Many boys and men I interviewed for my book assured me that they didn't need support networks because they had a close friend or two to confide in. What these boys and men ultimately sought from male friends was not emotional support. They used what I call "targeted transparency" to find solutions to the few carefully scrutinized problems that they willingly shared. The truth is, many men can count on close friends for advice and physical safety – but not their emotional safety.
The 2016 book The Psychology of Friendship, which examines the far-reaching role of friends in our lives, states that boys are “trained” to engage early in a form of competition that defines their male-male friendships and honest emotional sharing discourages. at all costs, while encouraging direct competition and one-upmanship. “This ritual competition ultimately leads to the fact that many men have a profound deficit and show a deep distrust of other boys and men. This is the reason why – as for most men – Mr. Compton has more female confidants with whom he shares his deeper emotional life. His male friends and family members "cannot be trusted," he said, "to accept or engage in emotional honesty." The last time he had male friends with whom he shared this trust was in middle school.
The recent rise of men's groups reflects what researchers are discovering – that many men want safe spaces, or "containers," as groups call them, in which they can practice emotional transparency and reduce their isolation while relearning 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 "feared being judged emotionally vulnerable, weak and unmanly" . The lack of emotional networks has "negative effects on the social connectedness and psychological well-being of men," the researcher found, and exposed younger men in particular to an "increased risk of suicide".
Mr Compton eventually sought therapy and joined a men's group online last spring. When the group started meeting in person outside, his fear was so overwhelming that he vomited before the meetings. Finally, he shared with the group the deeper reasons for his violent reaction – the perceived threats of violence and rejection from other men when he revealed emotional honesty. To his surprise, a group member texted Mr. Compton when he missed the next meeting, checked him in and thanked him for his disclosure.
"It was powerful for me to make another man accept my honest, deeper feelings," he said. His isolation gradually subsides, as does his fear, and he begins to realize that his inability to "connect emotionally with other men was affecting my ability to find peace within."
Mr. Kushigian also sought support – from a less conventional but increasingly popular company: online discussion forums geared towards mental health support. Online forums are "a great first step to get help," said John Naslund, professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard School of Medicine. “They are great for guys to build trust by sharing and asking questions” about their struggles.
Such platforms also offer anonymity. Early qualitative research shows that it can help men make connections and learn key coping strategies from people with similar struggles by “promoting selfish behavior, which is really important,” said Dr. Naslund, who specializes in digital mental health. He added that reputable organizations like the National Alliance for Mental Illness and Mental Health America are good places to find such groups.