For years I’ve been struggling with friendships. It was never easy for me to “make friends,” and since I arrived in America 11 years ago it’s only become harder. But what I’ve discovered lately is that I’m not alone in this, and it’s not just an immigrant thing. I see gay men who seem to have ‘got it together’ in regard to friendships but actually feel like they can’t be really honest and vulnerable with anyone, BFFs included. So they put on a face and deal with their insecurities and self-worth in isolation. You know, it’s like on your Grindr profile you write that your hobbies are gym, hiking, and watching Disney+ as a generic gay shield to your actual life.

So there’s a gap between who you are with your friends, and who you really are. And this gap can’t be good for mental health and self-development, to say the least.

Thank You For Being A Friend

I blame TV for ruining real-life friendships – or at least for starting the trouble. We look at friends (and “Friends”) on TV and the relationships always seem more selfless, family-like, honest, deep, tolerant, forgiving, non-judgmental, and connected than anything we experience in our real lives. And this is especially sensitive for gay men (like me) who were abandoned (at some capacity or another) or were betrayed by their families and are constantly looking for an alternative, ‘chosen’ family.

Let’s take Golden Girls, for example (if you are a gay man and you haven’t heard of Golden Girls this is because you are lying). The girls are amazing friends, committed forever. But copy/paste to real life: How long could you stand self-obsessed sex-addict Blanche? Will you still be friends with idiot, excruciating-story-teller Rose after two years? Would you ever forgive the sharp-tongued Sophia who tells you to your face she hates you?? Or Dorothy’s dismissive condescension? But there it is, friendships forever. It’s about staying together no matter what and if we have problems, we work them out – or at least, that’s the message.

And there are so many of these friendships on television, when in life it seems such a rarity. In real life, I sometimes think that we revolve endlessly in the vortex of a first date: we keep trying to impress and want people to like us, so we hide a significant part of who we are that we don’t particularly like. It’s the part of us that we show only to those who we are comfortable with and close to, those who we somehow know are not going to leave us for it. But without showing that part of us, we are not being completely ourselves. If this way of life is harmful to everyone, for a gay man who came out of the closet so long ago, swearing to be who he really is in the bright light of day, it is all the more painful to realize that there are some parts he still hides.

This has got me asking myself (apologies for this Carrie Bradshaw moment – and don’t get me started on that show), do I actually know what friendship means in real life? Because based on the yardstick of TV shows I’m obviously failing.

Growing up gay, I moved out of my parents’ home at 21 looking for an alternative family in the big city. A family that would accept me for who I really am. I didn’t want to have to hide my gay side, which I started to like, but it still bothered me to be different, to be “the gay” in the neighborhood, so I moved away. I suspect that this is when the friends-replacing-family started. I was making friends, but unlike biological family, there was no hook to bind us together forever. It was like finding love without marriage: you stay with the person and you know that every day you and he can simply ask yourselves ‘do I really want to be here?’ and if the answer is ‘no,’ you just go. With friendship it can be anything, any disagreement, annoyance or showing an ‘ugly’ side of your personality. There are no commitments.

And perhaps surprisingly, counterintuitively, social networking and the “dating” apps, which promised tremendous opportunity to meet people, make connections, make friends, seems to have created such plenty, such an embarrassment of riches in connection, that relationships have become a sort of pyramid scheme. Connections are made at the tap of a finger, but those are just as easily traded up to new ones, always in a search for – what? – the best? And ultimately, we remain without the deep friendships; no one with whom to eat the cheesecake at 3am.

‘Looking’ In All The Wrong Places

I randomly spoke with two different gay men over the past two weeks about self-worth and self-acceptance. Both of these men seem to have a rich and incredibly active circle of wonderful friends according to the kaleidoscopic filter that is Instagram. They have close friends, they are fun, cute, interesting, have good values, love dogs… it was all so attractive for rich, platonic friendship. I’ve seen both of them around and the conversation has always been light. But when I opened up and talked about my friendship issues, they surprised me because it would seem they feel the same. That made me think that maybe I have been asking my question in all the wrong places.

What have I learned from that (I mean, beside not believing Instagram’s story)? Maybe both sides in a potential friendship have to agree to ‘remove the wall’ that protects them and become vulnerable, but neither of the sides wants to be the first one to do it, and risk being rejected. As a result, we maintain the status quo. We remain socially distant.

In my years in therapy and couples’ therapy I have managed to create a safe space for myself to be vulnerable. Soon after Alex and I started going to couples’ therapy we started “saving” difficult conversations (read: accusations) for couples’ therapy hour because both of us acknowledged that during that time we are more open, more receptive, and more motivated to genuinely connect. And if that worked the magic for our relationship maybe this can also solve friendship for me.

That’s why I decided to join gay group therapy. Facilitated by a therapist, who himself is also gay, I feel like it’s the best way to explore the meaning of real-life friendship. What are the limits, how do we solve judgement, and how do we face rejection? I fantasize about lining up all of my failed friendships and asking them what went wrong. Since I know that will never work, I look to the future and ask myself – as every single gay man does – which Golden Girl am I (praying it’s not Dorothy), and whether I can find warmth and comfort “on the Lanai.”

I intend to share my experience and my discoveries on friendships here on an ongoing basis. I hope you’ll join me, and maybe share yours.