Adult male friendships are the laboratory mice of our time.
They’re poked and prodded and researched, analyzed within an inch of their lives, held up to the light and studied, pinned to the table and studied some more.
Heterosexual, white men have the fewest friends of anyone in America, according to a 2006 analysis of two decades of data published in the American Sociological Review.
In 2017, the Boston Globe famously declared, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness,” based on research from Brigham Young University.
Slate once called friendship “American men’s hidden crisis.”
But are we doing much to help?
We talk a fair bit, as we should, about keeping boys and young men from feeling isolated and at odds with the world around them. Psychologist Michael C. Reichert’s upcoming book, “How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men” (TarcherPerigee) is fantastic.
But once they reach adulthood, men are largely on their own to figure out when and how to squeeze friendship into their lives, now that the teams and clubs and free time of their youth have largely dissipated.
Add in the fact that modern dads spend triple the time raising kids as dads in previous generations, according to Pew Research Center data, and the “hidden crisis” doesn’t seem so hidden.
But what about women? We also spend more time with our children than moms of previous generations, according to Pew Research Center data. We’ve also watched the teams and clubs and free time of our youth dissipate. And yet, we are, on average, finding more time than men for friendships.
I have a theory.
When women become parents, our friendships are woven into our parenting and our parenting is woven into our friendships.
We become friends with the parents of our kids’ friends. We encourage (force?) our kids to become friends with our friends’ kids. We email other moms about our kids’ team sign-ups and after-school clubs. We group-text playground meetups, and later, when our kids stop playing at playgrounds, we still group-text one another, but to meet for coffee or wine.
It has been this way historically. It remains this way today. (In many cases. Of course there are exceptions.)
Male friendships, on the other hand, have historically been built around time away from the kids. Poker night. Beers after work. Softball leagues. (In many cases. Of course there are exceptions.)
Weaving parenting into their friendships, friendships into their parenting wasn’t typically modeled to them by their dads. I know men who weave them together beautifully, but they are the exception, not the norm.
So men who want the richness and intimacy of a close, time-intensive relationship with their own kids can find that it comes at the expense of the richness and intimacy of close friendships.
I ran my theory by family therapist John Duffy. We do a weekly podcast together, “On Purpose: The Heidi Stevens and Dr. John Duffy podcast,” and male friendships sometimes come up.
He called my theory “really sound.” He has a doctorate, so I’m sticking with it.
But what, I asked him, can we do about it?
“I suspect there is a balance that men can strike here,” he said, “One that allows for plenty of time to connect with and parent their children, while also saving some time, here and there, to connect with adult male friends.”
The first step is acknowledging it’s important.
“Fostering male friendships tends to bring out the best in us men,” he said. “We are more connected, available, playful and emotionally present in our relationships. Second, we are modeling positive, mutually beneficial adult relationships for our children. No downside there.”
Duffy suggests his fellow guys schedule friend time the same way they would commitments for work or parenting.
“I think protecting this guy time on a family calendar, as sacred as any other family-related time, could only prove helpful here,” he said. “Men I know make this time superfluous and negotiable, instead of setting it in stone. As a result, months can pass between connecting with pals.”
My suggestion, to my fellow moms, is to recognize the value in these friendships and encourage their cultivation.
“I find that we men, myself included, need the support of our friends just as the women in our lives need the support of theirs,” Duffy told me. “But we are often too stingy with our time and energy to offer it to each other. There is a stoicism we bring to these relationships that is wholly unnecessary. The more emotionally available we are to each other, the richer our lives.”
Strikes me as a winning formula.