Life

The Valuable Lesson Sadness Taught Me About Masculinity and Male Friendship

I thought I had a good handle on my emotions. But when I lost someone close to me, I realized what I — and so many men — are missing.

Two middle aged men talking as they walk along the beach

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, four friends, my brother, and I met up to play a football game in honor of our friend Dan. No one loved playing this annual Turkey Bowl game as much as Dan. For 364 days a year, he was a quiet, introspective architect who lived alone. But for two hours on Thanksgiving mornings, he bulldozed around the field in his jeans and cleats, uncorking on his friends like a steroid-raging linebacker.

Two weeks earlier, in mid-November, Dan unexpectedly passed away, the end to a tragic three years in which frontotemporal dementia had aged him 40 years and ravaged his cognitive functioning. Since Dan had no wife, no partner, no living family members (save an estranged brother), I stepped in to take over his life. This included finding in-home care for him, and, eventually, an assisted living facility, handling his bills, packing up his home, and getting it sold. For a long time, I unconsciously gulped back my sadness because, well, in addition to this Promethean boulder I had to push every day, there were the pressing duties of my job, my marriage, parenting. I didn’t have a place for it.

But sadness knew better.

After the game, a few of us stood around, making awkward small talk, while two guys threw a Nerf football through a discarded basketball net they had found on the field.

“I’m sure Dan is watching over us right now and giving us the thumbs up,” I said, hoping to sanctify the game in some small way. I didn’t mind nudging the group towards some small step of grieving, because I felt more like a clergy person, someone who could guide the grieving process but wasn’t emotionally riven. (This was, I now realize, the safer role to play.) “This game always meant so much to him, didn’t it?” I asked. Eyes darted away or riveted to the ground. “We should probably say something in his honor, don’t you think?”

Someone mumbled a few barely audible memories about Dan as a kid, but those were interrupted, too easily, when someone suggested, “Let’s do this tonight when we get together for dinner.” “Yeah!” the rest of the guys echoed. (We never shared any memories at dinner.)

A few quick, awkward hugs were exchanged, and everyone left except for my older brother. He placed his beloved hi-top cleats on a faded sideline, facing the field. No other event or moment had pierced my firewall up to that point, not even seeing Dan lying contorted and unconscious in a hospital intensive care unit bed. The image of those cleats was different, less menacing. In some way it was more profound: Our comrade had fallen.

I picked up the frayed net and ran my fingers over it. Even though I understood that my friends couldn’t bring themselves to stick around and talk about Dan, their abandonment now stung. I thought that my friends and I were knotted together in our collective need to grieve.

Standing on the field alone, the late November darkness doming over me like a snow globe, I now realized that, like so many men, I lacked one of the most crucial tools for navigating sadness.

For decades I assumed I had developed a healthy truce with sadness. Since my late 20s, I’ve worked hard to push back against many traditional masculine norms. One of these pitched battles meant embracing greater emotional honesty, including sadness. So, if I felt down and a good friend asked how I was doing, I’d say “Not so great, to be honest.” When a movie, book, or even a conversation hit an unexpected sad patch I didn’t swallow back tears — not even when I’ve given talks or interviews.

As so often happens in relationships, I overplayed my hand. I assumed that emotional honesty was all that sadness expected of me if I was going to be on good terms with it. It took that touch football game for me to realize just how wrong I was.

I’m not alone. Most Americans have an uneasy rapport with sadness. It’s like the poor social pariah no one wanted to sit with during high school lunch. Sadness also rears FOMO’s ugly head. We fear it might derail us from riding the happiness train that everyone else seems to be on. Then, of course, there’s this: We fear that if we give sadness the microphone it will cripple us with self-doubt, self-pity, and suicidal thoughts.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, deters men, especially, from acknowledging their sadness than the fear that they’re undermining their masculine status. From early childhood onwards other boys, eventually men, police our words and actions for the slightest whiff of negative emotions. The fear is that sadness makes us appear vulnerable, and, as we all know, vulnerability equals weakness. Or so goes the party line.

There are some glaring, lethal problems with this logic. For starters, researchers from the University of Rochester and Harvard found that repressing negative emotions can lead to earlier death from such diseases as cancer and heart disease. Then there are the daily physical afflictions from internalizing negative emotions— including intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders.

Repressing these emotions can lead to anxiety and depression, as well as chronic loneliness. We’ve all heard about the loneliness epidemic’s deadly fallout. Men are at the fore of this public health crisis. Yet research has also shown that men are nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than women, are more likely to abuse and die of drugs, especially opiates, as well as alcohol. All these crises can be traced back to depression and, eventually, unresolved sadness.

Ultimately, research finds that people who accept their negative emotions without judgment experience far greater mental health. And this: A 2021 study found that conversations with people who show empathy when we express our negative emotions diminish loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

This is the big takeaway: Men need to leaven their buddy bonding with the same kind of deep, emotionally transparent dives they do with women. Better yet: They need the same kind of support networks women are so good at creating and maintaining. They need emotional safety nets.

When I left the football field that late November afternoon, heavy with the sadness I had denied for so long, I finally permitted myself to grieve a little. I didn’t want to become yet another middle-aged guy who buries his sorrow in booze, gaming, working out, or unhealthy risk-taking.

I wanted to recapture the safety net I experienced for one, brief shining moment — in a prison, of all places.

I have many guy friends. But they rarely have welcomed emotional transparency. On the few occasions I took the conversation beyond the tenacious trio of guy talk — sports, politics, work — to my struggles, my friends reacted with typical ‘guy’ impulses. They either offered solutions or advice, or they grew visibly uneasy and changed the subject when I risked bearing my sadness or fears. (All I’ve ever wanted from any of my friendships was to vary, not change, the menu.) Fortunately, I have turned to the occasional therapist for emotional support, and my wife isn’t just a trusting, mutual confidante. She’s the best friend I’ve ever had.

This small support net had been enough. So I thought.

Three years ago, while conducting research for my first book, I visited a medium-security prison in Massachusetts to observe the Jericho Circle Project at work. This program started in 2002 and is operated and facilitated by a group of volunteers (Outside Guys, they’re called) that acts as a well-oiled men’s group for inmates (Inside Guys) that meets year-round for weekly sessions. On the mid- June evening that I sat in on one of three sessions, the Inside Guys started with what’s known in men’s group circles as a “check-in.” This is where each guy takes turns sharing his present state emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically.

As the guys took turns, it was difficult to feel present in the circle, which I was expected to join. After all, I was an interloper—and, well, I was in jail. Then a Latino man in his 30s spoke. He shared that he was “completely devastated that my ex wouldn’t let me speak to our three-year-old daughter when I called on Father’s Day. This manipulation doesn’t just hurt me. It hurts my daughter. So, yeah, I’m sad. I’m wounded.” As his head sunk, the inked white guy next to him put his arm around the Latino man’s shoulder. Man after man, two patterns emerged: Beneath their initial frustration and anger lie deep wells of sadness and shame. And they held each other accountable for dredging up those emotional truths.

When it was my turn, I shared, voice cracking, how my wife and I had been going through some difficult times together and how terrifying it was to consider, even briefly, that this person I had worked so hard to create a deeply intimate, loving life and partnership with could no longer be, well, that person anymore. (After undergoing couples counseling not long after this prison visit and a lot of daily work on our relationship since then, things are much better.) “Sure, couples break up all the time,” I said. “But that abstract reality doesn’t mean anything when you’re the one suffering in the trenches—when this is your own life.” Heads around the circle bowed, nodded. The symmetry of these reactions made the circle seem smaller, closer.

At the end of the two-hour session, the participants stood up, hugged, talked, and laughed. One thin, tall Black guy hugged me and then pulled back, smiling. “Thanks so much for sharing that story about you and your wife,” he said. “I think a lot of us could identify with what you said. I know I did.”

I left that prison feeling more connected to, more trusting of, and ‘known’ by, these strangers than I ever had with any of my old male friends.

Part of me didn’t want to leave.

Last spring, my sister’s breast cancer returned as stage four bone cancer. In addition to the shock from her first oncologist’s pall-shrouded prognosis, my wife, brother, sister-in-law and I had to drop our lives and take over care for her. Six months earlier, two old friends of mine committed suicide. Then, of course, there was the saga with Dan.

Never in my life had I felt so ground into exhaustive despair. So alone.

I bring all of this up not to flex my suffering muscles. Everyone suffers. I bring it up merely to show that I reached a new threshold in my life where tears weren’t waiting in the wings anymore and venting yet again to my wife felt as overwrought to me as it did to her. I reached an alien crossroad I thought reserved for the aged where, as the Longfellow poem observes, “the dead alone seem living/And the living alone seem dead.”

I tried looking into a few men’s groups near where I lived, hoping to recapture my experience in the prison. They were full, which was just as well. Joining one of these groups with men who are strangers — many of whom are stepping cautiously into the chilly waters of emotional transparency for the first time — and coming at them full bore with my unflinching angst might have scared them off. (This sometimes happens with men who are new to men’s groups, I learned through researching my book.)

Recently I met up with a fellow mirror of Longfellow’s words, Jim. For the first three years of my friendship with Jim, we bonded over bourbon, literature, and our own writing lives. This steady diet was stimulating enough, but our connection was a more intellectual form of the tenacious trio — another excuse for dodging our own emotional depths and mutual support.

On a recent cold February night, Jim and I met for some drinks and to catch up. We sat on a feebly heated brewpub patio, and he looked miserable. I asked if he was warm enough or if anything was wrong. Behind him, a server opened the squeaky patio gate, which must have registered for Jim, because he shared that he was struggling with increasing caregiving for his wife, who developed dementia. And two good friends were dying.

After I apologized for all that he was enduring, he asked how I was doing — given everything I was navigating the past year. “I’m not going to pretend everything’s okay just to appear all Marlboro Man,” I said. “It’s a slog. Which is okay. It’s just so damned lonely,” I said, the gravity of my words pulling my gaze to the ground. A shadow of the patio gate draped over Jim’s and my bodies, making it look as if we were pinned beneath jail bars.

“I’m sorry for what you’re going through, too,” he said. “Sometimes it’s enough,” he added, “just to bear witness to each other’s suffering and sadness.”

Jim stood up to leave. “This is good stuff,” he said. “We’ve got to stay more connected like this.” Standing there, the shadow, now tattooed across one of his arms, looked more like a net. “I love you, bro,” he said.

I’ve never gotten caught up in such an open moment with another guy, and, leaning into it, I hugged him. My gesture was met with a ferocity I hadn’t experienced since two years earlier in the Massachusetts jail.

Even though it was cold, getting late, and I was alone, part of me didn’t want to leave.

Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University, and is the author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Resiliency. You can find him on Instagram at @andrew.reiner.author.