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Men and Masculinities

The structural burden of men’s declining social networks

“Someone who wraps their arms around you. It’s like forming a supportive bond. You can listen to each other, you know, you can vent to each other,” says Vivek, a 35-year-old South Asian American man, when asked what friendship is. 

“Is there someone you have that with?” asks the interviewer. 

“I definitely have a lot of acquaintances. Not as many friends now,” he admits. 

Many men have stories like Vivek’s. Based on data published by the Survey Center on American Life and other census-representative data, men’s social network decline–that is, a decrease in their close social connections– is happening at a faster rate than women’s throughout many globalized economies. 

Such increasing patterns of gendered isolation may have consequences for men’s social and emotional development but also for the autonomy of women, according to a recent talk presented to the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows by postdoctoral fellow Angelica Puzio Ferrara. Ferrara presented these ideas as part of her forthcoming book project, Men Without Men (Simon & Schuster US/Penguin Random House UK). 

graph depicting Friendship Decline More Pronounced Among Men, comparing 1990 and 2021

“In the US, about one in five men claim they have no close friends,” Ferrara states, mentioning data from various large survey research institutes around the country. “In comparison to women’s social networks, men’s social networks in the US and UK tend to be thinner in depth, less frequent in emotional disclosure, and more rarely relied on for support.”

Ferrara continued by summarizing the developmental and social science of close relationships, which identifies friendships as the arena where critical social and emotional skillsets, such as listening, empathy, and reciprocity, are nurtured. 

Men’s struggles with friendships

In interviews with adult men in the United States and United Kingdom, Ferrara discovered that many men struggle with forming and maintaining deep meaningful friendships, which causes some men to miss out on opportunities essential for sustaining their emotional development.

Her work suggests that men’s struggles are rooted in restrictive ideas about manhood. For example, Blake, a 34-year-old white British man, described the difficulty that certain types of masculinity pose for forming close relationships. “You know, we are all trying to be alpha men, so to be vulnerable and be close to people is hard,” said Blake. “Because of the world we're in, I feel emotionally repressed and stunted. I can’t even get in touch truly with my own feelings.”

Ferrara, a developmental psychologist by training, stresses the wider developmental scope of male social networks, contending that emotionally thin relationships among men are not often the case among boys. Drawing on interviews with adolescent boys from her doctoral work, which have been described elsewhere in the work of psychologist Niobe Way, Ferrara points out that many adolescent boys form meaningful friendships with other boys, but such friendships tend to fade as boys approach the onset of manhood. 

Summarizing her interviews, Ferrara says that, “patriarchal masculinity impedes emotionally intimate bonds between men. As a result, men do not flex these competencies as much as women.” As a result, men and women develop a skill differential in social and emotional competencies, which as Ferrara pointed out, could have consequences at the individual and structural level.

How men’s loneliness affects women

Ferrara presenting with screen in background

Where do men who struggle with deep same-gender bonds turn to fulfill their needs for intimacy and support? According to Ferrara, many men turn to women, including girlfriends and female friends. Alternatively, some men turn to readily available but thin forms of bonding in places that consolidate male power and openly reproduce misogyny, such as the various online communities that constitute what has been termed the “manosphere.” 

As for the various ways that women help men compensate for stunted social networks, Ferrara labels such forms of labor as “mankeeping,” by analogy to sociologist Carolyn Rosenthal’s theory of “kinkeeping,” or the labor that women do to maintain bonds within their families. 

“This is the labor that women take on to shore up losses in men’s social networks and reduce the burden of this isolation on families, on the heterosexual bond itself, and on men,” said Ferrara, who plans to interview more women for her project. “The barriers that men are facing in their relationships have the potential to expand women’s labor on men’s behalf,” she argued.

Although men’s loneliness hurts men, their struggles can become a burden for women as well. Ferrara argues that men’s loneliness, a problem thought to be individual, is in fact structural. She identifies mankeeping as an important and overlooked component of patriarchal social structures, in which case, recognizing and naming this form of gendered labor may be important for making women’s emotional work more visible–and hopefully, more equal.