‘Just talk, just say anything’: How coronavirus has forced men to seek deeper friendships

As they grow up men are more likely to lose friends, and the friends they do have tend to be superficial, based on watching sports or playing games rather than intimacy. The pandemic is forcing this to change, writes Samantha Schmidt

Monday 07 December 2020 12:48 GMT
<p>After struggling with his mental health and going through therapy this year, Manny Argueta says he wants to start finding ways to tell his friends what’s actually going on</p>

After struggling with his mental health and going through therapy this year, Manny Argueta says he wants to start finding ways to tell his friends what’s actually going on

It took a global pandemic and a badly timed break-up for Manny Argueta to realise just how far he had grown apart from his guy friends.

In the spring, after the 35-year-old had left the home he shared with his former girlfriend and moved into a studio in suburban Washington, on his own, he would go an entire week without saying a word. There were no more game days with the guys, no more Friday nights in downtown bars, and Argueta was starved for social interaction. He returned to his PlayStation 4, jumping on the microphone with a stranger while playing Overwatch just to hear someone’s voice. He discovered the messaging app Discord and started chatting with his old gamer friends and watching them play Mortal Kombat 11 – even when he didn’t have the game set up himself.

He started recognising how dependent his friendships had become on those Sunday football games and nights at 14th Street lounges, on venting about Republicans or why the Caps didn’t make the playoffs. They hardly ever talked about relationships or family, or just generally how they were doing. He had never met many of their family members.

On a rare night he spent catching up with an old friend in October, a mixture of vulnerability and intoxication led him to pour out his frustrations. “I bet you still have no idea why her and I broke up,” he said to his friend. “I bet you have no idea.” The friend paused, apologised and let him talk for a while about what had happened.

For more than a decade, psychologists have written about the “friendship crisis” facing many men. One 2006 analysis published in the American Sociological Review found that while people in general have fewer friends outside the family than they used to, young, white, educated men have lost more friends than other groups.

Male friendships are often rooted in “shoulder-to-shoulder” interactions, such as watching a football game or playing video games, while women's interactions are more face-to-face, such as grabbing a coffee or getting together for a glass of wine, said Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who wrote a book about male friendship. When Greif surveyed hundreds of men about how they most often socialised with friends, 80 per cent of men said “sports” – either watching or participating in them together.

Because of this, many men have probably had a harder time than women figuring out how to adapt their friendships in a pandemic that is keeping them apart.

“The rules for guys pursuing other guys for friendships are not clear,” Greif says. “Guys don’t want to seem too needy.”

But the pandemic might be forcing this dynamic to change.

In emails and interviews, dozens of men shared stories about Zoom poker games, backyard cigar nights, neighbourhood-dad WhatsApp chains, Dungeons & Dragons groups and Fantasy Football leagues where casual chats about sports and politics have suddenly led to deep conversations – about the struggles of virtual schooling, family illness, break-ups, births, wedding postponements and job losses.

Male friendships are often rooted in ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ interactions, such as playing video games

The moment feels heavier and so do the conversations. Some men said their friendships have begun to look more like those of their wives and girlfriends. For the first time in their lives, they’re going on walks with male friends just to catch up. They’re facetiming old college friends and checking in on neighbours – not only to talk about the NBA draft picks or their children’s soccer schedule – but to ask how they’re doing.

Argueta, who works as a loan delivery specialist, was used to avoiding talking about personal details in his conversations with male friends. But after struggling with his mental health and going through therapy this year, he says, he wants to start finding ways to tell his friends what’s actually going on.

“We are so used to finding a distraction to help us when we should be addressing what’s in front of us,” he says. “The world needed to slow down… we should slow down, too.”

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

Men weren’t always like this.

As boys, male friends tend to share their deepest secrets and most intimate feelings with each other, says 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 says. 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 says. “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, neighbours or colleagues – improve a person’s odds of survival by 50 per cent.

Some men are now having the kind of conversations they would have never been able to have while sitting at a bar and watching a game

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.

In this time of unprecedented isolation, Way says, 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, 42, a father of two young children in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland, 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.

‘The world needed to slow down… we should slow down, too’

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

Dave Wakeman, 46, a marketing consultant in Washington, says many of his social interactions before the pandemic revolved around his kids’ sports or family gatherings with neighbours. But eight weeks into the pandemic, he ran into a neighbour two doors down and realised he had lost touch with him and other neighbourhood dads.

The group of six men decided to start having socially distant happy hours 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.

Argueta opened up to them – about his past relationship, the move, the pandemic, everything. He was more personal with them than he had ever been before

A few years ago, Stephen Davis, 33, a tax manager in suburban Virginia, 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 waters 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 says.

Jonathan Gordon sometimes wishes his college buddies would talk about more serious topics. The group of four men, who all met on their freshman floor at the University of Virginia and are now in their 30s, have all been groomsmen at each other's weddings. They have gone on international trips together. They all consider the other men in the group their closest friends.

Going for a walk or a run with a male friend is unusual for most men, even though women have been doing it all their lives

So why don’t they ever actually talk about their feelings?

“I’ve always thought it’s funny that we talk about things that are completely inconsequential 80 to 90 per cent of the time,” says his friend, Alex Hyde, 32, over a joint Zoom call.

When the friends get together in person, for a beer or dinner, the deeper details “sneak in by accident”, Hyde says. Now that they can’t, the more serious topics don’t come as naturally over text. It feels more raw, Hyde said. “In general with other guys, there’s a certain amount of harassment that goes with anything you say… you got to be ready for that.”

It feels impossible not to revert to making fun of one another, Gordon says. “We have no self restraint … I can’t not crack up. We set each other off,” he says. “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t do that.”

These are the kinds of conversations Argueta, in Falls Church, had come to expect from his friendships with other men.

On Saturday, when a couple of friends came over to help him set up his PC, Argueta expected them to roast him for looking like a “broke college student” in his new studio, where he has barely put anything on the walls and he has cords all over his desk.

Instead, the two friends asked him to talk about what led up to his break-up, and how he was handling the past few months. Argueta opened up to them – about his past relationship, the move, the pandemic, everything. He was more personal with them than he had ever been before.

One of his friends reminded him he could call the group on Discord anytime. “Just talk, just say anything,” the friend said. “Somebody’s going to answer.”

Argueta planned to send them a group text message soon, thanking his friends for coming over and for “bailing me out in more ways than you think”. He wanted to keep being honest about what he was going through.

“I’m going to be real,” he says.

He wondered if they would do the same.

© The Washington Post

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