This article was made in partnership with Movember.
You may not have noticed, but if you're a man in your mid 20s, your world has probably started to shrink. Friends you used to see regularly are dropping off into the periphery as they settle down, move away, or just stop being around. At the same time things like work and relationships are demanding more of your time and energy. Chances are, what you really feel like at the end of the day is some well-earned time in front of Netflix, taking you out of contact with people you used to see all the time. So the maths is simple: you're losing old friends, and not making enough new ones to keep up.
Now, the problems that arise from hemorrhaging mates as you move towards a more grown-up lifestyle is something that isn't often discussed. Charlie Coulton, a researcher specialising in social interactions, wants that to change. His work, funded by The Movember Foundation, has shown him first hand how damaging it can be when guys don't have other guys around to talk to. We interviewed him as part of our new documentary "How to Make Friends As a Grown-Ass Man". Here's an extended excerpt from that discussion.
VICE: Hey Charlie, for starters, why do you study the friendship habits of men?
Charlie Coulton: It's a really important area. The research we've conducted here has shown that social connections are a really strong protective factor against any kind of mental health issues.
So in other words, having no friends is bad for you?
Having no mates is not going to cause you to die tomorrow or decay. Primarily it just comes down to being able to talk to people about your issues. Life's going to continually throw problems at you. You're going to need someone to share those with. Loneliness is not a healthy emotion. The blokes we spoke to who have had a serious amount of loneliness in the past, it's something they want to avoid as much as possible in the future. There's a stigma of the loner; the outsider in the society and blokes will do whatever they can to avoid this. Because of that stigma, no one can actually own up to be a lonely man.
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What causes the drop-off in friends as guys get out of their 20s?
Well for a lot of men, as we kind of get past the age of around 30 and those school and sporting connections tend to drop off and things like work and family commitments start to take over, we start to deprioritise our social connectedness. It's very normal. We've found around a quarter of men between the ages of 35 and 55 have no one they can rely on outside their immediate family and I think that's a telling statistic which shows just how common it is for blokes to fall off the radar.
Is that specifically in relation to other men?
Yes it is. The research clearly says that there's something different about a male to male bond, and I'm sure you know and every bloke knows what I'm saying when we mention that. There's something that you don't really get out of your relationship with a significant female in your life. It's a necessarily different relationship you have. There are different boundaries, different norms, different expectations; but also different benefits come off it too.
What are some of those benefits?
I think it's different for every bloke. Some just value being around someone else. Just that relaxation they can have from going fishing with someone. Having a buddy just to be there. And that really is where a lot of the benefit comes from. A lot of people do have a lot of things they need to talk about as well though. And that's something, as men, we're not very good at. I'm sure you've probably come across occasions in the past where you might have wanted to discuss something with a friend but you might have not felt comfortable doing it.
Why do you think that is?
We don't really talk about our personal issues. And a lot of that comes from that feeling like we're going to be burdening our mates with our own personal problems. We don't want to be the needy one, the person who is showing weakness. It's an almost anti-masculine trait. But then if you ask a guy if they'd be willing to help a mate in trouble, they'll absolutely say "yes, day or night." That view that your mate doesn't want to listen is probably wrong.
We've evolved from a time—only a couple hundred years ago—where we were all basically living in tribal societies. So we're all used to that notion of a tribe where you've got 150 people around you that you know very intimately. You can't imagine that in modern western society. We were constantly connected to a deep network around us. I don't think it's normal to be alone in your one bedroom apartment every night. It's not what your body or mind is meant to be doing.
Is it about finding specific guys for this stuff? There might be some that are just good for talking sports with and others who are good to open up to. Or do you think if you take the step of opening up, most men will reciprocate?
You can take it to that extent with any bloke. Every bloke will be willing under the right circumstances and the right time to have those deeper conversations, but it is about a journey. You can't open up and have a very honest, frank emotional discussion with someone you've just met at the pub unless you're 10 beers in.
Drunkenness does actually help blokes open up. It reduces those barriers. It reduces that sense of ego that says we're afraid of being judged by this other guy. And that really is the big barrier that comes in between us. That fear that we're going to be adversely judged by someone else. It's much more in our heads than in reality.
I've personally found opening up to men is a lot harder unless you've been drinking, but even then, it doesn't necessarily last. The next day, the barriers are right back up.
It actually takes approaching those topics in a relatively sober state. You can be outside your normal, habitual locations—that can help. Going into a stressful adventure or doing something different that relies on the help of others can be a really good way to help open up and help bring down those barriers. But yes, it is difficult.
As a guy without a significant other or a child, it sounds like it's more important for me to be satisfied with my friendship circles.
Absolutely. It's good to do it now while you're not partnered because that can often take a lot of time away. Making sure you can establish those long term relationships you can rely on should be the focus for the next few years before you get into that middle age and family time.
Are there any specific key tenets you recommend?
The key one is you get friends by being a friend. You need to be able to share yourself and what you have to offer to other people around you. Being a friend is being there, being open to what they want to discuss and not just constantly talking about yourself. It's being open to what they want to do as well—it might not always be something you want to do. It might be involving themselves in the conversation and being non judgemental.