O n a cold February night a few years ago, professor and researcher Niobe Way presented findings from her book Deep Secrets in New York. She was hosted by Partnership with Children, a groundbreaking organization doing powerful interventions with at-risk children in New York’s public schools. The work done by folks like Way and Partnership with Children has produced reams of hard statistical data proving that emotional support directly impacts every metric of academic performance — and, as it turns out, every other aspect of our lives as well.
That night, as my wife Saliha and I made our way down the snow-blown streets toward Fifth Avenue, I was feeling the somber weight of the third month of the dark Northeast winter, wondering how many days remained until spring would come. “It’s February. Don’t kid yourself,” came the answer. 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 the co-Director of the Center for Research on Culture, Development, and Education at NYU. 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 about 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 and men, we tend to confuse what we expect of them with what they actually feel. And, given enough time, they do as well.
This surprisingly simple line of inquiry 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.
A survey published by AARP in 2010 found that one in three adults aged 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. Just a decade before, only one out of five 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 percent. The New York Times 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 The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Shulevitz writes:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer — tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
As I sat down to write about Niobe Way’s research, a tweet by the philosopher 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 among boys is directly linked to our struggles as men in every aspect of our lives.
These boys declare freely the love they feel for their closest friends. They use the word “love” and they are proud to do so.
Professor Way’s research shows us that in early adolescence, boys express deeply fulfilling emotional connection and love for each other, but by the time they reach adulthood, that sense of connection evaporates. This is a catastrophic loss — one that we assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even if they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages, and families.
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 culture. It is exclusive to neither white nor black, rich nor poor. Its universality is 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 15-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… 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.
Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be activity oriented, emotionally illiterate, and interested only in independence, these responses seem shocking. The image of 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 the vast majority of the hundreds of boys whom my research team and I have interviewed from early to late adolescence suggest that their closest friendships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys valued their male friendships greatly and saw them as essential components to their health, 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 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.
In response to a simple question about their friendships, two boys reveal everything about the decline of connection between boys during adolescence. Justin, now in his senior year, reports a tapering off of his friendships:
It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends and then general friends become acquaintances. So they just… if there’s distance whether it’s, I don’t know, natural or whatever. You can say that but it just happens that way.
Another high school senior, Michael, says:
Like my friendship with my best friend is fading… I mean, it’s still there ’cause we still do stuff together, but only once in a while. It’s sad ’cause he lives only one block away from me and I get to do stuff with him less than I get to do stuff with people who are way further… It’s like a DJ used his cross fader and started fading it slowly and slowly and now I’m like halfway through the cross fade.
After presenting these testimonials, Way takes us through the logical results of this disconnection for boys:
[Boys] became more distrustful and less willing to be close with their male peers and believe that such behavior, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girly, immature, or gay. Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they became obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls and not children, nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships and emotional sensitivity with a sex [female] and a sexuality [gay], the boys “matured” into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated. The ages of 16 to 19, however, are not only a period of disconnection for the boys in my studies, it is also the period in which the suicide rate for boys in the United States rises dramatically and becomes four times the rate for girls.
In America, men perform masculinity within a narrow set of cultural rules often called the Man Box. One of the central tenets of the Man Box is the subjugation of women and, by extension, all things feminine. Since we Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait, we reject it in our boys, demanding that they “man up” and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence, even isolation, as proof they are “real men.” Behind the drumbeat message that real men are stoic and detached is the brutal fist of homophobia, ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotion.
And so, by late adolescence, boys routinely declare “no homo” following any intimate statement about their friends. And there it is — the smoking gun, the toxic poison that is leading to the life-killing epidemic of loneliness for men: “no homo.”
This is one more reason why we are right to fight relentlessly for gay rights and marriage equality. It is a battle for the hearts and souls of our young sons. The sooner being gay is normalized, the sooner we will all be free of the shrill and violent homophobic policing of boys and men. America’s pervasive homophobic anti-feminine policing has forced generations of young men to abandon each other’s support at the crucial moment they enter manhood.
It is a heartrending realization that even as men hunger for real connection in our male relationships, we have been trained away from embracing it. We have been trained to choose surface-level relationships, even isolation — to sleepwalk through our lives out of fear that we will not be viewed as real men. We lock away the loving impulses that once came so naturally to us. This training runs so deep that we’re no longer even conscious of it. And we pass this training on, men and women alike, to generation after generation of bright-eyed, loving little boys.
By the time Professor Way was completing her presentation, I was feeling sick. A queasy nausea roiled up. Something was uncoiling in me, something cold and bleak that had taken root long ago and gone to sleep there. As Way read these boys’ words, that thing woke up. It was a baleful moment of recognition. A sense of utter despair came rushing up, vast, deeper than deep. A February moment to end all of them. Spring was never coming back.
No matter how determined I had been all those years ago to put my grief away, it was here now — a wall of pain so pure and unflinchingly raw, I was shocked to discover that something so huge could fit in the frail confines of a human being. Even now, as I write these words, gingerly reaching out to give witness to that part of me, I am confronted with a dizzying abyss of sadness that stops my breath, leaving me flinching, waiting for the same killing blow to fall again. Over and over and over again.
I never made it to my birthday dinner. Instead, I wept for George, my wife holding me, as we barreled home through the winter darkness on the New York City subway.