Why is it so hard for men to make close friends?
Men, particularly in the US, appear to be stuck in a “friendship recession” — a trend that predates the COVID-19 pandemic but that seems to have accelerated over the past several years as loneliness levels have crept up worldwide.
The Tuesday before every Thanksgiving, Aaron Karo and Matt Ritter, both 43, go out to dinner with seven men whom they befriended as second graders in Plainview, New York.
At the dinner, one of the friends wins the Man of the Year prize — a silly accolade the group concocted as an excuse to reconnect. They eat and they laugh, and the winner leaves with his name engraved on a cartoonishly large silver cup.
“It’s not really about the trophy,” said Karo, who cohosts a podcast with Ritter called “Man of the Year,” which explores adult friendship. “It’s about the traditions that keep us together.”
The friends jockey for the prize in a running group text, where they share memes and talk a bit of trash but also keep up with one another.
“I think men have been convinced that success in life does not necessarily include friendship, that if they’re successful at work or they’ve started a family, they’ve won,” Ritter said. “Our definition has always included having these thriving friendships.”
Ritter’s close crew notwithstanding, American men appear to be stuck in a “friendship recession” — a trend that predates the COVID-19 pandemic but that seems to have accelerated over the past several years as loneliness levels have crept up worldwide. In a 2021 survey of more than 2,000 adults in the United States, less than half of the men said they were truly satisfied with how many friends they had, while 15 per cent said they had no close friends at all — a fivefold increase since 1990. That same survey found that men were less likely than women to rely on their friends for emotional support or to share their feelings with them.
“I think men have a deep craving for intimacy with their friends,” said Nick Fager, a licensed mental health counselor and co-founder of Expansive Therapy, an LGBTQ-focused psychotherapy group. “And yet getting there can feel so incredibly challenging.”
The four strategies below won't eliminate all of the obstacles that can stand in the way of deep male friendship, but they are a start.
PRACTISE VULNERABILITY, EVEN IF IT MAKES YOU UNCOMFORTABLE
Though Fager is mindful of speaking in generalities, he said the challenges some men face in developing meaningful, platonic bonds boil down to how they’ve been socialised to equate masculinity with strength, competitiveness and stoicism, even as traditional gender norms have shifted. Those qualities can make close friendship tricky.
“If you look at little boys, they’re pretty open and affectionate with each other, and then something happens,” said Fred Rabinowitz, chair of the psychology department at the University of Redlands and the author of Deepening Group Psychotherapy With Men: Stories and Insights for the Journey. Societal messages teach them that openness and emotional vulnerability are “taboo", he said.
One simple way to practice being emotionally unguarded is to “tell your friends how you feel about them,” Fager said. “It’s just so important for your friends to know that you value the relationship — that you admire the person or you respect the person or you love the person.”
He acknowledged that it might feel uncomfortable to call someone out of the blue and tell him that you love him; instead, consider sharing your appreciation after spending time together or on the heels of an emotional exchange.
“If you’ve already been there for your friend in some way, on the tail end of that, there is often an opening for some sort of acknowledgment of how much you value the relationship,” he said.
If you feel discomfort, that is something to “be aware of and question where it is coming from,” Fager added.
Another strategy is to join a structured peer-support group or partake in group therapy, Rabinowitz said. Since 1986, he has run a weekly men’s group in Redlands, California, that provides a set time for men to “take the risk and say, ‘Hey, I have a lot of stuff going on, and I don’t have anyone to process that with.’”
One benefit of joining a support group is that you are likely to encounter men who are up for the challenge of creating emotional connections with other men.
Connor Beaton, 39, founded ManTalks after he realised how learning to be vulnerable had transformed his own friendships. The company helps men connect with each other through in-person workshops and online courses.
Several years ago, as he struggled with substance abuse, Beaton opened up to a friend he’d known for years — a man he’d lived with and traveled with extensively. The friend surprised him by, in turn, sharing that he had recently grappled with suicidal ideation.
“It really hit me at that moment that I simultaneously knew everything about this man right down to what kind of Scotch he liked to drink, and I had no idea he was struggling so intensely,” Beaton said.
But practicing vulnerability does not require attending a workshop or having deep, unfiltered conversations about your inner life.
You can keep it simple, said Marisa Franco, a psychologist who studies friendship and wrote the book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends.
“The next time you meet up with a friend, tell them something you are struggling with,” she said. “That’s it.”
DON'T ASSUME FRIENDSHIP HAPPENS ORGANICALLY
Since relocating to Phoenix in 2015, Quincy Winston, 37, has yearned for more friends. So last March, at the urging of his girlfriend, he surprised himself by starting a group for local, professional Black men using Meetup, the social media platform.
Winston would have been happy to make three or four new friends, he said. Instead, his group now has 80 members. They gather about once a month to attend events, perform community service and simply talk.
“I just wanted to get people in the same room to shed a light on the importance of being friends, and having a community and cultivating a group — a brotherhood — of men,” Winston said.
Putting yourself out there and making it clear that you are looking for friends sounds fairly obvious, but Franco said she had been continually surprised by how many believed that adult friendships tend to form organically, as they do in childhood.
“Making friends as an adult requires initiative,” she said.
Franco advises people to put themselves in recurring social situations, by, for example, joining a club or a class, so that there is opportunity for getting to know new friends over time.
And she is an evangelist for going into those opportunities — and into any social situation — with the mindset that the people you meet will enjoy your company, noting that research suggests people are usually better liked by strangers than they assume.
USE ACTIVITIES TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
“Boys and men tend to be socialised to do group activities kind of side by side,” Rabinowitz said. Those looking to expand their social circle, or turn an acquaintance into a closer friend, can lean into that propensity.
“Saying ‘Let’s go to the game together’ or ‘Let’s play poker’ — that can allow them to have contact with other guys and play with them, which can make it easier to talk,” he said.
Franco recommends finding ways to turn daily activities into opportunities for connection, too. If you are a runner, invite a friend to go for a run with you. If you work from home, she said, ask a colleague to come over and “cowork".
Just be mindful that activities can limit intimacy. Consider switching things up every once in a while.
“If you just go out to lunch together,” Franco said, “you are forced to actually talk".
HARNESS THE POWER OF CASUAL CHECK-INS
According to a study published in July 2022, casually reaching out to friends and acquaintances — through, say, a quick text or email — means more to them than we tend to realize, and is particularly powerful when the contact is unexpected.
“People tend to think, oh, he’s too busy or he’s moved on with his life, he doesn’t care,” Franco said. “I think hearing about studies like that can remind men that some of those barriers they have in their heads are not necessarily how things will turn out. Send the text. Check in!”
Karo and Ritter say routine check-ins have been indispensable to keeping their group friendship alive, maybe more so than their annual get-together. The group’s text-message chain allows them to sustain a certain level of closeness over time and distance, a reflection of how much the friendship matters to them all.
“I am the only unmarried one and the only one without kids in my group,” Karo said. “These guys are my family."
By Catherine Pearson © The New York Times
This article first appeared in The New York Times.