Trent and Mike from “Swingers.” Evan and Seth from “Superbad.” The entire crew from “The Hangover” — even Alan.
Hollywood portrays male friendships as effortless. Lifelong bonds are formed through drunken shenanigans, school days, a shared workplace, or the pursuit of female companionship.
But most guys are a long way from the plentiful and meaningful platonic connections of TV shows and movies.
In the real world, scientific and anecdotal research suggests many men struggle to maintain friendships compared to their female counterparts, especially as they age past their school days.
As an older millennial, I’m now closer to 40 than 18. When I want to talk about something, I often handle it by scrolling through my contacts list for a few seconds to decide who to reach out to, then locking my phone and going back to the book I’m currently reading.
Is there a reason us men don’t naturally take to forming — then maintaining — bonds with other guys? According to science, yes.
4 scientific reasons men have a hard time maintaining friendships
1. Men tend to bond around experiences, not talking about feelings
Dr. Geoffrey Greif, sociologist and author of “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships,” illuminates this contrast by describing male friendships as “shoulder to shoulder,” while female connections are “face to face.”
Guys form bonds by playing or watching sports, going to concerts, or working together. Women connect by talking about their feelings.
As we get older and take on more responsibilities at work and home, men typically have less time for these shared activities, which can be isolating.
2. Guys aren’t prone to sharing
If men don’t have time for experiences, why not pick up the phone to catch up with their buds? Because they also don’t have the desire.
A study of 2,000 children and adolescents found that males were more likely to view talking about their problems as “weird” and “a waste of time.” Researchers believe this attitude stays with them as they mature, like many other childhood traits. This may be especially true in older generations with more traditional perspectives on masculinity.
3. Males prioritize work and marriage
In the 1980s, two Boston-based psychiatrists studied the contemporary impact of loneliness and social exclusion in the United States. They found it much more likely for men to sacrifice friendships to focus on their marriages and careers.
“The men were so caught up in working, building their careers and being more involved with their children... something had to give, and what gave was connection with male friends,” Dr. Schwartz told The New York Times.
I’ve always tried to strike a fair balance between my friends and my romantic relationship, but it’s certainly a challenge. I’ve forced many smiles on the receiving end of “You’re so whipped!” jokes.
4. Our brains may not be wired for as much connection
A 2014 study found that males had stronger neural connections in the parts of the brain responsible for perception and action, while females had better connectivity along the neural pathways linking analytics to intuition — two areas used heavily in interpersonal connection.
Before this study, differences in these kinds of neural pathways had never been highlighted among such a large sample size (949 individuals).
Why is this a big deal?
Because having friends is a critical component of a healthy life, for both men and women. Studies show that placing value on friendships is more strongly connected to good health and well-being than valuing family ties. People with more social connections are happier and healthier in a host of ways, such as the following:
- lower blood pressure
- lower body mass index (BMI)
- less likely to experience depression
- live up to 22 percent longer
Yet modern men are neglecting friendships. Between 1985 and 2004, researchers discovered the number of people Americans called “confidants” fell by almost one-third. A majority of this drop-off was in non-kin relationships. Mens' average number of friends dropped by 44 percent.
The same study found that 25 percent of Americans hadn’t talked to anyone about something important to them in six months.
I believe the combination of cultural expectations of masculinity, our natural brain chemistry, and an inclination toward professional growth have all blended together to form a dangerous cocktail of isolation for the modern man.
The trend is clear: Many men don’t have enough friends, and it could be endangering their physical and mental health.
Can the trend be reversed?
The data up to this point may be bleak, but I think there’s reason to be optimistic.
I believe much of the positive change in male friendships will be driven by the maturation of millennials.
Though we’re often associated with excessive texting and lavish avocado toast habits, Generation Y is also responsible for an increase in empathy and awareness of feelings. It’s why almost 9 in 10 say their motivation at work is strongly connected to the emotional intelligence of company leadership.
Technology is another factor that helps people connect. Sure, the internet is a double-edged sword — its erosion of our attention spans and promotion of comparison are well-documented.
But digital connectivity has also made it easier than ever before to form relationships, especially for younger guys.
In fact, 61 percent of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 have made a friend online, found a Pew national survey. Community sites like Meetup, which boasts tens of millions of members, allow people to find shared interests online and then take those friendships offline — the best of both worlds.
That isn’t to say you can’t move online friends offline. I have.
Right before I started eighth grade, my family moved from central New Jersey to Virginia Beach. Moving 300 miles south into an unfamiliar community where I was only one of a handful of students with brown skin put the nail in the coffin of my social life. I retreated into video games, sometimes playing eight hours a day.
Looking back on that time, the gameplay wasn’t what kept me hooked: It was the people. I joined a clan (like an intramural sports team for gamers), and when we weren’t playing, we’d hang out in our shared chat channel, talking about school, relationships, and growing up.
I sometimes wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d gone the traditional route in my teens, but I don’t regret any of it. It’s been years since I played a video game with any kind of consistency, but I still talk to a few of the friends I met online over 10 years ago. One of them is coming to my wedding.
How guys can maintain friendships
Before diving into some helpful tactics, it’s worth mentioning that these patterns don’t apply to all males. A close friend of mine has moved to a new city three times in the last five years. When I mentioned the subject of this piece, he reacted incredulously, “People really struggle with that?”
He’s been able to create networks in part from a love of running, which he’s used as a springboard to new relationships. This strategy is how most guys form and keep healthy friendships: bonding over common interests and activities. Picking up a new hobby opens you up to an entirely new population of potential friends.
I’ve found the key here is to choose something you like first, then connect with people from there. In my case, hitting the gym and playing basketball a few times a week has helped. I don’t relate well to everyone on the court, but being active with others does create a noticeable camaraderie that boosts my mood and motivates me to work out.
Here are few other ways to make and keep friends:
- Make it a habit. Like exercising or making your bed, the act of maintaining friendships is much easier when you do it regularly. A cousin told me he picks five old friends he wants to reconnect with every week and makes it a point to text them. Former President Bill Clinton reportedly adopted a similar strategy to create a huge network that helped him win the White House.
- Share yourself. Don’t shy away from opening up to your friends, even if you never have before. You don’t have to unveil your deepest secrets, but even brief mentions of feelings of happiness, anger, or confusion can help you relate better to your guy friends. It doesn’t always have to be about personal feelings, either. I try to check in with friends about big stories in the media or sports. If it involves a team or player that one of my friends or acquaintances likes, I’ll reach out to exchange reactions. The reconnection flows naturally from there.
- Get married. Lots of research says marriage can tank a guy’s platonic relationships, but some people actually see an inverse effect. Dr. Todd Kashdan writes married men get a “free pass” to a rich social life. Personally, I’ve enjoyed forming friendships with several of my fiancée’s friends over shared interests. And while kids may require lots of time and energy, what better way to bond with another guy than the experience of being a father? (Of course, don’t get married or have kids just to enhance your friendships!)
If you make a conscious, consistent effort to form new friendships and nurture the ones you have, it’s possible to have a rewarding, healthy social life as a man — at any age. You’ll also be happier and healthier for it.
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Raj is a consultant and freelance writer specializing in digital marketing, fitness, and sports. He helps businesses plan, create, and distribute content that generates leads. Raj lives in the Washington, D.C., area where he enjoys basketball and strength training in his free time. Follow him on Twitter.