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Here’s the bad news: Men are hurting, and, according to many researchers, masculinity is what is hurting them and making it hard for them to maintain friendships.
Society tells men* to be stoic and to suppress their feelings and expects them to be aggressive, says Niobe Way, a developmental psychologist at New York University, but having a full range of emotions is inherently human.
Way has spent more than 30 years interviewing teen boys about masculinity and friendship. She says that in childhood, boys feel affectionate about their relationships — just as girls do.
“Children have remarkable social and emotional skills — to listen to each other, to read each other’s emotions, empathy, all sorts of lovely things,” she says.
But then, like clockwork, in late adolescence, boys go underground emotionally when talking about their friendships. “You get the ‘I don’t care anymore.’ Or, ‘No homo,’ as if I’ve been asking a question about their sexuality rather than about their friendships,” she says.
The good news is that those skills can be recovered! There are a lot of experts who can help, and here’s what they recommend:
1. Don’t blame yourself.
You are a product of a society that expects very particular things of masculinity, so focus on undoing hurtful and restricting belief systems. “Friendships are coded as not masculine; certainly emotions are coded as … not masculine,” Way says. “So if you’re not supposed to be emotional that means you’re not going to be able to find the intimacy.”
Thomas Page McBee has thought a lot about masculinity — especially for his two books, Amateur and Man Alive. “I don’t want to overstate it, but I think there’s something really disturbing about how we think about masculinity as a culture,” he says. In his extensive reporting, he has found a lot of codes that society expects boys and men to adhere to. “I think we need to really face that and look at it culturally and see the damage it’s doing.”
2. Accept your own desire for intimacy and normalize it for the people in your life.
Way recommends sharing articles about masculinity and friendship so that you can start these conversations — and, boy, are you in luck: There is a list of articles at the end of this post! Pore over them and don’t forget you have the entire Internet at your fingertips, friend!
3. Model vulnerability.
Say the thing that scares you, like “I’m afraid nobody will go to my party,” or “I miss my grandma every day.” Doing so will make it OK for other people to follow your lead. We are all on the elevator to a society where emotional availability is normalized, and I want you to press “door open.”
4. Ask more questions.
People sometimes feel they might be prying if they ask someone about themselves — especially when their friend is sharing something tough. But if you get curious in moments of vulnerability, you will open the door to all kinds of growth in your relationship. Take the opportunity to really see your friend and show them they matter by following up. But, as LeVar Burton says on Reading Rainbow, you don’t have to take my word for it! Niobe Way says, “When you’re with a friend or a romantic partner and they don’t have questions for you, that is incredibly alienating.”
5. Get close with the children in your life.
Way’s research says that the No. 1 thing that helps children (especially boys) grow up to have enriching friendships is to be close with an adult relative who was not afraid to express emotions. So, if you’re a parent, stepparent, or thinking about becoming one, or if you have nieces or nephews, take the opportunity to be close to them and help them grow up to be good friends, too.
Here’s a little syllabus on masculinity so you can start your own research:
- This detailed, insightful Twitter thread by writer Jared Drake addresses and normalized conversations about masculinity and friendship in his life. (The thread includes tons of resources, too.)
- Niobe Way gave this lecture on boys and friendship at NYU. She also wrote Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.
- The American Psychological Association did a 2018 study about harmful masculinity that also includes a detailed list of references and research.
- Here’s a piece in Harper’s Bazaar about the ways that straight men lean on the women in their lives — often their wives and girlfriends — to do emotional labor.
- This feature in GQ on men whose friends are mostly women could be considered a rebuttal to the Harper’s piece and is definitely worth considering.
- This study about the harm done by toxic masculinity comes from an organization that studies gender worldwide.
* For the purpose of this piece, we’re using the word “men” to refer to people who identify that way and who can be saddled with the constraints of masculinity.