American men are facing a health epidemic.
It’s not smoking or obesity. It’s not heart disease. No, the greatest health issue facing American men today is loneliness and isolation.
Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker details the all-too-familiar process. As we enter our adult years, work takes up more and more of our time. Then we get married and have kids. After running our homes, trying to stay in shape, and (for Christians) getting involved with the church, we have little time left for friendships with other guys. When we do find a bit of “free time,” it’s hard to leave our wives home alone to change diapers, correct homework, and broker peace deals among the warring children.
So, we let our male friendships slide.
Baker found that over the past thirty-plus years, study after study has documented the unhappy consequences for our health. Lonely people are far more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected peers — even after accounting for age, gender, and other factors like healthy eating and exercise. In fact, socially isolated people have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and the progression of Alzheimer’s.
It gets worse. Another study determined that loneliness matched smoking as a long-term risk factor. In 2015, a massive study from BYU gathered data from 3.5 million people over 35 years, and found that those who are lonely, isolated, or merely living by themselves are 26% to 32% more likely to die prematurely.
No matter how you look at it, loneliness is a train wreck for our health.
My Story, Your Marriage
I was forty and friendless. But this was a crisis at least fifteen years in the making.
For years, my wife had been telling me that I needed other guys in my life.
“Okay, but I already have plenty of friends. We’re always connecting on Facebook and emailing. I’m constantly seeing people at work. When I have something I need to share, I tell you. Besides, after work and our family, there’s nothing left!”
After I blew her off, she gave up and started to pray.
A few years after this uncomfortable conversation, a respected Christian author challenged us to form close male friendships in a men-only session at a marriage conference. At the time, I knew nothing about the risks isolation posed. Physically, I felt great. But then he drew a connection between our friendships with other men and our marriages.
Now he had my attention.
Letting our friendships with other men fade, he warned, turns our wives into unintentional idols where they become our only true confidante and friend. This is a role God never intended them to fill, and places a tremendous amount of stress on our marriages.
Furthermore, our wives are so involved in our lives that they can’t give us a truly outside perspective. For example, my wife has been giving me some helpful feedback on my parenting. She’s very wise, but when my friend listened, he added something neither one of us had considered. So, not only do man-to-man friendships afford more unfiltered honesty that, practiced with our wives, would hurt or frustrate them, but they also offer help with being a man in a way that wives cannot.
God Made Men for Friendship
Beyond the benefits for our health and marriages, God made men for friendship. That means we can’t simply opt out.
Other men make up for our deficits with their strengths, as when Aaron spoke on Moses’s behalf (Exodus 7:1–2). Male friends also provide encouragement to glorify God in new ways. Or they can help us persevere in difficulty, like when Jonathan “went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God” (1 Samuel 23:16) when David was running from Saul. Other men can also provide us with a life-giving rebuke we desperately need (Proverbs 27:6). Even Jesus had Peter, James, and John, his own inner circle of male friends.
So, forming close male friendships is absolutely critical to the health of our bodies and marriages, and reflects God’s design for our lives.
Key Elements in Male Friendship
But these friendships won’t just happen. The following are important elements for developing male friendships.
Find your identity in Christ. If we’re going to get close to other men, where they can see our sins and scars, we need to be deeply rooted in Christ — to truly know that “by grace [we] have been saved through faith . . . not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8–9). When we trust that God accepts us apart from what we do, we’re free to let other men know who we really are.
Initiation. God calls men to lead and go first (Genesis 2:18; Ephesians 5:23). Which requires some effort and — the real kicker — the risk of being rejected. It hurts when I reach out to another guy and he takes a week to respond. But remembering that Jesus left heaven to die for our sins gives us courage to take initiative in our own friendships (Hebrews 2:17).
Sacrifice. To make room for friendships, we’ll need to say no to some good, but second-best, things. If we have younger kids, it may require some sacrifice from our wives, so it’s important to work this out as a team.
Five Ways to Find (and Deepen) Male Friendships
Now that we’ve explored why we need true male friends and considered key elements of friendship, let’s take a look at what we can do about it.
1. Pursue different friendships and evaluate potential.
Call them “man dates” or (in true male fashion) nothing at all, but spend time with different men and see which relationships have promise. In particular, test the ability to be real and transparent with each other.
2. Look for variety.
Instead of looking for the perfect friend, look for a bunch of faithful, imperfect ones. For example, it’s good to have a friend who can encourage you, but also one who excels at giving you a holy dose of truth.
3. Set it and forget it.
Taking initiative every time we want to connect with other busy guys is difficult. Having something on the calendar, like a regular men’s night or monthly lunch with a friend, is an easy way to overcome this challenge.
4. Take small steps forward.
Small, thoughtful actions can go a long way without overwhelming us. My friend Eric, for instance, gave me a quick call in response to an email asking for prayer. It took fifteen minutes but meant the world to me.
5. Meditate on Christ’s friendship with you.
It’s natural to focus on what our friends might do for us, but Jesus was right: “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Meditate on the mind-blowing reality that, despite our sin, Jesus has called us friends (John 15:15). This gives us incentive to be the friend we’d like to have.
By God’s grace, I now have a handful of close guy friends, and it’s transformed my life. Men, with a little consistent effort, the same thing can happen for you. When we follow God’s design for friendship, our health, our marriage, and our relationship with God will flourish.
What’s your next step?