In a world where social bonds are seen as a fundamental aspect of human life, the diminishing circle of close friends among adult men is becoming a subject of increasing concern. As a psychotherapist of 20 years specializing in men’s issues and relationships, my colleagues and I see this phenomenon firsthand. We’re worried. Research highlights a startling reality: men are simply less satisfied with their friendships as compared to women. With less than 50% of men content with their friendships and only 20% receiving emotional support from friends in any given week, the comparison with 40% of women is stark.
The decline in men’s friendships often starts during adolescence and becomes more pronounced with age. While boys don’t inherently lack the ability to emotionally connect, they often grow into men who are emotionally distant. Really all humans possess an innate need for close connections, with those connections being crucial for not only our development but for our survival.
The impact of loneliness
A significant consequence of the lack of intimate friendships – loneliness – can be as detrimental to our health as obesity or smoking. When men feel alone and disconnected, the effects can become quite real and incredibly impactful.
Acknowledging this emotional distress would not only improve well-being but also reduce loneliness. However, men are often unaware of the deep importance of sharing their suffering with loved ones, friends, colleagues, or even mental health providers.
The problem is rooted in the traditional norms of masculinity which often discourage the expression of vulnerability, an essential component of deep friendships. For decades, the stigma surrounding male bonding has been a barrier. This is further complicated by entrenched gender roles that valorize stoicism and independence, often at the expense of emotional openness and interdependence.
The consequence of such a culture is not just the evident loneliness but an increased propensity for anger and violence. It is often times why men struggle with close connections.
We find ourselves in a societal paradox where our nurturing instincts clash with the expectations of “manning up”. By forcing boys to conform to these restrictive norms, we absolutely set them up for struggles in adult life.
Additionally, the over-reliance on romantic partners for emotional support can strain relationships. It’s vital to cultivate a community for varied perspectives and support, yet many males often press forward in their romantic relationships with the expectation that a primary partner can and should meet all of their emotional needs. The challenge lies not just in seeking support from a variety of other humans, but in offering that support by being vulnerable, authentic, and transparent. These are traits that are often mistakenly viewed as weakness rather than strength.
Impact of digital communication
Modern communication methods, like texting and social media, often hinder deeper conversations. Men, who might already be less inclined to share emotions, may find digital platforms inadequate for expressing their feelings authentically, and for those who do open up emotionally through electronic means, this medium for communication and connection can impede the importance of face-to-face interactions.
It may feel less anxiety-producing to talk openly through type, but cultivating and deepening friendship through this format doesn’t help to train young male brains to be in-person with another human, where eye-contact and other non-verbals are fundamental ways that we relate. Men need to learn to live with the anxiety that can come with being in a shared space with another person, where interactions are dynamic and in real-time, rather than allowing for the carefully-crafted and edited written responses that our devices afford us.
Case study: Me
As someone in the profession of talking to people all day, you might assume a male therapist has a relatively easy go of developing close personal connections and solid friendships. Perhaps others do, but I’ve found that I too grapple with many of the same challenges outlined in this post.
I’m reminded of 20 years ago in grad school when a male classmate and I would find ourselves using the 15-minute break to go outside for some fresh air. The first few times we found ourselves simultaneously loitering outside the school, we did what two men typically do: a brief head nod of acknowledgment, but otherwise pretending the other simply wasn’t there. But I found this person intriguing, having heard his comments during class. I wondered if this could be someone I might connect with, so one day took a chance and struck up what started out as an awkward conversation.
Without discussing it, we seemed to have an understanding that during each of those breaks for the rest of the quarter, we would use that time to chat. We made enough of a connection that he was the next one to take a chance by suggesting we go get coffee. Coffee became the occasional lunch, which one of us at some point suggested should next be dinner with our spouses at a restaurant, which eventually became dinner parties at each other’s homes.
Today, this guy is one of my very favorite people on the planet, and a friendship that my wife and I have immense gratitude for. But it couldn’t have taken root if he and I hadn’t each been willing to brave the vulnerability of exploring the possibility of deep, meaningful connection, and investing the time and energy it takes to cultivate rewarding and lasting friendship.
Deepening our connections
Building deeper male friendships requires a shift from mere pleasantries to meaningful engagement. Here are some suggestions for how to do so:
- Ask real questions of your friends;
- Show genuine interest;
- Be present (put your phone away during interactions);
- Find shared activities that provide face-to-face, or at least side-by-side, connection that fosters camaraderie.
Starting small and being intentional is key. Initiating an invite for coffee or engaging in a shared hobby can lay the groundwork for stronger bonds. It’s about quality over quantity, where a few meaningful friendships can have a significant impact on one’s well-being.
It’s essential for men to recognize the importance of cultivating deep friendships, not as a societal expectation but as a personal health imperative. By challenging outdated stereotypes and embracing vulnerability, men can build the emotionally supportive networks they need. It’s time to redefine masculinity, not as a barrier to intimacy, but as a bridge to stronger, healthier human connections.