Skip to main content

If men won’t really talk to one another about the problems in their lives, then companionship isn’t much better for you than loneliness. I learned that the hard way

Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by The Globe and Mail (Source image: iStock)

Dave McGinn is a Globe and Mail reporter.

In the fall of 2017, after nearly 15 years of marriage and two kids, my wife and I separated. It was the most painful time of my life, but those words don’t do it justice, really. We’d been together for most of my adult life; I was 25 years old when we met, 31 when we had our daughter, 34 when we had our son. Now, at the age of 40, I was alone.

I remember the night we sat out on our porch, the night when words were put to what I had feared for a long time – it was over. The kids were asleep upstairs in a house I thought we would all live in together for years to come. The entire future I had taken for granted was suddenly gone, replaced by questions I couldn’t answer: How were we going to tell the kids? How could I tell my parents? What was life going to be now? I was terrified. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. At work, I was a mess, trying to write, yet only thinking that my life had shattered into pieces that I couldn’t put back together.

I knew, on some level, that it would help to talk to someone about what I was going through, but months after my wife and I broke up, I still hadn’t told my close friends. These were guys who, in some cases, I’d known since junior high. On those rare occasions when we got together, our conversations would revolve around the same, predictable questions: How’s it going? What’s new at work? How’s the family? In turn, we’d each give the usual, curt answers: Fine. Okay. All good. Behind those answers my friends might have been experiencing real moments of crisis – ailing parents, estranged siblings, failing marriages. But our answers revealed nothing. We’d sip our beer, watch the football game and go home.

I didn’t want to talk about it with my family, either. I didn’t want to see the look on their faces when I told them. I didn’t want to worry my parents. I didn’t want my brother to feel bad for me. I didn’t want to admit the whole messy failure. I tried to deal with it on my own, but, eventually, after waking up in the middle of the night so many times with so much on my mind, I reached a point where I could no longer deal with my feelings alone. I needed to talk to someone.

I called my friend Paul, who I’ve known since we were gangly teenagers, playing video games and drinking beer in my parents’ garage. As we got older, our friendship changed – instead of video games, we went, along with other friends, on a golf trip each year, and we played pick-up basketball regularly until I broke my foot and retired. He’s one of the few close friends who still lives in Toronto, the rest having moved out to the suburbs with their families years ago.

We met at a dark, quiet bar on Bloor Street on the west side of Toronto. Over pints of beer, he asked me what was going on. As much as I had been trying to hide it for months, he must have known something was wrong. I told him everything – how my marriage had collapsed, how confused I was, how scared I felt.

There was an awkward pause.

I worried I had saddled him with something he didn’t want to talk about, didn’t want to know. I worried that I had asked him for something he might be too uncomfortable to give – sympathy, understanding, whatever it was I needed in that moment. Instead, he told me how sorry he was, and proceeded to give his thoughts on how I should handle the situation: how to talk to my ex; how to be there for the kids and make sure they were okay, even if I was not; how to take care of myself. It was surprisingly good advice, and I told him as much. He laughed. He knew what he was talking about, he said, because he’d been through more than 100 hours of marriage counselling. This was news to me. How come he’d never told me? It’s embarrassing, he said.

We finished our beers, the conversation reverting back to the usual topics, the comforting non-talk that I was used to. I thought about that night a lot. It struck me that Paul and I had been friends for the majority of our lives, and yet we still couldn’t talk – really talk – to one another. In the days and weeks that followed, I thought a lot about my friends – the people I was supposed to be closest to – and how much of a distance there was between us.

Open this photo in gallery:

Dave McGinn, fifth from left above, out with his friends on an annual golf trip.Courtesy of Dave McGinn

The UCLA loneliness scale first appeared in 1978, but has been revised several times over the years. For academics who study the ways we connect with other people, it’s the standard in the field. Subjects rank statements with “never," “rarely,” “sometimes” or “often.” Try it out:

“I lack companionship.”

“There is no one I can turn to.”

“I feel part of a group of friends.”

“There are people I feel close to.”

“My social relationships are superficial.”

“There are people who really understand me.”

“People are around me and not with me.”

Around me and not with me. Superficial. That’s how it feels. Over the past 18 months, the men I’ve talked to about friendship, some of whom I’ve known most of my life, some of whom I’ve only known a short while, have all told me they have plenty of acquaintances but very few close friends. One guy I spoke to explained it in a way I perfectly understood: He’s got at least a dozen “buddies” he could have a beer with after work. But how many close friends could he call if he needed help moving? Maybe one or two.

There’s a growing body of evidence that shows the dire consequences of loneliness, and so researchers have become increasingly interested in studying friendship to understand the myriad ways in which it functions and affects our lives.

For instance, in one study published in 2010 in the journal Plos Medicine that looked at 148 studies on the link between social relationships and mortality, researchers at Brigham Young University found that having strong social relationships was nearly twice as beneficial as physical activity when it came to decreasing your odds of dying young. In short: Suffering from loneliness was as bad for your health as being an alcoholic or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The benefits only increase as we age.

In a pair of studies, published in the journal Personal Relationships, William Chopik, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who studies friendship, looked at more than 280,000 people between the ages 15 and 99, from almost 100 different countries.

“People who valued friendship were always happier than those who didn’t,” he says. “But then it wasn’t until midlife that the effects kept getting stronger and stronger.”

In 2017, he conducted a study to determine just how important supportive friendships are in old age. He found that they were a stronger predictor of well-being than were strong connections with siblings, spouses, children and parents. “It looks like friendship quality predicted whether or not you have things like heart attacks and strokes over time.”

These statistics included both men and women, but men, over all, are a lonelier bunch – and thus at greater risk.

The biggest reason friendship is important for men’s health, according to Dr. Chopik, comes down to stress management.

“Friendships for men reduce stress and that’s associated with better health over time,” he says. “Other relationships can just be stressful a lot of the time. But friendships just exist to make us feel better.”

That’s supposed to be the way it works, but it wasn’t for me and a lot of the men I knew. What were we doing wrong? Dr. Chopik and I discussed the different ways men and women maintain their friendships. He mentioned a study conducted by the American psychotherapist and sociologist Lillian Rubin in the 1980s.

Dr. Rubin posed the following hypothetical to her male and female study participants: Say your romantic partner comes home and says they are leaving you. Who could you turn to if this happened to you?

“Nearly every women was able to name a friend that they could go to, usually a same-sex friend,” Dr. Chopik says. “But a very, very small number of men said they could actually turn to someone.”

This was exactly my situation. Who had I turned to? Why couldn’t I open up to any of my friends? And why had I allowed my friendships to suffer for so many years?

What loneliness does to your body

Loneliness, it seems, actually does make people sicker. Health reporter Wency Leung explains the science behind it.

Trevor Boin was my first best friend. We met in seventh grade, both of us newly arrived in junior high in Oakville, Ont. We were perfect for each other: I loved making terrible jokes – there’s no pun I can resist – and he laughed at everything. We both liked skateboarding, gangster movies and riding our BMX bikes around the neighbourhood.

In high school, we became part of a large group of friends who hung out at a variety store called Five Star in a strip mall near where we lived. There was a good three-year stretch where I could go to Five Star – this was before cellphones – and be certain to find at least two or three friends hanging out.

We built a jump for our bikes. We played video games. We all got drunk together for the first time. We smoked pot together for the first time. We went to concerts. We played touch football. We’d try to go to every house party we could find. We made fun of each other mercilessly.

After high school, I went to university in London, Ont., and fell into a new group of friends: Jeff, who shared my taste in music; Mark, who was always down for a good time; Orla, who was bookish like me. We only spent four years together, but it felt like a lifetime.

After graduation, we scattered back to our hometowns. For the first couple of years, we tried to stay in touch, but the phone calls and e-mails became less and less frequent.

I didn’t put much work into those relationships after leaving school. I had moved to Toronto. A few months later, I met the woman who became my best friend and the mother of my children. Her friends in the city became mine, and she became friends with the guys I was close to in high school, who often came to visit.

I got my first real job, at a magazine, where I made three new close friends, all fellow book nerds who liked skateboarding, even though it had been years since any of us had actually been on a skateboard.

Back then, we all had free time, so we saw each other often. But as the years went on, friends got married, had kids, moved away. At the time, I didn’t really notice any of these friendships drifting. I’d still go back to Oakville every now and then and see the guys, but I had a wife, kids and a job. Most of the others did, too. Our friendships changed.

If you’d asked me at the time, I still would have said I had plenty of good friends. But it wasn’t like when I was a kid. There’s something about friendship – and something about friendship between young men – that is special, nostalgic, romanticized. Think Stand By Me, The Goonies, Superbad, Dead Poets Society, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But it’s a certain kind of friendship that only exists in our memories. Men have to evolve, have to change.

Friendship takes work, and we can’t coast on what we once had.

Open this photo in gallery:

Dave McGinn with his friends Brandon, left, and Nigel, right.Courtesy of Dave McGinn

It is difficult for both men and women in middle age to make friends for a very simple reason: It takes time to make friends. In fact, researchers can even tell you roughly just how much time.

Jeffrey Hall, a communications professor at the University of Kansas, recruited two groups of people – college freshman and adults who had recently moved to a new city – and tracked their degree of closeness and time spent together with a new person.

His study found that it takes roughly 50 hours together before you consider someone a casual friend, 90 hours before you become real friends and about 200 hours to become close friends.

Suppose you see someone for three hours at a time. That’s 67 visits with each other to reach the 200-hour mark. In middle age, who has that much time to devote to making a new friend?

Time is one factor for both men and women, but proximity seems to be a particularly male issue when it comes to maintaining friendships. As researchers like to say, female friendships are “face to face,” while friendship between men is “side by side.” What that means is women make friendships through talking to one another directly, whereas men, in a way, become friends by osmosis – sitting at a bar, playing basketball together, watching the baseball game.

A 2017 study on friendship by Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, shows that female high-school graduates who moved away for university “spend a lot of time and effort on the phone and Facebook [with friends] to keep the relationship going,” he says, “where for boys, it’s mainly out of sight, out of mind.” So despite cellphones that offer the promise of constant contact on demand, male friendships are still very much side by side, it seems.

But doing stuff together is different than bonding, as I had experienced. Close friendships require disclosure and reciprocity, says Peter Nardi, a professor emeritus of sociology at Pitzer College in California and author of Gay Men’s Friendships: Invincible Communities. In other words, sharing personal information beyond opinions about sports teams or other shared interests. “One of the issues preventing men from getting close to other men is the cultural norms about vulnerability, which is at the root of disclosure,” he says.

Geoffrey Greif encountered the code of masculinity that prevents many men from even trying to make new friends during research for his book, Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. A professor at the University of Maryland’s school of social work, Dr. Greif interviewed nearly 400 men for the book, asking them why they didn’t make new friends. A lot of them said they were afraid of coming off as if they were somehow courting another man.

“Men don’t like to come off as emotionally needy,” Dr. Greif says.

He blames codes of masculinity. Being vulnerable is admitting to another person that you need something from them – their sympathy, their understanding, their forgiveness, their care, their advice, whatever it might be – and that’s particularly difficult for men since it goes against everything instilled in us about the importance of self-sufficiency, stoicism and never admitting weakness.

“As a society, maybe we could be doing more things to make deep, emotional friendships more acceptable for men,” he says. “I think that would benefit everybody.”

The ‘male machine’ at work

Changing attitudes to work-life balance and burnout should change the way masculinity permeates workplace culture, Harvey Schachter writes.

As difficult as it may seem for guys to make new friends in middle age, all the men I’ve spoken to about the subject told me they would like to have more friends.

Adam Gizzie, who is 39, married and has two young children, says he has made only one friend since the birth of his children – a dad in his son’s class.

“We recognized each other too many times. It was awkward not to say hello to one another,” says Mr. Gizzie, a senior digital adviser for Desjardins and who lives in Burlington, a suburb of Toronto.

He and the other dad hang out, but only for kids’ playdates. They do not spend time together independently of the kids. Other than his new dad friend, Mr. Gizzie told me his social circle has shrunk to three people: his brother and two guys he has known since high school. Making friends used to be easy for him, but not any more.

“The honest-to-God reason I think I struggle is because practise makes perfect when making friends and I’m so out of practice,” he says. “I haven’t done it in so long. It’s almost like meeting a new girl. I have no game,” he laughs. “I’m good at making buddies. I’m good with people, but it’s all surface level. I’ve got tons of buddies, but I’ve got maybe three friends.”

Adam Freyseng, a 41-year-old manager of a call centre in a Toronto suburb, and a father of two, told me a similar story to Mr. Gizzie’s. When he was in his 20s, he says, “I knew everybody.” Then he got married. His wife was his best friend throughout their marriage, so he never went out of his way to make new ones, he told me. Now that he’s divorced, he doesn’t have many people to talk to.

When I asked him why he would like to make new friends, he was surprisingly honest.

“Because it’s lonely,” he said.

Glenn Martin told me the most harrowing story of any man I interviewed, but also the most hopeful.

A 43-year-old field-service expert who lives in Vancouver and works in the mining industry, Mr. Martin went into a depression when his 17-year marriage ended in the spring of 2018.

“I found myself all alone. I invested all my time and effort, pushed everyone away, to be a good husband to her,” he told me.

Mr. Martin, his then-wife and their daughter had moved to Vancouver from South Africa seven years previously, leaving behind his social network.

“I couldn’t go back and see family or a brother or a sister or even school friends," he said. “I had no one.”

He began drinking and doing drugs.

A self-described extrovert, Mr. Martin was desperate to meet people following his divorce. He discovered Meetup, an online service that organizes in-person meetings for people with similar interests.

“I joined every single group I could,” Mr. Martin said. “Anything from walking in the park, playing cards at New Westminister, hiking, biking, running. Anything I could just to meet people.”

But he couldn’t connect with anyone.

Part of the problem – the problem, actually – was that he didn’t feel comfortable opening up to people about his own issues.

“It’s in our nature to be the strong one and independent from anyone else," he said. “So you don’t want to depend or show a little bit of weakness toward other men.”

Mr. Martin eventually discovered a group called Modern Day Brotherhood of Men, a group for men of all ages who are looking to make friends.

The name of the group initially struck me as fratish, a puffed chest posturing of masculinity. But the group is anything but.

David Chandler, who is 52, and co-founder of a recruitment firm, started the group in the wake of his own separation. It currently has almost 80 members, running in age from 35 to 65, although it is open to men of all ages.

Initially, he had begun with a co-ed group, but after seeing how much the men relied on female members for emotional support, he decided to create a group dedicated to male friendship.

“We can talk about anything from the women in our lives, dating, friendships,” Mr. Chandler said, who hosts regular meetings at his house. At each meeting, everyone is given five minutes for what’s called “my story.” They could talk about their childhood, their careers, their divorces – anything they want to share with the group. Each meeting ends with hugs. This isn’t something he’d ever done with friends before he started the group. “I’ve come a long way, man.”

Mr. Martin showed up for his first meeting with the group eight months ago. There were only two other men in the room, Mr. Chandler and another man.

“I introduced myself and just broke down. It was the first time I could actually speak to someone who was listening,” he told me. “I started crying like a baby. I let go and told them exactly what was going on with my life.”

Mr. Martin told them about the drinking, the drugs, the breakup of his marriage, his loneliness – “everything, everything,” Mr. Martin said.

He’s since made several close friends from the group and some of them are planning a hunting trip next year. They get together regularly outside of the meetings, sometimes going fishing, sometimes hiking, and chat about everything from work to their relationships.

“I now have someone I can share anything I can think of with,” Mr. Martin said. “The group saved me from a very dark path.”

Fears for tears

For men and boys, the pressure to not show emotion in public is crushing, even in supposedly progressive circles – and it hurts everyone. Rachel Giese asks how we can make room for male vulnerability.

Men in Canada are three times more likely than women to die from suicide.

“Social isolation is a well-established risk factor for suicide and suicidal behaviour,” says Juveria Zaheer, a clinician scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, whose research focuses on suicide, gender and culture. “I don’t think social isolation in and of itself is going to cause suicidal ideation or death by suicide, but it can certainly be a factor that can make it difficult to express distress to people, to seek help.”

Talking about one’s mental-health issues can be incredibly difficult, particularly for men raised in a culture that discourages them from expressing their emotions, Dr. Zaheer says.

The quality of our friendships – what we feel comfortable sharing with our friends, and what we feel we have to keep to ourselves – has a tremendous effect not just on men’s well-being but also on society’s.

“When they start to become teenagers and get closer to adulthood, we begin telling men that they need to be stoic, they need to be masculine, that they need to be emotionless in order to qualify for this kind of version of masculinity that we decided is acceptable,” says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World. “Women are taught to be communicators and we’re allowed to be vulnerable. Men are told they have to have these slightly more distant, macho friendships with one another. I think that’s where toxic masculinity comes in.”

The Good Men Project – a U.S.-based initiative dedicated to discussing the question, “What does it mean to be a good man?” – defines toxic masculinity as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly ‘feminine’ traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as ‘man’ can be taken away.”

Being a good friend requires vulnerability, but also empathy, curiosity, trust, a willingness to put someone else’s interests ahead of yours, to be there for someone in crisis, to listen, to care.

Aren’t these all things we want men to have? Not just because it would be better for men, but for everyone?

Over the past two years, I’ve tried to be a better friend. I’m not as reticent as I used to be. I’ll share what’s going on in my life – frustrations at work, how lonely I sometimes am when the kids aren’t with me, but also happy things. Usually, friends open up, too, if only just a little. And that’s really all it takes.

I’ve talked to friends about how hard it was to screw up my marriage, and they’ve told me about the problems in theirs. Then they always want to know about dating, and we joke about how ridiculous it is.

I’ve had a heart-to-heart with one friend whose mother recently died of cancer. I didn’t know what to say much more than sorry, but I know it helped him just to hear that.

Every time I get off the phone with one of my friends after one of these conversations, or leave the restaurant, or head home after whatever activity we were doing together, I feel closer to them, and generally better. It’s good to unload.

I doubt any of us would do it in a group setting – these conversations are almost always still one-on-one. When we’re together as a group, it’s the usual sports talk and razzing.

And I can’t recommend it enough.

How we cure ourselves of toxic masculinity is as complex a question as how to live a long, rich and rewarding life or how to be a better person, more connected to the world and the people we care about. I don’t claim to have the answer, but I’m convinced friendship is a big part of it.

Open this photo in gallery:

Dave McGinn, third from left, attends a bachelor party with friends in Las Vegas.Courtesy of Dave McGinn

In all the time I’ve been thinking about friendship, talking to other men about the subject and interviewing academics on the topic, I learned another lesson, one I wish I had been taught years before.

I was a bad friend to my wife.

For a long time, I think, I was a great friend to her. But not for the last couple of years of our relationship.

I didn’t share with her things I was going through – things I was excited about, things I was worried about. I only talked about our kids and our jobs. I was boring and bored. I grew comfortable with the routine. She told me over and over again that she wanted spontaneity but I planned every minute of our lives. She wanted poetry; I gave her train schedules.

For a long time after we broke up, I felt a confused and sometimes seething resentment because I would ask myself, “Wasn’t I a good husband?” I was. I was sure of it. I made dinner all the time, I coached our kids’ soccer teams. I tried to pick up the slack at home when she was busy with work.

A long time after our breakup, after a long time spent focusing and reconnecting with old friends and trying to make new ones, of putting a lot of effort in, I realized the question I should have been asking all along wasn’t, “Was I a good husband?” But, “Was I a good friend?”

The moment I asked myself that question, I knew that I hadn’t been. I lost the best friend I ever had because of it.

So the lesson I learned? That to be as happy as I can be, to be a better man and a better person, to be close to the people I care about most – men and women I have known for the better part of my life – to have relationships with them that are caring and understanding and fun, all the things that make this life most worth living, I need to be the kind of friend to them that I should have been to my ex-wife all along.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe