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Why male friendships matter in a loneliness epidemic

Why male friendships matter in a loneliness epidemic

As men struggle to hold on to close friendships in middle age, one writer reflects on the power of a weekly poker game to give men the companionship they crave

Years ago, I lived beside a pessimistic 70-year-old Irish man named Steve who told me he hadn’t had any friends since quitting his factory job 20 years earlier. The bowling league, pub visits and poker games had all withered. Steve sat on his porch all day.

Across the street was 70-year-old Werner. Weather permitting, Werner sat on a battered recliner he’d set up on his lawn. The two men stared at one another but rarely talked. When Steve collapsed on his porch, Werner watched as the ambulance crew tried to revive him.

I went to Steve’s funeral, a subdued event (there were just four of us, including a priest who hadn’t met him), and thought about the nature of male relationships.

Steve and Werner are a handy metaphor for the kind of isolation that COVID-19 has visited upon many of us, an isolation that still lingers.

The fragility of male friendships

Lonely man gazing out of windowMen have been experiencing a friendship recession for the past few decades

Though we men were heading in that direction anyway: the percentage of males with at least six close friends fell by half between 1990 and 2021, according to the Survey Centre on American Life.

Simply put, men are in a friend recession. We are gifted in the art of isolation, the result of social conditioning and 10,000 years of evolutionary forces, where cooperation among men has been offset by competition. The invention of the big-screen television hasn’t helped.

We can find ourselves stranded by middle age. It’s easy for our friendships to drift; people move, we’re occupied with children and work. We’re tired, we’re distracted, we change.

"The percentage of males with at least six close friends fell by half between 1990 and 2021"

Then there’s our preference for socialising in groups rather than one-on-one, as noted in a 2020 Oxford University study. Groups are looser, less intimate. And our group activities often revolve around something—a sport, a bar, a poker game. But when the activity goes, the group can go with it.

I once reconnected with an old friend who’d played professional American football and I asked him if he was in touch with any of his former teammates. No, he said, when they left the sport, those connections ended. Without that central activity to sustain them, they all vanished from one another’s lives.

There was a time when card games or getting together with the guys to watch football was a sort of guilty pleasure, a vaguely senseless masculine activity. Now we’re learning that these things, or at least the connectiveness they represent, are fundamental to men’s mental health.

Forging a friendship circle

Twenty years ago, I was invited to join a poker game made up of writers, a few musicians, a lawyer, a media guy.

We met monthly and the game became a sort of oasis. There were literary quarrels, laughter, discussions about music and lots of stories. We didn’t socialise much outside of the game; spouses and children got a conversational nod, but mostly remained in the background.

That poker game became part of the essential fabric of my life, and it evolved with the group. We used to start at 7pm with a martini and play until 2am.

There are no martinis now (a lot less alcohol of any kind), and we quit before midnight. The haze of cigarette smoke is long gone. The food is better—over two decades we’ve gone from crisps and pretzels to sushi and homemade tarte Tatin.

Two of our original players died and one moved away, but the game remains, with new players joining, a new society forming.

"That poker game became part of the essential fabric of my life"

When the pandemic arrived, we switched to Zoom games. We downloaded a poker app on our phones and looked at those nine boxes containing our heads on our computer screens.

The poker app dealt all nine players instantaneously, so the Zoom version galloped along much faster than the live version, where the dealer laboriously shuffled and dealt, or stopped mid-deal to tell a story until someone finally barked, “Deal the damn cards.”

Despite the efficiency, the app presented problems. It took all of our concentration to keep track, on multiple screens, of what was going on with each other and with the game.

Conversational flow and easy banter didn’t really happen. It was starting to feel like any online poker game, the kind played with anonymous strangers.

Two of the guys eventually pulled out, saying they’d wait until we could get together in person.

A couple of months later, when our live game finally returned after a two-year break, we rejoiced. We didn’t care that someone’s dog ate much of the food we’d put out. We didn’t mind the slow dealing, the stories and losing hands. It was just good to see everyone, to talk and to feel the comfort of the group.

When men don't confide in each other

Male friendship not encouraging men to talk about feelingsMale friendship is not necessarily conducive to talking about feelings, which can increase loneliness

Isolation is a common factor in male suicide, particularly males who are middle-aged and older. It’s one reason male suicide rates are three times higher than those of females.

According to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, women really do have more friends than men, and women’s relationships with their friends are more intense.

Loneliness already played a role in men’s declining mental health, but the pandemic created more isolation and a subsequent global spike in depression and anxiety.

Workplace socialising—drinks with colleagues, lunches with clients—disappeared or was relegated to Zoom. Offices are finally opening up again, but not everyone is coming back, at least not full-time. Those who are, may be working in an almost-empty office, lonelier than working from home.

Even though getting together with other men is beneficial for mental health, in my experience there are limitations to men’s groups—the biggest one being that they just aren’t conducive to discussing emotional issues.

"Men often seek emotional connections outside of male groups, looking to their spouses or female friends"

At my poker game, we celebrate one another’s successes, but we rarely acknowledge failures or vulnerabilities. This can be taken to extremes; one of our poker guys died of cancer without telling any of us he was sick. We thought Bert looked a bit thin, a bit tired. Then he was gone.

In a 2018 article in the American Journal of Men’s Health about men’s social connectedness and mental health, the authors wrote that men often seek emotional connections outside of male groups, looking to their spouses or female friends, which allows us to maintain a “pattern of masculinity in public while seeking emotional support from women in private.”

The Oxford University study observed that men like socialising in groups, but women prefer to socialise one-on-one. It’s a setting more conducive to discussing fears, vulnerabilities—maybe even diagnoses or illnesses.

Which is one reason friendships with women are the perfect complement to male friendship. I have a spouse to confide in, and a few women friends I regularly meet one-to-one for lunch.

The dynamic is much different than getting together with the guys, as much as I love doing that.

Can heterosexual men and women be friends? Male-female friendship psychology

Man and woman enjoy male-female friendshipMale-female friendships tend to benefit men more than they do women

With my female friends, we talk about our children, about work, about the state of everyone’s health and our ageing parents. We have a glass of wine and talk for two hours and I emerge into the afternoon light, unburdened. I like to think they do, too.

There isn’t much research on male-female friendship, because as a widespread phenomenon it’s relatively recent. For centuries, men dominated the workplace and made friends there. Women were at home, meeting with their female friends.

But the research that does exist points out one obvious fact: men generally get more out of male-female friendships than women do. Women already have female friends with whom to share feelings and fears. All they gain from us is the male perspective, which may not always be uplifting.

And there are issues with heterosexual male-female friendships, chiefly sexual tension.

In a study published more than 20 years ago in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, women reported this as the least appealing aspect of having a male friend, while for men it was one of the main reasons to initiate a female friendship.

The research, while not new, supports the view made famous in When Harry Met Sally…, a cultural touchstone when it comes to male-female friendship.

In the 1989 film, Billy Crystal says to Meg Ryan, “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Ryan asks if that means men can only be friends with women they don’t find attractive. No, Crystal responds, we want to have sex with them, too.

So there are risks to male-female friendships, which can be compounded by jealous spouses (though not mine, thankfully). But the rewards of cross-sex friendships, as researchers call them, are significant, at least for men.

In these days of rampant mental health issues and strained health services, cross-sex friendships can complement male friendships, creating a place where men can be more vulnerable.

Cross-sex relationships also tend to decline as we age, though this is changing. Today’s elderly grew up in a world with clear lines between the sexes. Those lines have blurred with subsequent generations.

One study even showed men value their cross-sex relationships more than same-sex friendships (it was the opposite with women, for whom female friends remain more important).

I’m just really glad to have both. I can meet my female friends for a nice lunch, a glass of wine, an unburdening. Then head off to poker.

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