Growing up, James C., a 28-year-old who lives in California, had plenty of solid friendships. But sometime after high school, those once-strong bonds slowly started to deteriorate.
These days, James admits he’s semi-friendless (to be fair, he just moved to a new city for work) and tenses up at the thought of making new friends.
“Honestly, the biggest problem I have right now is ‘making the move,’” said James, who, like others in this story, asked to use his first name only to protect his privacy. “I never would have thought I’d feel the same pressure to make friends at 28 as I did as a 16-year-old boy trying to find a girlfriend.”
Instead of being nervous about asking a crush to go on a date, it’s now about “being shy about saying, ‘Hey, dude, do you want to grab a beer sometime?’ to the guy in your ultimate frisbee league,” James told HuffPost.
James’ girlfriend tries to coax him into putting himself out there — she suggested he text a neighbor for drinks or maybe canvas for a politician and hopefully make some like-minded friends ― but James hasn’t made much of an attempt.
“I can tell that she’s aware of my isolation and that my own burden is becoming hers, too,” he said.
James isn’t alone in his ... well, loneliness. White, heterosexual men have the fewest friends of anyone in America, according to a 2006 analysis of two decades of data published in the American Sociological Review.
This “friendship crisis” matters: Loneliness and social isolation can kill. Friendships ― especially those initiated during childhood ― coincide with better adult health. As people age, their social networks begin to thin out, and if you had few friends to begin with, you may become socially isolated, which is associated with a higher risk of ailments such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Research shows that men are just as likely as women to say they want emotional intimacy in their friendships. But as many a think piece has suggested, our ideas about masculinity are at odds with that: A boy approaching adulthood is expected to be stoic, to stifle his feelings and bottle up any complicated emotions.
Manhood, we’re told, leaves little room for the kind of emotional intimacy friendship requires. But men crave that closeness ― even those who do have friends say they wouldn’t mind being closer with them, said Robert Garfield, a psychotherapist and the author of “Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship.”
The biggest drop-off in male friendships occurs during the earlier phase of a marriage or long-term relationship, Garfield told HuffPost. If kids enter the picture, that initial drop-off is even more severe.
“This period can be one of quiet desperation for men,” he said. “Work life and fatigue are, understandably, the most common explanations. But the consequence is that during the time of the most intense developmental change, men are most deprived of friendships that can help them.”
“Many guys say they see or speak to their best friends every two or three years and ‘we just pick up where we left off.'”
While women are more inclined to network with other women and maintain their longstanding friendships, men tend to stash their friendships away like baseball cards, Garfield said.
“Many guys say they see or speak to their best friends every two or three years and ‘we just pick up where we left off,’” Garfield said. “Two or three years is a long time: People have illnesses, they get married or divorced, they lose family members or have job problems. Without more regular contact, friendships don’t realize their full potential.”
What about queer men? While the American Sociological Review study found that straight guys are the loneliest demographic, Garfield said queer men are just as starved for platonic friendships.
“In our research, gay men were very similar to straight men in their desires for close male friendships and for close male friends with strong emotional intimacy skills,” he said.
Why is making friends after adolescence so damn hard for men?
Growing up, friendship-making and maintenance come just as easy to boys as to girls. Niobe Way, a New York University professor who studies adolescent friendships, found that boys and girls are equally likely to disclose their deepest, darkest feelings with same-sex friends when they’re young.
But a not-so-subtle change occurs around age 15: Boys begin to report that they don’t need or have as many friends. At that age, there’s a growing fear that close male friendships will be seen as “too girly” or gay, Way told The New York Times in 2011.
“This is not some academic read I’m doing,” she told the Times. “The boys are aware of the power of their relationships. They are overtly saying, ‘I want him, I need him, I miss him — no homo!’ And then they grow up and become depressed.” (As Way notes in the story, this coincides with the age at which American boys die by suicide at a rate about four times that of girls.)
It makes sense: If you’re encouraged to be stoic and strong, you might believe you don’t need emotional support from friends.
“I think part of the reason it’s harder for men to maintain friendships is that men are never trained in social and emotional labor the way that women are.”
Grown men will tell you as much. John D., a 34-year-old estate administrator who lives in Tucson, Arizona, said that as a married adult, he has a lot of “couple friends” but very few friendships of his own. He feels like he was taught to go it alone (or with a romantic partner).
“In my experience, men are taught that they have to be able to do things by themselves, which eliminates a need for anyone else,” John said. “Now, I definitely rely on my wife for emotional support. I come to her with anything and everything. She’s seen me cry, she’s seen me angry, she’s seen every single part of me there is to see.”
Behr, a 31-year-old English tutor who lives in Seattle, has an interesting take on how differently boys and girls are socialized.
“I’m trans, so I have a different perspective on this than a cis guy would,” he said. “I think part of the reason it’s harder for men to maintain friendships is that men are never trained in social and emotional labor the way that women are. Girls are taught to think about other people’s feelings, to remember important dates, to do the work of reaching out and organizing get-togethers.”
Social planning is expected of girls, he said, but men go into adulthood with a skill deficit: “They might want friendship, but they don’t understand the mechanics of how to get it,” he said.
When men are mostly friendless, women bear the burden.
In many relationships, wives and girlfriends coordinate social activities with other couples. They encourage their partner to go to guys nights with old college friends. And most significantly, they become their partner’s one-stop-shop for emotional support.
That’s the idea writer Erin Rodgers had in mind in 2016, when she coined the term “emotional gold digger” for men who take and take. Her tweet hit a nerve; it continues to be retweeted today.
Jackie Pilossoph is a columnist at the Chicago Tribune who was married for seven years and runs the support group site Divorced Girl Smiling. In her own marriage, she took on the role of social coordinator. But for many women who write in to her site, it goes deeper than that.
“I get a lot of emails from readers who tell me their husbands are anti-social and that it is a problem in the marriage,” she told HuffPost. “And, if the couple ends up divorced, the woman has plenty of girlfriends and the husband is usually kind of lost and isolated.”
Pilossoph has seen how emotional dependency can completely upend a relationship ― and also how spending time apart pays off.
“I think when men become more dependent on their wives, not just socially, but when they get comfortable with her doing everything for him, she starts to resent that and maybe loses some respect for the husband,” she said.
Are we interpreting male friendship the wrong way?
We know what a friendless existence is like for men, but what does a quality friendship look like for them?
Amanda J. Rose is a psychologist at the University of Missouri who studies how adolescents build and maintain relationships. She said that boys, and later, men, adopt a shoulder-to-shoulder model of friendship: Their friendships are less disclosure-based and more activity-based.
“Girls and women tend to engage in more personal disclosure; they discuss problems and share both positive and negative news and events with friends more than boys and men do,” she said. “Boys and men also share information with each other but more time is spent in shared activities: watching a sports game or playing video games.”
Disclosure ― gossiping, revealing your innermost thoughts, catching up on the little details of life ― is the definitive metric of success for female friendship, but it’s a little different for men, Rose said.
“The data shows us that boys can be just as satisfied as girls with their friendships at lower levels of sharing,” she said.
To that end, men who feel isolated don’t necessarily need to wallow in their feelings together, but they do need to take a more active role in planning activities together. (And stop outsourcing the job to the women in their lives.)
Garfield, the researcher mentioned earlier in the story, does just that: He actually sets calendar alerts to remind him to call certain friends, especially those who live out of town. And he has a standing appointment with his closest friend ― one that, rain or shine, he never misses.
“My best friend Jake and I meet twice a week to work out and have lunch,” he said. “We suffer or are grumpy if we don’t get to see each other. At this point, we’ve been doing this for 37 years. Close friends take work — but they’re worth it.”