- Many men are not taking advantage of the mental health benefits that strong friendships provide.
- Strong communication traits are often ascribed to women but are not uniquely feminine.
- Fostering strong friendships is as simple as finding someone you have something in common with and letting it grow from there.
A lot of traits that lead to maintaining solid friendships are attributed to women or are considered to be stereotypically feminine traits—nurturing, caring, compassionate, sharing, talkative etc. Research shows that almost half of all women share their feelings with their friends and count on them for emotional support. That figure drops to slightly less than a third of men.
Strong friendships provide a sense of belonging and purpose, and also reduce stress. They fulfill us mentally, physically, and emotionally. Women have typically been better at tapping into that fact.
And we’re not just making generalizations about gender here. The “male friendship recession” has been a major point of conversation in numerous news outlets and publications in recent years, as more and more men report having fewer and lower-quality friendships.
Should they be taking a closer look at the female friendship handbook?
“Sisterhood, community, and solidarity are a lot of the reasons why I feel women place emphasis on friendships. Studies have shown that specifically spending time with female friends releases serotonin and oxytocin, and that it reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation,” explains Amber Petrozziello, LMHC, Therapist and Clinical Team Lead at Empower Your Mind Therapy.
“If you research further, you actually find out that women typically have higher oxytocin levels than men, which may be a biological [reason] that women often place emphasis on friendships,” Petrozziello notes.
But it goes without saying that the characteristics that foster strong friendships aren’t—and shouldn’t be—exclusive to women or female-identifying people.
Yet experts say most men don’t make the most of the mental health benefits these relationships provide. This article will examine why some men are missing out, and how they can take advantage of this accessible mental health tool in each person’s arsenal.
Women, Friendships, and Mental Health
Almost 50% of Americans say that they have only three close friends or even fewer. True friendship, however, is not a popularity contest. The quality of friendships and the ability to openly communicate—not the number of friends you have—is what matters.
“Social connectedness has been studied for ages and we know in general terms that people who have good social connections and relationships tend to be better off in terms of both their mental and physical health,” notes Christopher Hansen, PhD, Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Supervisor at Thriveworks.
Hansen continues, “Having these close social relationships and connections allows people to feel more comfortable, supported and heard which can be very healing, beneficial and cathartic,” he adds.
Amber Petrozziello, LMHC
Accepting our emotions is a uniquely genderless thing to do.
Women generally embody qualities that tend to make them natural communicators. Societally, they’re encouraged and supported in making deliberate efforts to foster and grow friendships. This happens when they let themselves go deep and share stories about their lives.
That relational aspect carries a strong mental health component. Research confirms what many people in healthy, happy friendships know: that friendships help reduce stress, improve your self-confidence and self-esteem, and can help you deal with trauma or loss in your life. Communication is the glue that bonds friendships. Experts say there is a reason women flourish in this area.
“I believe that women may need more reinforcement than men when it comes to friendships. There is an emotional impermanence to the connectedness and bonding that needs to be refreshed, whereas men seem to hold onto that without the need for conversation or specific bonding,” says Petrozziello.
The advantages are there. The internal ability is present in everyone. So why aren’t more men tapping into it? And is it even necessarily a problem that they aren’t?
Men, Friendships, and Bonding
While women tend to have more close friendships than men, research shows that since the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers have plummeted even more. In 1990, only 3% of men said they didn’t have any close friends. Now, 15% of men make that claim. What’s more, among single men who are not involved in a romantic relationship, 20% of them say they don’t have any close friends at all.
Further research notes there are a number of reasons, including health issues and employment problems, that men are struggling with a mental health crisis in greater numbers than ever before. Relationships and friendships are also a part of the problem.
Christopher Hansen, PhD
While men have always had intimate relationships, in the past it was not as acceptable to be as overt regarding this aspect because it was perhaps considered effeminate and not ‘manly.’
“While men have always had intimate relationships, in the past it was not as acceptable to be as overt regarding this aspect because it was perhaps considered effeminate and not ‘manly.’ While I don’t think that’s the widespread case today, I do think we have work yet to do in this area,” Hansen says.
Hansen continues, “It has always been more difficult in our society and in many societies for men to seek mental health treatment because of stigma, masculine ego, and cultural norms of the past that considered it a weakness for a man to talk about his problems, let alone seek treatment for mental health concerns.”
The good news is that change is on the horizon. “I think the younger generation has shunned the stigma of males having bonded relationships with other males more than generations past,” notes Hansen.
Part of this societal shift is the broader acceptance of gender fluidity and a decreased concern about what is considered male or female. It’s more about doing what feels true to you and what’s best for your mental health.
Universal Friendship Qualities That Promote Mental Health
Open communication is an ability all people possess. It’s stereotypical to say that only those with female attributes foster healthy relationships. It’s also unfair to say that males don’t have relationships where they are fulfilled, even if they have one good friend or a partner they talk to. The key is putting into practice what works for you.
“There are a lot of practical ways these days to foster friendships. Almost daily I recommend people find others they can connect with. There are meet-up groups that address everything from trivia to veterans’ groups and the digital world has opened up more ways to find others with similar interests,” Hansen says.
Finding people you relate to brings a level of satisfaction and contentment that benefits you mentally and emotionally. And that helps improve your mental health.
“Accepting our emotions is a uniquely genderless thing to do. Whether it means to be softer, or to be more vulnerable, being more genuinely and authentically ourselves helps to decrease cognitive dissonance, and increase our levels of happiness,” Petrozziello concludes.
What This Means For You
Extensive research has shown that friendships, and social connection, are good for your mental health, but men have been struggling in this area recently. Tapping into the communication skills that nurture strong relationships is something that all people can do—regardless of gender—and take advantage of the mental, emotional, and physical benefits they provide.
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