By Melissa Riddle Chalos
When it comes to friendship — and maintaining those relationships over time — men are certainly the more disadvantaged of the sexes. Generally speaking, women tend to nurture friendships over great distance and time with seemingly little effort. But for men, it can be difficult to do. We’ll get to why that is and what can be done about it, but for now, let’s talk about why it matters.
It matters because loneliness is a killer. Beginning in adolescence, this loss of connection — the lack of deep and meaningful friendships in men’s lives — has a profound impact on their physical and mental health as they age. Study after study shows that isolation and loneliness, even more than smoking and obesity, increase the worst health hazards known to humankind: heart attacks, strokes, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, depression and suicide.
One such study compiled data from 3.5 million people over age 35 found that those experiencing isolation, loneliness or even simply living on their own have a 26 to 32 percent higher risk of premature death. Do the math on the over 65 and over 80 populations, and the risk grows exponentially.1
- A 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging revealed that “family relationships have very little impact on longevity, but friendship increases life expectancy by as much as 22 percent.”2
- Yet another study of 736 middle-aged men found that while attachment to a single person, such as a spouse, didn’t lower the risk of heart attack or coronary disease, having a strong social network did.3
- Research shows that between 1999 and 2010, suicide among men age 50 and over rose by nearly 50 percent.3 Loneliness is growing by catastrophic proportions.
It stands to reason, then, especially for men — who spend the bulk of their adult lives focused on work, career and family care — that friendship isn’t a luxury. It’s an essential investment, a necessary fundamental in life that, as men age, becomes more integral to their health and wellbeing.
Cultural Roles That Break the Connection
What makes this seemingly simple social construct so difficult for men? In part, sociologists argue, established gender and cultural roles are to blame. Our culture assumes that boys’ relationships with other boys, in childhood and in pre-adolescence, are more casual and disposable than those of girls, who are more expressive emotionally. This continues during adolescence and beyond, with the pursuit of romantic love over platonic relationships, which drives men into lives that are “autonomous, emotionally stoic and isolated.”3
“We Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait,” says Niobe Way, Director of the PhD program in Developmental Psychology at NYU. “We reject it in our boys, demanding that they ‘man up’ and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence, even isolation, as proof they are real men.”3
This loss of connection with non-male mates, she says, is “catastrophic… a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages and families.”3
This tremendous loss, internalized and felt more keenly as men reach middle age, takes an emotional toll. And it’s one men rarely ever begin to uncover.
Why Are Men Challenged at Building Friendships?
It’s not their fault, really. In order to make those friendship connections, one must be capable of being vulnerable, open and — gasp! — willing to communicate feelings. For men, this ventures into frightening territory. Platonic relationships with other men are more easily built on practical foundations.
In fact, the Male Deficit Model, a 1982 UCLA study based on 30 years of friendship and relationship research, found that men are far less intimate in their friendships than women are. According to this model, friendships between men either “function or falter within strict categories,” including:
- Convenience friends who lend a helping hand but rarely interact much otherwise
- Mentor friends who connect primarily through one man’s tutelage of the other; or
- Activity friends who share a common interest 4
Within these parameters, men find it easier to build fraternity, but once these ties begin to unravel, so goes the relationship.
“Since most men don’t let themselves think or feel about friendship, this immense collective and personal disappointment is usually concealed, sloughed over, shrugged away,” writes the psychologist Stuart Miller in Men and Friendship. “The older we get, the more we accept our essential friendlessness.”4 Acceptance and detachment, sure steps on the road to loneliness.
How to Get Out and Over the Hump
As cliché as it might be to say it, Dale Carnegie’s iconic How to Win Friends & Influence People is nothing short of a Friendship Bible, with six sure-fire ways to make connections on which to build relationships:
- Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
- Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely.5
Sounds easy enough, right? The hard part is creating opportunities to practice — to make room for friendship in your life as natural as anything else you do on a daily or weekly basis.
Here are just a few ways to begin:
- Reach out to an old friend — someone you had a friendship with in years past. Send a private message on Facebook or post a comment on their page. Make it your mission to reconnect with one “new” old friend a week until an interaction leads to a reconnection.
- Join a men’s group at church, an activity group in your neighborhood or a team sport at the YMCA.
- Take a class at a community center or local college, where you’ll meet potential friends who share your interests.
- Volunteer at a hospital, school, museum, homeless shelter or other non-profit.
Approach all of these ventures as an investment of time and authenticity, an exercise in emotional wellbeing as important as any physical exercise you do. Your relationship with your wife or significant other will likely benefit from any friendship-building efforts you make.
Sure, there are risks, and it may not feel comfortable at first. But the risks are minimal compared to the health risks of growing loneliness in your life. In fact, it’s the scientifically-backed secret to a longer, healthier life.
1 Baker, Billy. “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” The Boston Globe, March 9, 2017.
2 Brody, Jane E. “The Challenges Of Male Friendships.” The New York Times, June 27, 2016.
3 Green, Mark. “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?” Medium.com, July 30, 2017.
4 Duane, Daniel. “Why Men Are Bad At Friendship (And What To Do About It).” Huffington Post, July 15, 2014.
5 Carnegie, Dale. How To Win Friends & Influence People. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.