Mark Greene reviews the research connecting boys’ friendships and adult male life expectancy.
Niobe Way is a Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and director of the Ph.D. program in Developmental Psychology. A number of years ago, she started asking teenage boys what their closest friendships meant to them and documenting what they had to say. The results can be found in her groundbreaking book Deep Secrets. (Her book is available on Amazon.)
This particular question, about boys and their closest friendships, turns out to be an issue of life or death for American men.
Before Way, no one would have thought to ask boys what is happening in their closest friendships because we assumed we already knew. When it comes to what is happening emotionally with boys or men, we often confuse what we expect of them with what they actually feel. And given enough time, they do so as well.
This surprisingly simple line of inquiry, once engaged, can open a Pandora’s box of self-reflection for men. After a lifetime of being told how men “typically” experience feeling and emotion, the answer to the question “what do my closest friends mean to me” is lost to us.
And here is the proof. In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. Just a decade before, only one out of five of us said that. And men are facing the brunt of this epidemic of loneliness. Research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men, age 50 and over, rose by nearly 50%. The New York Times reports that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”
In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
Consider a recent tweet by Alain De Botton:
“An epidemic of loneliness generated by the misguided idea that romantic love is the only solution to loneliness.”
What Niobe Way illuminates in her book is nothing less than the central source of our culture’s epidemic of male loneliness. Driven by our collective assumption that the friendships of boys are both casual and interchangeable, along with our relentless privileging of romantic love over platonic love, we are driving boys into lives Professor Way describes as “autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.” What’s more, the traumatic loss of connection for boys Way describes is directly linked to our struggles as men in every aspect of our lives.
Professor Way’s research shows us that as boys in early adolescence, we express deeply fulfilling emotional connection and love for each other, but by the time we reach adulthood, that sense of connection evaporates. This is a catastrophic loss; a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages and families.
For men, the voices of the boys in Way’s book open a deeply private door to our pasts. In the words of the boys themselves, we experience the heartfelt expression of male emotional intimacy that echoes the sunlit afternoons of our youth. This passionate and loving boy to boy connection occurs across class, race and cultures. It is exclusive to neither white nor black, rich nor poor. It is universal; beautifully evident in the hundreds of interviews that Way conducted. These boys declare freely the love they feel for their closest friends. They use the word love and they are proud to do so.
Consider this quote from a fifteen year old boy named Justin:
[My best friend and I] love each other…that’s it …you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person… and that is all that should be important in our friendship…I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.
Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be “activity oriented,” “emotionally illiterate,” and interested only in independence, these stories seem shocking. The lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet over 85% of the hundreds of boys we have interviewed throughout adolescence for the past 20 years suggest that their closest friendships — especially those during early and middle adolescence— share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys from different walks of life greatly valued their male friendships and saw them as critical components to their emotional wellbeing, not because their friends were worthy opponents in the competition for manhood, but because they were able to share their thoughts and feelings — their deepest secrets — with these friends.
Yet something happens to boys as they enter late adolescence….As boys enter manhood, they do, in fact, begin to talk less. They start using the phrase “no homo” following any intimate statement about their friends and they begin to say that they don’t have time for their male friendships even though they continue to express strong desires for having such friendships.
In response to a simple question regarding how their friendships have changed since they were a freshman in high school, two boys respond and reveal everything about friendships for boys during adolescence. Justin describes in his senior year how his friendships have changed since he was a freshman:
“I don’t know, maybe, not a lot, but I guess that best friends become close friends. So that’s basically the only thing that changed. It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends and then general friends become acquaintances. So they just… If there’s distance whether it’s, I don’t know, natural or whatever. You can say that, but it just happens that way.”
“Like my friendship with my best friend is fading, but I’m saying it’s still there but… So I mean, it’s still there ‘cause we still do stuff together, but only once in a while. It’s sad ‘cause he lives only one block away from me and I get to do stuff with him less than I get to do stuff with people who are way further. …It’s like a DJ used his cross fader and started fading it slowly and slowly and now I’m like halfway through the cross fade.”
And then Way takes us through the logical results of this disconnection for boys:
Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled “girly,” “immature,” or “gay.” Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys “mature” into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.
The ages of 16 to 19, however, are not only a period of disconnection for the boys in my studies, it is also a period in which the suicide rate for boys in the United States rises dramatically and becomes five times the rate of girls when in early adolescence it is only three times the rate of girls. And it is the developmental period in which many of the school shootings we have read about in the paper have occurred and violence, more generally, among boys occurs. Just as boys during early and middle adolescence predicted, not having friends to share their deepest secrets appears to make them go “wacko.”
In America, men perform masculinity within a narrow set of cultural rules often called the Man Box. Charlie Glickman explains it beautifully here. One of the central tenants of the man box is the subjugation of women and by extension, all things feminine. Since we Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait, we reject it in our boys, demanding that they “man up” and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence, even isolation as proof they are real men. Behind the drumbeat message that real men are stoic and detached, is the brutal fist of homophobia, ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotions.
“Maybe they’ll think I’m a faggot,” is the paramount fear that is never far from any boy’s mind, be they gay or straight. And so, by late adolescence, boys declare over and over “no homo” following any intimate statement about their friends.
If you want to see the smoking gun, the toxic poison that is leading to the life killing epidemic of loneliness for men, (and by extension, women,) look no further. It’s right there: “no homo.”
Which is why we must fight relentlessly for gay rights and marriage equality. It is a battle for the hearts and souls of our young sons. The sooner being gay is normalized, the sooner we will all be free of the shrill and violent homophobic policing of boys and men. America’s pervasive homophobic anti-feminine policing has forced generations of young men to abandon each other’s support at the crucial moment they enter manhood.
It is a heart rending realization that even as men hunger for real connection in our male relationships, we have been trained away from embracing it. We have been trained to choose surface level relationships, even isolation; sleep-walking through our lives out of fear that we will not be viewed as real men. We keep the loving natures that once came so naturally to us hidden and locked away. This training runs so deep we’re no longer even conscious of it. And we pass this training on, men and women alike, to generation after generation of bright eyed, loving little boys.
That result is isolation, loneliness and early death for men. Fortunately, Way’s book outlines clear and actionable ways to support the friendships of young boys and to grow their capacity to form emotionally vibrant relationships.
The research has indicated for decades that creating safe spaces in homes, schools, and communities in which positive relationships can thrive is the answer.
In these spaces where boys are encouraged to express and connect, ways of relating to others emerge which resource them for a lifetime of vibrant relationships. We simply need to banish the abusive prohibitions created by the man box, homophobia and other hateful male narratives. Do this and boys’ relationships will thrive.
To learn more, pick up Niobe Way’s book Deep Secrets.
There is a longer version of this article titled Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?
Photo by: Dawn Ashley
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