Kids talk a lot about how much they love their friends, regardless of their gender, according to psychologist Niobe Way. Boys aren’t afraid to confide in their friends, and they tend to be good at understanding one another’s emotional states.
It isn’t until the teenage years, research shows, that our understanding of friendship starts to change depending on our gender.
When Way interviewed teenagers about their friendships, she found that 15 or 16-year-old boys started saying they didn’t want or need friendships, a sentiment that wasn’t shared by girls. And that was the same age, she pointed out in her book “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” that boys’ suicide rate increased to four times the rate of girls.
In the U.S., straight white adult men have fewer friends than any other group in the country. And the friendships men have with each other often “provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships,” sociology professor Lisa Wade wrote in Salon. Loneliness is bad for everyone’s health, but it’s especially detrimental for men.
Watch: The newest episode of our series Navigating tackles the modern loneliness epidemic. Story continues after video.
So why is it so hard for men to make and maintain friendships?
Alexander Cameron, a Toronto-area psychotherapist who’s worked with men’s groups and says his clients are mostly men, told HuffPost Canada that strict gender stereotypes are a big part of the problem.
“It takes vulnerability to find and make friends, and vulnerability is something that as men, we’re taught isn’t a safe space to be in,” he said.
“When we get into that sort of mindset — ‘I just gotta white-knuckle through this’ — asking for help is weakness. It’s showing that I don’t know what I’m doing, or I don’t have control.”
In his practice, he’s constantly reminded of the massive significance of being understood. “Being able to connect and be heard and validated and understood plays a huge role in the positive outcomes of therapy. So I imagine it’s the same in our social life,” he said.
“If I don’t feel trust, if I don’t feel respect, if I don’t feel heard, then I’m not going to be able to listen to people’s advice.”
But men are less likely to reach out for help in, he says — and if their friend network isn’t big, that can exacerbate the problem.
Cameron says it has a lot to do with the patriarchal norms boys learn from a young age.
“Men are often taught socially to not be a burden, and that there’s strength and value in persevering to fight through the pain, à la sports heroes,” he said. “There’s so much: ‘Oh, this guy’s a legend, he finished the game on a broken foot.’
“Oh wow, that guy did something really hard and put himself at risk and potentially harmed himself further for the better of other people, and we’re going to celebrate that?
“We [have to think about,] how do we interrupt that, so that it’s a little bit easier to share that with our friends?”
Cameron, who plays rugby, says that sports have been a great way to form community in his own life. That shared experience forms bonds, and in rugby in particular, he says you learn quickly that you have to rely on other people. “Teammates are some of the closest relationships people can have,” he said.
Of course, the same unhelpful gender stereotypes that prevent many men from being vulnerable in the first place can sometimes seep into all-male spaces. “If the culture of this locker room isn’t one that I’m thrilled about, but I’m impressionable, or there’s too much risk in losing that social network, I might stay in it. And that might promote more negative behaviours or outlooks.”
Another conceivable limit to male friendships is that they can provide just enough support that people aren’t seeking out more substantial help.
Sometimes, “we can rely on [these friendships] too much and stop looking for support in other areas, or reach out for therapy or counselling when we might benefit from them,” Cameron said.
“It comes back to that idea of strength: ‘No, I have friends, I’m fine. I don’t need to talk to anyone. I’ve got Dave next door, and we go fishing, but maybe we don’t talk about anything.’ Sometimes it can interrupt going further into spaces that might allow for deeper growth, and deeper work.”
“If we can start to create more opportunities for men to connect, I think that would be beneficial for everyone,” he said. He was recently inspired when he came across the Australian group Waves of Wellness, which integrates mental health practices into surfing outings.
Vulnerability, whether it’s looking for new friends or seeking out therapy, is often conflated with weakness. But Cameron says it’s just the opposite.
“Men are afraid of being punished for being vulnerable,” he says. But “I think it takes tremendous strength and courage to show vulnerability, and to say, ‘Hey, here’s where I’m struggling.’”
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