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‘I realised I had no male friends - here’s what I did about it and what I learnt from women’

Why do some men find it difficult to keep male friends as they get older? And what pressure is this having on their female partners?

A 2019 YouGov survey found that one in five men have no close friends — twice the proportion than for women. A similar poll from the Movember Foundation suggested that every man in three has no close friends — and when “close” was defined as someone they could talk to about health or money worries, that rises to one in two.

But what tools can men learn from female bonds to help maintain their friendships?

Max Dickins is a comedian and playwright, and author of ‘Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem.’ He joined Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to explain when it was that he realised he had no male friends and what he did about it. He also shared his advice about making and keeping male friends for others who find themselves in a similar situation or who know someone who is.

‘My mind went blank’

It was when Max Dickins proposed to his partner that he realised that he didn’t have any male friends in his life.

I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, where have all my friends gone?’
Max Dickins

“I went to a jewellers in Hatton Garden with a female friend of mine,” Max says. “Afterwards, when we were having a glass of wine, she said, ‘Who are you going to have as best man?’ My mind went blank.

“I went home that night, got a piece of paper out and a pen, made a list of the candidates I'd consider and I realised that I work with most of these men. The rest of them I haven't spoken to, in some cases, for one or two or three years. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, where have all my friends gone?’

“When I did a bit of light Googling, I realised tons of men have this problem. And in fact, since social scientists in the early 70s started measuring this stuff, men have had less friends, especially less close friends than women. It gets worse as men get older, to the point that if you look at bereavement, if you look at divorce, if you look at retirement, men suffer worse mental and physical health outcomes than women because of that isolation. So this stuff compounds over time.”

‘I tried to become open to having close friends, rather than just mates’

Having acknowledged the absence of male friends in his life, Max set about trying to rectify the situation.

Men's friendships tend to be side-by-side, based around sharing activities together.
Max Dickins

“Essentially, the first thing I tried to do was become open to having close friends rather than just mates. A lot of that was about overcoming some of the rules I'd inherited about how I go about being a man in order to access close friendships. I used to have all my friendships defined entirely through the prism of humour and banter and that would put this moat of aggression around me. So, I tried to communicate affection to friends - to tell them I like them for a change. I tried to be vulnerable.

“The other angle I looked at was trying to consider maybe what are differences between male and female friendship? When you understand that, you start doing slightly different things.

“I spoke to the world expert on friendship, an evolutionary anthropologist called Dr Robin Dunbar. He said to me, essentially, female friendships tend to be face-to-face and based around talk. There's quite a lot of emotional disclosure and women will often say they have one best friend that they often know more closely than their romantic partner. Men's friendships tend to be side-by-side, based around sharing activities together and often in groups.

“So if you want to keep your friendships going, as you get older, and you turn 30, 40, 50, it's about making sure you keep those activities, those structures in your life where male friendship tends to thrive.

“A really simple thing I did, for one example, was I started running a five-a-side football league fortnightly and we went to the pub afterwards. It was a really simple thing that made a massive difference.”

‘Men need to own their social world a lot more’

On a mission to make more male friends, Max also realised that he had previously leant a lot on his partner, Naomi, to organise his social life.

“I think men often treat the women in their lives like the HR department. They organise the friendships and men will rely on their partner for their social group. I think it's often because we're not socialised to do that social work, that work of checking in with people, organising meet-ups, sending cards, all the small bits of effort that go into maintaining and creating bonds. I think we're less socialised to do that and I certainly reflected on that in myself. I know it's true of a lot of my male friends as well.

“Men need to own their social world a lot more. It doesn't have to be that complicated. I spoke to someone when researching this book who had great male friendships. I asked him, ‘What's your secret?’ He said, ‘Well, my friends call me the Sherpa because they said I organised everything, and if I didn't organise everything we'd never get together.’ I thought that was a great way to think about it - be the Sherpa. The best way to have a friend is to be a friend. It's pretty simple stuff.”

‘Keep going, even when it’s hard’

So having made changes in his life to make more male friends, what other advice would Max give?

One of the hardest things with friendships as you get older is the availability of time.
Max Dickins

“If I had three rules, from when I was going through this, it would be: Show up when you're asked, go first when you're not, and keep going, even when it's hard.”

And even when you feel like you don’t have time for friendship?

“One of the hardest things with friendships as you get older is the availability of time, and that affects both women and men. But clearly, it's very difficult to do it. It's especially difficult for men, I think, if your relationships are more time intensive in terms of sharing activities, like going to the pub. So there's no one great solution there. If I ever had any advice it would be: Can you fit in some meetings that are much shorter, around sharing coffees, sharing cups of tea, phone calls, in order to fit things into your schedule a lot better?”

Did Max find his best man in the end?

“The twist in the tale was that I had two best women instead. I've fixed and amended loads of my male friendships and I could have chosen a best man, but authentically my two best friends in the whole world were two women called Philippa and Hope. They took on the mantle on the day and they did a great job.”

To listen to Max’s story on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, head to BBC Sounds and the episode from 20 September. You can join the conversation on Twitter and Instagram @bbcwomanshour.