It's really hard to make (and keep) friends
On male friendship.
My dad didn’t have any friends.
I never realized it when I was young. But as I got older — teen years and beyond — I never saw him go get beers with anyone. Or go to a ballgame. Or take a trip to Vegas or Miami or, well, anywhere.
He mostly hung out with me and my mom. (I am an only child.) He had brothers but by the last 10 or so years of his life, he had mostly fallen out of touch with them.
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And then he died. It was during the early days of Covid. (My dad didn’t die of Covid). Connecticut — where he and my mom lived — had prohibited funerals from taking place due to fears of spreading the virus. So I’ll never know who would have come to mourn my dad. Maybe there would have been a great showing of male friends. But I doubt it.
That fact has always made me sad. And I always pledged to myself that I would never be like that. That I would always have a cadre of friends around me (from college, work life etc.) and make it a priority to hang out with them.
And then I got married, had kids and set about building a career. And I never gave my male friends another thought. I was friendly with people from work. I texted my college buddies — and even saw them — from time to time.
I did what I could! We were all doing what we could!
And then CNN laid me off. And my world came crashing down — in a lot of ways.
Suddenly I had a LOT more time on my hands. And suddenly I wasn’t so sought after anymore. Some of the people who had made it their business to be friendly with me totally disappeared.
And I did some soul searching. (I didn’t have much else to do!). What I realized was this: I was rapidly becoming that friendless dad I had pledged not to be. I was SO busy becoming someone that I had done, in truth, next to nothing to cultivate and build deep and deepening friendships with the friends I truly cared about.
In other words, I had a whole hell of a lot of Twitter followers and Facebook “friends” but very few people I could really open up to, almost no one I trusted fully and completely.
My situation was made even more stark when compared to my wife. I was home a lot more during the day now, and saw that she had a robust friend life. She would go to lunches and on trips with her friends. She had text threads with various groups of female friends. She had cultivated an entire universe of women — from our kids school, from high school etc. — that she was in regular touch with and with whom she could talk not just about fun things but also the hard stuff of raising kids and, well, being married to me.
I had almost none of that.
This, as I have learned, is not a problem unique to me (or my dad).
Arthur Brooks has written eloquently about the perils and pitfalls of male friendship. Here’s a passage I particularly like:
Cultivating real friendships can be tricky for people who haven’t tried for many years—maybe since childhood. Research shows that it is often harder for men than for women. Women generally have larger, denser, and more supportive friend networks than men. Furthermore, women generally base their friendships on social and emotional support, whereas men are more likely to base friendships on shared activities, including work.
True for me!
The New York Times dubbed this a “friendship recession” in a piece over the summer. Here’s the key bit:
American men appear to be stuck in a “friendship recession” — a trend that predates the Covid-19 pandemic but that seems to have accelerated over the past several years as loneliness levels have crept up worldwide. In a 2021 survey of more than 2,000 adults in the United States, less than half of the men said they were truly satisfied with how many friends they had, while 15 percent said they had no close friends at all — a fivefold increase since 1990. That same survey found that men were less likely than women to rely on their friends for emotional support or to share their personal feelings with them.
There are LOTS of theories as to why this is. Some say it’s because young men now live with their parents longer. Others blame the rise of remote work. Still others suggest it’s because men are habitually bad — and uncomfortable — about being vulnerable with and to other men.
For me, the answer lies — again — with Arthur Brooks. Here’s what he has said about friendship:
You have to work on friendship. You need to treat it like any other goal in your life — nourish and cherish your friendships, because if you don’t, you will get worse at it, and you won’t know how to do it later on in life.
Simply put: I wasn’t putting in the work in required to maintain my close friendships. I just assumed they would just sustain on their own.
They do not.
I have started to think of friendship like a muscle. If you don’t light the weights, it shrinks. If you ignore it for for too long, it atrophies — never to recover.
And so, I have tried to work out that friendship muscle since I got laid off from CNN. I have reached out to my closest friends and scheduled a weekly or monthly coffee/lunch date with each of them. I took a trip to San Francisco for 5 days with a good friend. I have, generally speaking, tried to make friendships a priority — up there with my wife, kids and figuring out what to do with my professional life.
Now. I don’t suddenly, have 100 best friends. I have 2-3 close friends and then a broader circle of 8-10 guys I am in regular (or semi-regular) contact with. I keep promising myself to lead the planning of a yearly trip for my college friends — but have yet to make good on it. There are still people I wish I talked to more.
Like a lot of things in my life at the moment, building the friend muscle is a work in progress. I am hesitant to declare victory over my own personal friendship recession. But, I am making the effort now. Which is — as I have learned — is the key to success.