The Physiology of Friendship

The physiology – the physical aspects of friendships, is the next topic in this series on man friends.  This post covers the benefits of physical activity with a friend, but also how testosterone affects men, which can add risks to his relationships.

Upcoming posts will cover how friendships change throughout our lifespan, followed by several posts with examples of good friends in sports, literature, and entertainment. My hope is that this entire series helps you see why friendships are so important to men but also why a GodBuddy is the most preferred type of friendship. 

The Physical Aspects of Friendship

My last post, The Psychology of Friendship, stated psychology studies the mind, whereas similarly-spelled physiology studies the body. Of course, there is a crossover between these two words since our mind controls our body’s actions. 

Neurochemistry, the molecular, cellular, and biochemical aspects of the brain and nervous system play an important role in choosing and maintaining our friendships.  Friendships also play a role in how long we live. Author, speaker, and neuroscientist, Natalie Geld, explains the health benefits of hanging out with our friends succinctly:

“Having a supportive social network – i.e. a lot of friends – can help you live longer with less anxiety and fewer health problems.”

–Natalie Geld, co-founder of the Society for Mind Brain Sciences

In this post, I cover the physical aspect of friendships centered on three topics: 

  • How testosterone impacts a man’s brain and body
  • The health benefits of physical activity with friends
  • A danger zone coming from how the male brain works 

The Paradox of Testosterone

One aspect of neurochemistry is the study of testosterone, the hormone that makes us men.

In a podcast, The Vast Influence of Testosterone on Our Bodies, Minds and the World We Live In, Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness and Dr. Charles Ryan, an oncologist who specializes in prostate cancer and author of the book, The Virility Paradox, discuss the upsides and downsides of testosterone.

Testosterone makes us physically strong, courageous, and ambitious. But testosterone also contributes to prostate cancer, heart disease, and asocial aggression. Therefore, proper testosterone levels are critical for men, since it affects us physically and emotionally. 

Dr. Ryan describes how our exposure to testosterone in the womb determines our gender. He also says testosterone plays a huge role throughout a man’s life since it affects our sex drive, facial hair growth, and risk-taking mentality. Decreasing T levels often lead to balding and prostate cancer. It also helps decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

There is recent neuroscience that argues that the various biological factors like prenatal hormones and specific genetic profiles, contribute to sexual arousal and sexual orientation.

Not only do genetics and mental health have an impact on our actions, but abnormal testosterone levels may cause unhealthy aggression. These often show up as sexual abuse, pornography use, and criminality.  

The Health Benefits of Friends

Spending time with friends is good for our physical and mental health. Study after study shows that strong social connections lead to a longer and healthier life. One study shows that older adults with meaningful relationships are likely to live up to 22% longer than their peers with fewer connections. 

Presumably, this longevity comes through doing recreational activities such as running, walking, biking, golfing, weight lifting, or doing yoga. In general, working out helps reduce your risk of depression, high blood pressure, and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Working out with a friend adds motivation and accountability. 

The Health Risk of Friends

Obviously, the influence of friends with bad habits works the opposite. Hanging out with guys who smoke, drink heavily, or eat poorly, will have a negative impact on your physical health. Alcohol consumption – even if done for social reasons, can affect your health. Frequent recreational drug use, such as smoking marijuana, is also proven to lead to more addictive drug use. 

For men especially, good physical habits help us cope with the stress of life.

My post, Stress: The Other Component of Friendlessness includes a quote by Dr. Carlos Mendes de Leon, that friendships work their magic in several ways,

“Friendships may strengthen you mentally and physically, and that may be instrumental in slowing down chronic disease processes that can lead to disability.”

— Carlos Mendes de Leon, Ph.D., professor of internal medicine at Chicago’s Rush Institute for Healthy Aging

Good friends help men avoid isolation and loneliness, which is a huge risk for men. 

Are Man Friends Less Important Today? 

Another physical aspect of friendship is how history and culture have changed the way we view close, intimate male friendships. 

As I wrote in the History of Friendship, male friendships were much more intimate in prior generations, and most often the same gender.

Michael R. Kauth, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine has documented close, loving male friendships (“blood brotherhood” traditions) in more than 50 hunter-gatherer societies in Central Africa, southwestern Ghana, near Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, and the Moshi area of Tanzania. Blood brotherhoods are not as common in Western cultures today.

This begs the question: are strong, committed friendships less valued or just viewed differently?

Or Do We View Same-Sex Friends Differently Now? 

According to Dr, Kauth’s post, German activists in 1869 coined a term for people with same-gender sexual attraction, calling them “homosexual.” People who experienced and showed affection for same-gender friends were accused and punished for what was deemed abnormal, criminal sexual attraction. Health professionals, clergy, law enforcement, and social conservatives also warned to avoid same-gender-loving people or risk becoming like them.

Thankfully, more than a century later, people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and related identities have achieved hard-fought social acceptance and rights. But a stigma remains. Same-gender friends must deal with their own internalized homophobia. They must also learn to handle negative reactions from others in order to develop closer, more emotionally intimate friendships.

Perhaps history and fear of intimacy have permanently stained same-gender friendships.  

Bromance: a Risk or a Benefit?

The term often used these days for close male friendships is “Bromance,” which Wikipedia defines this way:

A bromance is a very close and non-sexual relationship between two or more men. It is an exceptionally tight, affectional, homosocial male bonding relationship exceeding that of usual friendship, and is distinguished from normal friendship by a particularly high level of emotional intimacy.

Research from the University of California/Berkeley even suggests a close, male friendship is just as powerful at boosting a man’s resilience to stress and extending his lifespan as a romantic relationship. 

But bromances are not solely relationships between straight men; men of any sexual orientation can form these types of close friendships. Some even suggest bromances with a gay or lesbian friend can help men overcome homophobia.

Professor Eric Anderson, one of the researchers of a 2017 study, Privileging the Bromance: A Critical Appraisal of Romantic and Bromantic Relationships published in the journal Men and Masculinities, said, “The rise of the bromance is directly related to the diminishment of homophobia. It signals that young, straight men no longer desire to be trapped by older, conservative notions of masculinity.” 

Some guys still limit their emotional connectedness and physical aspect of friendships with men due to a fear of being perceived as gay. Also, some still worry that any show of honesty and openness could be viewed as sexual attraction.

Today, straight men no longer see befriending gay men as a threat to their masculinity. It can actually open up how gay and straight men relate to one another. For instance, if a straight guy and his gay male friend are less rigid and more understanding about their masculinity and sexuality, they’ll probably be more comfortable discussing details of their lives with each other.

The Risk of Sexual Attraction 

Brain chemistry plays a big role in how we view sex. While not exclusive to men, God wired men as visual beings. We are easily aroused by beautiful people. Dr. Louann Brizendine calls it, “the Man Trance”. 

Brizendine, a member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and author of several books on the female and male brains says that men have a sexual pursuit area in their brain that is 2.5 times larger than the same area in the female brain. This, combined with a 20- to 25-fold increase in testosterone production in adolescence, fuels a man’s sexual engines. For these reasons, it’s easy to understand how today’s revealing apparel and sex-induced media, easily arouses some men.

For some guys, their physiology makes it impossible to stop thinking about female body parts and having sex. If they don’t know how to manage their reaction to arousal, their sexual appetite can get out of control.

Obviously, all this is no excuse for inappropriate behavior but these fears remain the main obstacle to solely platonic friendships for men and women. 

Views on the Physical Aspects of Friendship

Perhaps due to physiology, men and women have vastly different views of what it means to be “just friends.” These differing views of our physical aspects of friendships have the potential to lead to trouble for men, both inside and outside of their marriage.  

In my post Guidelines for Male-Female Friendships, I wrote that a man’s greatest challenge was maintaining sexual purity, especially with female co-workers, friends, and neighbors. I described four types of male-female friendships that deserve unique attention and proper boundaries: 

  • A single woman and a married man
  • A married woman and a single man
  • A married woman and a married man
  • A single woman and a single man

Most women genuinely believe that opposite-sex friendships can remain platonic. But some men seem unable to turn off their sexual desires or stop thinking about how sex can be an outcome.

So what is the solution? 

Protect Your Heart

Scripture also reminds godly men about the importance of our physiology. Two wise sayings from King Solomon tell us to protect our minds and our heart, both of which will help us manage our actions:

“For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

—Proverbs 23:7

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

–Proverbs 4:23

When men understand the biblical and physical aspects of friendships, we will learn to value our close, intimate friendships, regardless of gender. We will worry less about showing emotional love and physical closeness. We will understand the need for and how to maintain appropriate boundaries.

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God Buddy Focus

My book, Get Out of Your Man Cave: The Crisis of Male Friendship has a whole chapter titled “Proceed with Caution: Opposite Gender Friendship” with several ways to properly manage your relationships with the opposite sex. The best way is to be accountable to a God Buddy.

This week: 

  • Have an honest discussion with your GodBuddy about the physical aspects of friendships. Do it before any emotional connection leads to inappropriate behavior. 
  • Be open about your your sexual temptations and interactions (especially the digital kind) with any female who is not your wife. Confess anything even close to an indiscretion. 
  • Get a copy of the book and learn the GodBuddy practices for all of your friendships. 

My next post will cover the ways your friendships change at our various life stages. 

As always, I welcome your comments below. 


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