August 26, 2017 — As men hit middle age and then go into retirement there is one persistent health risk that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Isolation, new studies show, can cause all kinds of serious health and psychological problems. The harm caused by isolation is happening to men in ever greater numbers, and usually gets worse after they retire. Women suffer from isolation too, but not in nearly with the same frequency, and then usually just in the later stages of life. A story at the Boston Globe (see link at bottom) sparked this article and a whole lot of comments. We are happy to see that ur version on the topic is getting a lot useful discussion too.
If you are a man reading this article, here’s an exercise that might be painful as well as instructive. Write down the names of how many close friends you have. Once you’ve done that, write down how many times you have had a close interaction with any of those friends in the last month and the last 3 months, and what was the nature of that contact. Are they strictly your friends, or did you acquire them because they are the husband of one of your wife’s buddies? Let’s see how you do (and we are really looking forward to the Comments section to read about everyone’s observations!)
Speaking for himself, your (male) editor didn’t do too badly on this exercise, but mostly only because of my sports and bridge contacts. Frequent golf and tennis games put me in touch with people, as does a twice monthly bridge game. I have four other friends with whom I talk about biking or swimming outings. But so far in this rapidly fading summer we haven’t had one outing among them! I am confident we will get a couple of them in, however, as they are a rare opportunity for me to connect with these friends.
Take away sports contacts and volunteer activities, and my personal social calendar would be pretty thin. I have had very few lunches, movies, coffees, or a trip to a bar, a game, or a concert with a friend in a long time. Thank heavens my spouse maintains many close friendships. As is so often the case with men, all of our social engagements are set up by her, even though sometimes her friends are the wives of my sporting friends.
Advantages of having friends
The advantages of maintaining close friendships are abundant, as are the hazards of not having them. On the plus side, having a friend can make you happier, create opportunities for fun, and make your life richer. Having some one to talk to about what is going on in your life can lead to better decisions and a chance to clear the air in your own head. I know in my life that if I had talked to a friend in critical times I would have been happier.
Spending too much time alone can lead to depression and alcoholism. Serious health problems like cardiovascular disease can also be linked to isolation. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, has warned many times that isolation is the biggest health problem in the U.S., ahead of heart disease and cancer. It often leads to premature death, even suicide. For men the dangers of isolation are even worse.
Men have problems!
Middle age men have problems creating and maintaining close friendships. Those that we do have tend be activity-based – we don’t just call each other up to talk as frequently as do women. We generally have long term friends from high school, college, or the military. But as time goes on the interactions with those friends grow less frequent and eventually drop off; finally even a Christmas card might be all that is left. Family responsibilities are important, but too many of us men see life as a quest to balance family and work, with friendships being an afterthought. We have colleagues at work, but all too often these outside relationships disappear as people change jobs. Once we retire, even that source of friends dries up, leaving the newly retired male with very few chances to make friends. Unless of course, he does something about it.
Why men don’t have friendships like women do?
There are lots of reasons for men’s social backwardness. Perhaps some of it is rooted in our genetic makeup, and undoubtedly more in our socialization process. Brought up to be tougher and less emotional, we don’t find it easy to put ourselves out there to ask a friend to go to a “guy” movie, listen to a band, or have a cup of coffee. Guys generally don’t have female friends that are more than acquaintances; those seem awkward for a lot of reasons.
So what can men (and women) do about creating meaningful friendships?
These are some thoughts from your editor, both personal and from researching suggestions. We hope you can add more.
– Get involved in lots of things. If you like sports, join a club or organization where you can meet folks who are interested in the same things you are. Whether it is golf, a senior softball league, or a hiking club – you will meet people!
– Join a church, fraternal organization, or group of volunteers. The kinds of folks that join these organizations usually like being around other people. Whether it is a Habitat for Humanity build, a church fair, or being a volunteer at your local library, you will be out and about, making contact with your fellow human beings.
– Accept casual friendship invitations. Your editor’s has turned down far too many casual invitations for a drink, a coffee, or lunch in his lifetime. Being too “busy” to accept hasn’t done anything to improve my life.
– Don’t be afraid to be the instigator. If you find yourself discussing favorite movies with the guys, invite them to a new movie that you know they’ll like (and your wife probably won’t!) If you have old high school friends, put together a road trip to see one of your favorite sports teams or bands play. Or get out your bucket lists and check off one item you have in common. A couple of the best trips your editor had were golf outings that either he or someone else was the promoter for. Somebody has to take the lead – so why not you!
– Get professional help. If you suspect you are depressed or have trouble making human connections, talking with a qualified therapist can help you see your way out of a rut. What do you have to lose? If you think you drink too much, go to some AA meetings. You will meet people with common problems and that can help.
– Move to an active adult community or CCRC. Living in a community surrounded by people in a similar situation to yours and where there are plenty of activities is a better way to meet people.
So what are your ideas for having more and richer friendships? We know it is hard to change a lifetime of behaviors. So please share your suggestions and thoughts on this subject in the Comments section below, so we can all learn from each other.