Unprecedented isolation

Men weren’t always like this.

As young boys, male friends tend to share their deepest secrets and most intimate feelings with each other, said Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology who interviewed hundreds of boys for her 2013 book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.”

But as boys begin to enter adolescence at age 15 or 16, “you start to hear them shut down and not care anymore,” Way said. They start to act defensive about their friendships, saying they’re “not gay” and that they’re not as close anymore. “You hear those expectations of manhood get imposed on them.”

Way argues the lack of vulnerability in male friendships is rooted in a misogynistic, homophobic culture that discourages emotional intimacy between men. But it’s also part of a culture that does not value adult friendship in general.

“The goal of adulthood is to find a partner, not to find a best friend,” Way said. “There’s nothing in our definition of success or maturity … that includes friendships.”

But research shows that close friendships and social networks are essential to getting by. A Brigham Young University study found that social connections — with friends, family, neighbors or colleagues — improve a person’s odds of survival by 50 percent.

In 2018, the suicide rate among men was 3.7 times higher than among women, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. But some surveys show men are less likely than women to admit they are lonely, while other research suggests men derive more of their emotional intimacy from the women in their lives. In one study, married men were more likely than married women to list their spouse as their best friend.

For months, he helped his son keep suicidal thoughts at bay. Then came the pandemic.
In this time of unprecedented isolation, Way said, many men may be forced to change the way they think about their friendships and to connect in new, deeper ways. “I think they’re being forced to for survival.”

John Bramlette, a 42-year-old father of two young children in Chevy Chase, Md., has seen these shifts in his own relationships. Before the pandemic, his closest male friends were from the softball team he has played with for 14 years, every Thursday evening. The group would often get together for a beer after a game or to watch baseball on TV after the kids were asleep.

But in normal times, it never dawned on him to ask one of his friends to go for a walk, just to chat, something his wife has been doing with her female friends for her entire adult life. In the past month, he has gone on three walks with male friends, and he plans on continuing to make it a regular thing, at lunchtime in Rock Creek Park.

“It’s totally logical,” said Bramlette, who is chief operating officer of Washington Nationals Philanthropies. “Why wouldn’t we do this?”

Dave Wakeman, a 46-year-old marketing consultant who lives in D.C.’s Forest Hills neighborhood, said many of his social interactions before the pandemic revolved around his kids’ sports or family gatherings with neighbors. But eight weeks into the pandemic, he ran into a neighbor two doors down and realized he had lost touch with him and other neighborhood dads.

The group of six men decided to start having happy hours with social distancing on their lawn chairs in their shared cul-de-sac. They created a WhatsApp group they call “The Battalion,” where they constantly share everything from Tucker Carlson jokes and political memes to frustrations with parenting and working from home.

“It’s become easier for people to say, ‘Hey look, I really am struggling right now,’” Wakeman said.

A few years ago, Stephen Davis, a 33-year-old tax manager in Alexandria, Va., joined a group text with one of his best friends and some other guys he vaguely knew from college. The conversation was, at first, solely focused on the world of professional wrestling. They called it “Five MB,” short for Five Man Band.

But recently, the group has evolved into a space to vent about so much more. It’s gotten them through multiple job changes, home moves and the births of four of their children — including two during the pandemic. When Davis was struggling with ideas for how to keep his son occupied when playgrounds were closed, one of the other dads in the group suggested an obstacle course of pillows for his son to run through. When Davis’s wife’s water broke, he texted the Five Man Band before anyone else — even before his parents.

The group has become closer than ever during the pandemic. They now send nearly 100 text messages a day, a constant stream of consciousness about what’s going on in their lives. The conversations feel more vulnerable, more honest than others Davis has ever had with friends in the past. They’re the kind of conversations he would have never been able to have while sitting at a bar and watching a game.

“There’s always too much noise to get to that next level,” he said.

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