Paul and I were once inseparable. We were part of a close-knit group of friends who spent many happy years together between our late teens and mid-twenties, sharing experiences that should have bonded us for life. For several years we worked in bars together and backpacked around Central America one summer. Then, one day, he had a work commitment and missed my birthday party.
Afterwards, something changed. I didn’t feel he had a good enough reason to miss what had been a meticulously planned event. From then on there was always a slight kink in what had been a perfect bromance.
I stopped calling him and he stopped calling me. Nothing happened; there were no rows or fights over women. It just fizzled out. We now haven’t spoken for well over 20 years. However, within the paradigm of male friendship, he’s still classed as a mate.
The pattern is one many middle-aged men will be familiar with. As we got older, friendships lapse. One by one, the large cohort of male compadres I hung out with through my twenties and thirties were pruned away like dead wood. Wives and children came along. Lives got busy and friendships I spent years cultivating faded. I always felt slightly guilty, but never guilty enough to do anything about it.
If women have friends who move away, they will keep in touch on the phone or through social media, whereas with men, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.
Which is why I was so relieved to read about Elton John and Rod Stewart and the abrupt end of their long amity. According to Rod, Elton has given him the cold shoulder after he made an innocuous comment in an interview. The stars had been trading quips and practical jokes with each other for 50 years, but it appears Rod went one too far when he suggested in a television interview that his pal’s farewell tours were becoming a bit of a habit. I know too well how the longer the silence, the harder it is to reconnect. But losing a friend like this can be more brutal for men because we often have far fewer friends than women.
When I first met my wife 10 years ago, she was concerned about my reliance on a few very close long-standing male pals. She implored me to find more. I was encouraged to join a cycling club and she even dragged me along to salsa classes. The aim was to build me a supportive network of male companionship — a mirror image of her female clique. It didn’t work. I simply prefer the comfort of an old pal.
I’m not anti-social or introverted; indeed, I love socialising. A straw poll of other male friends confirms that I am not alone in this. One friend explains how, on his daily commute, he actively avoids any colleagues or friends he sees on the train. He’ll even change carriages, rather than talk to people he knows. And there is a likely evolutionary reason for this, as Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, explains: “It’s not been particularly well worked out, but one suggestion is that women in traditional hunter-gatherer societies moved from their family grouping into men’s family groups and needed to bond and mix with in-laws and extended family. They had to form close bonds with people who were not their own family.”
And this, explains Prof Dunbar, is why Rod and Elton, Paul and I and countless other male bromances come to an end, sometimes abruptly, while women’s friendships tend to endure.
“If women have friends who move away, they will keep in touch on the phone or through social media, whereas with men, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “Men have a capacity to form working friendships with anyone, whereas female friendships are much more targeted and specific and perhaps more demanding.”
But when an old friend disappears, I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. I still wonder what Paul is doing, what we would make of each other if we met up again for a night of reminiscing. The trouble is, the time spent apart has brought a silence between us that I can’t bring myself to break.
So, anyone out there fancy a beverage?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Nick Harding is an author and journalist