I’m not supposed to have any friends. I’m middle-aged. I’m a man. I’m an only child. My general disposition is not what you’d call sunny.
And yet here they are, all around me. I have almost, oh, a dozen good friends — all acquired in the last few years. (“Acquired.” Men talk about friends like we talk about clients and armoires.)
How did this happen? I was never someone who really knew how to do friendship. I have two “best” friends from way, way back. I had a solid social network in high school but no close friends, really. All my college friendships faded away post-graduation. My twenties? I focused way more on dating and work than developing friendships. At my wedding, those two best friends from childhood were my co-best men. Not because we wanted small wedding parties, but because there was no one else in my life close enough to have up there with me.
I recognize now that I was experiencing a de-friending that happens to a lot of men. It starts as early as 15 years old, according to psychologist Niobe Way, and continues into adulthood. It’s not a contented loner-ness. It’s a loneliness. And it’s a big problem. About 48 million adults over 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, according to an AARP study. A decades-long study by Brigham Young University found that loneliness raises the risk of premature death by 26 to 32 percent. Friendship may be as important to my health as the statin I take every morning.
My new friends started out as “dad friends,” sure. They were friendships of convenience — men introduced to me by my wife or their wives — but they became something more, something that has nothing to do with kids. But they don’t just… grow. It takes effort. Not a lot of effort. But you have to be intentional with your socializing. Like this:
Writing this essay makes me uncomfortable. The tamping down of emotion, especially about other men, is deeply ingrained in me. But I think the overarching principle of healthy male friendship is: Throw off the burden of hyper masculinity placed on us by the fathers and grandfathers and coaches who snuffed out our crying and smiling and general emoting. They were wrong. And they were lonely.
Value your partner’s friends
My wife is social. She is particularly skilled at creating, growing and maintaining friendships. Everywhere is a bar to my wife. Everyone can be picked up. Numbers can be gotten. Plans can be made. She is masterful. And close friendships develop. And those close friends have spouses. Are first meetings sometimes awkward? Yes. As Chris Rock pointed out in his 2004 comedy special Never Scared, you do kind of become your more social spouse’s “pet”: “Women like to get their husbands together and have a grown-man playdate…. ‘He likes baseball just like you!’” Is it awkward? Yes. Do you have to talk about baseball? You do not. Does it sometimes not work out? Definitely. But it shouldn’t fizzle because you don’t try to make it work. And the first step to making it work is appreciating how much your partner’s friends mean to them.
Follow through on the hatched plan
The thing you talked about the other night. The hike? Playing bocce at the… place where you can play bocce. Bucks game? (Milwaukee only.) Skeet shooting? Trivia night? Bar crawl? Going to see Parquet Courts at Hammerstein on December 8? (Who’s in?!) Get it scheduled. You’re saying: I follow through. I want to continue hanging out. I enjoy activities! Those are the virtues of someone people want to be friends with.
Make standing dates
My major standing date is running five or six miles each Sunday with two friends. We talk the whole time. About TV shows, kids, work, politics. We do not talk about running. Rule: If you’re doing an activity with other men and you’re not talking about the activity, then what you have there is friendship. Here’s how the running date started: I texted them, “Either of you up for a run this afternoon?” And one of them said, “Sure.” And the other said, “OK.” (Aww, you guys!)
But with feeling. Send images. Quote the funniest thing someone said. Follow-up on a weird conversation. Post-event texts memorialize a great time. This is an almost effortless way to express a really big thing: gratitude.
Men have a hard time expressing emotion. A hug is not that. A hug is performative emotion. There’s no “manlier” way to interact with another man than to hug him. Because it’s decisive and definitive. So, get in there, pull that dude close, and whisper in his ear… “When the %$@& are we going to play bocce?”