(CNN) — Friendships aren’t limited to the people you sit with on the school bus or play on your childhood baseball team with, but are an essential component of the human experience, experts say.
But making and keeping deep, meaningful friendships into adulthood is hard, especially for men, according to research.
Less than half of men say they are satisfied with their friendships, and just 1 in 5 said they have received emotional support from a friend in the past week, compared with 4 in 10 women, according to a 2021 survey from the Survey Center on American Life.
The decline in friendships between men begins in the middle and late teens and sharpens in adulthood, according to Judy Yi-Chung Chu, who teaches a class on adolescent psychological development at Stanford University. in California. And those who are friends with other men say they tend to have lower levels of emotional intimacy than women report.
“Kids don’t start out emotionally disconnected, they become emotionally disconnected,” says Dr. Niobe Way, a researcher and professor of Applied Psychology at New York University.
All human beings have the innate capacity and desire to establish close and emotionally intimate relationships with others. We need these relationships to survive as babies and then to thrive as we grow older, Chu said.
Research has shown that close friendships protect our mental and physical health, he added. And men who prioritize those relationships are battling one of the most damaging things to human health: loneliness, said Dr. Frank Sileo, a Ridgewood, New Jersey-based psychologist.
“What (men) risk losing is this feeling of not being alone in the world or not alone in their experience,” Sileo said. Research has shown that “disclosure of emotional distress improves (men’s) emotional well-being, increases feelings of being understood, and results in fewer reports of loneliness,” he added.
Just as many men strive to eat right, exercise, succeed in their careers and raise their children, men should prioritize developing their friendships as adults, she said.
Why is so difficult
When Sileo began researching male friendships in 1995, many participants took it for granted that his survey was about homosexuality, he said. Those stereotypes that male ties would be or become sexual in nature are inaccurate, but they did reveal some of the factors that may be holding some men back from developing deep friendships, he added.
The assumptions 27 years later may be different, but societal pressures continue to make it difficult for men to express the vulnerability and intimacy necessary for close friendships, Sileo said.
We are all born with two sides of ourselves: the hard side that is stoic and independent, and the soft side that is vulnerable and interdependent, said Way, author of “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection“.
The hard side has been characterized as masculine and inherently preferable, and the soft side has been seen as feminine and less ideal, Way said.
Boys get the message that growing up and “manhood” means shedding that soft side, a mindset that neuroscience, social sciences and developmental psychology show is detrimental, Way said.
“We consider gender relations to be female,” Chu said. “If that’s a feminine thing, it becomes a weakness or a liability if (men) admit they need friendships.”
The gender characterization of these experiences has a clear impact, Sileo said. Men who are more emotionally restrained, focused on power and who score high on surveys measuring homophobia are less likely to have close, intimate friendships, she said.
And the impulse to toughen up and never show vulnerability that restricts men from friendships can lead to loneliness, violence and anger, Way said.
“We live in a culture that clashes with our nature,” he said. “If we raise children to go against their nature, it should come as no surprise that some of those children grow up with problems.”
your partner is not enough
Straight men seeking closeness can turn to those they feel are best relationship builders and comfortable exploring their vulnerability: the women in their lives and their romantic partners, Way said.
It may seem like a good solution, but it doesn’t work for either the men or the women they turn to, Sileo said.
Putting everything into a romantic partner can strain a relationship, she said, whether you turn to a female partner exclusively for emotional support or depend on them to cultivate friendships and get-togethers for vacations and weekends.
It’s crucial to have multiple people to turn to for support to get different perspectives, Chu added.
“(Men) need to know that it’s not just a women’s thing,” she said. “They need to know that men can do it too.”
Community is important, and sharing struggles, questions and concerns with just one person or relationship doesn’t always provide the best help getting through them, Way said.
“A male partner thinks it’s a betrayal to talk to another person,” Way said, “but the female partner is saying ‘please do it, please look for other perspectives’.”
How to build friendships
Whether you want to have close friendships or deepen the ones you do have, experts say it’s okay to start small.
You don’t even have to reveal your own vulnerabilities at first, Chu says.
“A very powerful starting point is to listen and ask real questions,” he said. “Everyone likes it when they can trust that the situation is safe and that someone is genuinely interested in them.”
The key is to go beyond the general banter and cordiality and ask questions that you find meaningful, like what they like about their jobs or how they feel after a breakup, Way said. Don’t worry, it’s not rude to do so. Most people say they want to be asked these questions, she said.
Every relationship has its own rules and protocols, and it’s good to work within them, Sileo said. You might start asking a friend something and find that person doesn’t want to talk about it, Chu said. If this is the case, you can step in and offer your own vulnerability by talking about how the subject may be bothering you or why you have been thinking about it.
Sometimes relationship rules can mean avoiding the vulnerability of sitting face to face, Sileo said.
In those cases, find an activity like the gym, work or a community project where you can connect through a shared purpose, Sileo added.
And if you need to build friendships from scratch, take a cue from the women in your life and invite someone over for coffee or a bite to eat, Way said.
The key is to put in the time, effort and intention, Sileo said. Being present and spending time is crucial to building those important friendships.
“Quality is what counts,” he said. “If you can have a couple of quality friends, it’s better than having a bunch of friends.”