Many boys and men I interviewed for my book assured me they didn’t need support networks, because they had a close friend or two in whom they confided. What these boys and men ultimately sought from male friends wasn’t emotional support; they used what I call “targeted transparency” for solutions to the few, carefully vetted problems they willingly shared. The truth is, many men can count on close friends when it comes to counsel and physical safety — but not their emotional safety.
The 2016 book “The Psychology of Friendship” which explores the wide-ranging role of friends in our lives, observes that boys are “trained” to follow a form of competition early on that defines their male-male friendships, discouraging honest emotional sharing “at all cost while encouraging direct competition and ‘one-upmanship.’” This ritualistic competition ultimately tends to create a profound deficit in many males, planting a deep seed of distrust in other boys and men. This is the reason Mr. Compton — as is true for most men — has more female confidantes with whom he shares his deeper emotional life. His male friends and family members “can’t be trusted,” he said, “to accept or engage with emotional honesty.” The last time he had male friends with whom he shared this kind of trust was during middle school.
The recent rise of men’s groups mirrors what researchers are discovering — that many men want safe spaces, or “containers” as groups call them, where they can practice emotional transparency and diminish their isolation, while relearning how to trust other men. The 2005 Irish study “Death Rather Than Disclosure” found that emotionally distressed young men “desperately wanted closer social connections and support from family members and friends,” but “they feared being judged as emotionally vulnerable, weak and un-masculine.” The lack of emotional networks has “negative implications for men’s social connectedness and mental well-being,” the researcher observed, putting younger men, especially, at “heightened risk of suicide.”
Mr. Compton eventually sought therapy and joined a men’s group online last spring. When the group began meeting in-person outside, his anxiety was so overwhelming he vomited before the meetings. Eventually, he shared with the group the deeper reasons for his severe reaction — the perceived threats of violence and rejection from other males whenever he revealed emotional honesty. To his surprise, one group mate texted Mr. Compton when he missed the next meeting, checking in on him and thanking him for his disclosure.
“That was powerful for me, to have another man accept my honest, deeper feelings,” he said. His isolation is gradually abating, as is his anxiety, and he’s starting to realize that his inability to “connect with other men emotionally was stunting my ability to find peace within myself.”
Mr. Kushigian also sought assistance — from a less conventional but increasingly popular outlet: online discussion forums geared toward mental health support. Online forums are “a good incremental first step toward reaching out for help,” John Naslund, an instructor in Global Health and Social Medicine at the Harvard School of Medicine, told me. “They’re great for guys to build confidence with sharing and asking questions” about their struggles.
Such platforms also offer anonymity. Early qualitative research shows that they can help men create connection and learn important coping strategies from people with similar struggles, promoting “self-seeking behavior, which is really important,” said Dr. Naslund, who studies digital mental health. He added that reputable organizations, such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness and Mental Health America, are good places to find such groups.