Keita Morimoto's Entrance (2017), courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery.

Society

The Epidemic of Isolation Among Young Men

Why are we so squeamish about male friendship?

BY


In 2017, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy identified the most common threat to public health that he had seen: not heart disease, diabetes, or cancer—but loneliness. Isolation and weak social connections, he wrote in Harvard Business Review, “are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.” Murthy was supported by a large body of research, culled from more than 200 studies involving more than 3 million subjects worldwide, that showed that we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. The culprits are manifold and include the fluidity of modern life (we move and change jobs more), the weakening of community institutions such as service organizations and faith groups, the gig economy, and our increasing reliance on social media.

Men, in particular, are affected by the loneliness epidemic and by attendant feelings of depression and despair. Click To Tweet

In their 2009 book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, a married couple who are both psychiatrists and professors at Harvard Medical School, observed that it was common for men to form closer bonds with their spouses at the expense of other social connections. And, over their lifespans, men tended to lose the connections they did have with male friends, depriving them of the inoculating effect of social ties—which have been shown to increase happiness, help people cope with trauma, and extend longevity. Olds and Schwartz noted that men don’t work as hard as women at maintaining friendships—and more importantly, they don’t work as hard at making new friends; women are generally more likely to replace their fading friendships with new ones.

One factor at play is that men are often reluctant to show vulnerability or ask for support, so they are less likely to reach out to other men when they’re struggling or to make an overture to a new acquaintance to deepen the friendship. Beginning in childhood, women are encouraged to be good listeners, social, communicative, and empathetic—all attributes required to make and maintain emotionally robust friendships. These same qualities aren’t emphasized to the same degree among boys and young men, despite the importance of social ties to children of all genders.

As early as preschool, friendships are crucial to children’s development and well-being. They create a sense of belonging and safety and help diminish stress. There’s also research showing that friendships play a role in children’s mental health. A 2010 longitudinal study followed about 230 elementary school students over two years and found that having just one friend helped prevent anxious, withdrawn children from developing full-blown depression. While children who are shy and have a sad affect tend to become even more withdrawn and sad as they enter adolescence, the students who had one friendship at any time during the study suffered less and even reported that their sadness declined. Researchers believe that friendship conferred psychological resilience.

Boys and young men genuinely want intimate connections with their peers, yet there is stigma attached to male vulnerability, starting very early, conveyed in implicit and explicit messages that equate tenderness and affection with weakness and femininity. And the sort of easy physical affection shared by girls and young women is often met with homophobia when the same sort of hugging and hand holding is displayed between boys and young men. In 2015, the national distress-support service Kids Help Phone launched a service called BroTalk, offering direct access to online and phone counsellors to teenage boys. This demographic is statistically much less likely than girls to talk about and seek help for mental and emotional health issues due to embarrassment and to gender stereotypes about self-sufficiency and self-reliance. In order to reach those boys, the helpline needed to target them directly.

Gender expectations and rules have a cost. Call it a masculinity tax. Platonic male intimacy and vulnerability require a rejection of homosexuality and a hostility toward anything that seems gay or feminine. Click To Tweet

This animosity toward queerness can be devastating for boys and young men who are gay, bisexual, gender nonconforming, and trans, resulting in bullying, violence, and isolation. Homophobia also carries a threat for straight and cisgender boys and young men, who fear being perceived as gay. Consider the seemingly benign term bromance. The cutesy portmanteau carries with it a certain discomfort around male emotional vulnerability and connection. Bromance celebrates same-sex fondness but does it with a smirk—as if two men caring for another needs to be explained or justified.

Given the importance of friendship for health and, more simply, happiness and pleasure, this unease with deep, loving male friendships has serious consequences. If we want to improve the outcomes for adults, we need to intervene where this disconnect begins—with boys.

Our squeamishness about male friendship is a historical anomaly: connections between men have been idealized throughout Western history and understood as foundational to society, culture, and art. The veneration of men’s friendships can be charted as far back as ancient Greece. Aristotle called the friend “a second self,” and the biblical David said his friend Jonathan’s love for him “was wonderful, passing the love of women.” From Renaissance Europe, there’s French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Friendship,” in which he describes his connection with a deceased friend as one with “souls mingling and blending with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them.”

And on it went through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at a time when women and men rarely socialized together outside supervised gatherings or family groups. This led people to turn to same-sex companions for emotional sustenance. All-male societies, such as professional guilds and workplaces, religious orders, universities and colleges, service clubs, sports teams, and the military, fostered adoring friendships, particularly among younger and unmarried men. Overt displays of affection and confessions of love between male friends were, until recently, common and unremarkable.

Then the culture shifted. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women began moving beyond their domestic duties; places of employment, schools, and political movements were no longer all-male environments. The sexes were increasingly integrated in public life. As the social spheres of women and men began to overlap, love-based marriage and the nuclear family displaced male friendships and male societies at the centre of culture and society.

At the same time, homosexuality became more visible as an identity. Same-sex desire and sex have existed throughout history and across all cultures, but until relatively recently, sexuality was understood to be something that shaped what you did, not something that defined who you were. In the West, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that homosexuality was described as a perversion and a threat to Victorian values. This fear about same-sex desire soon made platonic male friendships seem suspicious as well.

Taken together, these shifts helped forge a new definition of manhood that still exists today: the male as the opposite of the female, as the provider and head of the household, and as heterosexual. Under these new rules of masculinity, intimate same-sex connections became antithetical to being “a real man.”

Judging from media accounts, you’d imagine that all boys are hapless oafs, out of touch with their emotions. Stanford University psychologist Judy Chu found something very different during her two years spent observing the emotional and social development of a cohort of six boys.

In her early visits to their school, when the children were four, she noticed that the boys were really interested in playing guns. There were no toy guns at the school, but the boys built them out of blocks or used their fingers. This activity bothered the teachers, who banned the game, fearing it reflected violent impulses and aggression. Initially, Chu thought the same, but then she noticed that playing guns had a different meaning for the boys than it did for the adults. First of all, the boys weren’t angry or hostile. They were delighted to chase and be chased, to play stickup, and to pretend to shoot or be shot.

On closer observation, Chu understood that playing guns was primarily a “quick, effective and distinctly ‘masculine’ way for the boys to engage and bond with each other.” By the age of four, they’d already absorbed social messages that a gun is a “boy thing,” just like dress-up is a “girl thing.” Boys weren’t drawn to the game because of some inherent blood lust—rather, it gave them an opportunity to play with other boys. As they got older, their interest in guns waned and was replaced by Pokémon cards and sports. Though the toys and activities changed, the desire to bond and identify with other boys remained.

The six boys Chu observed had individual temperaments and preferences, and while they shared a number of common interests, they made deliberate choices about when to act masculine (by being tough or bossy, by making fun of girlie things, and so on) depending on their wishes and needs at any given moment. Boys who liked status and power, such as Mike and MinHaeng, were most likely to adhere to boy norms, including competitiveness, while others, such as Dan, a happy-go-lucky kid who played with girls as easily as he did with the boys, and Tony, a withdrawn kid dealing with the upheaval of his mom’s recent remarriage, seemed less interested in or less capable of fitting in with the boys’ clique. All of them tended to moderate their behaviour when adults were present, intuiting that they were seen as more troublesome and mischievous than girls. This goes back to earliest childhood: studies show that adults perceive boy babies as being more angry than girl babies and girl babies as being more social than boy ones.

Chu wrote up her findings in a 2014 book titled When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity—the title captures her central conclusion that the characteristics and qualities typically associated with boys are not universal or innate but rather are deliberate and calculated responses to social conditioning and cultural expectations. “The boys’ adaptions to norms of masculine behaviour was neither automatic nor inevitable,” she writes. Boys chose how much like “boys” they would be, some because that’s what suited their tastes and inclinations best, some because of a wish to belong to the group or conform to adult assumptions.

For nearly thirty years, first as a volunteer high-school counsellor and now as a professor of developmental psychology at New York University, Niobe Way has studied the emotional lives and friendships of boys. She estimates that she’s interviewed and talked with over a thousand pubescent and teenage boys, and they’ve told her, in language both vehement and tender, how important their friends are to them. Here’s how a fifteen-year-old named Justin characterized his relationship with another boy: “[My best friend and I] love each other…. 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.”

Though plenty of books and articles have come out in the last decade channelling worries about the state of young men and the “boy crisis,” few have examined the psychological and social well-being of this demographic. But from these boys comes a consistent call for emotional support and love. Take fourteen-year-old Kai, who told Way, “You need a friend or else you’d be depressed, you won’t be happy, you would try to kill yourself.” Or Benjamin, who, when asked what he likes about his best friend, said, “Most everything. His kindness. Everything. I know he cares for people, [like me], I know.”

Counter to the entrenched idea that boys are less communicative, and less capable of vulnerability and intimacy than girls, Way’s findings reveal that boys are equally so. “Boys have this enormous capacity for emotions, but somehow people ignore it,” she tells me. Of the boys Way has interviewed, she observes, “Their closest friendships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys valued their male friendships greatly and saw them as essential components to their health, not because their friends were worthy opponents in the competition for manhood but because they were able to share their thoughts and feelings—their deepest secrets—with these friends.”

Way also found that in early adolescence, at ages fourteen and fifteen, boys specifically seek out friendships with other boys rather than friendships with girls. Younger teenage boys cherish and protect their male friendships not because of similar, gendered interests in sports or video games but because of their shared emotional terrain. Way suggests that the preference for male friendships at this age “may be rooted in boys’ desire to connect to other boys right at the time their voices are cracking and their bodies feel awkward. They may feel too vulnerable to be vulnerable with those they do not perceive to be experiencing the same changes.”

This changes in older adolescence, when fears about being perceived as homosexual grow, and male friendships become less intense. At this age, boys become distrustful of one another and less comfortable expressing their feelings. Way says that as straight boys enter manhood, they are more self-conscious about same-sex intimacy and instead turn their attention to romantic relationships. And it’s not a coincidence, she says, that boys’ middle and late adolescence is also marked by an increased risk for depression and feelings of isolation; their now more-superficial friendships don’t provide them with the same degree of emotional sustenance as when they were younger. Way believes the “crisis of connection” that young men are experiencing is in no small part the result of being told that real men can’t be close to one another.

A couple of years back, I went to a Toronto Blue Jays game with a large group of middle-school boys (in grades six, seven, and eight) who were part of an after-school program that helped them build their social skills. I sat with several of the younger boys. They were rowdy but polite, full of jokes, and in perpetual motion. They draped their arms over each other’s shoulders, pressed against each other in a tight knot when I escorted them to the concession stand, and took endless goofy selfies—it was like chaperoning a litter of puppies.

In front of us in the stands were the older boys. They were, naturally, more restrained and mature than the younger kids, but they were also more self-conscious and wary. They were quieter, looked straight ahead at the game, and tended to hunch into themselves.

This awkwardness is part of adolescence, of course, and among this group of boys were young men who had been referred to the after-school program because they were anti-social or rebellious. But their self-consciousness also reflects the shift that Way identified in the boys she surveyed: the pull inward in middle adolescence.

How soon would this shift occur in the younger boys surrounding me? And what could be done to avoid it? I looked around at the younger boys, free in their bodies and at home in themselves, thrilled with this adventure, and delighting in being in each other’s company. Perhaps they’d been caught early enough by this program; they could retain this openness and emotional resilience. An epidemic of loneliness may await them, but they can be the generation to end it.

Adapted from Boys: What It Means To Become A Man by Rachel Giese ©2018. Published by HarperCollins.

Rachel Giese is a Toronto journalist and a former Walrus senior editor.

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