Update (May 25, 2020): This post has been refreshed to reflect current research and to include additional information.
The biggest threat to men’s health is loneliness. It’s also the most challenging problem for men to admit because we are never taught about the importance of male friendship.
Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated. There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”
In an article entitled “The Lethality of Loneliness,” Judith Shulevitz writes, “Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack.” That creates long-lasting consequences. Shulevitz explains that loneliness can literally kill you. “Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”
As young boys, male friendships come naturally. But as boys grow older, fear takes over. Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, writes, “Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girly, immature, or gay. Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay.”
Way concludes that the result of young boys ignoring the importance of male friendships is a generation of men “who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.” Men are scared of being vulnerable or being seen as weak, and instead, suffer loneliness in silence.
When my therapist told me I needed to make friends, I scoffed.
I wasn’t lonely. I had my baseball friends. I had my fantasy football league. I had my co-workers.
My therapist scribbled notes on his clipboard. “Garrett,” he added, “Part of the reason why you’re depressed is that your depression is because you’re lonely. You need to make some friends. And not just sports friends, but male friends you can really talk to.”
Rachel, my wife, asked me how my appointment was. I told her my therapist told me I had no friends. It was easier to laugh about than to admit to myself that my therapist was right. I’d neglected the importance of male friendship. I was lonely.
I was a statistic again.
Men are struggling, but not everyone is disappearing out the back door to loneliness. Sports have always played a role in male bonding, and professional sports athletes, in particular, are becoming role models by emphasizing the importance of male friendship.
How to identify loneliness.
The crack of the bat reverberates in the night sky. Hollers. Hoots. Then silence. He hit my fastball.
No sound of crunched sunflower seeds. Just focus as the baseball ricochets off the aluminum bat, the red laces swirling, swirling, swirling.
I shift my body weight to the left; my cleats sink into the freshly contoured dirt infield. The quiet interrupted by the smack of the ball into the leather of my glove. As the batter scrambles towards first base, his legs pump faster and faster. My hand grips the ball, fingertips imprinted into the cowhide as I release towards the first baseman.
In a second ball hits glove, cleat touches the bag, umpire shouts, “Out.”
Silence turns to jubilation as my friends surround me. High fives, butt pats, brief hugs.
We aped our favorite athletes and huddled in a hug. Man affection. We gave each other pats on the back, so we never had to learn how to talk.
In his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, therapist and friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif describes the difference between male and female friendships: “Men have ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ friendships (doing things together), while women enjoy ‘face-to-face’ friendships (honestly sharing thoughts and emotions).”
“Shoulder to shoulder” friendships requires action and activities. Maybe the bond is based on playing video games, or, in my case, playing baseball, but those activities don’t require talking or conversation. Vulnerability is limited to your limitations on the field or conversations between levels. Friendship never goes beyond a surface level. Lisa Wade explains in Salon, “the friendships they[men] have if they’re with other men provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships.” In other words, close male friendships are important, and men are bad at them.
Dr. Richard S. Schwartz spoke with Boston Globe writer Billy Baker about loneliness and depression. He says, “Admitting you’re lonely feels very much like admitting you’re a loser. Psychiatry has worked hard to de-stigmatize things like depression, and to a large part, it has been successful. People are comfortable saying they’re depressed. But they’re not comfortable saying they’re lonely because you’re the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.” Men, Schwartz claims, are more likely to admit they’re struggling with depression than struggling with making and sustaining friends.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference,. “If you’re around a team in this day and age, there are always headphones on. [The players] are isolated, and they have their heads down.” He references a conversation with a current NBA player: “He said to me, ‘From the time I get on the plane to when I show up in the arena for the game, I won’t see a single person,’ There was a deep sadness around him.” Loneliness is an epidemic across the entire league.
For generations, young men have been told to not express feelings of loneliness, or sadness for fear of being seen as weak. That was how my friends and I survived high school. There were no role models for us on television, or in sports. We thought everyone suffered in silence.
But that’s not true. There are athletes demonstrating healthy male friendships that men of all ages can learn from. Friendships that are vulnerable, honest, and emotionally secure.
Vulnerability in team building.
As my friends and I went through college, the sports-based bonds that held us close together started to fray. Although all four of us went to the same university, we pursued four vastly different degrees: John studied engineering. Kyle studied math. Martin took an internship in the veterinarian department. I spent my evenings in the stale-beer covered newsroom in the basement of the University of Buffalo Student Union. Long hours meant little time between classwork and work-work for us to spend time together.
All we had were Sundays.
Sunday afternoons meant all day at Kyle’s house, watching season after season of the Buffalo Bills fail to make the playoffs while Kyle’s family from Wisconsin gloated.
Kyle and I would drive to Franco’s Pizza before the one o’clock games. For five minutes, Kyle’s eyes would soften when he would tell me about Jenny, the girl he met at university. Kyle would say to me how he imagined marrying her one day that her snark was just enough to keep him humble. I’d tell him about the disintegration of my first relationship; how I found out she cheated with both guys and girls she’d met through Craigslist. I’d tell him how lonely I felt. He listened. He cared.
Then we pulled into the driveway, walked up the blacktop through the kitchen door in silence, and went back to arguing over whether or not Randy Moss was the greatest fantasy football receiver ever. Arguing over sports seemed more natural than sharing our own lives.
I started seeing my first therapist. I had been experiencing lethargy, irritableness, and general unhappiness for nearly a year before asking my parents for help. They suggested I go see Dr. Nicks, a local psychologist. For an hour each week, I’d skip lunch and drive over to her office to talk about how I wasn’t feeling like myself anymore.
Kyle and John asked me why I stopped eating with them; I told them I switched classes.
No need to overshare. Our friendship wasn’t like that.
But maybe it should be. Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott instituted a new tradition in 2017. He tells Sports Illustrated that he’s “concluding team meetings by having a player talk about his life—personal stories of his upbringing, his motivations, his influences, what’s most important to him. Offensive tackle Jordan Mills was nervous sharing a vulnerable part of his past, but when he was done he felt closer to his teammates. ‘It’s created a bond that I feel like no other team around this league has,’ he says. ‘It’s really like we are brothers.'” While other sports teams focus on Navy Seal Training or bowling to build team chemistry, McDermott is trying to foster something more profound in his players, something anchored in the importance of male friendship.
In the same article, Guard Richie Incognito explains, “One of the first things McDermott said when he first got here was, ‘We’re going to build this thing on love.’ When you talk about football, love isn’t a word we use, so when he said that, he caught me off guard. And then we started doing this, and it all started making sense.” It makes sense because the science supports it.
Daniel Coyle explains in his TED Talk that these interactions are known as vulnerability loops. Here’s how they work:
- 1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.
- 2. Person B detects this signal.
- 3. Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability.
- 4. Person A detects this signal.
- 5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.
He adds, “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust — it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.”
Vulnerability loops build male friendships and create deeper bonds. Those deeper bonds thus create stronger teams.
For male friendships to succeed, vulnerability needs to no longer be seen as a weakness. Athletes are paving the way as role models for young boys and men when it comes to an understanding of the importance of male friendship because they’re finding that it makes them better at their vocation. And you can find athlete role modeling the importance of male friendship outside of team sports too.
For example, Big E, Xavier Woods, and Kofi Kingston stand out in the world of hypermasculine professional wrestling. The successful WWE trio hops down the entrance ramp wearing light-up unicorn horns on their head while hurling pancakes into the raucous crowd. They call their group “The New Day.”
WrestleMania 35 took place in April 2019, and it was the biggest night in Kingston’s professional wrestling career. For the first time, Kingston would go one-on-one against Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan for the belt in one of the main events. Walking Kingston down the rampway are Big E and Woods, his traveling buddies, tag-team partners, and brothers for the past five years.
Kingston described the relationship between the members of The New Day in an interview with The Daily Star: “We are going to the grave together. We have actually reserved a single grave for us all to be buried in one coffin at the end. We will never go our separate ways.”
In a show of solidarity, Woods tweeted a year before WrestleMania, “I would be happier seeing @TrueKofi become heavyweight champion than I would be if I became heavyweight champion. He deserves it more than anyone on the roster.”
The New Day is one of the most successful teams in professional wrestling history: seven-time WWE Tag Team Champions, WWE Wrestler of the Year by Rolling Stone, and Pro Wrestling Illustrated‘s Tag Team of the Year.
But on that cold night in New York City, Kingston’s partners settled for ringside seats as they watched their brother compete for the grandest prize of them all, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
The match began. Back and forth, Kingston and Bryan traded punches, kicks, and high-flying dives. Every two-count, the crowd held their collective breath as Big E and Woods slam their palms onto the mat, cheering on their brother.
The crowd chants in unison with Kingston’s claps, “New Day Rocks, New Day Rocks.” They cheered not just for Kingston, but for the brotherhood he represents. Kingston lined up Bryan and hits his patented finishing maneuver, the Trouble in Paradise.
Kingston covers the champ.
Woods and Big E rush the ring and the crowd explodes. All three men hug surrounded by 82,000 elated fans. The camera zooms in. All three men have tears running down their cheeks. In a sport designed around fabrication, The New Day’s relationship of brotherhood and friendship is real.
“If Big E. or Woods were WWE Champion right now, I would support them as much as they have supported me, and they feel the same way. We all work together, and when one of us achieves the ultimate level of success, we all achieve it,” said Kingston after the match.
As one of the most popular tag teams in professional wrestling, The New Day represents more than athleticism, charisma, and championships. The New Day symbolizes to millions of men around the world what healthy, close friendships look like. The New Day is the blueprint, and their success is a testament to the importance of male friendships.
I wanted what The New Day had. A trio of men who had each other’s backs no matter the cost. And it hurt to think that I didn’t have that. But the more I watched Big E, Woods, and Kingston gyrate and celebrate around the ring, I recognized that I would never have a brotherhood like theirs if I didn’t start taking steps to develop deeper bonds for myself.
The importance of male friendship.
Peter, Paul Rudd’s character in the film I Love You, Man, faces a difficult obstacle while planning his wedding with Zooey, Rashida Jones’ character. Few films capture the difficulty of making friends as an adult better than I Love You, Man. Peter doesn’t have a male best friend. Describing Peter’s relationships with other guys, his brother explains, “Pete’s always been a girlfriend guy. His guy friends just fell by the wayside.”
Peter has no idea how to make a male friend, so his brother gives him some advice: “If you see a cool-looking guy, strike up a conversation and ask him on a man date… Casual lunch or after-work drinks. You’re not taking these boys to see The Devil Wears Prada.” Peter is looking to build a healthy bromance.
Peter, like so many other men, has no idea how to make friends. Men who learned to be stoic at an early age may find it harder if they feel alone. Therapist Geoffrey Greif explains, “I think men may be unclear on how to go about making friends… It’s something we don’t teach boys growing up. I was raised to pursue a woman for a date, but I was never taught to pursue a man to be a friend.”
Making friends as an adult is difficult. Friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer explains, “Oftentimes, it is a practical issue. Our schedules are busy. We are short on time. As we try to balance the various relationships and responsibilities that we have, our friendships are often the first thing to go.” Still, men crave intimate friendships as much as women. There is a level of shame involved in admitting a lack of friendship. Those feelings of shame then turn to loneliness. Because of men’s difficulty in being vulnerable, shame and loneliness can lead to depression and further isolation.
I struggled to admit to myself that my friendships lacked the intimacy I needed. I didn’t understand the importance of male friendship when it came to my depression. Kyle, Martin, John, and I grew apart after college ended. Our bonds fell by the wayside due to a lack of foundation. Our friendships couldn’t survive the fact that I moved 400 miles away to start my career in Virginia.
Jeffrey Hall studied the amount of time it takes to build a friendship. He writes, “At low amounts of time (<10 hr), relationships are best described as acquaintances (51%) or friends of friends (16%). Casual friendships emerge around 30 hr, followed by friendships around 50 hr. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hr. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hr of time spent.” In other words, friendship takes a real amount of time.
That means time not spent at work or school.
Hall continues. “Time in obligatory workplace and classroom relationships is not associated with closeness… time spent in this way is a poor investment toward satiating a need to belong, although indubitably important for meeting other needs.”
Workplace and school time conversations revolve around the activity. It’s no different than playing sports. For example, McDermott knows that to build community and love for his football team, dedicated time is required to forging those bonds than just practice and game time.
Hall’s original study on developing friendship shows that time isn’t the only quantifiable metric one can use to gage whether an interpersonal interaction will bloom into a friendship. He pays attention to “everyday talk, specifically catching up, checking in, joking around, and meaningful conversation.” He finds that “keeping abreast of friends’ daily lives by catching up and joking around predict change in friendship closeness above and beyond the number of hours together.”
In other words, conversations need to go beyond football.
To build those more in-depth, more satisfying connections, men need to allow themselves to be vulnerable. Doing so requires men to push back against the societal narratives of stoicism and self-containment to honor their emotional needs. Real conversations need to be about things that aren’t sports. Talk about regret, fear, or confusion. Men need to take their guards down. (If you’re looking for options to meet other men who want to talk about friendship, I suggest looking at a men’s support group.)
To experience positive masculinity, I needed to let my guard down.
After some reading and writing and avoiding my desire for closer friendships, I reached out to Dave. I met Dave at a Wiffleball league and conversations centered mostly around professional wrestling, baseball, and chicken wings. I recognized I wanted a better friendship.
So I told Dave about my therapy sessions. And my depression. And my upcoming wedding.
Over time, we both shared parts of our life. I reached out to other friends from back in Buffalo who lived nearby: Scott, and Tony. I realized how much more meaningful these relationships became the moment I was no longer afraid to be emotional and truthful around them.
I was learning the importance of male friendship, but I wished I understood earlier in life. The friendships with Kyle, Martin, and John might be different if we learned sooner how to build meaningful relationships, and accepted that we needed them.
Daniel Coyle’s TED Talk ends with this piece of wisdom: “Most of us see vulnerability as a condition to be hidden. But when it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk but a psychological requirement…Each loop was different yet shared a deeper pattern — an acknowledgment of limits, a keen awareness of the group nature of the endeavor.”
Coyle stops and looks into the crowd. “You have a role here. I need you.”
Men, it’s time we start saying the same to each other explicitly.
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