Male friendships come easy for kids.
Recently, I asked a group of 3rd grader boys, “Why is it important to have friends?” The two responses I remember most are:
- “Because you can do stuff with them.”
- “So you are not lonely.”
They got it. Boys do stuff with each other, so they don’t get lonely.
Is there more to it?
Yes. “Doing stuff” is fundamentally a critical part of male friendships that kids get and adults forget. Friends are also key to social and emotional health that boys abandon as they enter adulthood.
Because of this: men are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness.
Yes, isolation, not smoking or drinking, is the most vital aspect of men’s health today.
Boys understand they can trust and confide in their friends into early teenage years. Later in adolescence, boys form deeply engaged friendships in their peer groups. And finally, as adults, men find themselves barely holding onto “rusty” friendships and no longer making new friends.
As men settle into their lives, two things happen:
- They stop nurturing existing friendships
- They stop making new friends
Why is this a problem? A huge benefit of having friendships is that we live healthier, longer lives.
To say that another way: men are dying prematurely because we don’t have friends.
Men Who Are Socially Isolated Die Early
Neither drinking or smoking are the biggest threat to men’s health. It’s not obesity either. It’s loneliness.
While there are tons of studies on this topic and books like The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, I’m challenging you to look into your own life for anecdotal evidence. Ask yourself for these following questions:
- If you or your family were in danger and your girlfriend, wife, or doctor asked you who to call, what would your answer be?
- What if that guy was busy? Who would be second on your list?
- And who would be third?
Most men struggle to name one guy, let alone three.
You should use this as a strong suggestion, a call to “do something” about it in your own life.
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Gone or the days you can walk up to some random kid at the playground and say, “Hey you want to be my friend,” or, “Hey, I bet you can’t do this.”
The typical adult guy has demands of work and family that leave friendships at the wayside either struggling to be maintained or built with age.
I’m not talking about your co-workers you grab a beer with after work, before coming home. Or the one guy you talk to after church because your wives or kids are friends.
I’m talking about real, deep connections with other men who know you well ( today, not as you were in high school or college).
Again, men don’t have real friends and it’s a real problem.
The likelihood of increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s, even when corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like proper exercising and healthy eating, has been linked to loneliness.
Isolation has been shown to be as much of a risk factor as smoking in the long term.
A 2015 study by Brigham Young University, compiled data from 3.5 million people over 35 years and found premature death rose by 26% to 32% for people who fell into the categories of:
- Living on their own
When you look at the United States, you’ll see about one-third of people 65 or older live by themselves. By 85 years of age, that number jumps to about 50%.
After you do the math – you can understand why Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General has declared loneliness a public health epidemic.
More proof is found in the 2010 survey published by the AARP that showed 1 in 3 men 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. Only one decade prior, that number just 1 in 5 men.
The weight of this epidemic cost men (and the people who love them) a nearly 50% increase in suicide among men 50 and older between 1999 and 2010.
The New York Times reported that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000 while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”
“What do your closest friends mean to you?”
If you are courageous enough to ask the question for self-reflection, you may open Pandora’s Box.
Boys are taught how to experience feelings and emotions at an early age.
A professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and director of the Ph.D. program in Developmental Psychology, Niobe Way, started asking teenage boys the question: What do your closest friends mean to you?
The results in her book, Deep Secret, illuminate how much we wrongly assumed about male friendships.
Today, reflecting on my closest friendships of the past I’m reminded of a energized, loving boy who yearned to connect with other boys across class, race, and culture.
If I’m honest, my teenage would not use the word “love” to express my feelings about these friendships. On the contrary, Way found, universally, black and white, rich and poor boys declared love for their closest friends. They proudly used the word “love” too.
A 15-year-old boy, Justin, told Way:
“[My best friend and I] love each other…that’s it …you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person… and that is all that should be important in our friendship…I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.”
Quotes like these and what Way found interviewing boys throughout adolescence for about 20 years tells a different story than culture presents.
Popular culture teaches us that boys need activity, are emotionally illiterate and should be independent. Picture the lone cowboy riding into town to take care of business and riding off into the sunset when he’s done. Strong, silent type men are the picture of masculinity.
If you too listened to the Stephen Mansfield on the Art of Manliness podcast like me, you might be thinking, “Wait, he says men don’t need to talk, they need to do stuff.” And you’d be right.
But as boys enter manhood, there’s a shift: they do begin to talk less.
In less than four years, from freshman to senior year, Justin’s view on how his friendships have changed is summed up:
“I don’t know, maybe, not a lot, but I guess that best friends become close friends. So that’s basically the only thing that changed. It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends, and then general friends become acquaintances. So they just… If there’s distance whether it’s, I don’t know, natural or whatever. You can say that, but it just happens that way.”
So, the problem isn’t just that they talk less – they start doing less stuff too.
By the age of 19, boys are already struggling to nurture relationships they once considered as “best.” As Justin put it “best” friends become “close” friends and then “general” before moving to “acquaintances.”
Why does it happen? It is not so much nature as it is nurture. In this case, boys are being fed unhealthy messages about what it means to be a man.
Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box
The “man box” is one of the main reasons that boys and men bully their peers, gay bash and fail at friendship. Showcasing masculinity to show the world you are in in the box.
I teach kids healthy ways to manage their stress. After the full delivery of my mindfulness program, I identify students who may need an intervention. The intervention is an opportunity to practice mindfulness techniques like targeted breathing exercises in a safe, more engaged environment.
Given the opportunity, most boys do it.
But one boy, when asked why he, “…just [couldn’t] do it” replied, “It’s pussy shit.” And when I asked him who taught him that, he said it was his mother.
Now listen, I’m not getting on single mothers. I was raised by a strong, single mother. While I can’t remember any specific lessons about what it mean to be a man coming from her, I’m sure they were there.
There is a narrow set of cultural rules regarding masculinity in which boys and men are expected to perform.
For this one student, men didn’t handle their stress by breathing. “Men fight,” he told me.
There are various reasons why men have a hard time with friendships as they age. I’ve found three issues at the foundation of this crisis:
- The paradox of holding onto masculinity and shunning femininity
- The endless pursuit of success
All boys know this rule: don’t act like a girl. To be criticized by your peers for “acting like a girl” is one of the worst moments for a boy. Understandably, children can be mean. What’s not acceptable is that this is still true for men.
I’m sure you know a good number of insults men use against each other that are synonymous with femininity like:
As boys, we are taught to disassociate with anything feminine. Early on this allows for us to cultivate intimate friendships with other males. Paradoxically, the same social agreement that makes boys feel stronger, smarter, and better than girls as children, is literally killing men.
The cost of being a man is restricting our ability to be human. What good is the success is if you are all alone? Humans are made to connect with other people. If intimacy or connection is thought of as feminine, it explains at least part of the reason why men have a hard time with friendship.
If you think the love of a partner is enough – you’re wrong.
“In a six-year study of 736 middle-aged men, attachment to a single person (almost always a spouse) did NOT lower the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, whereas having a strong social support network did.”
Sorry ladies. It’s not you, it’s us.
Men, your woman literally can’t be your (only) best friend.
Men Are Competing In Vain
As kids, competing with other boys is at the core of friendships. As an adult, competition is what keeps men apart.
Look at it like this from a typical American male perspective:
I’m competing for real women. To get a real lady, I need to be a man (masculine). I’m strong for my woman (and family). Women like strong men. So, I can’t be emotional (talk about my emotions and feelings). Women don’t like weak (emotional) men. I can’t be soft (open and vulnerable) in front of my friends (or peer group).
And that’s just competition among men as it pertains to women.
Men are in competition for everything. The job, the car, the house, etc.
This is an opportunity for American men to turn our backs on the social construct of what it means to be a man in America – competition. Cooperation amongst men is also needed for men to fully express their humanness.
There is a social and emotional fulfillment that our girlfriends, wives, or other women in our lives can’t fulfill.
You need real, deep, meaningful relationships with other men.
Not In A Homosexual Way
That’s what that phrase means – “not in a homosexual way.”
The East Harlem rapper Cam’ron birthed the slang in the early 90s along with the Diplomats. Then Lil’ Wayne took it mainstream tossing the phrase “no homo” throughout cameos, mixtapes, and Tha Carter III LP (2008’s best-selling album).
In 2004, AIDS was a leading cause of death for African-Americans ages 25 to 44. J.L. King exposed a deep culture among black men in On the Down Low. A “down-low brother” is a term used by black people to describe a married man who sleeps with other men. This man, invisible, disease carrying man became the boogeyman.
The rise, or unveiling, of the “down low brother”, coincided with hip-hop’s use of the term “no homo”.
Rappers used the phrase to put distance between themselves and homosexuality. I’m not going to argue whether the culture is or is not becoming more acceptable place for the LGBTQ community.
What I am saying is culture, specifically hip-hop in this case, in America may highlight one cause of why young men abandon friendship at a critical moment in development.
By adolescence, boys claim “no homo” over and over if any statement even considered to be intimate.
On the one hand, we are yearning for intimacy, yet on the other, we’ve been trained to fear it. So instead, men choose surface level relationships (with women too), and other times isolation. We sleepwalk through life too scared to embrace other because we fear not being a real man.
This is profound. If this seems dark, it’s because it’s operating on a subconscious level. With any virus, it’s the software, not the hardware, that is infected. Just as a virus can be wiped, or human values can be restored. We need a new program. A new code of messaging and modeling what it means to be a noble man.
Build A Band of Brothers
I’m not talking about the popular television show, originally written by Steven E. Ambrose, that turned into an HBO mini-series.
In a BOB, there is something more than just friendship. It’s not a group of rowdy guys cheering for their favorite team over drinks. It’s also not a prayer group at a church or an accountability group. While both are great, they are not a “band of brothers” as Stephen Mansfield, New York Times bestselling author of Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men sees it. Along with books, he’s got multiple interviews on podcasts like the Art of Manliness where he talks about BOB.
Take an accountability group for example. It calls for a man to:
- Figure out what’s wrong with them
- Drive across town to meet up
- Tell other people what he’s found out
There’s a lot of assumptions here:
- self-identification of problems
- honesty with themselves and others
- correct self-diagnosis
- showing up
A band of brothers is a group of men that do life together. The only intention of the group is doing whatever it take to make each other become better men.
At its heart is a “free fire zone.” It’s not a formal, written contract. It’s more similar to what you’d see in any pick-up game of basketball. Men will start yelling at each other to make each other better.
The coaching culture is something a lot of men are used to and respond well to when used in the context of a team.
The free fire zone is taking casual relationships to the next level because of an openness and responsibility to say what’s needed to make the individual better.
There’s a commitment to the idea of what noble manhood means.
I can’t tell you what your BOB would look like, but here’s what I gathered from a few interviews with Mansfield:
More is “caught than taught.”
Talking is fine. Everyone, even men need to talk about their feelings and emotions. But, what men are missing is action. Your BOB needs to do stuff.
Find people who are better than you.
We’ve all heard the advice, “if you the smartest guy in the room – find another room.” This applies to a BOB. Everyone should be able to bring knowledge or skill to the table. It gives one person the honor of being a leader and the rest of the group the humility of following.
Firm but loving honest.
Who can call you out on your shit? And not just that – but in a way that you will actually listen – your BOB. No man can see himself as other do. This is where having a group of trusted men you know have your best interest in mind helps.
Five guys is a good number.
Not the restaurant either. The number of starters on a basketball team. There is no set number of guys in a BOB, but five is good because it’s an odd number, it’s not too big or small, and ties back into doing stuff (like having a basketball team).
There’s no one way to do this.
I’m sure if when you do your homework listening to and reading information about what it takes to be a man and having adult friendships, you are going to find thousands of different ways to have your own BOB.
When you do – please share what you’ve learned with me.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
How Do You Start Your Own Band of Brothers
You have to start “turning” men.
Take your regular friendships and turn them towards the themes of what it means to be a noble man.
In a conversation, you can suggest a good book you’ve read, a bookmarked website, or a speaker you’ve seen. If they guy is a good candidate, he’ll come back to you and speak about what resonated with him. It may be a realization about money, health, and fitness, family or a variety of other topics.
Eventually, somebody humbles himself and honors something in the other man.
For example, I have a friend who is a great dresser. He doesn’t over do it, but it’s obvious he knows how to put together a wardrobe. So, I asked him for any tips and tricks about my own closet. He almost immediately lent me a book about men’s fashion.
In turn, he asked me about stretching and mobility. I sent him my movement video series and gave him a foam roller.
Just like that – there were two of us in our band of brothers.
If you’re still reading this, you must find some value in my words. Thank you for honoring me in this way.
Know that I appreciate you for taking the time to read this post.
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