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Intimacy through insults - The strange world of male friendships


**Please note this piece discusses suicide. Feel free to skip this one if that is something you don't want to read about**

“Middle-aged men are more likely to die by suicide than any other age group”


I wonder whether the above statement is shocking to you? I am horrified when I read that roughly 7% of UK children have attempted suicide by the age of 17. I am aghast when I hear that the number one cause of death in mothers, in their first year of motherhood, is suicide. When I discovered that men, specifically middle-aged men from disadvantaged backgrounds have the highest rate of suicide compared to other groups, I said to myself… “That makes sense”.

Perhaps it’s because I’m fast approaching middle-aged myself. In fact I may be there already…does 37 count as middle-aged!? Or that in recent years instances of suicide have touched my life that affirms those findings. I inherently knew this was true before the evidence was presented to me. I could have been wrong, yet the stats confirm my bias. 

There are of course a multitude of complex social and psychological issues that contribute to this disturbing fact. The Samaritans is an excellent resource to increase knowledge and understanding of this area, having conducted significant research into the reasonings behind this phenomenon (as an aside, I credit doing The Samaritans volunteer training at 18 years old as the core foundation of many of my mediation skills). One, of their many recommendations for policy-makers and practitioners was to, ‘Recognise that for men in mid-life, loneliness is a very significant cause of their high risk of suicide.’ (Samaritans, 2012). Where does this loneliness come from? And why does loneliness contribute to such a significant problem in the lives of middle-aged men?

What emerges…is the role of men’s loneliness – feeling that there is no one there for them and no one they matter to. (Samaritans, 2012). 

Humans are social animals. Relationships, friendships specifically, are key to the human experience, contributing greatly to our well-being and sense of self: 

Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness (Dunbar, 2018)

The question then is what is unique, or lacking in male friendships? Somewhat surprisingly there is evidence that men and women prioritise friendship similarly. Both sexes tend to have the same amount of same-sex friends and prioritise the quality of friendship over the quantity of friends (Caldwell & Peplau, 1982). Yet despite these similarities in friendship uptake, the interactions in male-to-male friendships are quite distinct. Robin Dunbar, an Oxford University anthropologist studying relationships amongst primates (Yes, we are monkeys!) has spent a career researching friendships and notes some drastic differences between male-to-male friendships and female equivalents:.

..women’s friendships are very intense and focused and very dyadic – if one of them lets you down, it’s a crisis. Whereas the blokes – friendships are much more casual – it’s not to say that they don’t have the same elements, they’re just much more casual. If somebody disappears to the rigs or something for six months, it’s just ‘ok, we’ll find somebody else to go drinking with’ and that’s perfectly ok. Boys’ friendships tend not to break up catastrophically. (Dunbar via Mark Smith, The Herald, 20/03/21)

The intense nature of women’s friendships has the consequence, according to Dunbar, that women tend to maintain friendships better as the responsibilities of middle age and family take effect. This has the unintended consequence of husbands' and boyfriends' social circle revolving around their partner's friendship group - the husbands and partners of their wives' friends - rather than people they genuinely connect with or feel close to, exacerbating loneliness.

That’s not to say male friendships can’t be intense! Mockery, insults, and derision play a part in male friendships in a way that they do not in typical female friendships. If you don’t believe me, ask one of your male friends to let you look at their social groups’ WhatsApp thread - if they let you at all. Be warned- the language might shock you! There is evidence that ‘closeness and intimacy, gratitude, concern…’ are expressed through these insults yet ‘masculinity and dominance’ remain at the forefront (McDiarmid et al, 2017). Masculinity and dominance are cultural learnings and there is the suggestion that they have been so ingrained in western men that male friendship groups, unable to use the same language of affection that are available to their female counterparts create complex coded relationships, based on insults, to build close friendships:

The men in the current study appeared to be bound and restricted by hegemonic masculinity, yet they were able to construct strategies within these limitations to manage and enjoy their friendships.(McDiarmid et al, 2017)

This seems to suggest that whilst insults and mockery may seem like the polar opposite of tenderness and support, they have more in common than at first glance. Men are simply adapting and finding ways to engage in these friendship rituals without contradicting society's expectations of their masculinity, dominance, and status.

These cultural gymnastics suggest that men are looking for support, intimacy, and emotional support in their friendships. Yet this approach carries with it ambiguity and is rife with risky potential for misunderstanding. Surely the lack of unambiguous affirmation, compliments and outward support can take its toll on men’s well-being? On a personal level, I can remember every compliment I’ve ever been given. For the men reading this piece, ask yourself, when was the last time someone gave you a compliment? When was the last time someone complimented your hair? Your clothes? Your laugh? Your intelligence? There is of course a legitimate risk that men can misinterpret friendly compliments as advances from the opposite, or same sex, which may create unwanted situations. Yet it doesn’t change the fact, many men are starved of affection. And that has consequences.

If we consider that men value quality friendship similarly to women and seek out similar numbers of close friends we could be forgiven for considering the replication of female style friendships to  be the answer, yet this would be a mistake. There is significant evidence to suggest that men are threatened by compliments and routinely interpret them in the spirit they weren't intended, feeling vulnerable or patronised. 

Perhaps though the only way around these challenges is through. Normalising affection towards men, from women and men. The use of insults, mockery and gentle derision show us, surprisingly maybe, that men crave emotional support from their friendships. Can we use this knowledge to combat male loneliness? 

Men tend to  create their friendship groups around activities and clubs, can we use incorporate wellbeing initiatives in these spaces? Perhaps our running, golf and football clubs could place more emphasis on mental health and the relationship bonds their organisations foster. The Samaritans encourage banter and irreverence to be employed in typically serious situations, leveraging the male tendency to make light of situations:

A healthy level of ‘banter’ can be important 

to ensure that activities don’t come across as too serious

(The Samaritans, Engaging men earlier, 2021)

Taking advantage of men's competitive nature can help men engage in group activities over a long period of time, giving space and time for friendships to grow. Goal orientated social situations give excuses for men to spend time together. 

However we do it, creating opportunities to combat loneliness, in men and women can only be a positive thing. We are social animals, we aren't meant to walk this world alone. If you havent seen a friend in a while, reach out, with a kind hearted word, a compliment or a healthy dose of mockery! It may make all the difference. 


  1. Really enjoyed this read, ya bam! Hopefully that compliment was sufficiently encoded. But more seriously, definitely agree that men find it more difficult to reach out when they are having a hard time. I was recently asked if I had any male friends I'd feel comfortable calling if I felt down or was having a bad day. I feel fortunate to have quite a few close male friends, but the idea of calling any of them just to talk about my problems seemed so totally alien to me, it was almost laughable. Apparently women do this all the time?!

    But then I will happily share problems with friends in other contexts; whether running, over a coffee or beer, a walk in nature. I think having another activity that we're ostensibly doing instead permits us to be vulnerable.

  2. This all makes perfect sense when you consider that you and I ran together for about 6 months and had some really in-depth conversations... Then our schedules changed and I've barely spoken to you in a year!

    Let's get a run in the diary mate

  3. Definitely up for that - I'll give you a shout :)


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