The Post-Colonoscopy Male Friendship Test
I met Peter when I wrote him a mash note after reading one of his books. I met Andrew when I took one of his wine classes. I met Michael when I gave a reading in a bookstore managed by his mother. I met Matt when I hired him to ship a car. Alex I had met a decade before, but we hadn’t kept in touch since our initial meeting, so I’ll call it a rekindle.
These men aren’t my lovers. They’re something rarer, at least for this 43-year-old man — they’re my friends. I made each of them in the past several years, after two decades during which I had almost exclusively female friends.
My wife, a therapist, tells me that having lots of male friends in your 40s is unusual. The other day, one of her patients — he gave her permission for me to mention this — told her that he needed a colonoscopy and couldn’t think of a single male friend close enough to ask to pick him up from the procedure, which typically involves sedation. So I used that as my yardstick. I asked each of the male friends I mentioned above whether he would drive me home after a colonoscopy. Reader, each said yes.
The internet is thick with data about American loneliness, but particularly that of middle-aged men. Fifteen percent of men say they have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990, the Survey Center on American Life reported in 2021. In a 2019 article at HuffPost, a psychiatrist and family therapist, Dr. Robert Garfield, explained that the sharpest drop in heterosexual male friendships happens in the early days of a marriage or long-term relationship. If that marriage or relationship involves children, he added, the decline is often even steeper. Dr. Garfield described this period of “work life and fatigue” as a time of “quiet desperation for men” — and, as the article went on to say, emotional overreliance on their increasingly annoyed wives, who tend to maintain longtime friendships even during marriage. (Dr. Garfield added that queer men are just as starved for platonic friendships.) All of this has been made even worse by the pandemic — we haven’t been able to see even the friends we have. As we emerge from this quarantine of the spirit, when separation became the key to survival, many of us are even less adept at friendship than we used to be.
In recent years, it has seemed like I was rapidly becoming one of Dr. Garfield’s examples of “quiet desperation.” Four years ago, I got married, and my wife and I have since had two children — times of bounty as a husband and a parent that have, in other ways, been some of the most barren of my life. During this period, in pursuit of better work or a less stressful life, we have made four cross-country moves, our possessions and spirits growing thinner with each one; our children have blessed and ennobled me as a parent, and destroyed my sense of self otherwise; I have written zero books to the preceding half-decade’s three. Yet during this time, something surprising has happened: I have made some of the most meaningful male friendships of my life.
I didn’t have many male friends even before middle age. When I was single, partly for cultural reasons shared by members of many previously persecuted immigrant communities who feel protection in numbers (ex-Soviet Jews, in my case), I was obsessed with finding a partner. I pursued women romantically at the expense of pursuing men platonically. When women were not as interested in me as I was in them, often I proposed friendship — anything to stay close, even if it was a terrible idea. Also, I was insecure and relished the aura of maturity that I thought having mainly female friends conferred. Meeting and marrying my wife not only shut the door on such misguided pursuits, but also opened another — not that I was aware of it in those terms.
Two weeks after we got married, we left New York. We fled to Miami, and then Montana. Both places were small and slow enough to make spontaneous plans possible, but it turned out that I didn’t want to make them with too many people, being too much of a New Yorker to enjoy less ornery constitutions. Yes, I have reflected on the bitter irony.
What friends my wife and I did make in both places became some of our dearest. Our intense loneliness made for a deeper connection with the few people with whom we did share an emotional language, and we treasured them like castaways. But these were mutual friends, and usually couples, and in any case, we moved soon after making them. In the midst of this, the pandemic arrived. Then our second child.
But then, unexpectedly, I veered away from the script, and began to find intense connection where I had none before. Though I continue to have rewarding friendships with women, this happened mainly with men — most, but not all, fellow parents — roughly my age. Suddenly, I had so much to say to them. I don’t know if, years before, I would have written Peter a fan note, or called Andrew instead of emailing him after class, or offered up as much of myself as I did to Matt in an initial conversation that started with us talking about car-shipping rates. They have responded in kind.
It has been a grace to experience the increasing frequency and intimacy of our exchanges, and their implicit reclamation of what the pandemic, parenthood and nomadism took away. Alex and I are deep in a thread of 40-plus emails that have touched on everything from the question of where to live to what our daughters think about going to school. I am coaching Andrew on how to let his toddler cry it out, and he is coaching me on what “structure” means in rieslings.
There’s one catch. Call it, in an echo of WFH, “FFH” — I have spent in-person time with very few of these men. I’ve crossed paths with Andrew and Alex only once, and I’ve never met Matt in person. (Don’t even know what he looks like. We communicate by voice-memos. He’s probably the funniest person I’ve never met.)
Would the connection survive if we sat down together? For now, considering how far away most of them live, I can avoid having to find out. I could hardly ask them to drive me to a colonoscopy. But I don’t need one till I’m 45. There is time for me yet.
Mr. Fishman is the author, most recently, of “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table.”
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