For many years, my clinical psychology practice served only men, sometimes with a woman in their lives. One glaring vulnerability often appeared in my conversations with older men. Men at midlife and beyond are often profoundly lonely. Isolated. Here is a typical conversation while getting acquainted with a man in my office:
Me: Can you tell me a little about your friends?
Man: Oh, I have lots of friends.
Me: Do you have a best friend?
Me: When did you last talk with him?
Man: (Long pause) Well, it’s been a while.
Me: How long?
Man: I guess it’s been more than a year, now. Maybe longer.
Conversations like this were very common. Many men simply don’t have active friendships. And when they do hang out with other men, they need something to do together. And when they talk, it’s about the activity itself, or about sports, business, and the weather. Not about their personal lives.
But I believe male friends are not just people to do things with. They’re people we talk with…about real stuff. Openly and honestly talking about our inner landscapes. Things we think about when we’re alone. Fears. Joys. Frustrations. Sorrows.
The cost of emotional isolation is high. Multiple studies demonstrate this. Men who are socially isolated are more like to die early than men who are have strong personal connections. Emotional isolation and loneliness have been connected to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. And a faster decline with Alzheimer’s disease. One study found that loneliness may be as much of a health risk factor as smoking. Overall, the risk of premature death goes up 26-32%.
Most men want closer and more meaningful friendships. But they just don’t have them. Why not? They have given me many reasons over the years. They don’t want to feel like a loser. Or seem desperate. Or intrusive. They fear being rejected. Or they don’t want to seem like they are looking for a “date.”
In my personal life, I’ve found that building and keeping friendships depends on my willingness to do just two things. Initiate. And schedule. That’s all.
The challenge for a man is to initiate a call or text to another man and say, “I’d like to get together for coffee some morning before work. You up for that?” And if the answer is Yes, then propose a day and time. Not just, “Let’s do that sometime,” but “What about next Wednesday morning at 7:00?”
Do this a few times, until you know if this is someone you’d like to talk with on a regular basis. That is, become more of a friend. And then bring the topic up. “I’m enjoying these conversations. What would you think if we agreed to meet on a regular basis? Like every other Wednesday morning for a while?” Once its scheduled and routine, then nobody has to initiate the next meeting. And the better we get to know another man, the easier it becomes to talk about personal matters.
If it’s a friendship that will work for both of you, he will say, Yes. And be relieved that he doesn’t have to set up the next meeting.
The benefits can be many. Better physical health. Lower risk for multiple physical and mental health problems. Deeper friendships. So says the research. And the anecdotal evidence from my clinical practice of men who have tried this confirms this.