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A couple of months ago I was up for a job in a different city. It was more money. A fancy title. At another point in my life, I’d have jumped at the position. Maybe even pushed a few people over to get there. But in my early 30s, the idea took some real consideration. More than shipping my furniture internationally or learning a new language, the biggest hurdle I kept coming back to was: How is an adult man supposed to make new friends?

While I’m lucky to have a tight group of pals, my social circle is a fraction of what it was a decade ago. My university crew scattered across the country. Folks I used to go to concerts with got married, had children. Suddenly, dive bar punk shows were less of a priority than watching their toddler grow up.

When lockdowns happened during the pandemic, my routine of recurring events broke. By the time things opened up, having a social life – something that had just sort of happened since my teens – required a whole lot of effort. A meetup meant sharing Google calendars and games of phone tag. I realized that it had been months – even years – since I’d connected with people I’d once considered close. Starting from scratch felt daunting, even with the dangling carrot of a prestigious job. It was embarrassing to admit, but I was worried about being lonely.

That feeling – both loneliness and the shame of talking about it – has become an epidemic of sorts among men in North America. A recent American study found that the number of men reporting five or more close friends has dropped by over half since 1990. One in five men even reported that they didn’t have a single close friend. One Statistics Canada survey said that 38 per cent of Canadian men “sometimes, rarely or never have someone to count on” and Budweiser reported stats from its own survey that 70 per cent of men see their friends less as they get older – though the subtext of that report was that male friendships would vastly improve by slamming more brewskis with the boys.

Still, the studies raise some big questions. Why are these kinds of giant shifts happening? And more importantly, what is someone supposed to do about it?

For registered psychotherapist Emily Kedar, a lot of it goes back to values and societal expectations. Men’s social lives and activities are often run by their partners and families while they focus on other things. “Often men are socialized to value being productive, being providers, taking care of their families financially. They want to look strong and tough. But there’s a certain amount of vulnerability it takes to reach out to make new friends. What ends up happening a lot of the time is that friendships take backseat importance. That goes on so long that loneliness just becomes the norm.”

That loneliness has a lot of broader societal implications. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s not hard to draw a connection between a lack of friendships and alarming numbers of male suicides, the rate of which is three times higher than it is with women. Even the rise in extremism. The topic is a lightning rod for political argument, but the overlying issue remains the same. A lot of men are struggling to make meaningful connections, and they’re scared to ask for help.

“I think there is a lot of shame about knowing how to create friendships and asking for help,” said Kedar. “It means admitting that, ‘Oh, I’m actually not enough on my own.’ But of course, we’re not. We’re tribal animals. We evolved to be in groups. Nobody is enough on their own.”

But what’s a lonely guy to do?

Geoff Girvitz is the owner and operator of Bang Fitness in Toronto’s west end. Since 2019, he has hosted the podcast Dad Strength, which has recently started running in-person events. While the goal of the events is to give dads an opportunity to discuss – among other things – the challenges and triumphs of fatherhood, they start with physical activity, ranging from calisthenics to cold plunging. According to Girvitz, for men, having a task helps break through the awkwardness of talking about their feelings.

“I think there’s a psychological component. Maybe we’re more comfortable talking when we’ve got another focal point. When there’s silence, we can just go back to the task,” he said. “Exercise in particular is incredibly helpful with everything from lowering anxiety levels to helping you feel more present.”

Girvitz has found that the group activities lead to bigger conversations, even if at first they felt a bit forced. Everyone attending the meetup found shared values around parenthood and personal growth. But according to Girvitz, making a connection doesn’t have to be based in something as deep as raising a child or learning to be a better dad. When trying to meet new people, one of the best ways to succeed is a sustained effort and participating in tasks you’re already drawn toward.

“If I were giving advice to a young guy, I’d say find the thing you can see yourself really enjoying doing regardless of outcome. And then do three things: show up, work hard, and be kind. I think you will find yourself over time as part of a community that’s important to you.”

The advice seems simple enough, but plays in stark contrast to the grind-set culture pushed on men by pop culture. Shifting that mentality – putting a higher value on community and communication above bootstrapping and individualism – can be a real challenge to get used to. Still, Girvitz believes putting yourself out there can reap big rewards.

“We’re in this thing to help each other as best we can,” he said.

Taking inventory of my friendships right now, it’s been a bit jarring with how much things have changed in the past few years. While I ultimately decided against taking the job offer, lately I keep coming back to a line my dad used to say growing up. It’s something I used to find a bit sentimental and hokey, but feels more true with age: To have a friend, you’ve got to be a friend. It’s the effort that counts.

Three misconceptions holding men back from making new friends

1. Friendship is something we inherently know how to do.

“Friendship is a skill. We need to learn what it means to be a good friend, and to cultivate the practical, emotional and communication skills to be with others in an appropriately intimate way. Arguably, people socialized and enculturated as girls or women receive better education in these skills.” - Bronwyn Singleton, registered psychotherapist

2. Friendship is effortless.

“When you enter your mid-20s, you need to view friendship as an intentional act. There is an element of work to it. The approach I often take with patients who want to make friends is: find an activity you like to do and just consistently go there. If you keep going to the same place with the same people, bonding over a shared interest, I can almost guarantee eventually you will make a new friend.” - Mike Amory, licensed social worker

3. Being vulnerable is unmasculine.

“As men grow up, we don’t value the healthy exchange of male emotions in the same way we do for women. Now, I need to mention that this is not a net good for women as they then are expected to do all the emotional lifting. I am speaking in broad strokes, but if you look at the average male child, how often are they being rewarded for sharing complex emotions? Whether that is in school, within their social circles, or from adults.” - Mike Amory

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