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How to Help Friendships Survive Coronavirus

Friendships are harder for men to maintain. Now? They're even more important. Here's how to make them work.

Men have a hard time forming and maintaining friendships. Loads of research backs this up. Time plays a factor, sure. So does desire. But issues of masculinity play a large part. Many men feel ashamed of, or at least uncomfortable with, the idea of emotional vulnerability. “The ‘manly’ stereotype is one that discourages boys and men from cultivating their capacity for emotional connection and emotional expression, while promoting aggression, competition, and toughness, instead,” says Kat Vellos, the author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships. Men are fine when out in social circles. But calling up a buddy to catch up and discuss a big issue over the phone? That’s often where problems lie. That’s why friendships fall apart as the years pass. 

Right now, in the time of coronavirus, social distancing, and sheltering in place, it’s more than necessary for men to rely on friendships or create new ones to stave off loneliness, de-stress, and find camaraderie so they can be there for themselves and their family. What does that look like, and how can men take better care of their friendships right now? Fatherly spoke to Vellos about connecting with friends while sheltering in place, how to find new friends when stuck home on your couch, and the deeper issues that cause men to have trouble maintaining friendships in the first place. 

We’re social distancing. Many of us are on full lockdown and can’t meet up with our friends now. I’m guessing this might help men, who traditionally have problems maintaining friendships, realize their importance. 

If you want to accurately gauge how much something matters to people, all you have to do is to tell them that they’re not allowed to have it. The forced isolation and restrictions on movement and interaction is going to highlight just how deeply we need and want to be around each other. When I was researching my book and interviewing people about what was preventing them from having the fulfilling friendships they craved, a plethora of reasons arose: trivial distractions, understandable logistical excuses, and some were very real challenges. We all have been complicit in the dissolution of robust platonic relationships for many years. 

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Right.

In this current era of social distancing — which I prefer to call physical distancing because that’s what it is —  there will undoubtedly be adjustments to the way that people socialize. I hope that during this unusual time of full or partial quarantine, that men embrace the opportunity to connect in more intimate ways. It’s a chance to experiment with creative modes of connection. I hope it gives people a chance to tap into a broader view of reality and what’s possible, and that they hold onto that wider perspective after the restrictions on physical proximity are lifted.

As we’re sheltering in place during the COVID-19 crisis, how can men deepen their existing friendships?

The same way anyone can: By taking this as an opportunity to open up about things that we don’t normally talk about. In some ways, this unusual and scary time of great stress is also a perfect catalyst that men can use to broach topics and conversations that they might have avoided in the past.  It’s as simple as starting a sentence with, “I know this is something we don’t normally talk about, but…” Or, “Something’s been on my mind and I’d like to talk about it with you.” If saying things like this are difficult, or don’t feel “manly,” remember that this kind of vulnerability is both an act of courage and a tremendous gift that you are giving to the other person. Being brave enough to invite realness and closeness into your friendships is more important now than it ever has been.  

Looking at the big picture, why are friendships still so hard for men. Statistics still show men have a significant lack of close relationships.  

Unfortunately, there are a lot of unhealthy social norms that affect the way that men and boys are raised which can make it harder for them to maintain friendships. The expectations that society lays upon guys are frequently the opposite of the norms and expectations that are laid down on women and girls.

The “manly” stereotype is one that discourages boys and men from cultivating their capacity for emotional connection and emotional expression, while promoting aggression, competition, and toughness, instead. The homophobia that permeates our culture also leads to a lot of guys being called a “homo” if he shows any traits that are stereotypically feminine such as kindness, compassion, or expressions of emotion. 

Right.

Consequently, as we all have probably noticed by now, this toxic masculinity requires men to maintain an emotionless, competitive, and sometimes violent attitude that rejects expressions of emotional sensitivity. But we all need those skills of emotional intelligence if we hope to cultivate deep and robust friendships. 

Why hasn’t this changed? 

As a culture, we’re still too deeply entrenched in labelling universal human feelings and experiences with a layer of gender. Everyone would feel more free to be who they are and connect with each other if feelings and behaviors weren’t called “manly” or “girly.” There’s also research that shows that sharing hobbies and activities are how men tend to bond, but as they age and focus more on their careers and romantic relationships, there’s less time and energy left for getting together with the guys.

Some research shows that men like to  prioritize “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships — going to the bar and watching sports, for example —  and women face-to-face friendships.

Research says that men tend to bond by sharing experiences and hobbies while women tend to bond by having conversations and sharing feelings. I use the word “tend” very intentionally, because it’s dangerous to make broad generalizations about any particular gender doing anything. But if this is true, as men age, they have less time for sharing activities alongside friends. They’ll end up with fewer friends, and fewer close friendships. 

Absolutely.

When this time of separation is passed, I hope we remember the longing that fills these days and hours, the craving we have to be near each other. This is a part of our history. Togetherness has been a critical component of human survival on the planet for thousands of years. Forced separation hurts emotionally, but in the meantime it is what will save us physically. Coming out of it, I hope that every person reading this remembers just how much you wanted to feel free to safely gather and to be near your friends and loved ones. Remember these moments. When we are able to emerge from it, step forward with more courage, enthusiasm, and openness than ever before. As these challenging days show us what truly matters to us in life, let’s remember to treat our friendships like the priorities they really are.

In the meantime, how can men maintain their friendships?

A small upside of this forced isolation is that it puts one of the primary friendship challenges on hiatus: being busy. In my research for the book, “inadequate time” surfaced as one of the four biggest challenges to maintaining friendships. But now, everyone is stuck at home, and — surprise! — we suddenly have a ton of extra free time on our hands. 

That’s very true.

It’s a good opportunity to focus on building our connections with friends from within the comfort of our sweatpants at home on the couch. Of course we have phone calls, text messages, and video chats, but at a certain point people are going to get bored with those. At that point I would recommend trying out the many virtual opportunities that are arising from the creative community. This week I’ve also been invited to, or heard about, virtual versions of a wide variety of activities and events that people can attend online such as: dance parties, meditation circles, potlucks, choirs, worship services, drawing classes, cooking classes, exercise classes, and more. You can also play video games with people who are in a different location; that’s been possible already for a long time.

When all of this clears over and we are all craving social circles, how can people maintain friendships and cultivate new ones?

When we’re able to go out again, and you’re looking for new friends, my advice would be to specifically choose gatherings and meet ups where there will be other people who are passionate about the same things you’re passionate about. If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, your first step isn’t to focus on meeting people — it’s to first figure out what you care about. 

If “care about” feels too lofty, just know it’s really broad: it can include things you enjoy doing, enjoy thinking about, are curious to learn more about, or want to share with others. You can discover the answers to this question in myriad ways: self-reflection, journalling, therapy, and practicing curiosity about the world.

Easy enough.

After you find someone you want to be friends with, practice open communication and see if they have mutual interest in being closer. This doesn’t have to be stiff, it can be as simple as saying “Hey, I really like talking to you, do you want to hang out again, maybe on some kind of regular basis?” and if they say “Yes!” that’s a clear “Go.” From there, the next step is just to maintain the connection at a level that feels natural for you and where each person is really treating the bond like something special that’s worthy of their attention. Whether you’re working with a new or old friendship, the work of maintaining and growing it should be balanced — like you’re both mutually rowing the boat down the river. If it ever feels forced, that’s a good sign that that’s probably not your person. That’s ok. It’s a lot like dating, not everyone’s gonna be a perfect match. Just give it your best effort and the best of your commitment. You’ll find your people and be rewarded with friendships that last.