Friendships are an important part of a healthy life, but research shows men struggle to keep them.
Men often have fewer close friends as they age, experts say, which directly impacts their mental well-being.
According to a 2016 survey by U.K.’s Movember organization, men lack “social connectedness.” The survey found one in 10 men couldn’t recall the last time they made contact with their friends, and older men were at greater risk of social isolation.
What’s more, over half of the men surveyed reported having two or less friends they would discuss “a serious topic” with, and 19 per cent of men over 55 said they lacked a close friend — period.
“Men tend to not have deep friendships in the way that many women do, which denies them the opportunity to share deeply personal and emotionally sensitive information with others,” said John Ogrodniczuk, the director of the University of British Columbia’s psychotherapy program and founder of men’s depression resource HeadsUpGuy.
“Because of this, many men can end up feeling lonely, even though they may indicate that they have friends in their lives. In fact, after surveying more than 5,000 men who had visited HeadsUpGuys, we learned that loneliness is one of the most frequent stressors in men’s lives.”
Why friends are important
A lack of close friendships can negatively affect not only men’s mental health, but overall well-being, says Dr. Ari Zaretsky, the psychiatrist-in-chief at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
“Having a social support system has been shown to promote resilience, not only for mental illness but even for physical illness,” Zaretsky said.
Research also shows that social interactions have a positive effect on life satisfaction.
A recent study on the role of friends found that good-quality friendships help people feel supported. When people have less frequent social interactions, researchers found, they reported lower life satisfaction.
Joshua Beharry, a B.C.-based mental health advocate and project coordinator at HeadsUpGuys, experienced this first-hand. When he was dealing with severe depression 10 years ago, he hid his symptoms from his friends.
He believed he could handle his mental health issues on his own, even as his condition worsened.
“This led me to basically waiting until I was so sick that I couldn’t hide my symptoms anymore,” Beharry said.
Beharry says his friends realized something was wrong when he kept cancelling plans and became increasingly withdrawn. Once he admitted he was struggling with depression and sought treatment, his friends were supportive.
“Instead of having to continue to hide how sick I was from my friends, I could finally be open with them,” Beharry said.
“They were much more supportive and understanding than I had expected, asking lots of questions about what I was going through and what they could do to help.”
This is not surprising to Zaretsky, who says social support is key to dealing with mental health issues like depression.
While Zaretsky believes in a comprehensive approach when it comes to tackling mental health issues — which can include medication and psychotherapy — friendships are an integral part of the recovery process.
And you don’t need a large group of friends to notice the benefits, Ogrodniczuk points out. The amount of friends one has is less important than the quality of those friendships.
“Strength is demonstrated by actually allowing yourself to be vulnerable,” Ogrodniczuk said.
“It’s often a very scary thing for many men, but when they actually do open up to others, they find that they deepen their relationships and have a stronger sense of self.”
Why men may have fewer friends
There are a few reasons men may have fewer friendships — especially as they age.
When men get into romantic partnerships, they often become inclined to lean on their spouse for emotional support and therefore put less emphasis on maintaining outside friendships.
“A lot of guys recognize that friendships are important, but don’t make the maintenance of such relationships a priority in their lives, instead prioritizing other things like work and family,” Ogrodniczuk said.
Men may also rely on their partner’s social network, meaning should a separation occur, they are left with fewer close relationships.
Notions of masculinity are also factors. Experts say it’s common for men to view mental health struggles as signs of weakness, and avoid talking to friends about problems as a result.
Ogrodniczuk says the influence of “masculine socialization” can cause men to doubt what is “permissible” in friendships. For example, men may question whether or not it is OK to tell a friend they need help or open up to them about something serious.
This can lead to more surface-level friendships or acquaintances rather than deep, meaningful friendships. Casual friendships may be harder to maintain, too, experts say.
Zaretsky echoes this, adding when men do speak about their issues with others, they’re often self-conscious.
“They sometimes do it reluctantly,” he explained, “and I think that they have difficulty many times with talking about feelings and thoughts.”
How can men improve friendships
So how can more men move past these factors and develop meaningful connections? In order to improve and maintain friendships, men need to recognize the importance of close relationships and make them a priority, Ogrodniczuk said.
If a man is struggling with mental health issues, Ogrodniczuk suggests starting a conversation with someone they trust.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as saying something like, ‘I’ve been feeling like sh-t lately and I’m not really sure what’s going on. Can I run some things by you to get your take on them?'” he said.
Plus, Beharry says stigma around mental health issues is slowly eroding, and there’s less taboo around talking about struggles today than there was 10 years ago.
“There are a lot of male celebrities and athletes who have spoken out about depression as well, which I think goes a long way in opening up important conversations and helping to shed ideas that associate mental health issues with weakness,” he added.
Beharry now understands the benefit of opening up.
He says since being upfront about his mental health struggles, more men have reached out to him with similar experiences, too.
“Some people are better at listening and others are better at helping you out with tasks and keeping up with life,” he said.
“If the first person you talk to doesn’t really help, don’t get discouraged and shut down more; keep reaching out and building supports.”