Talk It Out

Two Surveys Might Have Just Busted Myth Of The Emotionally Closed Man

Men and women report lots of satisfaction with their friendships — but troublingly, men don’t open up to their friends about their mental or physical health as much as women do.

Originally Published: 
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Making friends as an adult can be challenging. We’re all busy — work and family take a lot of our mental and physical resources, leaving little time to develop and nurture meaningful relationships beyond those with our partners and children (and even those can suffer). So it’s no surprise that over the past several years, lots of attention has been paid to loneliness in America.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General went so far as to call loneliness a national epidemic and suggested infrastructure changes that would allow adults to cultivate more meaningful social relationships. That’s not an overreaction, from a public health perspective: Research has found that the health impacts of loneliness can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And it goes without saying that our social networks and friendships — things that help us feel, well, less lonely — have been thrown into disarray over the past three years. Loneliness can run deep. But how broadly is the “loneliness epidemic” hitting Americans?

Two new studies — one a Gallup poll that looked at the state of social connectedness in 142 countries and the other a deep dive by the Pew Research Center — found a far more complicated picture, one that reveals surprising differences in how friendship changes as we age, and how men and women approach their friendships. The short of it? Americans are doing all right, though they could be doing better.

The State of American Friendship

The Gallup poll found that 78% of Americans say they feel “very” to “fairly connected” to others; 18% say they feel a little connected; and 5% not connected at all. The survey defined “connectedness” as feeling “emotionally close to others.” Those “others” were defined as friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, strangers, and people in groups you are also in. Men and women felt the same degree of satisfaction with their friendships overall: 77% of American men felt very to fairly connected to others, while 78% of American women said they same.

Data from the Pew Research Center further illuminated our prioritization of friendship: 61% of U.S. adults say that having at least one solid friendship is extremely or very important. In comparison, 23% gave the same weight to marriage, 26% to having children, and 24% to being financially well off. So, Americans value their friendships more than pretty much anything else. Over 75% of both men and women in the U.S. say they feel very or fairly connected to people, and only 12% of men said they feel very or fairly lonely compared to 18% of women.

Overall, women have slightly more close friends than men do. Fifty-five percent of women say they have between one and four close friends, while 50% of men report one to four close friends. This gap widens as we grow older, as those over 65 are more likely to have experienced the loss of friends and family members and to be grappling with physical health issues related to aging. Women over the age of 65 have an average of 5.8 close friends, while men over the age of 65 have an average of 3.7 close friends.

How Men and Women Do Friendship Differently

Though men and women report similar levels of satisfaction with their friend groups, the content of those friendships — what men and women talk about with their friends — revealed significant differences. The most common topics of conversation for both men and women are work and current events — 54% of men report talking about their work vs. 61% of women; 44% of women talk about current events vs. 53% of men — but that’s where the similarities end. Women are somewhat more likely to talk about their physical health and pop culture with their friends, while men are about three times more likely to talk sports with theirs. But the most striking disparity of the report is around mental health: Only 15% of men reported talking to their friends about their mental health — compared to 31% of women.

These differences in conversation topics are even more pronounced when we look at different age groups. While older adults are more likely than younger adults to talk about their physical health — nearly half of those over 65 said they do so — the generational gaps around discussing mental health are startling. Only 14% of adults 50 and older reported talking about their mental health with others, while 29% of adults in peak child-raising years — ages 30 to 49 — reported doing so. The youngest adults — those under 30 — are most likely to talk about their mental health with friends (37%). Those differences also broke across gender: 43% of women under the age of 50 say they talk about their mental health with their friends, while only 20% of men in the same age group said they do.

That difference highlights the stigma that many men feel around discussing their mental health. According to the CDC, men are half as likely as women to seek treatment for mental health issues (at 13% vs. 25%).

The Health Benefits of Friendship

While loneliness puts us at risk for myriad physical and mental health issue, friendship offers us big benefits, physically and emotionally. As Fatherly previously reported, “happy, health people tend to have one thing in common: strong networks of friends.” Friendships matter — obviously, they make us feel less lonely, but also help us age better, and reduces risk of chronic illness.

Luckily for busy parents, to unlock the protective health benefits of friendship, you don’t need to do too much. As a parent, friendship may be harder to maintain than for child-free adults — but one study found that having a phone call or face-to-face conversation a day with a friend was associated with major improvements in mental health.

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