“Look, I know this is gonna sound weird, but I love you guys!”
That’s the closest my friends and I get to expressing in words how much we mean to each other. It’s usually shouted into the middle of a beery group hug, over the din of a wedding band or a crowded bar, and it always does sound a little weird. But it also feels good, more than any of us would like to admit.
There are two crucial facts women should understand about fraternal love. First, it is based on competition. Andrew O’Hagan made this point beautifully in a recent essay for The New York Times Style Magazine: “We compare ourselves with other men, and we get bigger or smaller in our eyes depending on how well we can compete.”
For O’Hagan and his worldly chums, these competitions come in the form of arguments about “the writing of Evelyn Waugh, or about whether Catholicism was basically sentimental.” My crew is more likely to vie over who can deliver the most devastating critique of the text message exchange one of us had with a woman he met at a bar. But the underlying impulse is the same. Simply put, to be a man is to be constantly in competition with other men. Friendship provides a safe environment where we can test ourselves and each other, providing a team of sparring partners who are, in the end, rooting for each other.
To take the boxing metaphor one step further, let’s talk Rocky Balboa. For me, the most touching love story in the entire saga is between Rocky and Apollo Creed, his nemesis turned trainer, and not between Rocky and Adrian, his long-suffering (and insufferable, but that’s beside the point) romantic partner. Apollo knows something about Rocky that Adrian will never know, something she’s probably not even interested in knowing—specifically, the terrain and boundaries of Rocky’s masculinity, as men define it among themselves.
This brings me to the second crucial fact about fraternal love: it SHOULD NEVER be considered a threat to romantic love. When a romantic relationship is healthy, it provides many things friendship can’t—sex, of course, but also the opportunity to be vulnerable and honest in ways that simply aren’t possible among even the best of brahs. But equally important, friendship provides that place to reaffirm your masculine identity, so you can take that back to your partner. In other words, when both are done right, fraternal love actually complements romantic love.
In my case, it was deeply reassuring to hear that my friends not only really like my girlfriend, they also think she’s way out of my league and have taken bets on when she’ll come to her senses and drop me like a bad habit. In other words, they’re really happy for me.