Men struggle with making friends. You already likely know this, if only anecdotally: just count the number of men drinking alone in any pub in the country. Evidently, social scientists are aware of this. One in three guys, according to recent research by the mental health organization Movember, may not have any close pals. And I can attest to this since, in the summer of 2020, when I was preparing to pop the question to my love Naomi, I discovered I lacked a best man.
I don’t look like a lonely person. I was energetic, 33 years old, and always willing to pay my round, but I had no pals. And I felt bad about it. I found myself suddenly that lonesome student sitting in the school cafeteria. A Billy No-Mates, I was. This sobering realization inspired me to set out on a mission not only to play the part but also to find out what goes wrong for men like me. What can we do to address it? There are, as I found out, three basic theories.
“Due to the culture you were raised in, you don’t have buddies to refer to as your best man. Niobe Way, a psychologist at New York University who has devoted her career to examining the friendships of boys and men, is one of many academics I spoke to who blamed so-called “toxic masculinity,” saying that it has nothing to do with how you are naturally. According to her, the reason why men have trouble making friends is because they have been socialized into a “man box” of harmful gender standards that prevent closeness.
But wait, I’m not poisonous, am I? Toxic masculinity, in my opinion, referred to other males, including evildoers like Harvey Weinstein, psychopathic tech bros, and insignificant Tory MPs. not old little me. Naomi comforted, “I wouldn’t say you’re toxic. But being with guys makes you quite different. Do you realize that?
I realized that, yes, perhaps I was a little odd when it came to how I interacted with the guys in my life. My body and heart occasionally tense irrationally; it feels like a boa constrictor of inherited awkwardness. I simply stand there helpless and helpless whenever a man tries to hug me, wanting desperately that it would all end like a dog being washed against its will. After around seven pints is the only time I’ve ever admitted to a guy buddy that I even slightly like him. And I never commend a guy without also making a joke about it. It distances me from the emotion it seems to be conveying and adds some ambiguity. What do I actually feel is a question that gets raised.
Ah, feelings, yes. There isn’t any meaningful teaching or incentive for guys to build a vocabulary of intimacy, according to Fredric Rabinowitz, a psychologist at the University of Redlands in California who is well known for his work with men’s organizations. To change that, he advised me to see a therapist. I soon discovered that I had honed a variety of useful strategies to steer clear of any kind of in-depth conversation with “the boys”. The ominous specter of banter loomed large—that particularly male mode of communication, that jazz of casual cruelty, that aggressive manner of taking up space.
My therapist revealed this hometruth to me four months into our therapy relationship: “You have an aura that you are not open or connected. There is a separation. one block. You may be funny, but people won’t feel comfortable sharing their most private information with you. They get the impression that you can’t return it. So maybe it makes sense that you don’t have many close buddies. She was wrong, sadly. The only emotional show I felt safe making was through laughter. Everything was banter, and banter was everything. It turns out that the psychologists had a point.
But something kept bugging me. Male loneliness is not as prevalent as we are frequently lead to assume. According to the data, men have reportedly had trouble maintaining friendships for a very long period, possibly even as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, when research on this topic first started. If toxic masculinity is the root of men’s issues, then friendships between men ought to have improved by now. Since then, it would be difficult to claim that the kinds of constrictive masculine standards the psychologists warned me about haven’t loosened. Does this not imply that there is another issue at hand? Something in men’s biology, just say it gently.
There is, according to Dr. Robin Dunbar, a pioneer in the study of friendship and an evolutionary anthropologist. He contends that men are innately less likely to form close relationships than women are. Dunbar said to me that the entirely different ways that men and women operate in the social sphere had become quite evident over the past ten years.
The difference between the social styles of men and women is frequently described as “face-to-face” vs “side-by-side”. Women prefer one-on-one encounters that center on talking and frank emotional disclosure when they interact with others in person. Men, on the other hand, prefer to hang out in groups and socialize side by side. They display their intimacy by engaging in activities such as five-a-side football, fishing, mountain climbing, and other activities together. Therefore, the centerpiece of the social feast for males is activity.
Indeed, stoic, shoulder-to-shoulder daring-do was idolized as the pinnacle of brotherhood in the fabled male friendships of antiquity, such as Achilles and Patroclus, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Maverick and Goose. Not any longer, though. According to some social scientists, closeness has been reinterpreted in the modern age to mean essentially opening up emotionally. As a result, strangely “masculine” sorts of closeness have either vanished from view for us—making assumptions about the kinds of intimacy men don’t share—or are even stigmatized as abnormal.
For instance, consider banter. Men can be really cruel to one another, yes. However, violence is frequently used to achieve intimacy rather than as its adversary. Although it bares teeth, laughing at the situation undervalues its complexity. It fails to take into account the hallowed environment of friendship, where there is an unspoken understanding that we don’t really believe or feel what we claim to believe or feel. Everyone is in on the joke, even though there is a culprit and a victim. When it is realized, morbid banter becomes a strange kind of love. It communicates “I know you” and “I know you trust that I’m not being harsh, that I have your permission, and that we’re playing a game,” in a true sense.
It was intriguing because Dunbar’s theory suggested that I had been approaching my best-man challenge from the wrong angle. The psychologists had advised me to work on strengthening my one-on-one relationships with the guys in my life, but perhaps I should instead concentrate on reestablishing the environments in which male friendships take place. on what we could accomplish as a team. In my adult life, these habitats have been destroyed without being rebuilt. My “best-man” quest ended up being a rewilding initiative.
The third theory on why men struggle with friendship is that sharing and organizing events requires a lot of time. As you reach your late 20s, time becomes increasingly short as your career, relationship, and possibly children become more important. Your friends are the first thing to be cut from your to-do list. Of course, women in middle age also experience this same shortage of time. However, despite data showing that both men’s and women’s social networks decline with age, men’s do so considerably more quickly. How could that be?
It’s actually quite simple: women make more of an effort to keep up their friendships, whereas males tend to let theirs wither and co-opt their partner’s. Men don’t have pals, as the American stand-up comedian John Mulaney once observed. Their friends’ women have husbands, and they have wives. Men treat the ladies in their lives as if they were their own little human resources department. If men were sincere, they would say, “This is Claudia, my wife and head of people operations at Geoff Limited,” while introducing their spouse at weddings.
The good news is that effort is a simple problem to address, unlike years of upbringing or the outcome of our genes. When I informed a friend of a friend about my quest one evening, he responded, “My friends nickname me the Sherpa because I organize everything.” But I wouldn’t see them if I didn’t do that. My new motto would be “Be the Sherpa.” a straightforward strategy that gave my social life new life. And to answer your question, yes, I did find a best man.
Samuel Johnson once remarked, “A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in regular repair.” The owner’s manual isn’t as difficult to understand as I initially believed.