Men have fewer friends these days, which can hurt their well-being. Here are expert tips for fostering those relationships.
By Jill Suttie
When we got married, my husband had a “bachelor party” that consisted of five guys going out to dinner together. There was no heavy drinking or roasting the groom or naked women jumping out of a cake. Just guys sitting around talking about life.
This group has been meeting regularly ever since, taking turns hosting brunch so they can chat for hours, sharing the joys and struggles of their lives. They call themselves the “Men of Merit” or “MOMs”—and they have been there for each other, through thick and thin, for over 30 years now.
Having an intimate group of friends like that seems to be a rare thing for men these days. In fact, according to a recent American Survey report, men have fewer social ties overall than they used to, with only 27% of men in 2021 saying they had at least six close friends compared to 55% in 1990. This suggests men may be suffering a “friendship recession” that is likely affecting their health and happiness.
The reasons for this are complex. But it’s worth it for men to forge friendships with other men. Research suggests that having men friends in early adulthood is important to men and can help buffer them against stress. Intimate friendships with men, sometimes called “bromances,” can be even more fulfilling than romantic relationships with women, perhaps because men feel more understood by other men and assume men friends will be more loyal and willing to help in time of need.
How can you make that kind of friendship happen? The key, say experts, is to find the right activity with other men—and then to be brave in opening up. “[Men] start off talking about their cars first, and then the conversation goes into their relationships,” says Daniel Ellenberg, a relationship expert and leadership trainer. “Finding common interests is a good jumping-off point for men.”
The roots of male isolation
Why do men have fewer friends these days? Declining involvement in civic or religious organizations, lower marriage rates, and changes in the workplace—such as remote work opportunities and longer commutes—are likely contributing to missed opportunities for men to develop friendships with other men. No doubt the pandemic didn’t help, as so many men (and women) found themselves isolated.
But men also have fewer close male friends for other reasons, too. Societal pressures to conform to a particular model of masculinity can hamper the development of intimacy with others. This starts at a young age, when boys are given the message they should not express their emotions or seek emotional comfort from other boys lest they be condemned for being too “soft,” “feminine,” or “gay.”
As developmental psychologist Niobe Way’s research articulates, boys want and need to have intimacy, but feel pressured to withhold the vulnerability or affection that helps foster friendship. This means boy friendships often fade by late adolescence, increasing their risk for suffering mental health problems and poorer physical health.
Fred Rabinowitz is a psychologist at the University of the Redlands who studies men and runs therapy groups to help men connect. He believes that much of what hampers male friendships stems from male socialization.
“Boys, when they’re young, are capable of having all kinds of fun with each other and enjoy hanging out, being physical, and all that stuff,” he says. “Then, something happens. We put them in school, where it’s OK to play and be aggressive, but where there’s something taboo about being too friendly.”
He recalls his own lesson around this at the age of seven. After putting his arm around a best buddy on the playground at school, somebody suggested it meant he was gay. He quickly changed tack. “That’s enough to just shut down boys,” he says.
With girls and women, there is less of this association between physical affection and sexuality, he says. They are more open and receptive to interpersonal interactions involving intimacy, where they share secrets and seek each other out for advice or comfort.
But, for guys, it can feel weird or awkward to be intimate with another guy, because it goes against cultural norms and doesn’t jive with male mythology. Men are admired for being “the strong, silent type” or the lone hero in our society, with emotional control and self-reliance valued above all else. This stereotype can keep men from recognizing their social and emotional needs, making it harder to do the work of making close friends.
“Part of our tradition has been to appear to be strong—or at least give the impression of strength—which makes you feel a little bit more secure, but lonely,” says Rabinowitz.
Men need friendships with other men
In his work with men’s groups, Daniel Ellenberg has seen how deeply men want to have more intimacy, but face not only social taboos, but a biologically driven vigilance against showing their “softer” side.
“The male operating system is learning that vulnerability is a bad thing, that you’re leaving yourself open to attack,” he says. “There’s a kind of wariness, based on the need to always be oriented toward threat. We’re much more likely to mistake a stick for a snake than a snake for a stick.” That hurts a man’s ability to foster intimacy through vulnerable self-disclosure—something key to fostering closeness in friendships.
That’s why many men tend to look more to women for emotional support than to seek it with other men, says Ellenberg. Unfortunately, this not only lessens their options, but could place an undue burden upon women to be their confidants and supports through life.
“Men put too many of their (shall we say) ‘emotional eggs’ in a woman’s basket,” says Ellenberg. “But relationships are complex, and the more you’re able to embrace different contexts, the more you bring out different sides of yourself.”
“Men put too many of their (shall we say) ‘emotional eggs’ in a woman’s basket”
―Daniel Ellenberg, Ph.D.
It wasn’t always the case that men feared intimacy with other men, writes Marisa Franco in Platonic (her book outlining the history of friendship and its benefits). Men used to be quite close to other men, she writes, even sharing romantic feelings for one another—not in the sexual sense, but in the sense of deep caring, longing to be together, and feeling most yourself when in that person’s presence.
“Romantic love in friendship isn’t radical. It’s traditional if you peer back far enough into our history,” she writes. “Even now, it is normal for close friends to feel the heady passion and idealization that we typically deem appropriate only for spouses.”
To have that kind of closeness feels foreign to many men, though. That’s why both Rabinowitz and Ellenberg have their work cut out for them.
What men can do to build friendships
While there isn’t much research on what men can do to build male friendships, specifically, Rabinowitz’s and Ellenberg’s decades of experience give them a vantage point for offering some advice.
Rather than engaging in deep, revealing conversations the way women might, boys and men tend to engage in “side-by-side play,” Rabinowitz says—doing an activity they both enjoy that doesn’t involve face-to-face interactions. Sometimes intimacy can grow from there, he adds, because if you do these activities regularly, opportunities to share personal issues can arise.
“If you’re playing golf with someone, you can focus on golf. But then if someone says, ‘I had a rough morning, you know, my wife’s in cancer treatment,’ it’s a way of opening up the door to have a conversation about that in a safe way,” he says.
Outside of sports, Ellenberg says that one thing men can do is to find or form groups that share a common interest. A therapy group like he runs is one option; but a men’s group can be centered around anything—like movies or vintage cars—likely to allow for some conversation.
Modeling openness yourself, as a man, can make it easier for other men to open up to you, says Rabinowitz. You can always start with something fairly low-risk and work your way up, as you see that it has a good response.
“Maybe tell a story that is not that personal and or tell a joke or talk about some external activity,” he says. “Those are the ways that men break the ice when they’ve been socialized the way we have been.”
If it seems risky to look among your own men acquaintances, Ellenberg recommends a men’s support group or other organizations devoted to helping men build self-awareness and connection with other men, like the Mankind Project. These programs can help men realize they’re not alone in their desire to have authentic connection with other men.
“It’s a great way to find out that there’s power and potential safety in just being real with people,” says Ellenberg. “The benefit of seeing thousands of men reveal so-called ‘deep dark secrets’ about themselves—and not only not being shamed for it, but actually encouraged, supported, and admired for it—is something that most guys just don’t get normally.”
The keys to friendship, as outlined in Franco’s book, may also help men build closer connections with other men. After initiating contact with another guy, whether it’s getting a beer after work or meeting for a walk, you can go from there. Broaching more personal topics, expressing appreciation, or showing affection are all good ways to let someone know you’re interested in a deeper friendship, if they are interested, too.
Though that may feel risky for some men, often their fears of a negative reaction are just that—fears. Most people respond more positively than you might think to someone reaching out to them.
“If you want a closer friendship, you have to pay the price, which is to reveal more about yourself,” says Ellenberg. “As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ If you want more openness in a friendship, the best thing to do is to be more open yourself. Don’t wait.”