Health & Fit Men Don’t Need More Friends. They Might Just Need Therapy.

21:05  28 october  2019
21:05  28 october  2019 Source:   menshealth.com

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There is something a little sad about an almost-middle-aged man spending the better part of his summer thinking about whether he has any friends. OK: It’s a lot sad, but a few months ago, after my social-media feeds started filling up with posts and takes on a crisis in men’s friendship—Men have no friends!Men are dying of loneliness!We can’t even do friendship right!—I looked in the mirror and started to ask some hard questions. Do I have any real friends? Would I be happier with more friends? And wait, why is everybody still talking about Friends? I mean, still?

Somehow men and friendships had become a whole thing, and to understand how and why it had become a whole thing, you need to look at the most famous and widely circulated data on the subject. It comes from something called the General Social Survey, which polled more than a thousand Americans back in 2004 and presented two distressing trends: The social networks of men and women had each shrunk by about a third since 1985, with both genders saying they had about two close friends; and there was a huge increase in social isolation, particularly among young white men.

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Social isolation is no joke, with countless studies linking it to higher mortality rates, higher risks of dementia, and higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. (A 2015 study out of Brigham Young University found that lonely and isolated people could see their life expectancy fall by about 30 percent.) It is, quite literally, a killer, and I’ve made myself especially vulnerable. I’ve moved towns twice in the past two years, each time starting fresh without knowing a single person, and I’ve spent a lot of quiet nights home alone—or, like, grocery shopping or watching way too much Netflix—wondering what people in my new town, the ones with actual friends, were doing. (Having fun together, probably. Or at least not feeling lonely.) I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve stood on the periphery of a group of guys bullshitting effortlessly, the way that real friends do, and cursing myself for being so shy and awkward around new people. See? Sad! And also potentially fatal.

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So I did what any rational, sane, not-at-all-worried-about-dying-sooner-and-alone person would do. I interviewed a dozen sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and bona fide authorities about what it means to make and keep a friend today. I read hundreds of pages of studies, reports, and academic papers on how guys build and maintain their social networks. And then I commissioned my very own online survey to assess what kind of friend I am. I randomly selected about 70 people from my contact list, sent them ten multiple-choice questions from Survey Monkey, and promised them total anonymity in exchange for some brutally honest feedback. I’d met all of them through work or school or just being a sentient, social human being, and I started with a simple question—Do you consider me a friend?—and went a little deeper from there. (Given the anonymity, I don’t know who answered and what they said, but more than one contact —friend?—emailed me right back with some combination of “WTF” and “Are you okay? Do you need to talk?”)

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Through all my poking and prodding and surveying, I learned a lot about how men (including me, and probably you) make and keep friends. Like: All that stuff about men having no friends and being more socially isolated than women? Mostly wrong. And: You probably shouldn’t consider your wife your best friend, and our wives and girlfriends and partners maybe didn’t really mean it when they asked us to share our hopes and dreams and frustrations and fears with them. And: Friends are great, and therapists are great, but they’re not the same thing. And maybe most important: There’s no one right way to make or keep or be a friend, and like everything else in our lives, it’s probably something that most of us could get a little better at.

Of the 70 contacts who received the survey, 42 took time away from being bored at work or scrolling through Instagram to answer my questions, and every one of them said they consider me a friend. (The other 28 would be dead to me, if only I knew who they were.) And 42 friends is a strong, reassuring, I-probably-won’t-die-alone number. But then why, on a recent Saturday night when I had an extra ticket to a boxing match, did I have to give some serious thought to whom I’d bring? (For the uninitiated: A night of boxing entails a lot of undercard fights and a lot of waiting for the main event. You need to be really comfortable with whomever you’re with.)

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Keith N. Hampton, Ph.D., a sociologist at Michigan State University, walks me through the variations within my social network. “Men tend to have larger, more diverse overall social networks than women,” Hampton explains, with men more likely to focus on “bridging” (building looser, more diverse networks that are helpful for getting ahead professionally) while women are better at “bonding” (building closer, more intimate relationships). For most of the past, oh, 20 years, I’ve spent most of my time and energy on bridging—nearly half of all my surveyed friends consider me a “work friend”—and that almost always comes at the expense of bonding. As Hampton puts it: “Time is not infinite, so that means sacrificing one for the other.”

Which makes sense, given how most of us spend most of our waking hours—at work, right? But it’s important to remember that while bridging friendships aren’t necessarily less valuable or important than bonding ones—"both are equally important,” Hampton stresses—they aren’t gonna help you find someone to hang out with on a Saturday night.

The median score here was 4, and the number of people who said they felt close to me (i.e., giving our friendship an 8 or higher) was three. Which sounds about right: I know and like a bunch of people, but there aren’t a ton of people I feel close to (or who, evidently, feel close to me).

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Still, three close friends feels like enough—I didn’t go to the boxing match alone—and it tracks with most of the research around friendship. “Multiple studies have obtained the same result for the mean size of American discussion networks,” says Matthew Brashears, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of South Carolina who’s been studying friendship for nearly two decades. Those discussion networks—which translates roughly to people you talk to on a regular basis—are between two and five people for women and men, which makes me wonder about all those “men have no friends” stories in my social feeds.

The confusion seems to have started back in 2004, when the GSS released its blockbuster report showing that increase in social isolation. This was the data that birthed 15 years’ worth of think pieces about the dangers of men having fewer friends. The only trouble with it is that the data was at the very least flawed and quite possibly wrong.

To measure social isolation, the GSS researchers asked survey respondents to name the people they felt close enough to to have “discussed important matters” with over the past six months. The study never defined what “important matters” means—big life events? thoughts and feelings? the playoffs?—and Brashears (along with other researchers) has since found that most of the people who didn’t talk to anyone about important matters simply felt they didn’t have anything important to say. In other words: Men had people to talk to—they simply didn’t think there was anything important to talk about.

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“With men, it’s a difference between having someone to talk to and not choosing to talk to them, versus not having anyone to speak to,” says Mario Luis Small, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Harvard University who specializes in social networks. (Small conducted a similar survey of about 2,000 respondents and found that the average person has about five people in their immediate social network—women averaged five and a half, men four and a half.)

More recently, the YouGov survey from July found similar stats: Whereas half of all men and women say they have the same number of friends (one to four), men are more likely than women to say they don’t really need friends (30% versus 23%), and they’re more likely to say that friendship is too much work (23% versus 17%). This can be why stories about male friendlessness and isolation are, as Brashears puts it, “more of a feeling, a perception, than a reality. Overall, the research suggests that people are no more isolated than they were in the past.”

The overwhelming majority of my friends have spoken: I am too closed off and emotionally distant. Which is a fair enough knock, and on brand as far as traditional masculinity is concerned.

“On average, men are less comfortable expressing and sharing emotions than women are,” says sociologist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. “They have less of a vocabulary for emotional things, and their friendships tend to be based on doing things together rather than sitting face-to-face and having a conversation about intimate things.”

Think of the last time you had an uncomfortable conversation with a friend in which you went someplace, like, real. It’s probably been a minute. And it’s a tendency with deep, complicated origins. “It was girls who originally got my attention,” says Amanda J. Rose, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Missouri who specializes in how adolescents build and maintain relationships. “I was working with my advisor in grad school and recording kids at recess with their friends. All the literature at that time focused on how much better girls’ friendships were than boys’, especially focusing on the disclosure and social-support piece.” (Read: talking to each other, helping each other, etc.) “But what I really noticed, especially with one pair of the girls, is that they spent the whole time talking about problems, especially problems with a boy, and they seemed really down. Meanwhile, the boys were really having a lot of fun and playing a lot together. And I think psychologists would be dismissive of that, thinking like, Well, the boys aren’t really doing anything. But being able to share activities together and being able to have fun, especially when you're dealing with your issues that maybe you can't fix, is actually really productive. And really helpful emotionally.”

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What Rose observed among the boys is called the shoulder-to-shoulder model of friendship—the impulse to do things next to each other (which is more typical of men) rather than face-to-face (which is more typical of women). Geoffrey L. Greif, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., the author of Buddy System:Understanding Male Friendships and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, thinks the shoulder-to-shoulder model is partly evolutionary: “Part of it could be us as descendants of cave people who used to go out and hunt together, shoulder to shoulder, while women were staying back, taking care of children and engaging more in activities that brought them together in a different way.”

Maybe. The whole nature-versus-nurture dance is famously tricky and impossible to parse, especially when you account for the deep-rooted social conditioning of boys and young men that’s been going on for a couple of millennia now. Ronald Levant, Ed.D., a psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association, has spent decades studying what’s been termed Traditional Masculine Ideology—yes, it’s TMI, for those who like their acronyms ironic—and in TMI, Levant says, “we hear adult men say, I was told as a kid, I had to be tough, not to cry, don't be a wuss. Boys get the lesson early on that the code of masculinity requires complete absence of emotions.” Levant uses the present tense here, which in certain pockets of our culture and country is probably apt—there are still dads (and moms) who tell their boys to stop being a wuss (or worse), and there are still teenage boys (and girls) who rip other kids to shreds for crying. But in other pockets—and we especially see this in the growing complexity of gender norms among Gen Z and younger—there’s less and less emphasis on “acting like a man.”

Eric Anderson, Ph.D., a professor of Sport, Masculinities, and Sexualities at the University of Winchester, England, says that a lot of these attitudes began to change around 1993, “when cultural homophobia began to decline, and it’s declined ever since. In the 1980s, homosexuality was stigmatized, homophobia expected. And today, homophobia is stigmatized and homosexuality accepted. So the minute men stopped caring about whether people thought they were gay, friendship began to change all sorts of things.” With respect to Anderson, there are still plenty of guys who care whether people think they are gay—and there are many, many, many places where homophobia isn’t stigmatized (like, at all)—but it’s safe to say there are fewer guys and fewer places than there used to be. And with that decline has come bromances and I Love You, Man and so much hugging it out.

To state the obvious: Talking about how you feel with a close friend and asking for help when you need it is mostly good, and three quarters of my current crew wishes I would do more of it. It’s healthy, for starters. “There's a ton of research documenting the importance of literally just talking,” says Small. “In one study about women with breast cancer, people are randomly assigned to either talk or not talk about the issues they're facing. And the women who met once a week to talk through their experience lived almost twice as many months as the women who were told not to talk about it. It's not just that it feels nice to talk about stuff, it's actually consequential.”

But too much talking—well, I’ll let Dr. Rose explain: “Talking can go from being productive to being a risk factor for depression or anxiety. It’s more likely girls and women who experience this than boys and men—when they talk about problems too much, they actually become more depressed and anxious over time, because they're spending so much of their time on these problems rather than positive activities.” It’s a psychological condition called co-rumination, she says, and it can impact both parties in a friendship. “Some people call it the cost of caring—when you’re experiencing other people's problems. For men, on average, they may not experience as much emotional closeness in their friendships as women, but they're also not engaging in behaviors that make them more depressed and anxious.”

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a linguist and professor at Georgetown who wrote the relationship best seller You Just Don’t Understand, sees similar pitfalls with intensely talkative friendships. “Talking doesn't necessarily make for a better friendship, and not a few women have told me that they preferred men as friends because they don’t want to talk all the time. One example is a woman who was going through a divorce, and the person she was most grateful for at the time was a man who was also going through a divorce. They didn't talk about it—they would just get together and ride their bikes for hours. And they knew that going through the same thing, being together, being with someone who was going through the same thing, was really healing. And the fact that you didn't have to talk about it made it better.”

Does the tendency among women to be more open and communicative with their close friends mean they’re better friends than men? Nobody I talked to would go that far, and in fact, most of the experts felt notions like better or worse aren’t really helpful in figuring any of this out. One thing that is really important is to get the value judgment out of friendship,” says Tannen. “To me, that's the most pernicious aspect of this: women thinking there's something wrong with men because they don't talk.”

"One of the things that came up in my research,” says Tannen, “was men tended to say their best friend was their wife or girlfriend. But when you asked women, they would typically say another woman.” The reason for this, Greif says, is simple: “Men are not trained to listen, and they’re not able to process emotion as well as women. So women go to their husbands and their husbands want to try and solve the problem, or the husband is not able to quote-unquote listen, and it’s frustrating for them.”

The result, says Schwartz, is “closer marriages but fewer friendships. On balance, that has not been a good thing. And it puts much too much pressure on spouses to be everything to each other.” And when that results in a one-way street of emotional support—women are there to listen and support and do lots of what’s known as emotional labor; men are all “Here’s what I’d do” or “This is what you need to tell Lauren”—it leads to trouble.

A few years ago, a writer named Erin Rodgers tweeted: “I want the term ‘gold digger’ to include dudes who look for a woman who will do tons of emotional labour for them.” Since then—as our friends at Harper's Bazaar pointed out—the idea of an emotional gold digger has come to define a certain kind of man who dumps all of his issues on his partner and expects her to clean up the mess, and Rogers was right to call bullshit. Ladies, if he’s laying all his problems at your feet and monopolizing all your time and making everything about him him him: he’s not your man. He’s an emotional hand grenade.

As much I agree with the diagnosis, though, I differ on the solution. This type of guy doesn’t need more friends, because his friends don’t really want to deal with him either. You know how I know? Because I know that guy. While his partner may think he’s out drinking and having fun with his friends, he’s actually out drinking and venting and tearing up as he talks about how his father was a sociopath and never loved him. I don’t mean to belittle this poor bastard or his problems, but there is a time and place for these types of emotionally labor-intensive conversations, and it’s not a platonic friendship or a romantic relationship. It’s therapy, and more men need to get on it.

There's some good news/bad news going on here. Yes, one out of four people who call me a friend right now say it’s probably not going to last through the Ivanka Trump administration, which sort of makes me sad. But then, when I see that I’ve made half of all my current friends in the past ten years, I’m reminded that friends are a renewable resource. Things change, people change, and friends will fall in and out of your life. And the only thing stopping you from making new ones is you.

So how can I (or any of us) make new friends, or improve our existing friendships, moving forward? I can start by doing what I’ve heard many single people refer to as “putting myself out there”—by signaling and telling others that I want to be their friend. “It’s hard for men to pick up the phone or send a text and say, Hey, I want to see you. It's a little embarrassing to want someone else in that way,” says Schwartz. But then I look back on how I made friends as a kid—and how I see my nine-year-old son doing it now—and it usually all starts with a simple question: Do you want to play? It really doesn’t have to get more complicated than that, guys.

Once you’ve made those connections, make plans, and then make more plans, and then keep making plans, and, most important, do not bail. Basketball games. Book clubs. Running clubs. Anything that brings you together with someone(s) on a semi-regular basis. “Rather than just assuming that you will get together with a friend, you need to plan it,” says Schwartz. “That’s the biggest change that people can make that can make friendships flourish. If you have a regular way of doing something together and have it become an automatic part of your life, that will grow and grow rich connections. There is something important and powerful about that.”

And when you’re hanging out, if you want to talk about something heavy or serious, be mindful of how much you’re divulging and what you’re expecting from the other person. Read the room and share accordingly. “If we all have a couple of relationships in which we feel we are actually known by the other person,” says Schwartz, “we all feel better.”

And for the love of Joey and Ross and Chandler, avoid the temptation to treat the other person as your therapist—it’s not their job to solve your problems or help you deal with your stuff. “We should all aim for that sweet spot where we enjoy close relationships without getting too weighed down by taking on other people's problems too strongly,” says Rose. Their job, and your job, is simple: to be a friend.

Gallery: How to Reach Out If Your Friend Is Struggling With Their Mental Health (Provided by Refinery29)

a person posing for the camera: Last week, the news that both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had died by suicide sparked a conversation about mental health and how we can help support the people in our lives who might be going through a difficult time. One of the best ways to do that is to get in touch with someone directly to see if they need to talk, want to hang out, or just need someone who will sit beside them. But reaching out to check in on someone who struggles with their mental health might feel awkward at first — and that's okay.

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