Rannveig Traustadottir

Many studies have documented the differences in friendship among men and friendship among women (Bell, 1981; Block, 1980; Fasteau, 1991; Lenz & Myerhoff, 1985; McGill, 1985; Pogrebin, 1987; Rubin, 1985; Sherrod, 1989; Stein, 1986). One of these authors goes so far as to claim that, "there is no social factor more important than that of sex in leading to friendship variations" (Bell, 1981, p. 55). Gender seems to be a main organizer of friendships, and most studies identify three major patterns: (1) friendship between women, (2) friendship between men, and (3) cross-gender friendship. In this article I will briefly review this literature and will also look at friendships between people with and without disabilities.

Women's Friendships

Women typically describe their friendships in terms of closeness and emotional attachment. What characterizes friendships between women is the willingness to share important feelings, thoughts, experiences, and support. Women devote a good deal of time and intensity of involvement to friends. Friendships between women, more so than between men, are broad and less likely to be segmented.

That is, women usually make a deep commitment to their female friends and their friendships usually cover a broad spectrum, while men's friendships tend to be segmented and centered around particular activities (Gouldner & Strong, 1987; Lenz & Myerhoff, 1985; McGill, 1985; Pogrebin, 1987).

History does not celebrate female friendships, and there is a long standing myth that the greatest friendships have been between men. The male friendship is usually portrayed as the most unselfish and perhaps the highest form of human relationship, while women's friendships have been devalued and seen as frivolous and superficial (Bell, 1981; Block, 1980; Fasteau, 1991; Rubin, 1985). A group of women friends is not seen as a team of colleagues, but as the "girls" trooping off to gossip, exchange recipes, and talk about trivia of fashion, cooking, or dieting over tea. Studies indicate that many of these stereotypes about women's friendships still exist.

Men's Friendships

The great friendships recorded in history have been between men, and friendships among men have often been romanticized and idealized. Men's friendships have typically been described in terms of bravery and physical sacrifice in providing assistance to others. Hardly ever do these historical accounts celebrate interpersonal relationships characterized by closeness and compassion for other men. Bell claims that, "This has been so because masculine values have made those kinds of feelings inappropriate and highly suspect--they were unmanly" (1981, p. 75). Despite this historical romanticization of the male friendship, researchers have found that men have significantly fewer friends than women, especially close friendships or best friends (Bell, 1981; Block, 1980; Fasteau, 1991; Smith, 1983).Although the majority of men may not have close friends they do not conduct their lives in isolation. Block (1980) found that most of the men in his study had a variety of same-sex relationships. These include what Block calls "activity friends," such as a weekly tennis partner or drinking buddies; "convenience friends" where the relationship is based on the exchange of favors; and "mentor friends" typically between a younger and an older man.

While women's friendships are usually defined as self-revealing, accepting, and intimate, men usually shy away from intimacy and closeness. Authors identify at least three barriers to close friendships among men: competition between men, traditional masculine stereotypes about "real men," and fear of homosexuality (Fasteau, 1991; McGill, 1985; Miller, 1983).

In a discussion of gender differences in friendship, Sherrod (1989), points out that although men rate their friendship as less intimate than do women, at least in terms of self-disclosure and emotional expressiveness, men's friendships nevertheless serve to buffer stress and reduce depression in the same way that women's friendships do. Sherrod also reports that when men do achieve a high level of intimacy with other men, they usually follow a different path than women, one that emphasizes activities and companionship over self-disclosure and emotional expressiveness.

Friendships Between Men and Women

Studies indicate that male-female friendships are less common than same-gender friendships. This is especially true for married people or couples, where friendships across the gender line are much less common than among single people (Bell, 1981; Block, 1980; Rubin, 1985). Most studies indicate that this is primarily due to possessiveness and jealousy that often characterizes sexual relationships and coupled life (Block, 1980; McGill, 1985; Rubin, 1985).

In his study, Bell (1981) discusses what he describes as an emerging "new pattern" in cross-gender friendship: "Men turn more to women for close relationships, and relationships with other men are less stressed as the only 'real' friendships" (Bell, 1981, p. 112). Rubin (1985) found similar trends. Some of the men in her study describe how a friendship with a woman provides them with nurturance and intimacy, that generally is not available in their friendships with other men. The women in Rubin's study share this view and most of them agree that in their friendships with men, they are the ones who listen and nurture. The vast majority of women, however, report that their friendships with men are less intimate than their relationships with other women. For their most intimate friendships, women turn to each other.

Gender Patterns in Friendships Between People With and Without Disabilities

There are at least two reasons why friendships between people with and without disabilities are seen as important for the person with the disability. First, it is generally assumed that such relationships will serve as the basis for some of the social, emotional, and practical support people with disabilities need in order to become truly integrated into the fabric of everyday community life. Second, many people regard social relationships with ordinary community members as the measure, or even the ultimate goal, of people's integration into community life (Hutchison, 1990; Knoll & Ford, 1987).

As with friendships in the general population, friendships between people with and without disabilities are also organized by gender relations, but instead of three major gender patterns, one pattern seems to be most common: friendship between nondisabled women and people (men and women) with disabilities. Friendship patterns that include nondisabled men seem to be less common.

Women and People with Disabilities

Although there are no conclusive studies available to determine the gender patterns in friendships between people with and without disabilities, the literature indicates strongly that women tend to be overrepresented as friends of people with disabilities (Hutchison, 1990; Kishi, 1988; Krauss, Seltzer, & Goodman, 1992; Peck, Donaldson, & Pezzoli, 1990; Voeltz, 1980, 1982). The expectation that friends of people with disabilities will provide practical, emotional, and social support is probably one reason why women are more inclined to enter such friendships than men. The differences in men's and women's orientation toward friendships in general indicate that women would be more likely than men to provide such support. Women approach friendships in a way that is characterized by acceptance, intimacy, and support. Further, women have traditionally been assigned the role of helper, nurturer, and caretaker. Therefore, establishing a friendship with a person with a disability falls within the realm of women's traditional roles, as well as within the tradition of female friendships.

As part of a qualitative study of women in caring roles, I interviewed and observed nondisabled women in friendships with people with disabilities. The women in this study usually highlighted the emotional aspects when they described their friendships with both women and men with disabilities. These friendships were often characterized by an unusual amount of support provided by the nondisabled women, and the considerable amount of work it usually requires to spend time with their friends. These characteristics set these friendships apart from friendships in the general population, where friendships are likely to have a closer resemblance to the culturally dominant ideal of friendship as a reciprocal relation between equals.

Within friendships in general, reciprocity is viewed as a balance of contribution and benefit; both parties feel that their contribution to the relationship is fairly balanced by what they get out of it. In their account of friendships between women with disabilities and non-disabled women, including the friendship between themselves, Fisher and Galler (1988) write:
Although this marketplace image of social life has been criticized on the grounds that the intimate feelings shared by friends transcend such trade-offs, some desire for reciprocity seems to have played a part in the friendships of all the women we spoke to--as well as in our own (p. 179-180).

The friends in my study also strive for some level of reciprocity in their friendships. Creating such a balance, however, is difficult for people with severe disabilities who need a significant amount of support from their friends.

Most of the women in this study have made a broad commitment to their friends with disabilities. Most of their friends have few means to reciprocate the support other than love, affection, intimacy, and emotional comfort. Because these are qualities women seek and value in their friendships, women will be more likely than men to recognize these as important contributions, which makes it easier, at least for some people with disabilities, to create a balanced friendship with women.

Men and People With Disabilities

Nondisabled men seem to be less likely than their female counterparts to establish friendships with people with disabilities. There are, of course, nondisabled men who have close friendships with people with disabilities (Perske, 1988), but these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. In my study, I found a number of barriers that hinder the establishment of friendships between nondisabled men and people with disabilities, especially the expectation that nondisabled friends will provide emotional support or personal care to their friends with disabilities.Unlike women, men usually have little practice in providing such tending-type assistance. In addition, the taboos around emotional and physical closeness within male friendships can make it difficult for men to provide such assistance to their male friends with disabilities. The fear many heterosexual men have of being thought of as homosexual may also be at work here, as may the fear of being suspected of sexual abuse of a woman friend with disabilities.

During participant observations in human service organizations I encountered a small number of nondisabled men who have established friendships with people with disabilities. The overwhelming majority of these friendships are between men. Like with the women, most of the nondisabled men met their friends through involvement in the field of disabilities. In most instances the nondisabled man is a current or former staff member in service programs serving their friend with the disability.

A large proportion of these nondisabled male friends are nontraditional in some sense, and some of them openly challenge the conventional masculinity. For example, more than half of these men are homosexual, and one of the heterosexual men is very active in the peace movement and fights against militarism and other forms of traditional masculinity. Part of this study took place during the "Desert Storm" operation in the Persian Gulf, and this man was among the leaders in the opposition against this military operation in his community.

Most of the friendships between men with and without disabilities have characteristics similar to friendships between men in the general population. These are typically friendships that center around particular activities, like going to sports events. If the man provides assistance to the friend with the disability, the support is most often of practical nature. The most common support is to provide the friend with transportation to certain events such as church or to sports events. These friendships are usually not broad based or characterized by emotional intimacy. Sometimes a woman introduces the men to each other, and women are often instrumental in keeping the relationship going.


Gender is a major organizer of friendship, both in the general population and in friendship between people with and without disabilities. However, when the gender patterns are compared it becomes apparent that friendship between people with and without disabilities do not follow normative friendship patterns. Instead of the culturally normative pattern where friendships are mostly confined within gender, people with disabilities (males as well as females) who do have friends, tend to have nondisabled women friends.

I have argued that the social organization of friendships between people with and without disabilities is highly gendered, in such a way that women will be more likely, than men, to establish such friendships. When women establish a friendship with a person with a disability they are following a long tradition of women's relationships characterized by caring and nurturance. By the same token, the social construction of friendships between people with and without disabilities creates a number of barriers for nondisabled men in establishing such friendships.

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Parts of this article will appear in Friendships and Community Connections Between Persons With and Without Disabilities, edited by Angela N. Amado, to be published by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.