The first time I meet with a patient, I try to take a snapshot of what’s going on in his life. We find out about the relationships, family history, sexual history, and generally find out who they are. One of my last questions is “Who are the intimate friendships in your life – The guys who you can spill your guts to, cry with, hug, and turn to when things go wrong?” Tragically, I find fewer than 20% of the men I talk to have intimate male relationships to support them through life.
“The average American guy has one best friend; he is his college roommate, and he lives a thousand miles away.” I don’t know where I first heard that statement, and I can’t for the life of me find out who said it, but it is funny and sad at the same time. I have found that statement is fairly accurate for most of the men I talk to. We all have relationships like this. These are wonderful guys whom we love and we had a wonderful connection, and perhaps still do. But the truth is, these are not the relationships that sustain us on a day-to-day basis over time. These are wonderful relationships that pop in and out of our lives as circumstances allow. We may be able to pick right up where we left off, but that’s not the same as having a regular connection with someone who knows everything about us and we can be totally open and honest with.
In America, men are dying of loneliness. The Good Men Project is a wonderful organization that is having the “conversation no one else is having”. They offer dozens of stories and articles every month exploring masculinity in the 21st century. They recently published an article “The Friendless American Male” which talks about this problem. Give it a read.
Loneliness and isolation are known to have negative health effects. Lack of friendships also strain marriages. I often grimace inwardly when I hear someone say “oh I married my best friend”. The person we marry is ideally our lover, a life partner, perhaps the mother of our children, our housemate, and our social, economic, and spiritual, partner. That’s a lot of work to lay on one person’s shoulders. Yes we should ideally love to hang out and laugh and have a good time with our lover. But that doesn’t make them our best friend.
Asking this life partner and lover to be your best friend on top of everything else is an incredibly unrealistic expectation of emotional labor. I think in our society we confuse the definition of friendship and the lines get blurry. One wise therapist told me, “if we have a lover, we probably should not be having sex with our friend. If we’re having sex with our friend, they probably should be our lover – don’t confuse the two ”.
The bottom line is that men in our culture have a very difficult time establishing and maintaining intimate male relationships. As we get older, it becomes more and more difficult when circumstances don’t create connections automatically. In high school and college it was easy to make friends. If we end up with family, we sometimes meet other men through children’s activities and sports. But as we get older, those opportunities become fewer and fewer. I have many patients in the last third of their lives with lots of wonderful friendships from their past but nobody is actively sustaining them in day-to-day living.
Making and maintaining friendships is a lot of work. It’s a skill a lot of us don’t have. Sometimes I think it’s almost as if our culture doesn’t want men to have intimate male relationships. If you are one of these guys who finds himself lonelier and more isolated than he would like, take a look around and see what communities you can get involved in to make some friendships. I think organizations that do projects such as Habitat for Humanity, community theater groups, and community involvement in general are great places to find people with similar interests. Assume that most men are always looking to make more friends. It’s never too late to make new friendships – your health depends on it.