Why Men Need Each Other
High quality friendships are difficult for men to find and maintain. New research shows that platonic bonds could help them live healthier, more fulfilling lives.
When Alex Lawrence turned 30, he realized he had plenty of male acquaintances but few deep connections with other men.
“That’s where the trouble is,” Lawrence, now 32, explained. “I wish I had more really close friends.” After making a 2020 resolution to build stronger male friendships, he found himself isolated and indoors for the majority of the year.
The pandemic has made finding and maintaining close friendships difficult for everyone. But unlike women, pre-pandemic data indicates that most adult men have few same-gender close friendships, a problem that social scientists have called “the friendship crisis.” Long term bonds are even harder to come by if you are a straight, cisgender male. But for those breaking the norm, there’s good news.
In a new study, sociologist Dr. Ríos-González and his colleagues found that men who regularly engage in sincere, emotionally open conversations with other men tend to have better physical and mental health. Men in the study reported that their friends encourage them to take better care of their bodies and overall well-being.
To experience health benefits, friends must venture beyond conversations that revolve around topics like sports or politics - what Ríos-González calls “the superficiality of life.” When men speak openly about their relationships, goals, disappointments, and fears, they become invested in each other. “These kinds of relationships can be transformative to men’s health,” Ríos-González said.
Ríos-González’ study is a small one, but his group’s findings are replicated by other researchers. Using a large, global sample, other groups have shown that men with better physical health often report placing high value in their friendships.
These studies adds to a growing field of research on the benefits of close friendships. Several groups of top scientists have stated that the association between positive social relationships and better mental and physical health is causal, not simply correlational.
“Sharing our feelings and being in it together reduces our stress,” said Dr. Izzy Eliaz, a clinical psychologist who assists men with interpersonal difficulties. “There’s a direct physiological response to emotional connection.”
Dr. Max Belkin, a couples and individuals therapist in New York City, believes that traditional manhood plays a role in hindering men’s friendships. “The notions of masculinity that a man receives through all kinds of explicit and implicit messages informs their ability or lack of ability to form close friendships,” he said.
With growing evidence confirming the connection between male gender norms and health risks, the American Psychological Association revamped its practitioner guidelines to position traditional masculinity as a public health crisis. “The crux of working with men is the understanding that masculinity is both associated with a wide range of health concerns and less willingness to seek help for those problems,” the report reads.
Often, traditional masculinity is incompatible with the skills required for forming high quality connections as adults. The rules of masculinity are absorbed in boyhood, when boys learn that the archetypal man is competitive, hyper-independent, and stoic, a recipe that leads many to conceal interest in forming emotional bonds.
Boyhood is also the time when children internalize and begin to model cultural representations of social relationships. Examples of men sharing emotions with other men on screen, or in a book, are few and far between, Lawrence explained. “I’ve seen men as partners in crime, business associates, or buddy cops. I can’t think of any male friendship in the media where they're not on a quest together.”
Virginia resident John Gorra, 61, told me that men are often portrayed as not needing relationships all together.
“When I grew up it was the lone wolf,” he said.“I watched westerns and war movies. Those guys didn’t have friends.” To combat this narrative, Gorra organized a weekly coffee group where men from various faith backgrounds and age groups have a standing hour to discuss their inner worlds. They’ve been meeting regularly now for 16 years.
Matthew Nacier, a 28 year old private equity associate living in Dallas, Texas, told me that he too has resisted the lone-wolf stereotype. Instead, he’s spent his twenties building close same-gender connections where no topics are off limits. “We talk about what’s making us happy or concerned, what we look forward to, and what we dread.”
But Lawrence adds that it’s often difficult to move the conversation beyond small talk about subjects like sports and stocks. The same is true for Dionysius Sabalos, a 93-year-old man living in an assisted living facility in Tucson, Arizona. “You’d think men would speak with one another openly this far into life. It’s just not the case,” he told me over the phone.
Men’s emotional intimacy deficit does not necessarily mean that men spend more time alone. Researchers show that the majority of men’s bonds are activity based, such as a shared sport or hobby. “It’s a secret code to say we want to get together, but we don't want to actually say something affectionate,” said Michael Robinson, 58, a pharmaceutical sales representative.
When I asked these men how they typically spent time with friends, they spoke of doing activities that ranged from golf and tennis, to skateboarding and drinking in bars. Initiating contact outside of exercise or alcohol was often uncomfortable, uncharted terrain.
Men also disclosed that their struggles to find close friends has caused stress in their romantic relationships. The reliance heterosexual men place on women to fulfill their emotional needs, in the absence of close friendships, has been coyly termed “emotional gold digging” by twitter users and sociologists alike.
“It’s too much dependence on one person,” said Dr. Belkin, “I think it creates a lot of problems.” One that often becomes a woman’s responsibility to solve. The good news is men can change how, and with whom, they spend their emotional lives.
Ríos-González said educational initiatives that teach boys and girls how to make, and maintain, emotionally rich friendships should be a priority for educators and researchers. Parents can also address this at home, through dialogue or sharing books that accurately represent the challenges and benefits of cultivating close friendships.
For adult men, Dr. Belkin recommends therapy. A counselor can provide a low-risk environment to practice the skill of tending to an emotional bond with another man.
Informal gatherings can also promote a type of caring community. Asking friends to join a zoom call, with no set activity, or occasionally switching up a regular basketball game for a coffee date, could pay mental and physiological dividends.
Mr. Gorra’s weekly coffee group is set to resume in-person this summer as more members get vaccinated.
I asked him what the group members gain from meeting on a regular basis.
“Who was it who said ‘most men lead quiet lives of desperation?’” he asked. “I think it's the deep desire for a real level of intimacy.”