Here's why experts say men need more friends in their lives — and how they can make them

American men are in a friendship crisis — but there are easy ways to build better bonds

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 20, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Friends hanging out at a music festival (Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt)
Friends hanging out at a music festival (Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt)

At a midtown Japanese restaurant the other evening, I found myself seated near a party of four men in their thirties, doing just what groups typically do in restaurants — ordering large platters of appetizers and rounds of beer. It seemed like a normal night out for a quartet of buddies. What was unusual about it was that they didn't seem to be having any fun at all. As I leaned a shoulder in their direction to eavesdrop a little on their banter, the explanation became clear. They were just gathered for an after-hours work meeting. They weren't really friends at all. Maybe every man at that table had a rich and fulfilling social life outside of their corporate one. Yet I believe their gathering had caught my attention because it had just seemed so strikingly lonely.

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Isolation is a public health crisis that affects everyone. In May, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report on the "epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States," noting that "Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness." Yet men seem to be uniquely vulnerable. 

"Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all."

In 2021, findings from the Survey Center on American Life put the problem into stark context. "Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends," the report revealed. "Today, that number has been cut in half. Slightly more than one in four (27 percent) men have six or more close friends today. Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990." Similarly, a 2016 U.K. survey by the men's health foundation Movember found that "One in ten men couldn't recall the last time they made contact with their friends."

The male "friendship recession," as the Center refers to it, can have serious implications. Sustained loneliness is a contributing risk factor for heart disease, stroke and dementia. The Surgeon General reports, "Lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%." And in a 2021 report on men's mental health, the American Journal of Men's Health states that "The suicide mortality rate of men is nearly four times the rate of women." For men, making and keeping friends might literally save their lives. 

Part of this friendship deficit problem is that we don't prime men adequately for friendship when they're still boys. Writing in the Journal of Research on Adolescence a decade ago, New York University professor Niobe Way found that "While boys often had intimate male friendships during early and middle adolescence, they typically lost such friendships by late adolescence, even though they continued to want them." 

"Boys have these really close, intimate, friendships. They love being together," Kevin Roy, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland College Park School of Public Health tells me. "Then about the age of 13, we implicitly and explicitly tell a lot of young men that's not cool. You should be a lone wolf, should be able to stand in your own." He adds, "I think that just comes out of all the messages they get from all of us, not just media, but families and communities."

What follows feels painfully inevitable. "I don't think that boys young men develop the relationship skills, the muscles to have that kind of sharing go on later in life," Roy says. "So they don't know how to share their grief, to deal with loss. They keep it inside. Ultimately you end up with a desperate need to process a lot of stuff, and I think the consequences of that long term are depression, isolation, feeling sad." 

"You end up with a desperate need to process a lot of stuff."

And sadness, for a lot of men, often looks like just one thing. "I ask all my undergrads the same question the first day of class," Roy says. "What emotions can men express? Everyone says one emotion, and it's anger. That's what we expect. That's what men think they do. Even if men feel sadness and frustration, they express it as anger, or people perceive it as anger."

Christine Yu Moutier, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, echoes Roy's observation. "Anger is a vastly misunderstood warning sign," she says, "because it looks aggressive. But oftentimes, when a man is struggling, that has become the socially acceptable way to express distress." She says that breaking those one-note patterns and expectations can be "something as basic as getting beyond our own unconscious bias about gender, and really helping people to understand that men, like all humans, have a full range of emotions and sensitivities. We just need to start assuming that that's fair for everybody."

Steve Siple, a previous board chair for AFSP, knows personally the ways in which mental health issues manifest differently in men — as well as the power of having friends in your corner. After losing his father to suicide and becoming a volunteer leader for AFSP, he says that "Despite the fact that I have been for the most part successfully coping with my mental health challenges for several years through ongoing therapy and other means, it took the external observation by a friend with unique background and experience to recognize my struggle at a critical time."

He acknowledges that now as he and his wife transition to becoming empty nesters, "Maintaining a healthy male friend group (or ideally multiple ones) is critical for my mental health," adding, "but it is not always easy to establish or maintain these connections."

Fortunately, "not easy" is nowhere near the same as "impossible," and dormant friend-building muscles can be built up. It's just about starting small, and remembering that friendship is actually supposed to be fun. 

Just as social isolation can create a snowball effect of mental and physical health problems, the camaraderie of fandom can have a powerful benefit

Siple says, "Many men (myself included) struggle with being proactive in our male relationships. It is important for men to explore any and every outlet to make and maintain these connections. Formality isn't necessary. Whether it's a running group, trivia team, Bible study, or whatever, I believe this social connectivity is an incredibly important aspect of our mental health."

Another path to creating or strengthening friendships is in the form of a unifying love of a favorite team. Writer Ben Valenta, coauthor (with David Sikorjak) of 2022's infectiously persuasive "Fans Have More Friends," acknowledges that we are living through "an era of rising loneliness, and this predates the pandemic." But, he says, "Alongside that, there are mechanisms that create opportunities for connection and interaction. That's what we're arguing for with sports."

In researching for the book, Valenta says that he and Sikorjak found that "The more engaged you are as a fan, the more friends you will have. That's true, no matter the demographic in question, no matter the gender, ethnicity, age. Fandom creates social connection, and it results in a more active vibrant social network. You will have more friends if you are an engaged sports fan. And," he says, "that's not where it ends. You are also more likely to interact with those friends more frequently. And you're more likely to value those relationships more." 

Just as social isolation can create a snowball effect of mental and physical health problems, the camaraderie of fandom can have a powerful benefit. "It's not just that fans have more friends," says Valenta. "As a result of that social interaction, they're happier, they're more satisfied with their life. They are more grateful, they are less lonely, they experience more belonging, they are more likely to give to charity, they're more likely to be registered to vote. There's a whole host of objectively positive metrics that correlate with increased engaged sports."

Of course, as Valenta points out, everyone can benefit from fandom. But because generally "Women tend to socialize face to face, and men tend to socialize shoulder to shoulder," he suggests, "you need an activity, an anchoring interaction." And having a more expansive group of friends benefits the women in men's lives, who are often called upon to do the emotional labor in relationships, serving not just as partners but de facto besties. 

Regular, sustained, often enjoyable interaction can in turn help make it feel safer for men to then go deeper when needed. "There are ways to facilitate opening up and disclosing what's going on on the inside," says Dr. Moutier. "That happens most readily from one man opening up first to share something more personal that will signal to the other man, this is something we talk about. Sometimes part of that opening up the dialogue towards deeper discussion, and potentially even asking about suicidal thoughts, is actually just taking that risk to open up and disclose what's going on at a deeper level oneself." 

It can start as simply as sending a funny text, making a plan to meet up at dog park, or watching the game together. Valetta says, "I'm actually from Denver. The Nuggets just won their first NBA championship. As I'm watching the game live when they got title, my phone is just exploding. It's all because of this team and this game. We tend to read that as not as vital social interaction, but as something kind of mindless or trivial. And it's not. Those are all meaningful interactions for keeping me in touch with people that live where I'm from. That connection, to my family and my friends, is critically important. These little things that we can do that are so practical, that have such a big impact that people, are just right under our noses. And if we leaned into it, then the world would be a better place."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Explainer Fandoms Friendship Isolation Loneliness Men Relationships Sports