This One Habit Is The Key To Better Friendships
It's no secret that many men struggle to maintain or even build strong friendships. Bucking the trend is essential — and easier if you do this.
Men get a lot of mixed messages about their friendships. Get too close to a pal, or react too enthusiastically about meeting another guy you click with, and people might joke you’re in a “bromance.” On the other hand, if you don’t have many close friends, and mainly confide in your wife, people might say you’re suffering from what’s been called a “friendship recession” among men – and as a result, you could be at risk for the negative health consequences that can stem from loneliness.
People with more friends are generally more satisfied with their lives, according to a recent Pew Research survey. Yet people of all genders have fewer close friends than they used to. In 1990, less than a third of people said they had three or fewer close friends, but in 2021, that figure grew to almost half, according to a survey by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Survey Center on American Life. Half of Americans currently don’t think they have enough friends: Women were more likely than men to say they were completely satisfied with the number of friends they have, AEI also found, but the numbers weren’t wildly divergent – 54 percent compared with 48 percent of men.
While women have friendship struggles too, research suggests social isolation among men is increasingly common. Although half of men said they have between one and four close friends, 15 percent of men said they had no close friends at all in the AEI report published in 2021, a figure that rose from only 3 percent in 1990.
It isn’t just the number of friends men have that concerns some researchers, however. It’s whether men’s friendships are fulfilling in ways that encourage their emotional and psychological health. Only 21 percent of men said they received emotional support from friends, compared with 41 percent of women, the American Enterprise Institute researchers found. Nearly half of women (48 percent) and less than one-third of men (30 percent) say they have had a private conversation with a friend during which they shared their personal feelings in the past week. Men are less likely to have told a friend they loved them within the past week, and they’re much more likely to turn to their spouses, or their parents, rather than friends, when they have a personal problem.
Although half of men said they have between one and four close friends, 15 percent of men said they had no close friends at all.
Isn’t it possible, though, that none of those things above are necessarily a problem, if men don’t feel lonely or isolated? If men aren’t bothered that they only talk to their friends about video games and sports and rely solely on their wives for emotional support, is it that big a deal and a problem that needs fixing?
Maybe not, says Nick Bognar, a marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California, and host of the podcast “More Exemplary.” But the negative effects of not having at least one deep friendship outside your marriage might not be obvious, he says.
Men with no close male friends simply might not know what they’re missing, Bognar says. He compares it to many men’s experience in therapy: If men were discouraged from ever crying growing up, they might realize in therapy what a satisfying emotional release crying can be, or, similarly, that it feels good to talk about their feelings with someone who cares about them. Things they didn’t know they needed, but that improved their emotional resilience once they did.
Having close friends can act as a buffer against loneliness and isolation, relieve some of the burden on your spouse and simply makes people happier. But nurturing and maintaining friendships isn’t always easy, particularly for men.
Why Men Have Such Trouble Making Friends
The overall friendship decline in the U.S. stems from many obvious factors. People spend more time working and moving around because of work, and they also spend more time with their kids than generations past did, which can make it more difficult to make friends and maintain friendships.
Gendered socialization might also have something to do with why men tend to have fewer close friends than women. Traditionally, men were socialized to be tough and not share feelings with others, while girls were encouraged to be caring, affectionate, and empathetic.
“Friendships often require expressed vulnerability and men are, I'd argue, conditioned against that,” says Paul Greene, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City specializing in the treatment of anxiety.
Men have always prioritized friendships less than women. As a whole, they just don’t have close friendships that they actively nurture the way women do.
But it might also be, simply, that couples get comfortable in their roles, Greene says. Women tend to be more plugged into family life, kids’ schools, and the community than men. Some men might feel pigeonholed that their job is to focus on work and providing, while women might feel maintaining social connections are more their responsibility.
Sticking with what’s comfortable likely has a lot to do with why a lot of men only share vulnerable feelings with their spouses. But even if you don’t perceive it as a problem, your partner might – they might resent and feel emotionally burdened as your only support resource, Greene says.
For many men, the only relationship where they experience emotional vulnerability and connection is either with their mother or in a romantic relationship with a female, says Kurt Smith, Psy.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating men.
“[But] a lack of individual friendships can place an unhealthy demand on partners,” Smith says. “I regularly hear partners (of both genders) complain about being their partner’s only social outlet. This puts a lot of pressure on them and can become suffocating for the growth of the relationship.”
Has the impact of increased social isolation and reliance upon online connections, rather than in-person contact, amplified this problem for men? Sure, Smith says. But it’s nothing new for men and goes farther back than the last few generations.
“Men have always prioritized friendships less than women,” he says. “As a whole, they just don’t have close friendships that they actively nurture the way women do.”
Deep, quality friendships take time and effort, and most men just don’t put enough of either into them.
However, Smith says that many men think they should have more or better friendships. In his experience counseling them, it’s less a mindset problem than an effort and prioritization problem.
“Most men are perplexed about where to start. And the biggest obstacle is making time to build them among all the other demands for our time,” he says. “Deep, quality friendships take time and effort, and most men just don’t put enough of either into them.”
Want Better Friendships? Reach Out.
Making the effort to strengthen existing friendships and expand a social circle can improve one’s life. Friendships can help people process thoughts and emotions, and doing so with someone of the same gender, outside of a romantic or competitive context, can be impactful, Smith says.
Connection with others enhances your self-esteem and, if friendships are reciprocal, strengthens your support system, Bognar adds.
If you’d like to make new friends, you need to put yourself in places where friendships can happen. Start by thinking hard about where your interests lie.
“Whatever it is, try to find some venue or group that can further that interest, whether it’s a cooking class, sports league, or group dedicated to lawn care,” Greene says. “There’s a possibility there for friendships with people who already share at least one of your interests.”
If you're able to be the person who reaches out, then you’ll benefit from more of these relationships.
Sports leagues in particular can provide good opportunities to find friends, he says: “You’re all working toward a common goal and hopefully having fun, which are conducive for forming positive relationships.”
To strengthen or deepen friendships, it’s important for men to look for opportunities to be supportive and to be supportive when they arise.
“If men have a friend in a difficult situation, say a health crisis or divorce, they have a choice to be there or not be there for their friend,” Greene says. “They can say, ‘Well, I’ll give him space and privacy during this tough time,’ or they can offer support. Men have more to gain than lose by saying, ‘Let’s get a drink on Thursday, or let me know if you just want to talk. I’m here.’”
It can also strengthen relationships if you’re able to be compassionate when friends express vulnerability, Bognar says. If you’re hanging out and a friend says, ‘God, I’m feeling so sad,’ is your typical response, ‘Okay. Do you want another beer?’ or something more supportive? Bognar asks.
But Bognar’s best tip for men interested in closer friendships is to be the one who reaches out.
“We're very happy when somebody reaches out and wants to spend time with us and wants to know how we're doing,” he says. “If you're able to be the person who reaches out, then you’ll benefit from more of these relationships. Because you'll get more yeses and will have more people around.”
We have a lot of masculine archetypes presented to us, where the guy is dismissive and uncomfortable with feelings. Yet there’s so much more strength demonstrated by being open about those things.
“Reaching out,” Bognar notes, means more than once. Sometimes, it might not work and your effort won’t be reciprocated. It helps to approach forging friendships as you would dating, he says: Sometimes it might work out, but often, it doesn’t, for a lot of reasons. If you’re open-minded about making friends and can handle rejection, then you’ll have a broad set of friendship possibilities available to you.
“We have a lot of masculine archetypes presented to us, where the guy is dismissive and uncomfortable with feelings. Yet there’s so much more strength demonstrated by being open about those things,” Bognar says. “Men are awesome friends; if you don't have close guy friends, you should try it. It can be a joy to have the support of someone going through what you’re going through and to feel closeness with other guys.”