Bromance: I Love You In a Heterosexual Way. Really!

A bromance might be a cover for men who have a romantic attraction to other men.

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Smellyavocado, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Smellyavocado, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One question raised by several young men I interviewed during the past decade was whether a bromance counts as a marker of romantic orientation. A bromance is generally understood to be a same-sex, non-sexual male friendship that is, nevertheless, exceptionally affectionate and intimate. Their homosocial bonding exceeds usual male friendships and, in some circumstances, matches or surpasses heterosexual romance. As noted in research from Eric Anderson’s lab, “Our participants mostly determined that a bromance offered them elevated emotional stability, enhanced emotional disclosure, social fulfilment, and better conflict resolution, compared to the emotional lives they shared with girlfriends.” Clearly, bromances resemble “traditional expectations of romantic companionship, namely, the declarations of love, kissing, cuddling, and exclusive emotional confidence.” I would say these are the hallmarks of a romantic orientation.

Bromance as a concept became quite popular, even somewhat trendy—think Matt Damon/Ben Affleck or Adam Levine/Blake Shelton. The media, of course, has entered the conversation, offering modern interpretations of bromance. Bryan Hawn’s parody of bromance, viewed by millions on YouTube, portrays two singing hunks with obvious but denied sexual interest in each other; they call it a bromance—though they are careful to remind us: “Bromance. There’s nothing really gay about it … Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. I love you in a heterosexual way.”

Bromances exist within an extensive literature developed around sex differences in basic friendships. The difference has been described as women have “face-to-face” and men have “side-by-side” relationships with same-sex others. Men share interests and activities; women, self-disclosure and emotional support. Men fleetingly touch each other; women, embrace. Men are impersonal; women, personal. These differences, though overblown, have been attributed to the way masculinity and femininity are constructed in Western societies. Diamond noted that passionate friendships among men are considered un-masculine and culturally problematic because “highly intimate and affectionate same-gender friendships are more likely to engender suspicion of homosexuality when they occur between men than when they occur between women.” Whereas women can be passionate with each other and stay straight, if men are passionate with each other they are tagged gay.

As anthropologist Robert Brain noted, however, these differences are not universal. Male-male relations across a number of countries include displays of emotions and affection that resemble more the passion of heterosexual lovers than the calm friendship of equals. They fall in love, share beds, marry, bond for life, and ritualize their relationship. Without doubt, some of these emotions and displays of affection contain sexual desire but the men are usually reticent to engage in sexual relations because of cultural prohibitions—but not always. Sex is one of the more controversial features of the distinction between a romance and a bromance—at least theoretically. Dillon, a mostly straight young man I interviewed, was ambiguous about whether he would have sex with one of his man crushes: “If the guy is attractive enough ... You just never know.” 

Given these characteristics, we return to the question raised by the young men: Do bromances count as a sign of romantic orientation? Is a man who develops crushes and infatuations with other men making a meaningful statement about his romantic orientation? If a straight man has sex with other men, does it count as sex? If two straight men have a bromance, does it count as romance? Perhaps in both instances the men are not totally sexually and romantically straight; they might be straight romantically but bisexual sexually; straight sexually but bisexual romantically; or, as I would add, mostly straight per se. 

Bromance might have been invented as a cover, an acceptable cultural script manufactured to let men be emotionally vulnerable with each other while being protected from the stigma of gayness. He can satisfy his romantic arousals and desires to be attached to other men without blowing his gender appropriateness—he keeps his masculinity intact. But at what point do best buddy feelings become infatuations rather than merely intimate friendliness?

The question of whether a bromance is a platform for an infatuation or a crush in disguise or if bromance partners can be totally straight rather than fall under the bisexual umbrella must remain undecided. Certainly, men can have a crush on or fall in love with a member of the same sex without having sex—just as having sex with a same-sex individual does not mean they are romantically in love with that person. I have a lingering suspicion that defining an emotional, seemingly romantic, relationship between two men as a bromance is an attempt to conceal or deny their romantic attraction to each other. As to the fundamental question, my perspective is yes, we should count bromance as an indicator of romantic orientation, which may or may not be linked with sexual orientation. Why not just call it what it is? What is so wrong with two straight men being in love, infatuated with each other? Straight women do it all the time. Let’s just celebrate it.

References

Brain, R. (1976). Friends and Lovers. New York: Basic Books. Quote pp. 39-40. 

Diamond, L. M. (2003). What does sexual orientation orient? A biobehavioral model distinguishing romantic love and sexual desire. Psychological Review, 110, 173-192. Quote p. 177.

Nardi, P. (1999). Gay Men’s Friendships: Invincible Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robinson, S., White, A., & Anderson, E. (online). Privileging the bromance: A critical appraisal of romantic and bromantic relationships. Men and Masculinities. doi:10.1177/1097184X17730386. Quote p. xx.

Savin-Williams, R. C. (2017). Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7bJnTIcUEg&list=RD-7bJnTIcUEg&start_radio=1&t=25

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