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Why do straight men have no friends?

Research shows that the number of men with no close friends is increasing. Are we sleepwalking into a male loneliness epidemic?

You don’t need a degree in psychology to know that friendships are different, depending on gender. Men have historically bonded by relentlessly deriding one anothers’ haircuts and giving each other nicknames like ‘Sponge’ and ‘Meatball’. Women, meanwhile, will bond by baring little pieces of their souls to one another until one day they’re squeezing four people into the same toilet cubicle because they can’t bear to be apart from each other for even five minutes.

This is a generalisation, granted. Obviously, some women will struggle to connect with other women, and some men will have close friendships with other men – some may not feel any relation to these gender categories at all. But research affirms that men are less likely to form close friendships than women: a YouGov survey from 2019 found that one in five men have no close friends — twice the proportion for women. And things are getting worse: 2021 research by the mental health charity Movember suggests that nearly a third of men feel as though they do not have any close friends – or any friends at all. (It also goes without saying that, generally, this is predominantly an issue among straight men, too).

Barney, 23, tells me that he’s struggled to feel close to his male friends. “I find men difficult to understand and read,” he says. “I think most men communicate by sharing interests and passions, whether that’s cars or football or, you know, women. So if you don’t share those passions – I don’t really care about sports or cars – then it’s very hard to talk to people.” Nathan*, 23, feels similarly. “While I’ve had friendships with men, they’ve never been very close,” he says. “I have a best friend – she’s female – and she’s probably the only person I talk to about my personal issues with.”

Why is this the case? I asked Professor Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford, and his answer was simple: “because they are men.”

“Generally, men have fewer close relationships than women,” he explains. “Men’s friendships also have a very different quality to women’s. They are more activity based, with conversation being largely ancillary and contentless; their relationships are more casual and more clublike, whereas women’s friendships are more dyadic and personalised.”

It makes sense, and is something I’ve noticed in my own life too. I usually go for a coffee or dinner with my female friends, while my male friends are more likely to play football or watch a film or go rock climbing together. For me, actually talking to my friend is the whole point of hanging out. For men, though, socialising appears to revolve around shared hobbies and doing stuff together. As Dunbar puts it: “for women, who you are matters much more than what you are, whereas the reverse is the case for men.” 

It’s worth pausing here to consider whether this actually matters. Is one mode of socialising really better than the other? Or is it just that men and women are just inherently different? Dunbar seems to think the latter is the case. “The differences have very deep roots: we see the same pattern in monkeys and apes,” he says. “Men don’t do emotional intimacy: it really is a foreign concept. It’s just not an aspect of the world they are interested in.”

But other academics would disagree. One recent study from the University of Michigan concluded that women are no more emotional than men, and suggested that this is largely because of centuries of sexist language used to describe women’s feelings. Men may also appear less emotional because of societal pressures: as for generations, they’ve been told both explicitly and implicitly to be stoic, resilient, and tough, and suppress traits like sensitivity, patience, and tenderness – which in turn precludes any real chance of men fostering genuine, deep connections with one another.

“You get so paralysed by what society expects – to be strong and stalwart. It’s hard” – Barney

“You’re told that you should take bullying – which is often dressed up as a ‘joke’ – on the chin,” Nathan says. “And if you do talk about it, you’re just being weak. It’s something that I’ve seen a lot in university life as well as school life – it’s not something that’s gone away.” He adds that this all-pervasive attitude has caused “issues” with his mental wellbeing.

Barney has had a similar experience. “I think men are conditioned to be less emotional with each other. I don’t talk about my personal issues with male friends much – I can’t share when I’m struggling with people I would classify as close friends,” he says. “I think it all comes from a position of worry, fear, and anxiety about not being enough of ‘a man’. You get so paralysed by what society expects – to be strong and stalwart. It’s hard.”

This lack of platonic, male-on-male intimacy isn’t something to be swept under the rug: research shows that social isolation can weaken the immune system and make people more vulnerable to ailments like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and high blood pressure. And, naturally, feeling unable to confide in a friend can also take its toll on a man’s mental wellbeing. While women will unashamedly pour their hearts to one another and feel better for it, men are more likely to repress their emotions until they either punch a hole in the wall or break down after sinking seven pints (and no one will ever mention it again). Obviously, this isn’t sustainable, and is part of the reason why men account for almost three-quarters of suicides in the UK.

There aren’t just individual impacts either – there are societal impacts too. Author and psychologist Professor Niobe Way has argued that the growing isolation of men correlates with the rise in societal violence, and research published earlier this month affirms this: incels, it turns out, are not particularly right-wing or overwhelmingly white – but compared to non-incels, they are lonelier, less likely to have social support, and more likely to be suffering from anxiety and depression. That’s the real common denominator – loneliness.

There are no straightforward answers to such a thorny issue and it’s certainly not as simple as telling men to start hugging each other more. But there’s hope yet. “I think there’s been a massive push recently to get men to open up, and people are doing that a bit more, even if it’s with their closest circle,” Barney says. And perhaps that’s all men need – not a therapy group that meets in the pub every other day, but just a close few to rely on when times get tough.

*Name has been changed