A professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and director of the PH.D. program in Developmental Psychology, Niobe Way examines the myths and misconceptions about the complex relationships among teenage boys in "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection." Here's an excerpt.
It is the middle of June and the New York City heat is on full blast, making it even hotter in the empty high school classroom where 15-year-old Justin and his interviewer José sit in the late afternoon. Justin, whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father is Irish and Italian American, is being interviewed for my school-based research project on boys’ social and emotional development. There is neither an air conditioner nor a fan in the classroom, so Justin, in his baggy jeans and t-shirt, pulls out a notebook from his backpack and starts to fan himself as he listens to José begin the interview protocol. This meeting is the second of four annual interviews. The ﬁrst set of questions is about Justin’s friends in general. He responds by discussing his network of peers in school. Turning to the topic of close friendships, he says:
[My best friend and I] love each other . . . that’s it . . . you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person ...and that is all that should be important in our friendship ...I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.
Listening to boys, particularly those in early and middle adolescence, speak about their male friendships is like reading an old-fashioned romance novel in which the female protagonist is describing her passionate feelings for her man. At the edge of manhood, when pressures to conform to gender expectations intensify, boys speak about their male friends with abandon, referring to them as people whom they love and to their feelings as, to put it in Justin’s words, “this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it.” They talk in great detail and with tremendous affect about their best friends, with whom they share their deepest secrets and without whom they would, according to 15-year-old Malcolm, “feel lost.”
Boys also underscore how important the sharing of thoughts and feelings are in these friendships for their psychological wellbeing. George at 16 years old says that close friends are important because, “I mean, if you just have your mother and your parents [to talk to], then you’re just gonna have all these ideas bottled up and you’re just gonna go wacko because you can’t express yourself even more.” Chen at 15 years old says that he needs a close friend so “you have someone to talk to, like you have problems with something, you go talk to him. You know, if you keep it all the stuff to yourself, you go crazy. Try to take it out on someone else.” Kai says bluntly at the age of 14: “you need a friend or else, you would be depressed, you won’t be happy, you would try to kill yourself, ’cause then you’ll be all alone and no one to talk to.”
Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be activity oriented, emotionally illiterate, and interested only in independence, these responses seem shocking. The image of the lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity and the symbol of independence and thus of maturity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet the vast majority of the hundreds of boys whom my research team and I have interviewed from early to late adolescence suggest that their closest friendships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys valued their male friendships greatly and saw them as essential components to their health, not because their friends were worthy opponents in the competition for manhood but because they were able to share their thoughts and feelings—their deepest secrets— with these friends.
Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from DEEP SECRETS: BOYS’ FRIENDSHIPS AND THE CRISIS OF CONNECTION by Niobe Way, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2011 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.