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Thursday 30 May 2024

Dancing in the Dark
dr george pollard

Amy Sohn writes for New York Magazine. Social bonds, how men and women get along, are her beat. She has a gimlet eye and a nimble mind. "The Cutting Game," her column for 10 January 2005, was about a lost social bond, seldom talked about. EBFs are "ex-best friends." An EBF "is a former bosom buddy who, through some specific conflict or a series of slowly escalating mini-conflicts, no longer wants to see you or speak to you, ever again." "Who would've imagined," says Miranda, "Carrie and Charlotte are EBF."

Sohn gained an EBF when she started dating a man her EBF discarded. A lingering sense of ownership caused the EBF to tell Sohn she never regarded her as a best friend. Sohn mulled and decided, "ending a friendship has an agony all its own."

Lingering in the Sohn column are clues to how women and men get long.

Women invest a great deal in forming social bonds, lots more than men do, and still more to keep the bonds going. The cost of ending a bond is greater for women than for men. Women like to be sure before they act. Once they act to end a connection, they stick with the decision. It's best to keep EBFs at a distance. You can never go home again, well almost.

Men have fewer EBFs than do women. Women decide, whereas men hedge. Men drift to and from friends. They suspend and seldom formally end social bonds. An exception might be romantic connections; underscore might.

Two men, best buddies, drift apart. They run into each other after three years and restart right where they left off. They don't miss a beat. It's as if the last time they talked was at the sports bar the other night. This is common among men, who hedge their bets, and rare among women.

A friendship, Sohn notes, doesn't begin with the prospect of ending, more so for women than for men. Coworkers, women or men, expect to split. We suspect a romance might end. Families seldom foresee a living end.

Active bonds are more important for women than for men. Women define and judge themselves by the bonds they form and keep, says Carol Gilligan. Across the world and time, say Eleanor Maccoby and Carolyn Jacklin, women form a wider range of social bonds than do men.

Social bonds among men are for status or diversion. Status bonds involve work and career rewards in the form of security. Bonds for diversion are about life away from the job.

Status bonds are public. Diversionary bonds are more private. Bonds do overlap, but fewer than supposed, and as often as not for strategic reasons.

The lives of men centre on tasks. The lives of women centre on social bonds. This doesn't rule out overlap; effective tasking demands well-forged bonds. The task focus is weaker for some men and stronger for some women. Many women are better taskers than are some men. Some men stress social bonds more than do some women. A combination of styles is always best.

"The personal is the political" was once a popular adage. Meant to apply to everyone, it was half right. Women and men live in differing but overlapping worlds. In all facets of life, women prefer to come together; men do so clannishly.

Men chop life into blocks: work, friends and family. Work overlaps friends. Friends overlap family. Work flops into family mostly for strategic reasons.

Women integrate. Work, friends and family form a cohesive whole for women. An integrated life is fuller. It benefits a wider range of people. It also has longer lasting effects, if for no other reason than it's balanced.

All marriages, says Jessie Bernard, are two marriages, his and hers. When men and women talk, says Deborah Tannen, they must work hard to understand each other. Social life is different for women and men.

In social bonds, women, too, find rewards. Loyalty and support create stability. Instability or a lack of support robs a bond of purpose. The purpose of bonding is safe haven, where women thrive.

For EBFs, the security of a stable bond has lapsed. A source told Sohn she had a fight or flight response when she ran into an EBF. In a lapsed bond is danger. Escape is the best alternative. Self-defence is a distant second choice.

Sohn tried small talk with her EBF. The rapport was gone; the social bond vanished into the mist. Any contact made circumstances worse. Life is easier, she writes, if she and her EBF ignore each other.

Men also bond for survival reasons. What it takes to survive varies for men and women. Men take risks to win status and amass its rewards. Women survive by social bonds. Loyalty, common support and stability promote bonds. Status and its rewards are part of the package, not it all, and often most annoying.

Survival styles are not mutually exclusive, either. Women take risks for status; men place a premium on social bonds. Nothing is as simple as it seems at first. A combination of styles is always best. Worst of all is to assert one style at the expense of the other.

In the end, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Mothers tell sons to take risks to win status and its rewards, while urging daughters to form and keep bonds. Across a lifetime, we're most likely to take the advice mother gave us. Don't you wear clean underwear, in case you get in an accident and have to go to the hospital?

Note: situations and dialogues are fictive examples, not based on specific events or inspired by a specific person, unless explicitly stated as such. Examples are inspired by song lyrics, movie scenes and old jokes.


Jessie Bernard (1982), "The Future of Marriage." 2nd edition. Yale University Press.

Carol Gilligan (1982), "In a Different Voice: psychological theory and women's development." Harvard University Press.

Eleanor Maccoby and Carolyn Jacklin (1974), "The Psychology of Sex Differences." Stanford University Press.

Bruce Springsteen (1984), "Dancing in the Dark." ASCAP.

Deborah Tannen (1990), "You Just Don't Understand: men and women in conversation." William Morrow.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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