Man to Man: how realising I had few male friends was the wakeup call I needed

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“So, who are you thinking for best man?” My friend Phillipa and I were in the pub. We’d spent four hours searching for an engagement ring – a decade in shopping years – so I could propose to my girlfriend, Naomi. Phil’s question was simple enough, but my mind went blank. “It’s been a long day,” I rationalised, “it will come to me later”. I deflected by buying another round. 

That night, home alone in the flat I shared with Naomi, I sat down and made a list of all the guys I might consider as my best man. A torturous half an hour later, I looked down the roll call of candidates. I worked with half of them, but we had little contact outside of that. The others I hadn’t spoken to, in some cases, for more than two years. This can’t be right? I thought. I must have forgotten someone really obvious?

I trawled through my texts. The last time I had sent a message or received one from a friend was two months ago. WhatsApp was similarly barren. Panicking, I Googled the phrase “getting married, no best man.”

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I Googled the phrase “getting married, no best man”

There were 994 million results. Many of them linked to posts on wedding forums by stricken grooms – like this one: “I have what people would consider a successful life. I have a job, a house and a beautiful partner. We’re getting married after six years together, but I got thinking about a best man. All of a sudden it hit me that I have no real close friends. I have a few mates. We go to gigs. Sometimes, the occasional beer. But I have no one to be my best man, nor will I ever be one myself. I just got smacked in the face by loneliness.”

Further digging showed that men’s problem with friendship is well established in social science. A recent study by the Movember Foundation suggests that one in three men have no close friends. When asked how many of their friends they could discuss a serious topic with, such as health, relationship or money worries, half of them couldn’t think of anyone. And, the problem gets worse as we get older. As comedian, John Mulaney, has put it: “I think that’s the greatest miracle of Jesus. He was a 33-year-old man and he had 12 best friends.”

How the hell had this happened to me? And what goes wrong for men, generally? I made it my mission to find out. And, yes, to find a best man.

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I searched wedding forums, populated by stricken grooms

The experts whose doors I knocked on first – psychologists, therapists and gender gurus – laid the blame on so-called toxic masculinity. Instinctively, I was cynical about this view. These sorts of accusations had become wallpaper. And anyway, ‘toxic’ masculinity referred to other men, didn’t it? People like Harvey Weinstein, or sociopathic tech bros, or the sort of backwater politicians who look like they’ve fallen out of a sandwich. Not little old me with my homemade spaghetti carbonara and my well-thumbed copy of She Comes First.

Yet, as the months went by and I reflected on how I was with the men in my life, I was forced to confront the question: am I even open to close friendships? Do I have the emotional chops for it? I would conclude that I had developed various ways of hiding around mates. Banter, especially, had become almost my only way of relating.

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Turns out, one in three men have no close friends

Don’t get me wrong, banter can be joyous. As Tim Lott’s estate agent character, Frankie Blue, put it so beautifully in the novel White City Blues: “That great spontaneous rap, that impro, of irony and sub-irony and sub-sub irony, and dry wind-up and piss-take, that you can do when you’ve tapped the vein that runs between you, that can have you doubling up with laughter and the joy of having mates – the illicitness of it, the crudeness of it, the wonderful little-boy playfulness of it.”

But banter can also be used as a form of defence. A moat to hide your real, vulnerable, multi-dimensional self. An inappropriate joke employed as a sort of conversational red herring. A political dead-cat strategy to divert attention away from problems in other areas. 

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The key to male friendship lies in activities

If I wanted better friendships, then it seemed I had to do a lot of – brace, brace – “inner work” on myself. More practically, I learned, I also had to think about tactics. Anthropologists of an evolutionary bent told me that the key to male friendships lay not in conversations but in activities. If you want more – and closer – male friendships, they explained, you’ve got to build the habitats in which they thrive; you have to do stuff together. 

This made a lot of sense. Male friendships tend to happen side-by-side, as opposed to the face-to-face way in which women interact. So, I started organising a fortnightly five-a-side game, arranged a boyish activity-sodden trip to the New Forest and pioneered a monthly “Pub Club” for my mates.

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I missed shared adventures. A common journey. A spot on the horizon

Still, something felt like it was missing. The friendships I mourned from my youth, I realised, weren’t so much about activities – that felt anodyne and static – but about shared adventures. A common journey. A spot on the horizon we’d march towards in the same direction. 

I missed the sort of friendship idolised in buddy and road-trip movies. The sort of friendship so purely expressed in travel, where the changing location, the constant stream of new scenery, adds structure to free-form relationships.

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I finally proposed. And, I did find a best man…

Friendships rarely have clear ends and only occasionally do they have defined beginnings. How we find meaning together in the present is what defines the strength of the bond. We need to travel in our friendships. That travel can be figurative – a project, a cause, a shared obsession – or it can be literal. Either way, we need it. 

I finally proposed to Naomi. And, I did find a best man (well, two best women, actually). This quest turned out to be more than merely filling a role. It was about fulfilling a life. Before all this began, I felt loneliness like a sort of hunger. Now, I’m glad to say, I’m full with friendship.

Man to Man is a new SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices, including Max Dickins, author of Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem

Flash Pack is on a mission to make 1 million friendships through shared group travel. Few groups need those connections more than men in their 30s and 40s. Find your pack today.

Images: courtesy of Max Dickins, Flash Pack & Unsplash 

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