Why Middle-Aged Men Have Trouble Sustaining Friendships
Billy Baker on Loneliness and Finding Connection
Let’s start with the moment I realized I was already a loser, which was just after I was more or less told that I was destined to become one.
I had been summoned to a magazine editor’s office with one of the oldest lies in journalism: “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” This is how editors talk when they’re about to try to con you into doing something you won’t want to do. The lie remains in circulation because it works well on the right sort of ego.
Which is precisely how yours truly found himself rising from his desk in the City Room of the old Boston Globe building to make the winding walk to the other end of the compound, back to where they kept the people who made the Sunday magazine. I knocked at the door of the offending editor, plopped down in a chair across from his desk, and told him to lay it on me.
“We want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends,” he said.
Excuse me, pal?
He didn’t wait for a response, and moved quickly through his argument, flipping through papers on his desk and windows on his computer as he laid out the evidence for his thesis: There was a crisis in modern friendship, and it was having a catastrophic effect on mental and physical health.
I have plenty of friends, buddy. Are you calling me a loser? You are. Also, did you just call me middle-aged?
He paid no attention to the fact that my face was clearly torn between wanting to fight and wanting to cry and arrived at his big finale, one of the most time-tested lies in all of journalism.
“You’ll have fun with it!” he said.
Finally, silence signaled that it was my turn to talk, but I had no good answer to his pitch. I was only just beginning to process the question.
“I’ll think about it,” I told the editor. This is how reporters talk when they’re trying to get out of something they don’t want to do.
As I slunk back to my desk, I ran a quick mental roll call just to confirm that I was not, in fact, perfect for this story of loneliness. First off, there was my buddy Mark. We went to high school together, and we still talked all the time, and we hung out all the . . .
Wait, how often did we actually hang out? Maybe four or five times a year? Maybe less?
Then there was my other best friend from high school, Rory . . .
I genuinely could not remember the last time I’d seen Rory. Had it been a year? Entirely possible.
Then there was my brother, Jack, but he had moved to California after college and we were lucky if we saw each other twice a year.
I continued down the mental list, racing through my good friends, my great friends, my lifelong friends, the people who sure as shit better show up at my funeral. Most of them felt like they were still in my life, but why? Because I knew what their kids looked like from Facebook? It had been years since I’d last seen most of them. Decades for a few. How can days feel so long but years feel so short?
By the time I made it back to my desk chair, the waves of disappointment were already washing over me, and I knew that anger would be close behind.
That editor was right. I was indeed perfect for this story. Not because I was unusual in any way, but because I was painfully typical.
And if that stupid editor had his facts straight, it meant I was heading down a dangerous path.
I’d turned forty the previous year. I had a wife and two young boys, and we had recently purchased a fairly ugly home with aluminum siding in a small coastal town about an hour north of the city. In our driveway were two aging station wagons with crushed Goldfish crackers serving as floor mats. When I stepped on a Lego in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom, I told myself it was cute that I’d turned into a sitcom dad.
During the week, much of my waking life revolved around work. Or getting ready for work. Or driving to work. Or driving home from work. Or texting my wife to tell her I was going to be late getting home from work.
Yes, I had friends at work, but those were accidents of proximity. I rarely saw those people anywhere outside of the office.
Most of everything else revolved around my children. I spent a lot of time asking them where their shoes were, and they spent a lot of time asking me when they could have some “Dada time.” Each time I heard that phrase, it melted my heart and paralyzed me with guilt, for they tended to ask for it in moments when they sensed I couldn’t give it to them—when I was distracted by an email on my phone, or holed up in the spare bedroom hammering out a story on deadline, or dealing with the constant, boring logistics of running a home.
We could usually squeeze in an hour of “Dada time” before bed—mostly wrestling or reading books—and I was pretty good about squeezing in an hour of “me time” each day, which usually meant getting up before dawn to go to the gym or for a run before it was time to begin looking for my kids’ shoes.
But when you added everything up, there was no real “friend time” left. Without even realizing it, I had structured myself into being a loser.
“You should use this story as a call to do something about it.”
That’s Richard Schwartz. He’s a psychiatrist, and I had called him because my editor told me to call him. I’m a first-ballot hallof-famer when it comes to avoiding unflattering reflections, so talking to a shrink was not at the top of the list of things I wanted to do at the moment. But Schwartz was a local Boston guy who had written a book with his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Olds, called The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, which I found shelved in the “Body & Soul” section at the library. Reluctantly, I rang him up.
Schwartz seemed like a good dude, and he quickly came to two easy conclusions about me: My story was very typical, and my story was very dangerous.
When people become over-scheduled, he told me, they don’t shortchange their kids or their careers. No, they shortchange their friendships. “And the public health dangers of that are incredibly clear,” Schwartz said with appropriate gravitas.
Beginning in the 1980s, study after study started to show that people who were socially isolated from their friends—regardless of how healthy their family lives were—proved far more susceptible to a massive list of health problems, and were far more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected peers. And this was after correcting for things like age and gender and lifestyle choices.
Loneliness kills. And in the twenty-first century, by any reasonable measure, loneliness has become an epidemic.
“Loneliness” is a subjective state, where the distress you feel comes from the discrepancy between the social connections you desire and the social connections you actually have. That’s not a very high bar. That sounds a lot like me. That sounds a lot like everyone.Loneliness kills. And in the twenty-first century, by any reasonable measure, loneliness has become an epidemic.
You can feel lonely when you are alone. But you can also feel lonely in a crowd. However loneliness arrives, its consequences are terrible. Name a health condition you don’t want and there’s a study linking it to loneliness. Diabetes. Obesity. Alzheimer’s. Heart disease. Cancer. One study found that in terms of damage to your health, loneliness was the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Now consider that a 2019 survey found that 61 percent of Americans are measurably lonely, based on how they scored on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the gold standard for decades. That percentage had jumped seven points from just the previous year. And according to a large study conducted by the AARP, more than 42 million Americans over the age of 45 suffer from “chronic loneliness.”
It gets worse. A massive study by Brigham Young University, using data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, found that individuals who suffered from loneliness, isolation, or even those who simply lived alone saw their risk of premature death rise by up to 32 percent.
More people live alone today than at any point in human history. In the United States, 27 percent of households are single-person. In 1970, that number was 17 percent. For older Americans, those numbers are even higher. Nearly a third of people above the age of 65 live alone. By age 86, the percentage has jumped to half.
While loneliness clearly poses a gigantic issue in our society, Schwartz told me, dealing with it is extremely difficult for one simple reason: No one wants to admit that they’re lonely.
“Since my wife and I have written about loneliness and social isolation, we see a fair number of people for whom this is a big problem,” Schwartz said. “But very often, they don’t come in saying they’re lonely. Most people have the experience you had in your editor’s office—admitting you’re lonely feels very much like admitting you’re a loser. Psychiatry has worked hard to destigmatize things like depression, and to a large part it has been successful. People are comfortable saying they’re depressed. But they’re not comfortable saying they’re lonely, because you’re the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.”
I’ve never been that kid. I’m gregarious and outgoing. I’ve never had trouble making friends. I’m fairly good about keeping in touch. Or at least I comment on their Facebook posts, and they comment on mine.
My wife and I got together with other couples every now and again. And I’d even gone on a few “guy dates” with newer acquaintances I’d met through my kids or on an assignment or wherever. But all too often those seemed to be one and done. We’d go grab a couple beers, and then spend those beers talking about how we’re over-scheduled and never get to do things like this, while vaguely making plans to do something again, though we both know it will probably never happen. It’s a polite way of kicking the ball down the road but never into the goal. I like you. You like me. Is that enough? Is this what passes for friendship at this stage in life?While loneliness clearly poses a gigantic issue in our society, Schwartz told me, dealing with it is extremely difficult for one simple reason: No one wants to admit that they’re lonely.
Schwartz had convinced me of many things in our conversation, but he had failed to get me to admit that I was lonely. Nope, not me. I was simply a textbook case of the silent majority of people who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary.
Before he let me off the phone, Schwartz again urged me to take this as a call to action. He suggested finding activities with built-in regularity, and I didn’t need a PhD to understand why that’s the favored advice of the experts who work in this field. As the doctors would say, planning anything suuuucks. Scheduling takes initiative, and if you have to take initiative every time you see a friend, it’s easy for the effort to feel like yet another aggravation you don’t need. Anyone who has ever been on an email chain trying to plan a group get-together knows how quickly the aggravation can kill the concept. Too often, the moment of joy doesn’t come from actually seeing your friends; it comes from the aggravation ending.
So the expert recommendation is rather grandfatherly—join a bowling league. Essentially.
The other advice is to pick up the phone, which is a problem if you’re like me, which is to say a guy. I hate talking on the phone. This is a very typical male objection, and it’s a known barrier to friendship. For women, however, the phone is a tool for strengthening friendship. Not long after I hung up with Schwartz, I read an article about a recent talk given by an Oxford professor named Robin Dunbar, who presented a study showing that women—but not men—can maintain close relationships over the phone. My wife is capable of having long phone conversations with her sister and her friends, and I stare in amazement as she paces about in the kitchen. Every phone conversation I have with one of my buddies seems to last about 45 seconds before one of us says “All right, I’ll catch up with you later.”
Men need an activity to bond. This finding is supported in study after study, or from pulling your head out of your ass and simply looking around. It’s a measurable fact that men make their deepest friendships through periods of intense engagement, such as sports or military service or school. It’s hardwired into our genetics; we spent millions of years hunting together. Going through something together was not only how we built our bonds but how we maintained them.
Here’s a tidbit that’ll have you staring off into the distance and nodding your head (at least that’s what I did when Schwartz told me about it during our first conversation). So apparently psychologists and sociologists do studies where they creep around and take photos of people unawares, and then analyze them for patterns. And when they look at snapshots of people interacting, an unmistakable distinction emerges between how men and women orient themselves to one another and the world.
Women talk face-to-face. Men talk shoulder to shoulder. Once this was pulled into focus for me, I couldn’t not see it. The evidence is everywhere. Barstools and box seats are designed for it. Even in situations where men are seated across a table from one another, I noticed that they naturally angle their seats away from one another, facing in the same direction, staring out at the world together.
This all had me thinking about a big activity I had recently been through with a friend. I’d run the Boston Marathon with a buddy from college named Matt. He lived outside Chicago, but as we went through our training we were in regular contact about how much we hated running, and those conversations led to other things, and before I had really noticed it we were closer than we’d ever been, even though our longest actual conversation was in the four-ish hours it took us to get from Hopkinton to Boston. We repeated the entire cycle seven months later at the Chicago Marathon, and it was a fantastic thing to go through with a buddy. I never could have done it without him. But since the day we crossed that finish line in Grant Park, I’d had almost zero contact with Matt. We were no longer going through anything together.
I suppose I could call him or something, but I hate the phone.
When I looked around at my life, there was much to be happy about. If I needed a confidant, I was lucky to have married the right woman. My kids were the best. Everyone in my inner circle was healthy and stable. All the pieces were there. Except for my friends. They weren’t even on the to-do list. And the saddest part was how normal that had come to feel.
I missed my friends. And I had to believe they missed me.
Excerpted from We Need to Hang Out by Billy Baker. Copyright © 2021. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.