Coincidence – Last week, the NPR show ” Hidden Brain”  focused on male friendships and the profound loneliness of American men.  Also last week my men’s group completed a three session discussion about making friends and its impact on our lives as men  Let me first discuss where the NPR show and the men in my group are in agreement. 

  • Making friends was a lot easier when we were growing up and these friendships were an essential part of our lives.  As we entered adulthood, moved away from our growing up towns and neighborhoods, many of these friendships were lost.   Family life and work responsibilities have eroded free time needed to maintain old friendships.
  • Our wives have become our best friend and they often arrange our social interactions.
  • The demands of parenting have shifted and men, especially those with younger children, now spend more time on child care and child activities than did their fathers.  This limits the available time for social interactions with other men.
  • Making friends at work can be troublesome.   We need to protect ourselves so that any vulnerabilities that we reveal can be used against us in the workplace.
  • As well documented in the book “Bowling Alone” there are far fewer opportunities for men to spend non work time in traditional male organizations and activities.
  • It appears that women have an easier time in making connections with other women and we are not sure why this the case.    

In attempt to understand the impact of male loneliness which has led to increases in suicide and substance abuse – especially for middle aged men – NPR interviewed a female  psychology professor from NYU, Dr. Niobe Way, who has done research on male friendships among pre-adolescent boys.  Her take on male loneliness is best described in the following quote from her work.

“These (men) are human beings with unbelievable emotional and social capacity and we as a culture just completely try to zip it out of them.”

She blames hyper-masculinity the societal message that tells boys that close friendships and intimacy among males is not manly. The message is that if you have those relationships you are probably gay.   However, she and the moderator contradicted their premise when as previously indicated they acknowledge that many men who are currently not connected did have strong intimate friendships growing up that lasted into young adulthood.   Therefore, the issue is not the notion that boys are somehow taught that close male friendships are to be avoided but that after one loses these relationships it is difficult to attain similar relationships later on in life.

If we truly want to focus on the negative consequences of  male loneliness we need to abandon the tropes that boys don’t cry and that men are taught to avoid intimacy among men.   Instead let’s shift the dialogue to how can we assist adult men who have lost their close relationships in later life make new friendships.   The men’s movement, exemplified by my group and the  many others around the country need to do a better job in getting the word  out of their  existence.   In addition, the mental health community should also be letting men know that  these groups are around  and how they can build and reinforce healthy  connections that will combat the epidemic of male loneliness.