There's a friendship recession and it's hurting NZ men

Source: Re: News

Steven can be on his way to a party and feel the loneliest he’s ever felt.

A man and woman talking over cups of coffee.

By Zoe Madden-Smith for Re: News

“Even though I am going to catch up with friends, I'm going there by myself, and afterward, I will likely be leaving by myself,” he says.

“In those moments, loneliness hits in a big way.”

The 31-year-old from Tāmaki Makaurau, who wanted to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, says he’s always been surrounded by groups of people through friends, football clubs, or work. But it’s rare for him to feel close or emotionally connected to any of these people.

“I would say there was about a decade after high school where I didn’t have someone in my life I felt I could tell everything to.

“I have friends, but it’s those close friendships I was missing.

“I think I was in denial about it for a long time. I would feel down and get frustrated and then not know who to talk to about it with because I didn’t want to show that side of me to others.”

The 2021 study found the percentage of men without any close friends is now five times higher, jumping from 3% in 1990 to 15% in 2021.

Single men were hit especially hard. One in five American men who are unmarried and not in a romantic relationship report not having any close friends.

Not only do men have smaller friendship circles, but they also reported being less emotionally connected to the friends they do have.

In contrast, women were found to be more successful in establishing these types of relationships and reported far higher rates of emotional engagement and support from their friends.

Why are men finding it harder to make friends?

The research found that even though younger men are more likely to reject traditional notions of masculinity, many still struggle with being vulnerable and seeking emotional support from friends, which makes building lasting social bonds more difficult.

Longer working hours, more remote work, as well as increased job switching have also made friendships in workplaces more difficult to find.

An earlier study in 2019 by the same researcher found higher rates of loneliness among millennials may also be linked to lower religious involvement, lower marriage rates, and greater geographic mobility making it harder for people to physically meet regularly.

Another study also found women tend to invest more time and energy into preserving relationships than men do. For example, they call and visit each other more often, whereas men tend to not share the same motivation to regularly keep in touch.

How culture can impact loneliness

Ricky Sione, a counsellor who specialises in working with Māori and Pasifika men, but also works with men of other ethnicities, says loneliness can also be broken down culturally.

“I have noticed the Pasifika and Māori men who come and see me, they are always surrounded by friends - but whether they choose to open up to them is a whole different story.”

Sione says when he has asked European clients if they have people in their life to talk to, they are more likely to say they don’t or have very few.

“So much of this can be linked back to someone’s upbringing. European men, for example, have been told independence is success their whole life but striving for independence can mean working longer hours and feeling isolated.

“Whereas in Pasifika cultures there may be more emphasis on community.”

Sione has also noticed how intimate relationships can cost friendships.

“If someone has come from a broken home, love may not have been a priority for them growing up. So if someone finds a partner, they can quickly attach themselves because they have never felt this feeling before.

“Sometimes that attachment can cost friendships because when the relationship ends, they can go back to their boys and some might be there but some might have moved on.”

The cost of living is hurting social lives

Steven says the rising cost of living is definitely a factor for men finding it harder to make friends because men can rely more on sports and hobbies to meet people. But with longer working hours, finding the time and energy to socialise can be hard.

“In terms of football clubs, fewer people are giving back by coaching or joining committees, some people have just disappeared. But it makes sense why because they've got no time, they’ve got no money. When they finish work, they just want to rest.

“Hobbies also cost money, so access could be an issue as well.”

For Steven, football has played a big part in his social life. Over the last couple of years, he’s grown closer with a friend in his football team and feels he can open up to him.

He says football teams used to be “jock-like environments” but now it feels a lot more supportive.

“With men’s mental health being in the news a lot, I've noticed a slight shift towards people trying to be better friends with each other. Guys are more open to hugging each other and reaching out and telling each other they love them. But it’s still not easy.”

Finding who’s in your corner

The percentage of men with at least six close friends in 2021 fell by half since 1990, from 55% to 27%, according to the research by the Survey Centre on American Life.

But Sione says: “You don’t need to have lots of close friends if you can identify one person who can be there for you.”

“I like to use the analogy of a boxer,” he says.

“A boxer has a couple of people like a coach or a medic who play specific roles in their corner so no matter how things go in the boxing ring, he can always come back and trust who's in his corner.

“So one thing I encourage men to do is find who’s in their corner, and whose corner you're in too. If you can identify one person who will be there, that’s all you need.”

Where to get help:

1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.

Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training.

Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.

OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.