group.

With these pitfalls in mind, we set out to explore and develop a therapeutic group experience for guys that might harness the positive energies of group therapy to create strong bonding experiences for men that could further support their developing EI skills.


In the fall of 1995, we began to run our therapeutic men’s groups, which we later named Friendship Labs. These groups involved elements of support, education, and personal growth for men. They focused on the development of EI skills, encouraging the men to express themselves in openhearted ways and provide empathic feedback for each other. We think of our groups as laboratories or emotional think tanks where men can try out new ways of thinking, feeling, and interacting. I’ve written about and presented this model extensively in local and national workshops and conferences.

Our groups focus on helping men develop emotional competencies—the Four C’s, we call them—which include learning how to make good connections in close relationships, share heartfelt communication, develop a strong practice of commitment, and manage conflict. We guide our men in developing these skills, utilizing their direct engagement with each other as well as exercises and mini workshops throughout the year. We encourage their contact with each other outside of the group and, later, after they leave the group.

Creating an atmosphere of safety and respect is important. In the middle section of this book, I describe how these intimacy skills can be applied in your own friendships with other guys, but that to do so, you must first create a relationship of trust. For example, men often joke around with each other to diffuse awkward or difficult conversations, but this behavior makes real communication difficult. Letting your friends know you take their problems and concerns seriously and being willing to open up to them as well is important. Nothing demonstrates trustworthiness more than trusting someone else.

Over the years, we’ve helped hundreds of men in our groups develop closer relationships with each other and, as a result, with their families and others who are important to them. I’ve become impressed with how much guys can empower each other to become more emotionally open and to help other guys find joy and healing in their relationships outside.

Ralph, a sixty-seven-year-old retired university administrator who’d been in the group for over a year, showed up at a meeting worried and complaining that he’d had chest pain for the past three days. He hadn’t called his doctor, despite his wife Sarah’s advice. The other men in the group practically jumped out of their seats. Some were alarmed and asked him why he didn’t call or go for help.

“What were you thinking, not listening to Sarah? Isn’t she a family practice doctor, for God’s sake?” Andy, one of the guys, was incredulous.

“I thought it would go away and didn’t want to call unnecessary attention to myself,” Ralph answered, embarrassed. Everyone groaned. Even Ralph knew that was a lame answer.

Two of the men offered to drive Ralph to a nearby emergency room after the group. It was fortunate they did, because his EKG showed an irregular heartbeat. There was no sign of a heart attack, but the ER doctor was concerned enough to call his wife and keep him overnight in the hospital.

The next morning, Ralph called me. He told me he was fine and at home. The guys had waited with him until Sarah showed up. He had called them that morning, clearly touched, and reflected about his behavior over the previous days.

“I felt like an idiot. I just couldn’t accept the help from Sarah. I was scared and too proud to admit it.” He hesitated. “I told her that last night. Really apologized. Told her that I appreciated her so much and that I wouldn’t do this again.”

“What did she say?” I asked.

He chuckled. “She said, ‘If your guys can make that stick, I’m sending a large batch of chocolate chip cookies with you to the next group.’”


As our groups progressed, we were pleased with the advances our men made with their individual problems, depression and anxiety, marital struggles, and issues with their kids and work. We were getting positive feedback from their therapists, with whom we were collaborating about their increased emotional openness in therapy.

One issue, however, was beginning to stand out like a sore thumb in our group sessions—our guys’ relationships with other men. While our men, like most fellows, had male friends, they were still reluctant to open up with them as they were doing with the guys in the group and with their close family members. They wanted relationships with other guys where they could do this.

Jake and I took notice. We certainly recognized the incredible love and support we had developed in our own friendship, and with other men as well. I think we assumed that, because our men were learning EI skills in the group and translating this into their own family systems, these skills would automatically spill into and strengthen their male friendships outside of the group. When I inquired about this with other male patients, they just stared at me blankly. Apparently, the good therapy work we were doing wasn’t making much of an emotional dent in their guy friendships.

I was curious and began to research the issue of men’s friendships. I discovered studies going back forty years that identified men’s desire for close male friendships, their valuing of these, including their capacity to recognize and participate in emotionally intimate exchanges with other men. While guys were able to share openly in protected research settings, their willingness to do so petered out when they were back in the outside world.

Sociologist Ray Pahl states that friendships today are based primarily on trust and emotional intimacy. If you talk with men, they’ll agree that this is true in principle, but it has not yet fully translated for them into practice. As sociologist Beverley Fehr summarized, men, while capable of opening up, have chosen to tamp down their male friendships and share their vulnerable feelings primarily with women, to whom they find it easier to talk, while complaining about this situation at the same time.


As Jake and I looked at this trend more closely, we realized that men today, including our own patients, were missing out on an important resource—friendships with other guys—for experiencing and sharing emotional intimacy and for gaining support in other aspects of their lives. We decided to do two things about this.

The first step involved paying more attention to this issue in our clinical work. This has paid off in spades: We began asking guys about their male friendships (most have them) and how much they shared with their guy friends about personal feelings (most not nearly enough). We encouraged them to develop deeper relationships with these guys, both by sharing their feelings and by asking for and offering them support. For most of our men, the results were immediate and positive. Apparently, there is a world full of guys out there, many of whom you already know, who want a closer relationship with you. You’ll read about how to orchestrate and nurture these connections in the middle section of this book.

A few years ago, we also renamed our psychotherapy groups Friendship Labs to emphasize the important role close male relationships play in promoting EI skills in men’s lives.

The second step was to initiate our own research on the status of emotional intimacy in men’s friendships today. I wanted to get a sense of how accurate our perceptions were about this issue outside of our own more narrow personal and clinical domains.

We recruited a larger group of professionals for help, and in 2012, we launched the Men’s Friendship and Emotional Intimacy (MFEI) Survey. We surveyed a representative sample of 381 men across the country, online, about their friendships. We asked them what the friendships were like, the level of “closeness” or emotional intimacy they experienced, what intimacy behaviors existed in their friendships, what they valued or wanted to change, and how much they relied on them for support in their other important relationships.

Our results showed that the men felt some things were working well in their friendships, and that they also wished for changes. For example, most men were satisfied with the number of friends they had and greatly valued them. While most already had some emotional intimacy in these relationships, the majority wanted even more. Oddly enough, the men who reported higher emotional intimacy scores were more likely to say they wanted more.

Different from those in the past, men reported they were now as or more emotionally expressive with their guy friends as they were with female friends. They also expressed awareness of vulnerability in their friendships, noting techniques they employed to protect them. The men who reported the highest levels of intimacy in their friendships got the most support with their marriage, their kids, and their work relationships.

Overall, these results validated the work we’d been doing with men in our Friendship Labs, highlighting the importance of their learning EI skills and encouraging them to actively develop these within their male friendships.

A detailed summary of the study and our first published findings is presented in the Appendix of this book. Relevant findings are included throughout the various chapters.


A man’s friendships may be one of his most valuable—and underutilized—resources for helping him experience and learn how to be close to others.

This book is written to help men better appreciate and realize this potential in their male friendships. It presents a game plan for how they can accomplish this.

I begin by observing how male friendships reflect our culture’s view of masculinity and men’s roles in society. Part 1, titled “Men’s Friendships Today,” helps us appreciate the importance of emotional intimacy in men’s lives. In this first chapter, I’ve described the dilemma guys have with emotional intimacy in their health and relationships, in therapy, and finally, in their friendships. Chapters 2–4 address the cultural challenges of Male Code and psychological obstacles to developing close male friendships; the history and evolution of male friendships and how these compare today with women’s friendships; and, finally, how men’s friendships support the development of emotional intimacy behaviors over their lifetime.

Part 2, titled “Friendship Fundamentals,” describes the important skills men need to build intimate friendships. Here I introduce guidelines and exercises drawn from our Friendship Labs that enhance men’s emotional intimacy skills. Case illustrations from our groups, along with personal examples and stories, flesh out how men can empower their friendships. In these chapters, 5–8, I explain how you can forge strong initial connections with male friends, have emotionally meaningful “conversations from the heart,” keep your close friendships in good repair, and, finally, manage conflict in your friendships when it arises.

The three chapters of the final section, Part 3, “Spreading the Wealth,” cover how close guy friendships can powerfully help you in your marriage or partnership, in parenting your kids, and in navigating the complicated waters of the workplace.

There should be enough information here for guys to deepen and strengthen their male friendships, even ones they’ve had for a while. If you don’t yet have positive male connections in your life, the book can help you begin to make some good ones. If you’re a woman, a spouse, or a man’s partner and want to support your guy in developing ways he can be closer to others, this book is a great way to support him. My hope is that male readers will find encouragement in these pages to more fully enjoy themselves with other men, to support each other in opening up to be more authentic and responsive human beings, and to be closer with the important others in their lives.


Hidden Obstacles to Close Male Connections

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, when I first started out in my career, I was going through a rough time—starting a new job, with no friends, and going through a divorce, all at the same time. During this stressful period, I knew I needed to talk to people about what I was going through. I’d never before felt so powerful a need to open up, to get support, but the whole prospect of doing so seemed daunting to me.

Marty, a psychiatrist who worked at my clinic, seemed like a down-to-earth and likable guy, so I screwed up my courage and gave him a call. I told him I wanted to get together to play racquetball, but underneath, I was hoping to talk with him about some of my personal concerns.

When Marty returned my calls, however, something strange happened: I kept putting off getting back to him. I finally returned his call, weeks later, and we made a date to get together.

When we met at the club, he was genuinely perplexed. “What took you so long to get back to me? Are you OK?” he asked me directly.

I cringe now when I think about what came out of my mouth that day: In a fake, casual manner, I responded, “Nah. I’m good.” Then I added, very sincerely, “I’m sorry, man. I let it slip away. I’ve been really busy.” I flashed him an I-know-you-understand smile. He hesitated for a second, giving me a look that said he wasn’t buying it, but I was uncomfortable and hurried us onto the court before he had a chance to challenge me. I wanted this whole thing to disappear. I knew my response was lame and dishonest. In truth, I didn’t know what to say to him.

Eventually, this upset did blow over, though I never did share with Marty why I wanted to get together in the first place. We continued to play racquetball, but our conversations remained superficial, never extending beyond the time we spent together bashing balls around the court.

Why is it that men so often run away from what we most deeply desire and need? Some of you guy readers may be able to identify with my botched effort at connecting with Marty. In retrospect, I was ashamed of feeling vulnerable and wanting to open up with him. In the moment, I couldn’t imagine that he—or anyone, for that matter—could really understand what it felt like to be that lonely and so in need of emotional support. The prospect of exposing my feelings—and potentially being judged for them—terrified me.

I was also blown away by how completely I’d shut down with Marty, even when it seemed he might be really open to listening to me. I needed to better understand the powerful, bewildering force that had stopped me from taking that risk with him.


I now understand what happened to me that day, and what happens to many men when they feel emotionally vulnerable. We encounter a resistance inside, one triggered by societal expectations, both spoken and unspoken, about how men are supposed to behave. I call these guidelines or set of expectations Male Code. These rules for men have been in serious practice for the past two hundred years in the United States and other Western nations, and they haven’t changed very much over this time period.

Male Code endorses a set of behaviors that include emotional restraint, withholding personal information, defending our position, controlling our and others’ behaviors, sustaining ourselves without assistance, acting independently, competing, commanding attention, and being physically tough.

Training camp for these rules begins for boys early in their lives, as early as three years of age. They learn from their parents, and through contact with other institutions (nursery, day care, schools, the playground), what psychologist William Pollack (Real Boys) calls Boy Code, social guidelines that encourage boys to move away from their emotional, expressive natures. Sociologist Michael Kimmel (Guyland) says that these guidelines intensify as boys move through adolescence into their young adult years. He describes the attributes of Guy Code, expanding on boys’ earlier behaviors and three distinct sets of cultural dynamics—entitlement, silence, and protection—that reinforce these behaviors. I use the term Male Code to emphasize how these rules discourage emotional intimacy behavior in men and how this affects their health and relationships with others.

Sociologist George Mosse states that our modern views of masculine behavior date back to the late eighteenth century in Europe, following the chivalric traditions of the Middle Ages, through the Enlightenment. At this time, the Greek ideal of the human body came to represent the manly qualities of selflessness, chastity, fearlessness, and patriotism. Kimmel describes the simultaneous emergence of the “self-made man” in early nineteenth-century America, who defined his manhood through self-control, separating himself both from the comforts of city life and the personal sphere of home and women.

Social scientist Robert Brannon’s well-known four rules of masculinity—No sissy stuff. Be a big wheel. Be a sturdy oak. Give ’em hell—have, according to many scholars, consistently represented the values our society expects from men over the past century.


Table of Contents

Part 1 Men's Friendships Today

Chapter 1 Men in Transition 3

Chapter 2 Breaking the Male Code 27

Chapter 3 A Brief History of Male Friendship 51

Chapter 4 The Seasons of a Man's Friendships 71

Part 2 Friendship Fundamentals

Chapter 5 At the Starting Gate 99

Chapter 6 Conversations from the Heart 121

Chapter 7 Staying the Course 153

Chapter 8 Friendship First Aid 173

Part 3 Spreading the Wealth

Chapter 9 The Men Behind Your Marriage 195

Chapter 10 The Father's Club 219

Chapter 11 The Executive Committee 247

Epilogue 263

Appendix 265

Notes 279

Acknowledgments 293

Index 299

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Breaking the Male Code has the potential to be among every therapist’s best friend in terms of what they’ll want to recommend to their male clients.”
—Robert Heasley, PhD, CMF, President Emeritus of the American Men's Study Association
Breaking the Male Code is a book that can change lives. Garfield’s broad knowledge of men’s lives, their struggles, doubts and perseverance, coupled with their often unfulfilled wish to connect with other men, is evident on every page. Men will read this work and recognize themselves.”
—Evan Imber-Black, PhD, director of clinical training at the Ackerman Institute in New York City and author of The Secret Life of Families and Rituals for Our Times

"For men, developing close friends is a daunting task.  With warmth and empathy, Rob Garfield takes on the task of helping us to overcome our stereotypes about maleness and our often incomplete definition of friendship so that men can relate to each other in an intimate way.  With both real-life anecdotes and knowledge gained from years as a successful therapist, Rob helps us through the fears and struggles of establishing close male friendships and provides a clear path forward."
—Donald N. Bersoff, Ph.D., J.D., President Emeritus, American Psychological Association 

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