Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?

This article was originally published in Medium.

On a cold February night a few weeks ago, Professor and researcher Niobe Way presented findings from her book Deep Secrets here in New York. (Her book is available on Amazon.) She was hosted by Partnership With Children,a groundbreaking organization doing powerful interventions with at risk children in the New York’s Public Schools. Both Way and Partnership With Children’s work have produced reams of hard statistical data proving that emotional support directly impacts every metric of academic performance. And, as it turns out, every other part of our lives as well.

That night, as my wife Saliha and I made our way down the snow-blown streets towards Fifth Avenue, I was feeling the somber weight of the third month of dark Northeast winter, wondering how many days remained until Spring would come. “It’s February. Don’t kid yourself,” the answer came back. My charming and lovely wife was to take me to dinner after Way’s presentation. It was my birthday.

Niobe Way is Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and director of the Ph.D. program in Developmental Psychology. A number of years ago, she started asking teenage boys what their closest friendships meant to them and documenting what they had to say.

This particular question turns out to be an issue of life or death for American men.

Before Way, no one would have thought to ask boys what is happening in their closest friendships because we assumed we already knew. In fact, when it comes to what is happening emotionally with boys or men, we confuse what we expect of them with what they actually feel. And given enough time, they do so as well.

This surprisingly simple line of inquiry, once engaged, can open a Pandora’s box of self-reflection for men. After a lifetime of being told how men “typically” experience feeling and emotion, the answer to the question “what do my closest friends mean to me” is lost to us.

And here is the proof. In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. Just a decade before, only one out of five of us said that. And men are facing the brunt of this epidemic of loneliness. Research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men, age 50 and over, rose by nearly 50%.  reports that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”

In an article for the New Republic titled >em class=”markup—em markup—p-em” Judith Schulevitz writes:

Emotional isolation is ranked >em class=”markup—em markup—p-em”>as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimers, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer. Tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

Meanwhile, as I sat down to write about Niobe Way’s research today, a tweet by Alain De Botton popped up in my stream:

“An epidemic of loneliness generated by the misguided idea that romantic love is the only solution to loneliness.”

And there you have it. What Niobe Way illuminates in her book is nothing less than the central source of our culture’s epidemic of male loneliness.

Driven by our collective assumption that the friendships of boys are both casual and interchangeable, along with our relentless privileging of romantic love over platonic love, we are driving boys into lives Professor Way describes as “autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.” What’s more, the traumatic loss of connection for boys Way describes is directly linked to our struggles as men in every aspect of our lives.

Professor Way’s research shows us that as boys in early adolescence, we express deeply fulfilling emotional connection and love for each other, but by the time we reach adulthood, that sense of connection evaporates.

This is a catastrophic loss; a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though 

For men, the voices in Way’s book open a deeply private door to our pasts. In the words of the boys themselves, we experience the heartfelt expression of male emotional intimacy that echoes the sunlit afternoons of our youth. This passionate and loving boy to boy connection occurs across class, race and cultures. It is exclusive to neither white nor black, rich nor poor. It is universal; beautifully evident in the hundreds of interviews that Way conducted. These boys declare freely the love they feel for their closest friends. They use the word love and they are proud to do so.

Consider this quote from a fifteen year old boy named Justin:

[My best friend and I] love each other…that’s it, you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person and that is all that should be important in our friendship. I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.

Way writes:

Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be activity oriented, emotionally illiterate, and interested only in independence, these stories seem shocking. The lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet over 85% of the hundreds of boys we have interviewed throughout adolescence for the past 20 years suggest that their closest friendships — — especially those during early and middle adolescence — — share the plot of >span class=”markup—em markup—blockquote-em”>Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys from different walks of life greatly valued their male friendships and saw them as critical components to their emotional wellbeing, not because their friends were worthy opponents in the competition for manhood, but because they were able to share their thoughts and feelings — their deepest secrets — with these friends.
Yet something happens to boys as they enter late adolescence. As boys enter manhood, they do, in fact, begin to talk less. They start using the phrase no homo following any intimate statement about their friends and they begin to say that they don’t have time for their male friendships even though they continue to express strong desires for having such friendships.

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