In retirement my father found his first real friends, the first I knew of anyway. His life revolved around work and family. But in his 60s my father forged close friendships with a couple of men. They became his regular walking mates. Every Wednesday he was happy to be a man amongst men.
Men’s friendships are a mystery to women. Most women couldn’t live without their friends. They hang on to old friends through the hard years, the career-forging, and child-raising years. They make new friends through their children. They move heaven and earth for a girls’ night out, or a long, confiding phone call. But many men I’ve observed in the passage from their mid-30s to mid-50s let friendships slide, just as my dad did. Or else they maintain a connection so gossamer-thin, it hardly exists. Australian research shows time-pressed, partnered fathers spend less time with friends than do mothers or single dads. No wonder for many men in mid-life, their best friend is their wife, their social orbit is the family. Their focus is earning enough to keep the family afloat.
“With a demanding job and children and a bloody feminist partner who expected me to share half the domestic stuff there was no time left for anything but work and family,” a male acquaintance confided, only half-jokingly. But this man, now in his early 60s and newly-retired, like others I’ve noticed is enjoying a resurgence in friendship. The gossamer-thin bonds he managed to maintain from high school, university, and the communal living years have proven just sturdy enough to support a vibrant new social life. With the kids grown, the professional peaks scaled, the blanket of tiredness lifted, and the spouse pre-occupied, men can re-discover their old friends.
Social researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley, executive director of Ipsos Australia, has noticed how men’s friendships can ebb and flow over the decades. The focus groups she conducts on a range of topics are based on friendship circles – a willing member of the public organises some friends to meet the researcher. “It can be quite hard to find men in their 30s and 40s able to organise these groups but it’s easier for men in their 60s,” she said.
In the case of my acquaintance, he and his mates are rekindling the adventures of their misspent youth. They go bushwalking and camping, activities that strengthen the bonds between them. It’s a truism that when men do get together it’s to play sport, if they still can, or watch sport; women often wonder if any deep or meaningful talk transpires. But with these men, it’s not all macho, active stuff. Accustomed to seeing their wives head off to book groups, they’ve finally started their own, and it’s flourishing. The men meet monthly for brunch, and sometimes a couple of them will meet for coffee. It’s a small, tight group, mostly gathered from the old days, but now they have the time and need, they’re giving high priority to their friendship. It might just save their lives.
Recent research has shown having few friends at age 45 is associated with poorer mental health at age 50. For men who’ve neglected to nurture their friendships, who’ve let the gossamer threads fray, retirement can be lonely, with depression a threat. “When you’re treating people with depression, part of the recovery involves getting them re-engaged and doing things,” Michael Baigent, an associate professor of psychiatry at Flinders University, told me. “But that’s hard to do when you’re starting from scratch.” Dr Baigent, a board director of beyondblue, the mental health organisation, said women were more psychologically-minded than men. “They say, ‘I need my friends to talk to about things.’ When you ask men who’ll they talk to when they’re worried, they say their wife. But they don’t.”
In some ways it’s easier these days for men to make friends, or rekindle old friendships. Social pressure and stereotypes about male behaviour have less power than they once did. Mateship need not revolve around the pub. People are less likely to assume that two men together must be gay, an issue for some men. Multiculturalism has made it acceptable for men to meet in a cafe, instead of, say, on the squash court. And it’s no longer so true that the only men’s groups consist of angry, separated dads united in hatred of their ex-wives.
Still it can be awkward for men to call an old friend from the past, Dr Baigent says, or to follow up a new acquaintance. “They think, ‘what will we do?’” But Dr Baigent wants to encourage men “to give it a go.”
The Men’s Shed movement, now a great Australian export to the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, with more than 1000 sheds around the country, has grown to help fill the friendship void. It gives men a place to meet each other, “shoulder to shoulder,” to build things, and to talk. And the Shed Online provides men with an online social community for discussion and information (and you don’t need to be handy).
With my sons, in their twenties, I notice the intensity of their male friendships and wonder if they’ll survive the rifts that can open with diverging career paths, and then the family/work juggling act. I hope they’ll continue to invest enough energy in their friendships to keep them alive so they won’t have to start from scratch in their 60s.
And on the beauty and power of male friendship, do read this by the writer Andrew O’Hagan.
What’s your view on men and friendship? Please leave a Comment.
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