Tagged Friendship

The Challenges of Male Friendships

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Credit Paul Rogers

Christopher Beemer, a 75-year-old Brooklynite, is impressed with how well his wife, Carol, maintains friendships with other women and wonders why this valuable benefit to health and longevity “doesn’t come so easily to men.”

Among various studies linking friendships to well-being in one’s later years, the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that family relationships had little if any impact on longevity, but friendships boosted life expectancy by as much as 22 percent.

Mr. Beemer urged me to explore ways to promote male friendships, especially for retired men who often lose regular contact with colleagues who may have similar interests and experiences.

After Marla Paul, a Chicago-area writer, wrote a book, “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore,” about establishing meaningful friendships with other women, she was inundated with requests from men to give equal treatment to male friendships.

“A lot of men were upset because I didn’t include them,” Ms. Paul told me. “They felt that making and keeping friends was a lot harder for men, that close friendships were not part of their culture. They pointed out that women have all kinds of clubs, that there’s more cultural support for friendships among women than there is for men.”

In a study in the 1980s about the effect on marriage of child care arrangements, two Boston-area psychiatrists, Dr. Jacqueline Olds and Dr. Richard Stanton Schwartz, found that, “almost to a man, the men were so caught up in working, building their careers and being more involved with their children than their own fathers had been, something had to give,” Dr. Schwartz said. “And what gave was connection with male friends. Their lives just didn’t allow time for friendships.”

In their book, “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century,” the doctors, who are a husband-and-wife team, noted a current tendency for men to foster stronger, more intimate marriages at the expense of nearly all other social connections.

When these men are older and work no longer defines their social contacts, “there’s a lot of rebuilding that has to be done” if they are to have meaningful friendships with other men, Dr. Schwartz said in an interview.

From childhood on, Dr. Olds said, “men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically. Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.”

Consciously or otherwise, many men believe that talking about personal matters with other men is not manly. The result is often less intimate, more casual friendships between men, making the connections more tenuous and harder to sustain.

Dr. Olds said, “I have a number of men in my practice who feel bad about having lost touch with old friends. Yet it turns out men are delighted when an old friend reaches out to revive the relationship. Men might need a stronger signal than women do to reconnect. It may not be enough to send an email to an old friend. It may be better to invite him to visit.”

Some married men consider their wives to be their best friend, and many depend on their wives to establish and maintain the couple’s social connections, which can all but disappear when a couple divorces or the wife dies.

Differences between male and female friendships start at an early age. Observing how his four young granddaughters interact socially, Mr. Beemer said, “They have way more of that kind of activity than boys have. It may explain why as adults they continue to do a much better job of it.”

In defense of his gender, he observed, “Men have a harder time reaching their emotions and are less likely than women to reveal their emotional side. But when you have a real friendship, it’s because you’ve done just that.”

He has found that “it’s important to expose yourself and be honest about what’s going on. If you reveal yourself in the right way to the right person, it will be just fine. There are risks, you can’t force it. Sometimes it doesn’t work — you get a don’t-burden-me-with-that kind of response and you know to back off. But more often men will respond in kind.”

Mr. Beemer has worked hard to establish and maintain valuable relationships with other men of a similar vintage. He joined a men’s book group that meets monthly, and after about two years, he said, “it became a group where the members really mean something to one another.”

He’s also in a men’s walking group that meets three times a week and gathers after each walk to share more conversation and a snack at a local cafe. When one member of the group had a heart attack, they visited him, cheering him up with the latest gossip and a favorite cafe snack.

“What sustains relationships over time is a regular rhythm of seeing each other,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It’s best to build a regular pattern of activities rather than having to make a special effort to see one another.”

He recalls “curing” a 70-year-old patient of his loneliness by encouraging him to join a bunch of guys who regularly dined and joked around at a neighborhood Panera Bread. “There are a lot of cafes in the Boston area where small groups of older men get together for breakfast everyday,” Dr. Schwartz said.

Dr. Olds said of her husband, “Richard has a regular group phone call with friends who live in different parts of the country. We program it into our schedule or it would disappear.”

Among other ways men can make new friends in their later years are participating in classes, activities, trips and meals at senior centers; taking continuing education courses at a local college; joining a gym or Y and taking classes with people you then see every week; volunteering at a local museum, hospital, school or animal shelter; attending worship services at a religious center; forming a group that plays cards or board games together; perhaps even getting a dog to walk in the neighborhood.

After my dentist’s wife died, he made several new friends and enjoyed lovely dinners with other men when he joined a group called Romeo, an acronym for retired old men eating out.

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When Friends Are ‘Like Family’

Photo

Credit Giselle Potter

“My friends are the sisters I was meant to have,” a woman told me. Another said that her friends are more precious than her sisters because they remember things from her past that her sisters don’t and can’t, since they weren’t there. And a man commented that he didn’t enjoy a particular friend’s company all that much, but it was beside the point: “He’s family.”

I interviewed over 80 people for a book I’m writing about friendship, and was struck by how many said that one or another friend is “like family.”

These comments, and how people explained them, shed light on the nature of friendship, the nature of family, and something that lies at the heart of both: what it means to be close.

For friends, as for family, “close” is the holy grail of relationships. (In both contexts I often heard, “I wish we were closer” but never “I wish we weren’t so close.”)

What people meant by “close” could be very different, but their comments all helped me understand how friends could be like family – and why I often say of my friend Karl, “He’s like my brother.” First is longevity. We met at summer camp when I’d just turned 15, and the seeds of closeness were planted during one of those wondrous extended self-revealing teenage conversations, when we sat side by side behind the dining hall. Our friendship continued and deepened as we exchanged long letters that traversed the distance between our homes in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

After college, Karl was the one I called at 2 a.m. when I made a last-minute decision not to join the Peace Corps. Two decades later, we were traveling together when I showed him the photograph of a man I’d just met, saying, “It’s crazy but I keep thinking I’m going to marry him” – and I did.

I was there when Karl left Brown for Julliard, and, years later, when he came out as gay. Karl knew my parents, my cousins, my first husband and the other friends who have been important in my life, as I knew and know his. I visit his mother in a nursing home just as I’d visit my own, were she still alive. We can refer to anything and anyone in our pasts without having to explain.

If I’m upset about something, I call him; I trust his judgment, though I might not always follow his advice. And finally, maybe most of all, there’s comfort. I feel completely comfortable in his home, and when I’m around him, I can be completely and unselfconsciously myself.

It’s not that we don’t get on each other’s nerves. It’s that we do. A cartoon about a married couple could have been about us: A woman standing in the kitchen is saying to the man before her, “Is there anything else I can do wrong for you?” I sometimes feel that whatever I do within Karl’s view, he’ll suggest I do a different way.

All the elements making our friendship so close that Karl is like a brother were threaded through the accounts of people I interviewed. “We’re close” could mean they talk about anything; or that they see each other often; or that, though they don’t see each other often, when they do, it’s as though no time has passed: they just pick up where they left off. And sometimes “close” meant none of the above, but that they have a special connection, a connection of the heart.

There were also differences in what “anything” meant, in the phrase “We can talk about anything.” Paradoxically, it could be either very important, very personal topics, or insignificant details. A woman said of a friend, “We’re not that close; we wouldn’t talk about problems in our kids’ lives,” but, of another, “We’re not that close; we wouldn’t talk about what we’re having for dinner.”

“Like family” can mean dropping in and making plans without planning: You might call up and say, “I just made lasagna. Why don’t you come over for dinner?” Or you can invite yourself: “I’m feeling kind of low. Can I come over for dinner?”

Many grown children continue to wish that their parents or siblings could see them for who they really are, not who they wish them to be. This goal can be realized in friendship. “She gets me,” a woman said of a friend. “When I’m with her I can be myself.”

It would be easy to idealize family-like friendship as all satisfaction and cheer. And maybe for some lucky people it is. But friends can also resemble family by driving you crazy in similar ways. Why does she insist on washing dishes by hand when dishwashers do a better job of killing germs? Why does he always come exactly five minutes late?

Just as with literal families, friends who are like family can bring not only happiness but also pain, because the comfort of a close bond can sometimes morph into the restraints of bondage. The closer the bond, the greater the power to hurt – by disappointing, letting you down or, the ultimate betrayal, by dying. When a friend dies, a part of you dies, too, as you lose forever the experiences, the jokes, the references that you shared. A woman in her 70s who was mourning her lifelong best friend said the worst part was not being able to call her up and tell her how terrible she felt about her dying.

Sometimes we come to see friends as family because members of the family we grew up with live far away or feel too different, or are just too difficult to deal with. A woman who ended all contact with a sister explained that the option of cutting off a family member who brings you grief is a modern liberation, like the freedom to choose a spouse or divorce one. Holes left by rejected (or rejecting) relatives — or left by relatives lost to distance, death or circumstance — can be filled by friends who are like family. But family-like friends don’t have to be filling holes at all. Like my friend Karl, they can simply add richness, joy and, yes, at times, aggravation, that a literal family – in my case, two sisters I’m very close to — also provides.

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “You Just Don’t Understand!” and “You’re Wearing THAT?”.

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The Secrets to a Happy Life, From a Harvard Study

What does it take to live a good life?

Surveys show that most young adults believe that obtaining wealth and fame are keys to a happy life. But a long-running study out of Harvard suggests that one of the most important predictors of whether you age well and live a long and happy life is not the amount of money you amass or notoriety you receive. A much more important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

These are some of the findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that since 1938 has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men and in some cases their spouses. The study has revealed some surprising – and some not so surprising – factors that determine whether people are likely to age happily and healthily, or descend into loneliness, sickness and mental decline.

The study’s current director, , outlined some of the more striking findings from the long-running project in a recent TED Talk that has garnered more than seven million views.

“We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don’t read,” Dr. Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a recent interview. “And so we really wanted people to know that this study exists and that it has for 75 years. We’ve been funded by the government for so many years, and it’s important that more people know about this besides academics.”

The study began in Boston in the 1930s with two very different groups of young men.

In one case, a team of researchers decided to track Harvard college students through adulthood to see what factors played important roles in their growth and success. “They thought there was too much emphasis placed on pathology at the time and that it would be really useful to study people who were doing well in their young adult development,” Dr. Waldinger said. The study recruited 268 Harvard sophomores and followed them closely, with frequent interviews and health examinations. In recent years the study has also incorporated brain scans, blood draws and interviews with the subjects’ spouses and adult children.

At around the same time the study began, a Harvard Law School professor named Sheldon Glueck started to study young men from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including 456 who managed to avoid delinquency despite coming from troubled homes. Eventually the two groups were merged into one study.

Over the decades, the men have gone into all walks of life. They’ve become lawyers, doctors, businessmen and — in the case of one Harvard student named John F. Kennedy — president of the United States. Others went down different paths. Some became alcoholics, had disappointing careers or descended into mental illness. Those who remain alive today are in their 90s.

Through the years, the study has produced many notable findings. It showed, for example, that to age well physically, the single most important thing you could do was to avoid smoking. It discovered that aging liberals had longer and more active sex lives than conservatives. It found that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among men in the study, and that alcohol abuse often preceded depression (rather than the other way around).

The study has gone through several directors. Dr. Waldinger, who took over in 2003, is its fourth. He expanded the study so it focused not just on the men but also on their wives and children. The researchers began videotaping the couples in their homes, studying their interactions, and interviewing them separately about nearly every facet of their lives, even day-to-day spats.

As the researchers looked at the factors throughout the years that strongly influenced health and well-being, they found that relationships with friends, and especially spouses, were a major one. The people in the strongest relationships were protected against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline – even if those relationships had many ups and downs.

“Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time,” Dr. Waldinger said. “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Dr. Waldinger found a similar pattern among relationships outside the home. The people who sought to replace old colleagues with new friends after retiring were happier and healthier than those who left work and placed less emphasis on maintaining strong social networks.

“Over and over in these 75 years,” Dr. Waldinger said, “our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.”

Dr. Waldinger acknowledged that the research showed a correlation, not necessarily causation. Another possibility is that people who are healthier and happier to begin with are simply more likely to make and maintain relationships, whereas those who are sicker gradually become more socially isolated or end up in bad relationships.

But he said that by following the subjects for many decades and comparing the state of their health and their relationships early on, he was fairly confident that strong social bonds are a causal role in long-term health and well-being.

So what concrete actions does he recommend?

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “Something as simple as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights. Reach out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years — because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”