Here’s the tragedy of ‘mateship’ – many men just don’t talk about stuff that really matters | Paul Daley

Here’s the tragedy of ‘mateship’ – many men just don’t talk about stuff that really matters | Paul Daley

I keep hearing it from men and women in my orbit: too many men in their lives are lonely and have no real mates with whom to workshop their intense emotional stuff.

It’s no surprise: boys of my era were raised to compete with one another – and the world. Resilience was everything. If this sounds Darwinian, it is. Feelings. We all had them, of course. Buried deep inside. Fears? You bet. They were there to be swallowed. Conquered. But rarely shared unless life threatening.

It was rare to talk of such things at school or at home. Blokes of my generation were raised to view the mateship cohort in a far more practical than emotional way.

Sure, mates were for doing stuff with. Surfing. Playing – or going to the – footy. Later, drinking in pubs in groups. Chasing potential partners. Speaking shit. Hanging shit on one another. Lots of that.

Male friendships tended to resolve around a certain stoicism. An emphasis on physical and emotional toughness and endurance underscored the very notions of mates and mateship that I grew up with. Indeed overwhelmingly masculine notions of mateship, along with resourcefulness and egalitarianism, were – and still are – portrayed, fallaciously I believe, as some sort of uniquely Australian national trait – a bedrock of supposed Oz male exceptionalism. You’ll hear about it every Anzac Day, each Remembrance Day and any time most politicians and our more jingoistic cultural arbiters bang on about national identity.

But male loneliness and the inability of some men to forge deep, emotionally collusive friendships with other men are neither new nor uniquely Antipodean, of course.

I have few recollections of being in my teens, 20s, 30s and beyond and sharing with mates the details of, and seeking advice about, the trials and trepidations of my life – the hard emotional stuff of my heartaches and -breaks, disappointments, failures, fears and insecurities.

So many women I know talk about current and former male partners, brothers and fathers who either don’t have any close male friends or, if they do, don’t talk to them about the vicissitudes of their lives. They internalise the most devastating emotional events: the death of partners and children, the loss of physical and mental acumen with age, the frustration of retirement and job losses … the rigours of loneliness itself.

I reckon Max Dickens is spot on when he writes that women are better at creating situations of “intense emotional disclosure” because of their tendency towards one-on-one interactions with female friends, whereas men prefer to hang out in groups “where intimacy is demonstrated by doing stuff together”.

He quotes the US comic John Mulaney: “Men don’t have friends. They have wives whose friends have husbands.”

Too true. I’ve known of so many older blokes who are desperately lonely and emotionally bottled-up because they have effectively outsourced, during long relationships, their social lives to their wives or partners. When the female partner dies first, the emotional impact is a crippling triple-whammy for the surviving man: bereft at his loss, he has no social life and no close male friends to workshop his grief with.

Something about my male friendships changed in my 40s. Those I considered tried and true mates became fewer. But the intensity of my abiding friendships and the emotionally sharing nature of them deepened.

Some things get easier with age. Many do not. The spectre of mortality is no longer a hypothetical. Living in the moment should become easier but it often does not as the conscience focuses ever more tightly on posterity. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I am fortunate to have a small but strong coterie of male friends who, as we age (gracefully and otherwise) look out for each other. Not just with the occasional “RUOK” text but in serious face-to-face (or virtual) encounters in which fears, frustrations and hurts are parsed, works in progress and successes celebrated. We know when one of ours is doing it tough. We call. We talk. We catch up. It’s been invaluable to me.

This was, perhaps, never more important than during the Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 which had a way, as intense social isolation does, of magnifying brittle emotions and problems.

I’ve been fortunate, too, to have gained new male confidants in middle age.

Since my late 40s two of my most important friendships have been with men who are both 20 years older than me. Both are intensely creative and passionate, have done amazing things while continuing, as their 80s approach, to live compelling lives that have been marked by courage and iconoclasm, sensitivity, tragedy, devastating loss, success, disappointment and, not least, a desire to do good.

They’ve gently guided me and been there (each with a sixth sense, almost, that told them I was troubled) when life has cut up rough.

In that, I’ve been more fortunate than many other men of my age.

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